ExplorerTech Industries, River City
Storage room #207 was jam-packed with items from top to bottom. Unless you'd worked there the past four years, you wouldn’t notice item #42194 was taken from the second highest shelf of the second to the last row of shelves and placed into the pocket of Dr. Huang.
Dr. Huang was a stern older man who always wore his white lab coat buttoned up and his identification card in clear sight around his neck. He expected people to pay attention to what he said and absolutely did not repeat himself. The other scientists and researchers kept out of his way, not only because of seniority. They couldn’t keep up with his high standards of cleanliness and efficiency. He expected everyone around him to adhere to the same code of conduct.
As he made his way to his lab, he shouted at a passing co-worker. “Your identification card is not in sight, Dr. Lee!”
He pulled out a tissue from his side pocket, coughed into it, then removed the glove with the tissue inside. He placed the entire thing into an unoccupied pocket, then opened the door with his still-gloved left hand. After retrieving a new glove from the glove dispenser on the wall, he spoke to his assistant. “Mrs. Wright, those shoes are not acceptable footwear to be worn inside the workplace. I can't imagine what possessed you to come into work wearing such impractical shoes. I'm going to have to factor this in on your performance review.”
Mrs. Wright lowered her papers. Her gaze sunk to her high heels. She had an important engagement to attend after work and thought she’d left her flat footwear in her locker to change into when she arrived. Unfortunately, she’d left her flat footwear at home. She’d continued with her day hoping Dr. Huang would be too preoccupied with their successful test results for item #42294. Unfortunately, Dr. Huang would never miss such a detail.
“Your blatant disregard for the rules is highly offensive. This isn’t only for your own safety, but for my safety and the integrity of the work we do here. If my results are altered after you trip and disrupt the environment, therefore changing the parameters of the experiment, what do you expect us all to do? It’s beyond selfish of you to expect us all to waste our time for you to change into better footwear before each important step is taken. I expect better from you, Mrs. Wright. You know better than anyone how important this work is. We don't have time for disruptions like this.”
Dr. Huang placed item #42194 on the nearest table and continued ranting. Mrs. Wright quickly placed her notes onto the desk behind her and muttered soft apologies to Dr. Huang.
Seeing her retreat from the room, he loudly exclaimed. “I’ve already retrieved item #42294, so make haste. We can’t waste any more time with this tomfoolery. I’ll wait ten minutes, and if you don’t return, you won’t be included in the rest of this project.”
Mrs. Wright grimaced and made her way to the female staff locker room. She pulled her cell phone from her pants pocket and began calling her friendly coworker, Claire. She was of a similar size as herself. Claire may have left her work flats during her shift last night. Mrs. Wright couldn't wait until they shared the same shift again; she couldn't handle Dr. Huang alone. Lunch was especially stressful without a companion to vent to. “Hello, Claire. Sorry to bother you—” Mrs. Wright rushed by storage room #207. Within it, on the second highest shelf of the second to the last row of shelves, sat an empty box, beside the box sat item #42294. It was exactly where it sat for the past four years.
Indignantly, Dr. Huang snatched her notes off the table and flipped to the needed page. He navigated the tables without taking his eyes off the calculations and paused at the correct cage. He read the notes thoroughly then straightened and scanned the clipboard hanging off the bars of their current experiment. His gray eyes skimmed the updated results. His wrinkled hands tightly gripped Mrs. Wright's notes as shock overcame his face. He slackened his grip on the pages and tossed them at the nearest flat surface. Dr. Huang tugged the clipboard off the cage and flipped through the other recorded figures.
A few minutes earlier, Mrs. Wright had read the same notes. Surprised, she’d stepped back into the other table and spilled several flasks containing transparent chemicals.
Now, reacting similarly to the most recent test results, Dr. Huang hadn’t noticed he'd set the pages atop the newest mixture. After coming to his senses and retrieving the haphazardly placed notes, his left gloved hand tingled from the tips of his fingers to his wrist. Excitement made him tremble with delight.
“Stupendous!” He turned away from the lizard cage. “Dr. Franklin will be ecstatic about these results! What a metamorphosis!”
His numb hand waved through the air as he muttered calculations to himself. Latex, skin, and blood trailed along the floor as he made his way to his office. Suddenly, he swayed and grabbed hold of the windowsill beside him. His left hand went limp, and slimy stapled pages fell to the floor. He didn’t reach for them.
“I’m getting a bit too excited.” It wasn’t much of a choice, but with no chair in sight, he decided to sit down a moment and lowered himself to the floor. “I might need those cardio workouts after all.” His lab coat protected his bottom from the unsanitary floor. He eyed it with a squint and noticed a dark substance marring the white tiled floors a couple meters in front of him.
I'll write a complaint about this to the janitorial supervisor. No one takes pride in a dirty workspace. He wiped at the sweat on his forehead and felt something tickle his brows. He gave his hand a cursory check, expecting to see that he’d ripped his glove while retrieving the clipboard from off the metal cage, but…his gaze lingered. What’s this?
Most of the latex glove had disintegrated. The tips of his last two fingers and around his wrist were the only areas you could still recognize. His thumb, index, and middle fingers were gone. Their bloody stubs were brown and gave off a foul smell. He turned the grotesque limb over with curious detachment. Oh god. His head whipped back to the dark substance he criticized beforehand.
That’s…that’s…His eyes gaped open. The hand was thrown away from his face. His mouth bellowed a loud hellish cry. The realization shocked him to his core.
He screamed for help. He could barely get himself standing. He shambled to his office and grabbed the smartphone off his desk. One-handed, he went to his contacts and called the emergency medical wing.
Unhurried, Sia pushed her cart to room #212 and stopped beside the gray biohazard container positioned beside the metal doorway. She pulled her black gloves from her jumpsuit pocket and checked to make sure her respirator was snugly fixed to her face. She’d been given the entire night to finish the job.
“Clothing zipped and tucked? Check,” her muffled voice declared. She swiped away the caution tape, opened the door, and took some time to drag all her supplies and containers inside the room. Afterward the heavy door slid closed behind her.
“Ugh, did they slaughter an animal in here? What the—” Sia groaned in frustration and blew her breath. The tiled floors were a mess. Blood started off in small trickles between the long laboratory research tables, but chunks of flesh and blood led to the back room. Bloody shoe marks, hand prints, and a weird clear substance could be seen towards the back end of the room.
Sia lifted her mop from the bucket and wrung the water out of it with the press of a bottom. Did an injured test animal escape their cage?
The walls and floor were stained with more blood, and chunks of dried up vomit. The tables were cleared of material except the desk with the placard reading Mrs. Wright, which still held paperwork and a clunky silver object tagged “#42194”. This wasn’t the first time she landed the job of cleaning filthy substances off laboratory floors. She shuddered at the memory of her third cleaning assignment in the biology sector. The smell of excrement clung to her shoes for several days.
“Rooooooon. This is…oh my god. This is so disgusting,” Sia whined. She nudged a detached finger to the side for later. She made quick work of all the disgusting solids first. “Money is money. Money is money,” she muttered under her breath over and over.
Eventually, she was calmed by the repetitive mopping motions and could ignore how the room previously looked and what it probably smelled of. She leaned on a cleared table and glanced over at Mrs. Wright's desk. The item was curved with lines riddling the metal, thin laser etched symbols that Sia had never seen before. Two slender socket joints stuck out of the inside. Setting the mop into its bucket, game she strolled over to the desk. “It’s like a video game item. What does it—”
The room filled with red light and a loud computerized voice played. “Evacuation procedures must be taken immediately. Evacuation procedures must be taken immediately. Seek shelter within the basement levels of building R. Stop all activity and proceed to all exits in a timely fashion. Evacuation procedures must be taken immediately.”
Before the message repeated a second time, the earth quaked beneath Sia's feet. She felt weightless for a moment then slammed to the ground. Breathing quickly, she scrambled off the floor as the walls shook. The glass windows along the back of the room shattered simultaneously. She fell back against the desk and her hand fell on the strange device.
“Ouch. Hiss!” She wrenched her hand off the desk and lost her balance. She couldn’t examine the wound further. The ceiling lights collapsed out of their holders and swung around on their wires.
The fallen lights forced her to duck her head down and she dropped to her knees. The terror in her veins almost kept her there, trembling on the floor while the world collapsed around her, but she still had hope. She readied herself to charge at the metal frame of the door. If she stayed there petrified beside the flimsy desk with no protection, she’d die. No. No.
Her plan: charge the door, open it, and if the world kept shaking – crawl to safety. She doubted the hallway would be in better shape than the room, but the fear of being buried alive was pulled to the forefront of her mind. She propped her hand on the edge of the desk and propelled herself forward. Her hand reached for the door handle, but hesitated when a high-pitched whistling noise became more prominent than all the other harsh sounds.
What is that? She blinked. That’s the last conscious movement that she’ll ever remember of the moment.
Intense pressure enveloped her. Everything went black. Her mind was saturated in an unexpected upsurge of pain. A missile landed, and right before everything went up in flames—she vanished.
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