No matter how many times she’d taken the mandatory chemical shower while wearing her positive-pressure “blue suit,” Kacie Lin still felt like a B-movie astronaut who’d stumbled into the world’s smallest car wash. Jets of disinfectant pelted the stiff plastic suit from all angles. That sound, coupled with the ever-present rush of breathable air flowing through the ventilation hose, reminded Kacie of trips through the car wash she’d taken with her dad when she was little. Those scary noises, the lunging and rotating shapes just outside the car windows, had been turned into fun stages and characters in a sort of game made up by her dad to help her overcome her fear.
The chemical shower, however, was far from a game; it was procedure, and a deadly serious one at that. Kacie could let her mind wander for the three-minute duration of the disinfectant shower and the four-minute rinse, but a slip-up in gowning out of the BSL-4 could be just as deadly as one made gowning in.
After “seven minutes in heaven”, as Kacie and the other grad students called it, she disconnected her ventilation hose and removed the cumbersome suit, along with the bulky boots, gloves, and tape that had secured them against any potential contamination. Kacie tossed her scrubs, hairnet, gloves, and booties into the disposal bin and took the required hot shower, one she could actually feel on her skin this time. It may have been procedure, but it still felt just fine at the end of a long day and a longer week.
In the locker room, Gemma was in the middle of logging out from the BSL-4 for the day, something Kacie would be doing soon enough.
“Hey,” Kacie said before opening her own locker. “You heading out for happy hour with everyone?”
“Oh, hell yeah,” Gemma said, putting the finishing touches on her logout procedure. “After the week we’ve had, we deserve it. You coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Kacie said. “Be out in a bit.” Gemma left Kacie to dress in peace. When she emerged a few minutes later, having dressed, logged out, scanned out, and feeling just about ready to fly out of the place for the weekend, Gemma and Salim were already waiting for her in their office’s lobby. They were busy chatting with Jeff the receptionist, each of them counting the ticks and tocks remaining until 5 o’clock.
“Hey, I’m gonna take a lap around and see if I can round up some more stragglers. Be right back.” Kacie returned their wave and headed back toward the cluster of desks belonging to her cohorts in the Ritter Lab. She steered clear of the head honchos’ offices–Dr. Nakatomi, who oversaw all the labs, and Dr. Black, a billionaire for whom the facility was named–even though they were probably too busy with their world-saving adventures to even notice a lowly grad student like her. She preferred company that was more on her level anyway.
Kacie confirmed that Lynnie from HR would meet them at Ernie’s, that Donna from QC had other plans, and that start-up execs Tom, Gerry, and Donnie had all made an early escape for the weekend. She wasn’t surprised by any of those turns of events. She was surprised, however, to see Michael Martin, a PhD candidate on loan from the facility’s chemistry department, still hard at work.
“Joining us for happy hour?” she asked. Michael was normally the first person at the bar with a round ready-and-waiting for everyone else.
“Can’t. Sorry. Heading out of town this weekend and trying to wrap up a few things before I leave.” Michael never took his eyes off of his computer screen, so Kacie figured he couldn’t be convinced to change his mind.
“Suit yourself,” she said with a shrug and a “Have a nice weekend!” as she made her way toward the lone secluded desk at the far back corner of the office.
Though it was bordered by floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides, the desk also had the highest walls of any cubicle in the place. It was made that way by design. Where most people liked to have a more open view of the shared floor space, post-doc Rick Benes preferred his privacy. The added height of the cubicle walls also gave him plenty of extra room to show off his zombie movie posters, Godzilla figures, and Predator statues, among other memorabilia. Rick had even dragged in an extra filing cabinet–which may or may not have been cleared with HR ahead of time–just for his toys, gadgets, and other workplace distractions. At last glance, Kacie had spied a pair of foam dart guns, a garish nuclear-green bowtie, bang snaps, and what looked like an actual trick can of peanut brittle. If there was someone who made the often hectic and chaotic, and sometimes downright boring office life bearable, it was Rick Benes.
Kacie knocked on his cubicle wall and waited before rounding it, out of respect and a curiosity as to which of Benes’ replies she’d get today.
“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.”
Kacie peeked around the wall that was, at the moment, festooned with a calendar featuring The Walking Dead and a vintage poster showcasing the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I hear the chickens are joining us for happy hour. Can we count you in, too?”
“No can do, Kacie Kasem. Finishing up some reports and then calling it a day.”
Rick normally had a reason not to hang out with the rest of the office crew any more than the job demanded, but every once in a while Kacie could talk him into a little extra socialization.
“Other Rick is coming. You don’t want to be the only Rick in the place who didn’t go, do you?”
“I know for a rock-solid fact that there are at least three other Richard’s in the building and they’re all Dicks. Sorry, but this Rick is sitting this one out.”
Kacie shrugged again. “Too bad. You know where to find us if you change your mind!”
By the time Kacie made her way back to the front desk, an anxious group had gathered. The conversation had already turned to complaining about the week’s frustrations. Those complaints rose to such a volume that Drs. Nakatomi and Black could surely hear every gripe and groan. Kacie thought it best to move this party to a more appropriate locale.
“Let’s move out troops!” she said. “Everyone who’s going is here or already gone.”
In the hallway, Salim nearly ran into a linen cart in his excitement. He played it off by chatting with the guard and inviting him to grab a drink with them. The guard made some sort of dad joke about it being 5 o’clock somewhere, and all Kacie could think was that it was far enough past 5 o’clock in their own area code that they’d be lucky to see any of Ernie’s happy hour specials by the time they got there. It was thanks to Salim’s chatter that Kacie realized she wouldn’t be joining anyone for drinks after all.
“So I get a call from Dr. Ritter at like 3am,” he started, “from somewhere over the Atlantic on his flight back from Sierra Leone, just to confirm that the last 3D reconstructions of Lassa I sent him were the most recent ones we’ve run.” Salim chattered on in his usual excited manner that was more small talk than complaints, really. He absent-mindedly signed out at the front desk’s logbook without missing a beat. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the latest strain of Josiah, like I said in my email with the attachment.’ I don’t think he liked my you-just-woke-me-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night tone of voice.”
Kacie reached for the pen to sign the logbook and stopped short.
“What happened? Forget something upstairs?” Gemma asked.
“Oh just, you know, to start the viral prep for Dr. Ritter’s massive experiment he wants to start on Monday. No big deal…” Kacie admitted, red-faced. A shared groan went up from the crowd.
“Looks like someone’s got a date with Josiah!” said Salim.
“And you almost made it out of the building this time,” offered Jeff.
“See you in like three hours,” Gemma said, half-jokingly.
“Ugh, just be sure to have a drink … make that drinks ready for me.” Kacie waved farewell to her friends and mentally prepared herself to scrub back in and get hands-on with one of the world’s deadliest viruses.
She passed through the first set of dual-iris scanners, keycard readers, and the heavy double-wide security door they guarded. The few people left in the hallway to and from the bank of elevators were all streaming out of the building; Kacie was the only one swimming against Friday’s quitting-time current. She could feel their eyes on her, and those behind the security cameras that surveyed almost every square inch of the facility. Her face grew hot. She shook her head and smiled in spite of her mental lapse.
Her embarrassment grew when she had to stop and wait for a stream of employees to pass through the corridor’s metal detectors, chemical scanners, and a security checkpoint so that she could re-enter the facility in the opposite direction. Kacie muttered a number of Sorries and Excuse Mes as she went, but no one seemed to mind as much as she thought they did.
At the end of the awkward corridor, a lone elevator stood off to the side of a bank of other elevators in the lobby. It was activated only by passing yet another iris scanner and keycard reader, which Kacie did with practiced ease. After the elevator had arrived and Kacie had found herself alone behind the closing doors, she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. By the time the doors opened again on the 16th floor, she had regained her composure and was ready to tackle the task at hand.
That task was nothing less than propagation of one of the deadliest viruses known to mankind. Lassa virus, commonly afflicting people living in West Africa, accounted for 300,000 infections and 5,000 deaths each year. Those who passed away from the disease experienced a hemorrhagic fever, one that’s difficult to distinguish from Ebola, Marburg, or even malaria, but is a painful and bloody way to go. That’s why the powers that be designated the Lassa virus a biosafety level four (BSL-4) hazard, confining any research done on the microorganisms to a BSL-4 certified lab. Of the 30 or so of these labs in the entire world, Black C.A.S.T.L.E. was the newest, most-secure, and most-expensive. The facility and its publicity-hungry progenitor, who had lent his name and his millions to the building, were expected to perform cutting-edge science and churn out headline-grabbing results. To do so, the brilliant minds who worked within its mostly windowless walls and positive-pressure cleanrooms would have to be at the top of their games. In short, Kacie Lin would have to get her shit together.
“Get your shit together, Kacie,” she said to herself as she headed straight to the BSL-4’s locker room. It was empty except for two McClean’s linen carts that stood unattended just inside the door. Haphazardly folded linens, unopened boxes of gloves, and surgical masks still secured within their plastic wrappings lay scattered about the floor on either side of the carts, as if they’d been overturned and whoever had been tasked with cleaning up the mess gave up halfway. There were no cameras here, unlike the rest of the facility, so, knowing that, maybe they slacked off a bit in their responsibilities. It was certainly odd, but maybe it’s just the way the cleaning crew did things after hours. This was the first time Kacie had been in the lab this late, a happenstance she hoped never to repeat again.
After stowing her cellphone, purse, and scant jewelry–a silver heart pendant with the initials K.L. and J.L. hung on a silver chain, a plain silver pinky ring, and a simple copper bracelet–in her locker, Kacie moved into the more private locker room in order to shower and change into disposable scrubs. Once she was as clean as the procedure required her to be, and once she was covered head to toe–unflattering scrub pants and a long-sleeved scrub shirt, two layers of gloves, disposable booties over disposable paper shoes that would eventually go into rubberized boots, hair safely contained under a hair-net and scrub cap, most of her face safely protected by a surgical mask, and her eyes shielded by a pair of wraparound safety glasses–Kacie began the laborious process of putting on the cumbersome blue suit.
She went by the book, a step-by-step procedure that actually gave the whole thing a clinical air rather than a comical one. Sure, Kacie thought she looked like a child stuck inside an inflatable bouncy house shaped in the approximation of a human being, but that additional suit was the second line of defense standing between her and a violent, protracted death. The first line of defense, of course, was Kacie’s own attentiveness, something that sharpened to a laser focus as soon as she hooked up the facility’s HEPA-filtered air supply to her suit. The roaring rush of clean, oxygenated, and sterile air filled her ears and drowned out most everything else, allowing her to focus on the task at hand. After another mandatory three-minute shower and four-minute rinse in the biohazard suit itself, Kacie stepped into the lab where the real work could finally begin.
The first thing that hit Kacie upon emerging from the relatively dim lighting of the locker room was the stark white brightness of the lab. Every surface that wasn’t white was stainless steel. All were cleaned and scrubbed to a high polish, reflecting the high-wattage light from every conceivable angle. A row of floor-to-ceiling HEPA-filter-outfitted biosafety cabinets (BSCs) had been turned off for the weekend. The normal operating sounds–the constant whoosh of the hoods’ air circulation system and the buzz of fluorescent work lights–had been replaced by the hum of UV lights that sterilized the BSC’s work surfaces, though Kacie couldn’t hear it over her suit’s own life-support system. She turned BSC-1 on and let it equilibrate its pressures while she moved slowly and deliberately about the room, taking pains not to stretch her coiled air hose and turn it into a possible slingshot, which was expressly against procedure.
The lethal objects of her night’s work were living within a solution of Vero cells stored in the room’s small stainless steel refrigerator. There was a high enough concentration present within the 1mL vial to allow a sufficiently outfitted lab to produce enough virus to infect hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of individuals. Kacie’s plan was less ambitious, only propagating enough for a useable stock for Dr. Ritter’s planned animal testing.
After transferring the small vial to the BSC, its filtration system now whooshing along with life-saving efficiency, Kacie gathered the necessary immunofluorescence stain, tissue cultures bottles, and virus-friendly media. All in all, the process of titrating the concentrated stock, staining it with an antibody mixture for the virus’ nucleoproteins, and inoculating the tissue culture bottles at a 1/100 concentration only took Kacie about twenty minutes. It had taken her longer to get from the lobby to the lab, and it would take another solid hour to wait for the viral prep to adsorb into its new environment, or so the protocol stated. Too long a time to sit and wait patiently, but too short an interval to completely de-gown and then scrub back in again.
To pass the time, Kacie switched over her air supply to a hose in the connecting hallway, one with a much longer lead that would allow her to move into any of the other five labs on the floor. The animal room was directly across from the viral prep lab, which was just up the hall from the freezer room and the animal surgery lab. Further down the hall still were the imaging lab and the as-of-yet unused pathogen reception and identification lab. It was toward the freezer room that Kacie was headed at the moment, planning to restock the lab to replace the supplies she’d used during her procedure.
The freezer room itself had two sub-rooms within it. The outer room, just off the main hallway, was a cool 40°F or 4.4 °C, essentially a walk-in refrigerator. This is where the tissue culture media that Kacie was looking for was stored, along with a selection of thermal gear necessary to work in the freezer room. Another door inside this room sectioned off the -20°C staging room, which itself housed a small, limited-access liquid nitrogen freezer that bottomed out around -80°C. Normally, the door to the staging room was closed and locked to keep the temperature stable, but when Kacie stepped into the outer room, she found it propped wide open. A man’s body was laid out on the floor in a face-down sprawl, the puddle of blood from a bullet wound in his forehead already crystallizing on the freezer floor.