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Robert stared at the coffee dripping out of the machine and into the round clear pot below. Mondays went slow for Robert. Each drop of coffee into the almost full pot below felt like a few minutes, but it was a welcome reprieve from his work down the hallway. People thought it was acceptable to hang out while the coffee was brewing. But if Robert took five minutes to enjoy that cup of coffee then Human Resources was going to email him a calendar invite for a meeting. The last drop of coffee fell out of the machine and Robert grabbed the pot with a sigh and filled up his Terrapin’s mug.

“Yo Robby, what’s good man?” A familiar voice called out from across the breakroom.

“Hey Simon. Things are well I suppose,” Robert said turning around biting back the urge to correct Simon. His name was Robert.

“Yo check this out man,” Simon said pulling out his phone.

Simon flipped through pictures of his night on his phone. Bottles of cheap champagne on a table. Bottles of of cheap wine being poured into champagne glasses. Then Simon was out at a club and taking pictures of small vials of cocaine in the bathroom and some random girl in a short red dress that fit her like a glove. The last picture was of the girl in the red dress passed out with her dress around her waist and no panties. She was really pretty. Too bad she had met Simon.

“This chick was fuckin’ crazy man,” Simon gushed over the multiple naked photos he had taken.

“Oh yeah?” Robert asked thinking about ways he could get away from Simon.

“Dude, we were like doing blow all night in the bathrooms of this new club down on U street”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah man. I like went up to her and just rubbed my nose and she like asked me if I was holding. Of course I gave her a weird shrug and she like immediately followed me into the bathroom. This stuff is like a chick magnet man.”

“Cool man. I have to like get over to my lab now,” Robert said sliding past Simon into the hallway.

Simon followed Robert into the hallway and said, “Dude you really need to come out with me and my boys one weekend.”

“I’ll think about it Simon.”

“C’mon dude. Like what did you even do this weekend?” Simon asked with some frustration coming through his voice.

“I wrote a manuscript, graphed some data, and went on a few long runs. I caught up on that new show with Brad Pitt and the guy who created Mr. Robot too,” Robert told him.

“Ugh, dude that’s so lame. Anyway, I gotta run some Western Blots for Maria. Man, being an intern sucks,” Simon whined and turned off the main hallway towards his lab.

“Have fun Simon,” Robert called out with a smile.

Robert’s lab smelled of isopropanol and the low hum of his hoods helped drown out the noise of people walking past in the hallway. His small desk that he had installed against the wishes of his Principal Investigator Dr. Martingate held two monitors and his laptop. Robert slide into his chair, popped his earphones in, and started working on the massive spreadsheet of data he hadn’t finished processing over the weekend.

Robert’s phone buzzed. Text message.

Hey Robert, it’s Mom. When are you coming to visit?

Robert sighed. No matter how many times he told his Mom how texting worked she still led off with, ‘Hey Robert, its Mom.’

Maybe this coming weekend. I’ve got a pretty full week.

Robert finished off his last graph for funky set of data and tried to celebrate with a sip of coffee, but nothing came out of his mug. Empty. Finally, an excuse to step away from work. After he finished crunching his data he had to go implant some more rats before lunch. He knew how to kill cancer in those rats. The only problem was making sure the rats stayed alive while the cancer died. Robert’s latest drug had a success rate of 100% of killing the cancer and the rats a few days later.

Without his earphones in he could hear a faint staccato buzzing in the hallway. Robert opened the door to his lab and stuck his head out. The halls were empty. The buzzing was louder. It was definitely an alarm, but the fire alarm was louder and a sustained noise. The shelter in place alarm was a continuous pulse at a slow interval. This alarm was more staccato. It felt urgent, but Robert could barely hear it.

Maybe it was a local alarm Robert thought to himself. He had more coffee to get and he hoped Simon wasn’t waiting in the breakroom to ambush him about going out to a club this coming weekend. Robert’s phone buzzed again.

You know your Dad would like to see you. He is sick Robert.

I know Mom. I’ll make it up this weekend. It just takes awhile to drive up there in DC traffic and I’m working as hard as I can to figure out a cure for what he has too. Once I see that it doesn’t kill rats and monkeys we can move onto exploratory trials.

The halls were still surprisingly empty as Robert approached the breakroom. Usually people were walking around, laughing about the weekend’s adventures, or talking about why experiments weren’t working. Robert turned the corner into the break room and saw that the pot was empty and the smell of the remaining coffee burning on the bottom filled the room.

“Fucking assholes,” Robert muttered and pulled the pot off to let it cool down.

Robert had hidden the spare pot behind a box of Count Chocula above the sink and was pulling out people’s half eaten boxes of cereal looking for the count’s grinning face when a loud thump sounded behind him.

“What the fuck?” Robert asked turning around.

Simon was leaning against the door frame. He had blood running down the front of his face and his clothing was torn. Simon was holding his left side and panting hard. Black blood was oozing out between Simon’s fingers.

“Simon, what the fuck happened to —

“Rob, get the fuck outta here man. I just came back from the clinic. It’s fucked man.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Have seat let me look at your side. We have to have some bandages around here somewhere.”

Simon sat down in a chair and slumped back, “No, Robert. You gotta get the fuck out of here man. You don’t understand. They are walking.”

Robert went over to the far wall of the break room and opened the first aid kit. He pulled out the package of gauze and tape and went over to Simon. “Who’s walking? Take your hand away asshole and let me look at your side.”

Simon moved his hand away and the gash in his side started oozing thick black blood. It looked like a bite mark.

“Shit,” Robert muttered and pushed the white gauze into Simon’s side and taped it to his tattered clothes.

“Robert, you need to get out of here before it’s too late.”

“Before what’s too late? Simon what the hell is happening?”

The tape didn’t stick well to Simon’s clothes and the bandage fell off. It was soaked through with black blood.

“Fuck, Simon I’m not an actual doctor. I do research. I don’t do first aid. You need to go to the hospital.”

Simon’s head rolled back and his breathing stopped.

“Oh fuck,” Robert exclaimed and put his fingers against Simon’s neck. There was no pulse.

Simon the intern was dead. The distant buzzing alarm echoed off the taupe walls of the hallway. Robert poked his head out of the break room and saw what looked like his boss, Dr. Martingate, shuffling down the hall with his head down.

“Hey, Dr. Martingate!” Robert shouted and ran the short distance to him. Martingate didn’t say anything and just kept shuffling down the hall.

“Hey Dr. Martingate. Something happened to Simon. Do you know what’s going on?” Robert asked. He pushed on Martingate’s shoulder when his boss didn’t respond.

Robert looked into Martingate’s eyes and they were his usual blue, but colder looking than usual. His skin was pallid. He had a similar wound to Simon’s on his side, but he wasn’t holding it. His wound wasn’t even bleeding.

“What the fuck is goin —

Martingate swung his right fist at Robert and clipped him on the temple. Robert fell to the ground and Martingate followed his right hook with a kick to Robert’s stomach. Robert covered up like he used to do on the playground when he was seven. The next kicked usually came right after the first. Instead, a something bite into his left side and Robert turned away from the pain and saw the face of his adviser covered in blood. Robert’s blood dripped from Martingate’s smiling jaw.

A different sort of survival instinct kicked in and Robert elbowed Martingate in the face. He rolled rolled to his feet like they teach little kids in karate classes. Robert started running down the hallway away from his boss. The pain in side faded to a dull ache.

Robert blew past the double doors to his department and was greeted with smears of dark blood covering the floor of the National Cancer Institute’s main hallway. Their building was new on the National Institutes of Health campus. The staccato alarm was at an earsplitting level of sound in the main hall. Robert covered his ears and pushed his way onto the NIH campus.

He could see people shuffling around the sidewalks in a similar way to Martingate. Robert ignored them and he remembered Simon saying, “Get out.”

Robert kicked into a sprint and headed towards the small side gate he used to get in and out of the NIH campus. A few blocks away was the group house he shared with a few other post-docs. His car keys were in his desk drawer and his parent’s place was only an hour’s drive away. He could make it. His side didn’t even hurt right now.

The high black fence that surrounded the NIH campus came into view and Robert slowed his run down to a walk when he saw the men in black fatigues, gas masks and holding M4s standing outside the gate. Men were erecting spotlights behind them in the late morning sun. The intermittent rain of the weekend had given way to fluffy white clouds hiding a blue sky. It was a nice morning for a run. He should have gone before work this morning.

“Stop right there sir,” A voice called out from a speaker beyond the fence. The men in black combat fatigues raised their M4s.

Robert looked around him and saw bodies lying on the grass. He wasn’t the only one to think of running for the gate.

“Hey you guy’s gotta help me. I don’t know what the hell is happening in here.” Robert called out with a sick feeling in his stomach.

“I’m sorry sir. We can’t let you out.”

The tall black fence had always made Robert feel safe when he was walking around the campus late at night. The fence was also good at keeping people in Robert thought. He felt tired. Robert sat down on the sidewalk and pulled his phone out. His right hand was covered in black blood. It made it hard to draw the pattern to his phone. Robert pulled up the latest text from his Mom.

Are you OK? I heard there was some emergency at the NIH campus over the radio.

Robert texted back. How did he spell fine again?

I’m OK. Just tired. Sitting outside. Love u

Robert dropped his phone and laid down. His phone buzzed again and he heard one of the soldiers say that he had been bitten too.

Mosquitos were bad this time of summer.

He heard the other soldier say that it was better to put him out of his misery before he turned.

Robert watched a mosquito land on his face and felt the sharp prick of it puncturing the skin on his face. Robert watched the mosquito fly away with his blood. Robert heard the gunshot. He didn’t feel it hit.


Written by

Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

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