IV. The Thief in the Freezer
Kacie feared that she recognized the dead man even before she could see his face. He had the hair, frame, and attire of Dr. Nakatomi; no one else who had clearance to this floor or this area of the facility remotely resembled him. She probably should have retreated, should have backed right out of that refrigerated room and called down to security or 911 or anyone. Instead, she reached out for the dead man, her biohazard suit complicating her movements, slowing her down. Her triple-gloved fingers were useless when it came to discerning any slight pulse that might still be present, but Kacie tried anyway. And though her attempts to check the man’s vital signs came to no avail, she did confirm two things:
The first was that this was definitely Dr. Nakatomi. His body had slumped toward her as she turned his head and now his dead, confused expression looked past her masks and goggles and into her eyes, asking simply, Why? The other thing she confirmed is that someone else was in the freezer room beyond Nakatomi’s body, a thought that had not occurred to her and would not have at all if she hadn’t caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. The same rushing air that drowned out any sounds outside of her suit also covered up her own laborious movements. But when she looked past Nakatomi’s body through the open doorway, the thief in the freezer turned toward her.
Kacie was just as surprised to see Michael Martin standing before her as he was. He wore long blue gloves up to his elbows and had a fist full of lethal vials of federally controlled BSL-4 level pathogen rootstocks. They stood there frozen for a moment, Michael wide-eyed and breath steaming, Kacie equally shocked but appearing twice her size as a plastic-suited monster. Questions flashed through her mind: Did Michael kill Nakatomi? If not, who did? Were they working together, or was this a crime of opportunity? How long had they planned this? More questions followed, but these were knocked aside by a voice screaming inside her head, a klaxon warning blaring Danger! and flashing red lights in front of her eyes.
She tried to pull Nakatomi’s body from the doorway. Michael, at first sensing that she was fleeing, redoubled his own efforts to stuff as many highly prized and infectious disease-causing microorganisms into his bag as he could. But then a similar warning sounded in his own mind, promising him a slow, cold death should he somehow be trapped in here.
He lunged, backpack in hand, and tried to knock Kacie backwards. In his haste, he tripped on Nakatomi’s feet as Kacie pulled the man’s body back. He sprawled face-first onto the floor and hit his elbows and chin hard, hard enough to draw a trickle of blood from the hard points of bone. In his daze, Kacie had freed Nakatomi’s body and snatched the thief’s backpack with one heavily gloved hand. She seemed to be screaming something from behind her mask, but Michael could not hear it. He regained composure at the last second and pulled back on the strap of the backpack, playing tug of war with an inflated plastic monster.
“Why?” Kacie screamed against the ever-rushing air. It did nothing other than to send a surge of strength through her limbs. But Michael, now out of his stupor and getting to his feet, was winning the contest. Pressing one clumsy boot on his shoulder, she kicked out with all her might and threw the rest of her body backwards, pulling on the backpack as she did. She collapsed onto Nakatomi’s body and Michael fell back opposite her, his head colliding with the open lid of the freezer.
Kacie struggled back to her feet, a feat in and of itself while wearing the biohazard suit. The rushing air seemed louder now. She ignored it. Kacie swung the heavy freezer door closed, but it got hung up on Nakatomi’s polished black dress shoes. Inside, Michael was on his feet, staggering a little, but steady enough to lunge for the door. Kacie kicked Nakatomi’s shoes clear and closed the door just as Michael slammed against it from inside. She leaned her entire bodyweight against it as he pressed it open from the other side. Kacie would lose this battle eventually; the freezer could not be locked due to safety issues. It could, however, be jammed shut from the outside.
Kacie toed one end of the supply cart towards her. Its wheels got hung up on the sprawled folds of Nakatomi’s jacket. She pulled it again, but it wouldn’t budge. Instead, she lifted its near edge off of the floor with one insulated foot. Michael was slamming his full bodyweight into the door, shuddering it in a desperate rhythm, but Kacie held fast. If he was shouting something at her, she couldn’t hear it.
Finally, when she felt as if she was about to pass out from exertion and adrenaline, the cart tipped over with a crash. Beakers and graduated cylinders smashed on the floor, petri plates and lids flew apart and rattled like maracas, pipet tips scattered like so much multicolored candy bursting from a piñata. With a screech of metal, Kacie dragged the cart’s edge towards her until it was firmly wedged between the freezer door and the stacks of supplies opposite it. There was an inch of separation between the cart and the door, an inch Michael tried to widen by repeatedly slamming himself against the door, but the cart held steady and did not buckle or slide.
Kacie slumped to the floor. She looked a good sight better than poor Nakatomi, his crumpled body beaten, abused, and folded at odd angles that would certainly have been a trifle uncomfortable in life. With the exception of escaping the bone-shuddering force of Michael slamming into the door, Kacie’s exhaustion left her with no desire to move despite her proximity to her boss’s dead body.
When she finally stood, she found that the reason the rushing air sounded louder than normal was because her gloves had torn at both wrists and the air supply entry port had torn from its anchor. The high-tech plastic fabric was now flapping in the ever-present breeze. Kacie held her breath instinctively, and then let it out in a slow exhale, knowing that panic would do her no good. She saw that the backpack containing the pathogens had been liberated from the would-be thief, so at least that was a win. Whether or not any of the vials had been smashed in the struggle, and whether or not Kacie herself had already inhaled any aerosolized pathogens, remained to be seen.
Kacie ran through the emergency decontamination procedure in her mind, which acted as more of a calming influence than anything else. Before making a beeline for the chemical showers, Kacie disconnected her air hose, zipped the backpack closed and shouldered it. She looped the now-hanging red coil of the air supply hose through the freezer door handle and the supply cart, knotting the two together as extra insurance against Michael’s escape. Once she exited the room and emerged in the shared BSL-4 hallway with every neuron in her brain telling her to race to the decontamination room ASAP, Kacie did the only other thing she could think of…
She pulled the fire alarm.