III. The First Horseman
Stan checked the locker room outside the BSL-4 for any stragglers who’d stayed behind to burn the midnight oil. Seeing none, he allowed Malanan and Strong to push their linen carts into the room to set about their business. As soon as the door closed behind them, Strong, speaking conversationally and without a hint of urgency, said simply, “All clear.”
From each cart, a man burst out from under the piles of scrubs, gloves, and masks, scattering the previously orderly assortment of items onto the floor. The first man came up gasping for air, his stringy blonde hair whipping back and forth around his lean, bony face. His glasses were fogged. The tendons of his hands stood out against his pale skin as he held the edge of the cart in a death grip. As he swung first one lanky leg and then the other over the side, he was spitting out a string of complaints in his high-pitched, frenetic voice before his feet even hit the ground.
“If I had to remain buried beneath these plasticized abominations laced with baby-killer chemicals a second longer, I’d have scrapped this entire plan and burned this ungodly facility to the ground with all the heathens trapped inside it.” He picked up a box of Nitrile gloves labeled “latex-free” and “antimicrobial” and threw it across the room with an exasperated shout of disgust, as if they had soiled his perceived purity with their unnatural taint. “A sign … a symptom of the disease! And we are the cure, gentlemen. Remember this above all else: We are the cure!”
From the other cart had emerged a younger man of shorter stature and shorter hair than Dennis Mulgrew, a man of lesser intelligence but greater patience than his mentor. At first, he had gathered up the spilled items and began placing them back in the cart, but as his superior started ranting and raving and throwing things about the room, he stopped his housekeeping and had the good sense to simply nod along enthusiastically with whatever his master was saying. This man, Wesley West, hadn’t minded being nestled deep within the comfy confines of the linen cart–he found it quite pleasant, actually–but would never say as much to his teacher, his guru. When Dennis Mulgrew began preaching about the “cure”, Wesley found his ambition and pride swelling within him once more.
Seemingly paying little attention to the continued ranting of Mulgrew–”We will turn this ghastly ‘science’ back upon the Frankensteins themselves! We will embrace the pure Creation, and in embracing it be purified by it while the unnatural abominations burn from the inside out!”–Malanan and Strong dug through the linen carts until they found their cache: an assortment of handguns, walkie talkies, and a pair of knapsacks. They holstered their sidearms and radios, and then shouldered the backpacks. Malanan passed a walkie and a gun to Wesley who gripped the latter with an enthusiasm that was half inexperience and half anticipation; he had designs on using it before the night was over. Mulgrew took the radio offered to him but seemed not to notice that he alone did not possess a firearm, neither in his wildly waving hands nor in a secure holster strapped to his bony hip.
“Tonight, the world will know of the Four Horsemen! They will know and they will kneel as the First Horseman rides roughshod over them, sowing disease and despair, fulfilling a prophecy long overdue!”
“Check. Check.” Malanan, Strong, and West tested their walkies out and found them in working order.
Stan eyed these events with a detached sort of disinterest, sparing only a hint of caution at the unpredictable Mulgrew. The other three were acting according to plan. Stan spared a glance to Malanan, who gave just the slightest ghost of a nod. That was enough for Stan, and he’d had enough of Mulgrew’s ravings, as well.
“Wait five minutes, then proceed as we discussed,” Stan said. Malanan handed the guard a walkie of his own and a spare handgun, which Stan tucked against the small of his back into his waistband. He covered it with the back of his untucked Black C.A.S.T.L.E. button-down Security shirt. “I’ll handle the rest.”
If things went according to plan–If Mulgrew can keep himself from blowing a gasket just a little longer –Stan Kijek would be walking these same halls on Monday, the same as he’d done for the better part of the last year. His feet carried him down the hall, back to the elevators, through the scanners, and through the twists and turns of Black C.A.S.T.L.E.’s purposefully confusing and nondescript layout on his way back to the facility’s state-of-the-art security center. Getting Mulgrew and his team into the facility had been the easy part; everything that would happen from here on out required precise timing, an adherence to the plan, nerves of carbon steel and balls to match. Basically, no fuck-ups. Stan didn’t plan on being the weak link.
“Hey there, Ben,” Stan said upon entering the security center, a room packed so full of security monitors, switchboards and control panels that it could have passed for a NASA launch control room. Ben was sitting in front of one of those panels, glancing from monitor to monitor in the prescribed pattern that Lenny had taught to him on a previous shift. One cup of coffee stood steaming near him on the blank workspace between his chair and the empty one. Another lidded cup of coffee stood next to it. “How goes the shift?” Stan closed the room’s sound-proofed door behind him.
“Quiet as a grave,” Ben said, not turning in his seat to face Stan but keeping his eyes on the displays like a good soldier. One of the monitor’s showed a man stepping out of the BSL-4’s locker room and into the hallway with what appeared to be a gun in his hand. “What the f….”
Before Ben could get the expletive out of his mouth, Stan had drawn the secreted handgun from behind his back and used it to blow the back of Ben’s head clean off. Bits of bone, blood, and brain spattered the display screens, including the one that showed Mulgrew, gun in hand, leading his crew through the halls of the BSL-4 ahead of schedule.
“Goddamn hippy,” Stan said to no one but himself. He set his smoking gun aside on the console and settled into his usual seat. “Sorry about this, Ben.” Stan pushed Ben’s seat over with his foot. The dead veteran who had survived a tour of the sandbox with not but a scratch slumped to the side and crumpled onto the floor like a discarded pair of scrubs. Stan spared him not a glance but turned his full attention back to the monitors. Well, most of it. His eyes were drawn to Ben’s barely touched cup of steaming coffee sitting next to his own lidded one. Stan picked up Ben’s and took a sip, settling back into his chair with a smack of the lips and a contented sigh.
“Alright boys,” he said in a low voice, watching his covert team on the monitors. “Let’s not fuck anything else up, shall we?”
“Give that here, Wesley,” Mulgrew said to his disciple, extending an open hand for his subordinate’s gun. West hesitated only a blink before handing it over, all submissive like. Malanan and Strong exchanged a glance. Strong handed West a backup gun on the sly; Mulgrew was too amped up with his own sense of purpose to notice.
“The First Horseman has done too much waiting already. Let us get on with it.”
With that thought in mind and gun in hand, Mulgrew stepped from the off-camera confines of the locker room and out into the secure-but-not-at-all-sterile hallway that connected the BSL-4 labs to a cluster of offices and meeting rooms. Mulgrew crossed over a yellow stripe of tape that ran around the perimeter of the BSL-4, neither knowing nor caring to know that it marked a physical separation between the lab and the building surrounding it which allowed for what the engineers had called “harmonic resonance” but what laymen would call “earthquake-proofing.” Mulgrew also neither knew nor cared that he and his outstretched arm brandishing a gun like a flaming torch had just entered into the frame of the nearly infinite cameras in the facility. West followed him without question; Malanan and Strong followed as well, but stayed back a step or two, the better to stay a step ahead of Mulgrew’s unpredictable nature.
For the next few minutes, however, the self-appointed leader of the team managed to stick to the plan, which was good considering that he himself had drafted this portion of it. They swept through the first set of double doors, just like they’d rehearsed, emerging into the small lobby. They were met with an empty receptionist desk directly in front of them. On its raised ledge was a fresh sign-in sheet with Monday’s upcoming date already printed neatly in the appropriate blank; sitting next to it was a decorative glass etched with the Black C.A.S.T.L.E. facility’s logo, one which was replicated on the sides of a dozen or so pens that rested within the glass, and a stack of business cards that spelled out the acronym: Center for Analytical Study of the Transmission of Lethal Entities.
As was the plan, Strong stayed behind in the lobby to ensure no surprise visitors ambled in after hours and that no midnight-oil burners would be making their way out. Malanan followed West and Mulgrew down the eastern hallway that led to the joint office of Dr. Black–the inventor and businessman for whom the multi-million-dollar facility was named–and Dr. Nakatomi, the most senior scientist and lab director for the entire building and supporting labs. If bulletproof glass and composite concrete walls formed the skin of the structure, if the tension-set carbon-steel supports formed its bones, if the miles upon miles of fiber optic cable formed its nervous system, and the innumerable bends of chemical, pressure, and stress-monitored plumbing formed its vasculature, then in the joint office of Drs. Black and Nakatomi lay its brain and heart.
To his credit, Mulgrew pushed their office door open with the reserved, cautious manner of an administrative assistant, not the crazed, glass-shattering approach of a vengeful anarchist that Malanan had expected. Seeing that made him feel better about standing guard outside the room while Mulgrew and his first disciple handled their business inside of it.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Mulgrew purred. His high-pitched voice had fallen to a more tolerable tenor, just as his megaphone volume had dropped to a conversational one. Black, a stocky white man in his mid-50s who possessed keen, attentive eyes set in a ruggedly handsome face, a face far more suited for business presentations and swaying stockholders than lab work, sat on the edge of a stool set in front of a whiteboard covered in all manner of chicken scratch. A large red X had been struck through a fair chunk of it. Next to him stood Nakatomi, a slender Japanese man whose birdlike appearance was accentuated by the fact that he grasped his hands behind the small of his back as he surveyed the whiteboard, a posture which made his shoulder blades crest within his charcoal-gray suit jacket like a set of tucked wings. They turned as one to ask the intruder what business they had entering without knocking. Black was the first to reach for the desk phone. It was dead. He reached for his cellphone instead.
“Oh I’d rather you didn’t,” Mulgrew said in that smooth, hypnotic voice. It was less the voice and more the outstretched, unwavering barrel of the 9mm that stayed Black’s hand. He withdrew his hand from his pocket and spread his fingers wide as if he was a magician proving there was nothing up his sleeve. The defiance in his eyes suggested otherwise.
“There’s no need for that, please.” It was Nakatomi who spoke first, his level-headed business sense and knack for social pleasantries rising to the occasion. “What can we do for you gentlemen?”
Mulgrew, his gun still pointed at the pair, took up a seat in front of them and crossed his legs at the knees as if he was a stockholder settling in for a casual earnings report. West picked up the part of Enforcer and leveled his own gun at the two, feeling his confidence begin to grow with each passing moment. He was holding two of the most influential minds in the world hostage–powerless–at the barrel of a gun. It was so simple. Why had he waited so long to do this?
“What can you do for me,” Mulgrew said. It wasn’t a question. “Haven’t you done enough already, you and your ambitious, capitalist friend there? Baby-killers and Earth-rapers, the both of you. Oh how I’ve waited for this. How the world has waited for the First Horsemen to cleanse its surface of those such as yourselves.”
Black looked to Nakatomi with a brief flick of the eyes, a gesture that said that rational discourse would neither be possible nor effective here, but the elder scientist held Mulgrew’s gaze. West felt himself stiffen with power, with control.
“But there is one last act of repentance you can perform. For your numerous sins, of which developing biological weapons to loose upon the poor souls you and your jack-booted financiers deem expendable is but one of the most egregious, you can grant the First Horseman access to your viral stock. You will be writ large into history as the Keeper of the Final Key, Gatekeeper to the Last Plague, or Supplicant to the Master of the Flood, if you prefer. Now, does that not seem a fitting, poetic end for ones such as yourselves?”
Black actually had the balls to laugh. He shook his head in disbelief as a smile spread beneath his dark, heavy mustache.
“You’re as cracked out as a Hollywood whore, my friend. As far as pitches go, I’ve actually heard worse, but never delivered this badly. So if you’re done with Amateur Hour, why don’t you take your little performance down to security and…”
A single crack interrupted Black’s response. For the briefest of moments, he looked confused, as if never having been so permanently interrupted before and finding the experience quite novel. Then his keen eyes went dark and he collapsed to the floor. The whiteboard behind him now showcased a splatterwork of his brains centered around one small hole in its upper left corner. Nakatomi, a testament to his own fortitude, only shuddered once, briefly, as his longtime collaborator crumpled forward onto the floor.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’,” Mulgrew said. His gun never wavered but simply slid to his right to center on Nakatomi. “Surely you’re not so stubborn as your partner, Dr. Nakatomi?”
West, feeling restless and godly and horny and invincible, could barely keep his aim steady, so he let his mouth run instead.
“Remember, the scanners don’t work on dead eyes. Stan said.”
Mulgrew turned his head toward him just enough for the slit of his serpent’s eyes to narrow their entire focus on his disciple, and West knew with certainty that he could very possibly be the next body to hit the floor. He shut his mouth tight and the restless energy leaked out of him as fever sweat.
“Forgive the interruptions, Dr. Nakatomi. Will you come along now?”
Nakatomi shifted his eyes from Mulgrew’s to the gun, to the young man standing behind him, to the body of his friend on the floor. They would certainly kill him, but not until after the deed was done. He could make a struggle of it, maybe even wrestle one of their firearms away and commit a ritual sacrifice of a sort, saving countless millions through the death of one. Well, two. Black had understood his sacrifice, that much Nakatomi understood because he understood his friend so well. He hadn’t challenged this madman offhandedly; it had been a calculated risk. And now Black was daring Nakatomi to do the same. Take a loss now to guarantee the best return their shareholders could ask for: lives not cut short by a horrific viral epidemic.
And yet a part of Nakatomi wanted to make sure that Black’s sacrifice was documented. If the young man’s slip of the tongue indicated that one of their own security personnel was complicit in this terroristic event, then surely the cameras had been turned off already. That part of him owed it to Black to live as long as possible. Another more cowardly part of him just wanted to live for the sake of living, a fact he couldn’t deny but could accept by layering his earnest desire to see Black remembered over top of his fear like a mask. All of these thoughts passed through his mental machinery within seconds.
“I will do as you ask. It seems I have no other choice.”
“Excellent!” Mulgrew shouted. He leapt up out of his chair in one deft motion, his gun held high above his head in celebration. “Please, lead the way.”
Nakatomi, followed by Mulgrew and a slightly sulking West, emerged from the office to rejoin Malanan; the newly formed foursome then met up with Strong in the reception lobby. Before they opened the doors to move back into the BSL-4, Michael Martin came walking down the hallway and stopped short, faced with a trio of guns pointed in his direction.
Stan finished his first cup of coffee with one last mighty glug, chewing absently on the grounds that Ben had let flow into the drink. He tossed the empty cup onto the body of his former trainee and popped the lid off his second cup with his thumb. Despite Mulgrew’s impetuousness, everything else had gone to plan. Stan had turned off the security recordings but kept the cameras running, the better to monitor the entirety of the situation as the team’s eye in the sky. When questions were raised after the operation, as they most certainly would be, Stan’s story was this:
Eco-terrorists under the command of a man calling himself the First Horseman had snuck into the facility after hours and overwhelmed the two-man security team. Ben, regrettably, had been executed by one of them as a show of strength, along with Dr. Black and Dr. Nakatomi. Stan had been forced at gunpoint to follow their orders, such as cutting off all audio/video recordings, locking down all doors, elevators, and stairwells, and …
But Stan was getting ahead of himself. One thing at a time. The facility was secure, more secure than it had ever been now that Stan himself was shoring up its defenses rather than poking holes in them. The real test was coming, but so far, so good.
Stan took a sip of the still-hot coffee and smacked his lips again, watching the drama play out.
“Ah, my second disciple,” Mulgrew said, extending his arms as if to give Michael Martin a bear hug. “Come, you’re just in time to play your part.” The others lowered their firearms, apparently unaware that this young man was part of the plan. Without meeting his eyes, Malanan could tell that the same thought that passed through his own mind passed through Strong’s as well: If Mulgrew had kept this mole a secret, what other surprises lay in store for them?
The group of five returned to the locker room that acted as the interface between the world as they knew it and the highly controlled yet potentially lethal environment that was the BSL-4. Nakatomi hesitated.
“I can show you how to suit up for the lab, but it will take some time,” Nakatomi offered. He nodded toward Mulgrew’s gun. “Though you’ll find those difficult to use with the hazard suits; they’re not exactly designed for combat.” He said this last with a smile as if this was one big game they were all playing and he was reminding them that he was on their side. Mulgrew wasn’t playing anyone’s game but his own.
“The First Horseman and his disciples fear no scourge; we welcome it. As you were, Dr. Nakatomi.” Mulgrew nudged him forward with a firm press of the gun barrel to his spine between the wing-like shoulder blades. Nakatomi hadn’t walked through the corridors of the BSL-4 outside of his hazmat suit for months, if not years. He had only done so when the facility was still in its infancy and he was touring the barest sketch of what it would become once it was operational. To do so now, unprotected, was lunacy, though he imagined a slow, protracted death was the least of his concerns at the moment.
Nakatomi pushed through the locker room doors and through the small private room that connected it to the sample preparation room itself. He felt dirty, not just from the pathogens he knew to be in use in the room but more from the wanton breaking of protocol. His skin positively crawled with the indecency of it.
“To the freezer room, if you please,” Mulgrew said, stepping confidently behind him and taking deep breaths as if he were returning to his natal environment. The rest followed like ducks in a row with Strong bringing up the rear. As the door closed behind him and the rush and roar of air filters filled his ears, Strong could have sworn he heard a door open somewhere behind him. A quick glance revealed nothing, so he rejoined the team gathered outside the freezer room door.
Nakatomi took a deep breath and practically bowed before the door as he grasped the handle, knowing the end was near. It turned with a quiet click.
“Almost there now,” Mulgrew said, almost to himself, or to some inner voice that was guiding him. Nakatomi walked into the refrigerated room and used an iris-scanner opposite a supply cart to unlock the door to the staging room, helped along with prods in the back by Mulgrew’s gun barrel. Nakatomi silently prayed for a failure in his cutting-edge technology, for a sudden defect that had gone unnoticed until this very moment, but it was not to be. The lock disengaged. The cold air that poured out stole the very warmth from his body.
Normally, procedures within the -20°C staging room required the worker to wear thermal gear and a second co-worker to keep an eye on them from outside the temperature-controlled room. This was anything but a normal procedure.
Nakatomi’s breath steamed in front of him as he approached the secure freezer holding stock of the world’s most deadly pathogens. He knelt to the floor and, with one of his final exhales of breath crystallizing in the air, punched in his personal access code for the -80°C liquid nitrogen freezer, hoping that Black would forgive him in the afterlife. Its lid opened with a hiss of nitrogen vapor.
Mulgrew shoved Nakatomi aside and gazed into the depths of the once super-secure container that held the tools for fulfilling his destiny. It seemed to glow with an inner light, a light that illuminated Mulgrew’s face with terrible purpose. Lit from below, his smile stretched its shadow to eerie, inhuman proportions. His hands shook.
“Michael, the honor is now yours.” Mulgrew handed him a backpack and stepped back from the open freezer. “Dr. Nakatomi, you will be remembered in the chronicles. I thank you for your service. You are free to go.”
Disbelieving his captor’s intentions but not questioning them, Nakatomi turned to leave. He made it as far as the inner door to the refrigerated room before Mulgrew drew his gun and put a slug straight through Nakatomi’s head, back to front. He staggered a moment, his fingertips brushing against a cart laden with supplies before crashing to the ground face-down, his body half-in and half-out of the cold room. Vapor from the liquid nitrogen-cooled freezer had begun condensing along the floor and was already twisting around his legs in misty tendrils.
Michael looked up at his mentor with a mixture of shock and awe on his face. Mulgrew shrugged.
“They were too evil to live,” he said, matter-of-factly. “As are the others who work here … save you, young Master Martin.” Mulgrew said this with a fatherly pat on the young man’s shoulder, but that pride did not reach his eyes. “Your work lies ahead of you, as does ours. Gentlemen,” he turned his attention now to West, Malanan, and Strong. “Let the cleansing begin.”