28 Jun Unknown Variables
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"Unknown Variables"Written by TheJinx
Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Riggs put his hand up to shield his eyes from the midday sun, unused to any natural light source, as he gingerly stepped out of the crumbled wall of the facility. Dr. Geary, his research companion, took his hand and together they slowly walked back a few paces to assess the damage. It had been during a crucial biohazard particle analysis that the incident took place- amazing, truly, how the greatest and most terrible disasters can be caused by the smallest of provocations. In this instance, the whole thing began when a lab assistant failed to shut a decontamination unit door completely, which the state-of-the-art research compound took to mean the entire area was compromised, and the doctors were effectively locked inside of their own lab room surrounded by at least a dozen hazards.
Deeming it far too problematic for any lesser protocols- the army had a cold, calculated way of looking at things and then whitewashing them with semantics- the situation was considered Status Alpha Red, at which point they simply starting blowing the shit out of everything they could get to, using automated weapons that seemed to come from all directions. Smart enough to realize they were expendable, the two researchers made a break for the containment room’s closet and tried to remain as still as they could, essentially elbowed in against one another in their bulky biohazard suits. The screams of colleagues and staffers rang out horribly just outside their tiny shelter and though they were men of science, both prayed in any way they could that they would simply be… overlooked. Forgotten. SAFE. They stayed that way for hours, before venturing back out into the hulking remains of their sector.
Now for the first time in weeks, as the experiment had dictated them to stay inside the home-away-from-home that now lay in ruins, they felt the springy grass beneath their feet. Geary scanned cautiously for any sign of the military, but curiously, there was none. Checking the lab’s atmospheric scanner once more before abandoning it to the rubble, he gave a tentative sigh of relief. “I think we can take the suits off now,” he said. “We’re almost off the Fort property at this point, and I’m pretty sure all they’re going to do is either freak out the townspeople or alert the guys upstairs that we got away.”
“And they wouldn’t want THAT,” scoffed his colleague, removing his containment helmet and then, dancing around awkwardly on the lawn, the rest of his heavy outerwear. Geary did the same and both men laughed to each other, so relieved and yet so baffled, as they found themselves in nothing but sweat-soaked white t-shirts and matching government-issue shorts, plus their own shoes which they pulled back on. “But to be serious…” His fellow doctor furrowed his brow in thought. Now out of the plastic artificial skin he wore as a quantum loop researcher, he was merely Arthur Riggs the man, and it made him feel vulnerable to be this exposed and yet still so confined within the compound. “This is breaking protocol. They must have accounted for us by now. So why on God’s green earth is nobody around?”
All Jim Geary could do was shrug. “Look at it this way, Riggs- we dodged a bullet back there and the situation has been handled. I say we head on back to Frederick and when we get there, stay home. You gotta be missing that wife of yours.”
It was true- Arthur hadn’t been allowed much contact with the outside world during their classified scientific intensive, and even as tough as her position allowed her to be, his wife was one to worry. They met in basic training, even before she split off for the military sector, and he went on to follow the scientific path, and he was grateful that quick thinking had gotten them out of harm’s way and one step closer back to Sylvia. “Alright, let’s get moving then. I don’t like the way things look on the base… it makes me think they might have retreated due to the hazard breach.” The duo made their way to an unmanned exit station, scanned their handprints and finally had a chance to breathe easy once they were officially back amongst the civilians, the ones who had the luxury not to know too much about the delicate weaponry being toyed with in their own backyard.
Arthur swallowed hard, his mouth having grown dry, as they walked the familiar suburban path to his colleague’s unassuming grey condo and the beat-up Chevy in its driveway. Things seemed off to him the moment they re-entered civilization: cars stood motionless in the middle of streets, possessions haphazardly strewn on lawns alongside children’s toys and bikes, and yet no children. No sign of anyone. “Oh Christ…” he said shakily, “did they fail to cover the breach?”
Both men spotted it at the same time- the thick, white sheeting strewn across the inside of every house, stretched over the windows… and to make matters worse, the big plasticine cloths were draped over JIM’S house, the kind of tent an exterminator might put up, leaving it a rough blocky shape underneath white sheets. But this was no simple pesticide. This was the sort of protocol they’d been taught would be used in case the big hammer ever came down, if they ever needed to halt the spread of some kind of lab-created bioweapon. The driveway was empty. Geary started to hyperventilate and broke into a run.
His companion grabbed his arm and struggled to pull him back as they reached the front lawn. Arthur had a sick feeling in his stomach… as she went up in rank, the secrets Sylvia had to hide from him kept building and building, but she always made sure he knew that someday, things might get bad. VERY bad. FUBAR, she would say. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. And as he pulled Jim down to the curb, his voice nearly cracking as he protested that his elderly mother could still be at home, he knew that things had suddenly gotten very, very FUBAR.
“She isn’t THERE, Jim,” he tried to tell him, standing and starting to walk back from the house, frantically looking around for any sign of life and coming up empty. But the other man couldn’t get a grip. “She’s just an old woman, I… I can’t believe this! Is it… did we let a contagion loose out here?” His words were quick and desperate. Even as his friend defensively backed away into the street, starting to walk more and more briskly towards town in hope of making sense of a seemingly impossible circumstance, he just rambled on in terror. “If so, is she sick? And where’s the men in suits? Where the FUCK is anyb-“
There came a sudden loud, cracking shot in the air and Jim’s head snapped forward, deep crimson spreading over the pristine white of his t-shirt as his colleague stared wild-eyed at the sight of it. Several troops in thick gloves and murky grey gas masks emerged from the tree line and their leader, a silver-haired Colonel that Arthur recognized, lowered his gun. The broad, middle-aged man began a casual stroll down the hill towards the quickly retreating doctor and said in an almost amused tone, “He always comes back to his house, did you know that?”
FUBAR. The scientist inwardly thanked his wife, practically blessed her, for all the little tidbits of advice she’d given him over the couple years they’d been together, and he began to sprint just like she told him to- zig-zagging, then down the grassy embankment. Seemingly unfazed, the Colonel continued to give chase with his men not far behind him, apparently still intent on what he had to say. “Every day, just to check up on his mother. You scientists… you PEOPLE… are like clockwork!” Bullets began to whiz past as Arthur took a sharp couple of turns, all the while his mind racing along with him. What had they done? Had everybody been shuttled away into quarantine? If so, did this mean they could have been exposed to a virus themselves? He didn’t think much of that last one; they wore airtight suits, and frankly with the type of cosmic calamities they dealt with back at the lab, he would surely be showing symptoms by now.
The meeting place- oh sweet, brilliant Sylvia had thought of everything. He may have been the one with the degrees but she had brains when it came to a plan. If things ever DID go into total meltdown at Fort Detrick and it all went sideways, they were to meet up at the park’s leftmost gazebo, where the young scientist and the pretty blonde lieutenant shared their first kiss. He doubled back around and practically dove across someone’s backyard and into a tool shed just as the military grunts moved past, hoping like crazy that they would overlook what they’d already scanned with the devices in their hands. Probably after his heat signature. Jesus, what had they done? Had everyone simply gone mad?
A lone soldier rounded the corner as Arthur peeked out from behind the tin door. The man sighed and, looking around cautiously at first, lifted up his mask ever so slightly to take a sip from his canteen and straighten his goggles. “I’ve got nothing back here, sir, the target is lost.” The scientist tried to hide his gasps for air and stabilize himself against the cool dirt floor, which seemed to already be covered in shoe prints, probably from some poor bastard hunkered down in the soil when they were rounding civilians up, hiding like he was now.
His legs ached but his energy wasn’t fully spent; it must be a quarantine, he confirmed in his own mind. But they were in Frederick now, not its infamous Fort- so where was the CDC? In evacuating the sick people, how had two researchers in a closet merely been overlooked, and why was the military hunting them down? Arthur Riggs was floating in a sea of questions, and every time he tried to grab onto one it eluded him. Was it just what they knew, the bevy of above-top-secret projects on the base, that made them targets? As the footsteps grew faint and any soldiers outside remained out of view, he was haunted by the image of Jim Geary dead on the sidewalk, his glasses stained with blood and hanging askew from unseeing eyes. No- he wasn’t about to wait for a bullet with his name on it.
Once he thought the coast was clear enough, he snuck out of the shed and kept to the sides of fences and backs of eerily silent houses, gradually making his way to the town square and its nearby pavilion. To his wife, whatever condition she might be in. Already he had feared that beneath all that protective gear the soldiers hunting him were sick and this was their last gasp of humanity- to do their duty well before an unspeakable disease took them down for good, retching and delusional and god-knows-what-else out of the dozens of things he could think that they’d already cooked up. He didn’t care. He’d rather spend his final moments with the woman he loved in the throes of something his precious world of science had created, than to stay here and be gunned down in the street like a dog.
He reached the uncanny quiet of the park and spotted her at last- Sylvia sat there on the bench in the gazebo at the very end of the row, her hands removed from their military gloves and tightly gripping the bench in anticipation. How long had she waited for him? At least she had her armor on in case they decided to turn on one of their own. As Arthur neared, his eyes began to brim with tears as he saw the wooden floor of the structure was riddled with bullet holes, and Sylvia’s nose was raw and red, her eyes puffy beneath the goggles perched atop her helmet. Her skin looked pale and clammy, and when her gaze met his as he approached the steps, a look of utter misery passed between them.
They had played God with lab coats and germ particles and now Hell was unleashed on the innocent. Arthur barely had time to register his guilt and horror over Sylvia’s condition as he stumbled, grabbing the pavilion railing only to find it was already broken, and gave way under his weight. She stood and wordlessly unloaded her rifle into his chest, knocking him down onto the grass as he could only grunt in shock, then the vicious grip of pain took hold. She jumped down and leaned in towards him even as his hand reached out, her husband’s face a contorted grimace of confusion. Of betrayal.
“I’m not sick, Arthur,” she whispered, as if knowing his very thoughts. “If… if it’s really you.” She glanced away, fighting back any glimmer of emotion, knowing the rest of the troops would soon arrive to wrap the whole thing up. “So just… listen to me.”
His brain was struggling to stay on the surface of consciousness, grasping at anything he could, even in his disorientation. “I don’t know what the Hell you are and they… the rest of them have pretty much stopped caring by now. But I care. I care about my husband.” She sniffed but pushed her feelings away and looked down into his eyes. “And if you’re him, you need to listen to me in case any part of this makes it back to you tomorrow. You stop coming around here, understand? DON’T come back here. Go in the opposite direction… anywhere else… but you have to stop coming HERE.”
Arthur felt all his energy and senses melting away. “But… why?” he choked out, the taste of blood filling his mouth. “Were… we…. infected?”
She shook her head, showing a sad and tired smile, as she held up a hand to signal the Colonel and his troops to halt, then raised her voice to the gruff commanding one she put on for her fellow soldiers. “Doc, you didn’t GET sick. You were DEAD. You and your little pal Geary- both of you got shot up in the lab disaster at Fort Detrick. That was a week ago.” Sylvia pressed her teeth together, looking truly torn between what she had to do as a soldier and what she wanted to do as a wife. “And I dunno what particles or treatments or fuckin’ Frankenstein technology you were cooking up in there, but you keep coming back. The BOTH of you. We’re getting ready to militarize the Hell outta this whole place. And if you can, if you THINK you can, stop coming the fuck back already.”
Some of the other soldiers raised their voices in support. With her last chance fading, she lowered her words to little more than a whisper to the dying man. “Remember what I told you. Don’t come back here… run. Just. RUN.” Darkness swallowed Arthur Riggs, and he would hear no more.
Riggs put his hand up to shield his eyes from the midday sun, unused to any natural light source, as he gingerly stepped out of the facility. Dr. Geary, his research companion, took his hand and together they slowly walked back a few paces to assess the damage. It felt good to finally climb back out of the containment room closet and stretch their legs. Geary sighed, checking the lab’s atmospheric scanner once more before abandoning it to the rubble, and began removing his hazard suit. “I think we can take these off now.”
Dr. Riggs fumbled through the motions of taking off his helmet and suit… and yet he felt cool sweat begin to bead upon his skin, and there was a lump in his throat that he couldn’t account for. “We’re… we’re breaking protocol,” he managed to croak out. “You’d think they would have… checked for us by now. So why aren’t they here?” His voice became a slow, halting monotone, and a strange sense of desperation began to well up inside of him.
Geary shrugged. “Look at it this way, Riggs- we dodged a bullet back there and the situation has been handled.” Arthur felt a chill run through him when the word caught in his chest. “Bullet,” he repeated quietly to himself. Even in the warm glow of the sun he shivered.
“I say we head on back to Frederick and when we get there, stay home. You gotta be missing that wife of yours.” And though he desperately desired it, Arthur was overwhelmed with the feeling that neither of them should be going home. The urge to flee gripped him like an animal caught in a bear trap. Not to home. Not even to Sylvia. No… he couldn’t.
“I don’t think we should go back to town at all, Geary,” he mumbled. “I think we should run.”
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