V. Ahead of Schedule
Every floor in Black C.A.S.T.L.E., from the top-most level packed with HEPA filtration equipment and deionized water supply for the BSL-4, to the bottom-most basement level housing the facility’s backup generators, water-treatment tanks, and forgotten equipment stored away in dark and dusty corners, burst into a dazzling display of light and sound. Strobe lights meant to point the way toward exits and catch the attention of the hard of hearing now threatened to blind onlookers, each of whom experienced a brief but unvoiced concern regarding epileptic seizures. The blaring, repetitive blast from each and every one of the facility’s redundant horns grabbed hold of any individual in the vicinity who was still blessed with hearing, but it left them covering their ears for fear of losing that ability.
All in all, only a handful of people were left in the building to hear the fire alarm. A lucky few on the lower floors took it as their cue to pack up for the night and look forward to enjoying their weekend. For others, like Rick Benes, it was a nuisance that made an already long night ahead of him even longer. For Stan Kijek, the fire alarm was another sign that the plan was in danger of coming off the rails.
“A little ahead of schedule, fellas,” he muttered across the top of his coffee cup. Stan watched as the control panel lit up in front of him. Its own version of the fire alarm was much more subdued than the cacophony in the hallway. Out there, it was all about herding sheep through the chaos; in the control room, it was about alerting someone to the danger in a calm but persistent manner. A column of amber lights flashed insistently on the control panel and a sharp but relatively pleasant beep accompanied them in sync.
Stan sipped his coffee. He’d let the alarm go on a bit longer, long enough to ensure that the proper authorities would follow protocol. That was part of the plan, after all.
He smacked his lips–Hot damn, this is some decent coffee–and watched on the security cameras as Mulgrew and the others moved ahead with the next part of their plan.
“Who jumped the gun?” Strong asked Malanan as quietly as he could with the alarm going off. They were in the BSL-4 office’s large conference room. At one end stood a trio of video monitors used for teleconferencing and presentations, at the other end stood Malanan and Strong, guns drawn, making sure no one would come in or go out of the room’s only door.
“My guess…” Malanan nodded toward West who was standing just behind the right hip of his mentor. West’s gun was holstered in his waistband, but the young man had a jittery quality to him that threatened to shake it loose with his ceaseless movements. “Kid can’t sit still, probably got jumpy. Doesn’t matter now, the gang’s all here.”
Taking up the better part of the conference room’s space was a long table that could have comfortably seated 20 people. At the moment, it only seated six. Two, a young man and woman, had been rounded up by West without incident; the young man, whose broad chest managed to fill out the otherwise unflattering lab coat, was careful to put himself between West’s gun and his co-worker, a tall, slender woman with straight black hair. Another pair had been shouting conversationally over the blaring fire alarm in the hallway when Strong had ushered them into the conference room with the sweep of his gun barrel. And a lanky male scientist had had his rather large nose pressed up against the computer screen at his desk when Malanan had hauled him out of his chair by the shirt collar. That’s when the sixth and final stray had come out from behind a tall cubicle wall covered in movie paraphernalia and clocked Malanan in the jaw. He’d been hit by stronger punches, but not many. He gave the good Samaritan a crack across the bridge of his nose with the butt of his gun for good measure; things quieted down after that.
“Thank you all for joining us here today!” Mulgrew shouted over the alarm. He had taken up a standing position at the head of the table. The six hostages, for hostages they now were, were seated together at the far end. “You heathens have been granted a wonderful opportunity!” Mulgrew’s voice strained into its higher register as he forced it to compete with the blaring siren. “You will bear witness to the dawning of a new age! You will be among the first to watch the old, corrupt, and sacrilegious era turn to dust and blow away! And you have been granted this gift by divine providence and by your own wicked designs!”
Mulgrew broke into a fever sweat. Beads of perspiration gathered at his hairline and glistened there. Dark patches bloomed under his outstretched arms and a delta of sweat-darkened fabric formed in the hollow of his chest. At his right hand, West twitched his fingers and counced upon the tips of his toes. Their moment was upon them … if only that blasted alarm would let them enjoy it! Mulgrew turned back towards Malanan and Strong. The overhead fluorescent lighting cast a sheen upon his face, catching every extreme angle of his features, heightening his apparent madness.
“Gentlemen, if you could please do something about this noise…”
Malanan picked up his radio.
Despite a couple of fuck-ups, Stan was happy with the way the plan had held together so far. There were contingencies, of course, but they hadn’t needed them yet. What wasn’t part of the plan, however, was a lone figure moving through the BSL-4 hallways, one that Stan could see from his position as Eye in the Sky. He drew a breath in through his teeth.
Stan leaned forward and pulled up the BSL-4 feed. He made it full-screen. Someone had been unaccounted for … someone in a hazmat suit. That same someone likely pulled the alarm, and while it had been part of the plan, that was just coincidence; the next thing they did might very well tank the whole operation. It was time to put one of those contingencies into motion.
Just as Stan reached for his radio, it gave a burst of static. Malanan was already calling from his end. It sounded like Mulgrew was bitching about the alarm.
“10-4. Stand by.”
Stan double-checked the stopwatch on his phone, the one he’d started running soon after the fire alarm was triggered. Roughly 10 minutes had passed; more than enough time to ensure the reds and blues were on their way from the outside. For any other office building, a fire alarm might just result in a phone call from the authorities to assess the situation and, hopefully, avoid responding to a false alarm. Legislators and investors would not take that same risk with Black C.A.S.T.L.E., not when lethal pathogens were only a few security checks away from being loosed upon the world at any given moment; the PR nightmare alone would be enough to dry up R&D funding and complicate the already intractable legal landscape. An alarm had been triggered, the response would be swift. Stan could shut off the alarm with confidence in that if nothing else.
He inserted his master key into the override port in the main control panel and shut off all of the alarms at once. As a safeguard, all elevators had been locked down and Stan liked it that way. It fit neatly into his plan. But with a loose cannon roaming about the facility, it would be difficult for the team to track him down if he had unfettered access to the whole building.
Stan silently praised the paranoia–and the money–that came with anti-terrorism security measures. He triggered remote control locks on every door in the facility that was outfitted with them, shutting down access to stairwells, office suites, labs, and every entrance to and exit from the building. This was his maze now and he’d grant access to whomever he damn well pleased.
Stan clicked his radio. “Alarm’s off, and the plan’s still on, but there’s a rogue loose in the BSL-4. Send someone to take care of him, pronto.”
Malanan copied and set about the task at hand. Stan repositioned himself in his never-quite-comfortable chair and prepared himself for possible fireworks.
“West,” Malanan said, just loud enough to carry over the last bark of the fire alarm before it went silent. The nervous disciple practically snapped his own neck with the speed with which he whipped his head around. Malanan simply gestured for him to join him and Strong with a nod of his head. West spared a quick glance to his mentor, who was revving back up into full oratory mode now that the alarm had been silenced, and sidled up to the other gunmen, warily.
“It seems we have a problem. Someone in a hazmat suit is playing hero in the hallway; they probably pulled the alarm early. We need them neutralized, one way,” Malanan nodded toward the gathered scientists weathering the storm of Mulgrew’s mounting speech, “or another.” This time, Malanan’s eyes focused on the gun holstered in the young man’s waistband.
“Are you sure you don’t want me–” Strong started, but Malanan cut across him.
“It’s time for Mr. West here to show his steel. Are you up to it?”
West eyed the two of them, his footing unsteady all of a sudden, but their eyes never wavered so he wouldn’t let his. Behind them, Mulgrew’s words crackled with electricity. West felt them coursing through the air, through his veins.
“We have been living in an age of madness, but no more! The dark horizon slips behind us and we, we alone, rise to meet the dawning of a new and glorious day. You’ll not see much of it, but more will be revealed to you than most. Take heart, disciples! Your blood shall seal the covenant of the new era!”
West took this last statement to his very core, as if it had been meant for him and him alone. He gave a nod to Malanan and Strong, gripped his gun, and turned to find the would-be despoiler. The last thing he heard before the office door closed behind him was his mentor preparing to give his message to a broader audience.
“Now, if you would kindly take out your phones…”
This was the moment Mulgrew had been preparing West for since the day they’d met. West could feel his sense of purpose shifting, growing, with each step forward. This day would be remembered for generations to come, and West’s part in it–subduing the rogue defiler, corralling the lost sheep, bringing a worthy sacrifice to the First Horseman–would be remarked and rewarded, most assuredly.
West had been a freshman in college. He’d been enrolled for a short enough period of time that he still possessed a hopeful optimism about his future, but long enough to already feel marginalized by his fellow students and a less-than-supportive faculty. His behavior, which he thought rather normal–keeping to himself, eyes always in a book rather than a phone screen, ready to talk philosophy and the problems with authority at the slightest urging–never jibed with his roommates, classmates, or schoolmates at large. His dress–faded black everything–drew sideways glances, because it was all well-worn hand-me-downs or because it was the same attire day in, day out, or something else entirely, West didn’t know.
What he did know was that, on the day he heard Mulgrew speaking about the hypocrisy of the government, the dangers of the scientific elite, and the vacuous nature of celebrity while standing in the center of a stone circle in a park on the campus’ fringe, Wesley West had found a voice that spoke in harmony with his own. He’d returned to that obscure meeting place day after day, skipping classes and sometimes meals, in the hopes of hearing Dennis Mulgrew speak once more. It wasn’t long before West fell into the practice of reading and re-reading and repeating Mulgrew’s monologues aloud each night until he was delirious with lack of sleep and the promising power of these stolen words. When West began preaching Mulgrew’s words on his own time, in his own way, imagine his surprise when Mulgrew himself appeared, not to scold Wesley, but to welcome him into the fold. Trust followed soon after; then came the secrets.
And now Wesley West was tasked with perhaps the greatest mission yet: to neutralize the interloper before all their well-rehearsed plans could be ruined. It was the most responsibility West had had in his short life. He had no intentions of letting his mentor down.
A flash of shiny blue fabric caught his eye. Before its wearer could disappear around the corner, West drew his gun and blasted away like a wild man. Two slugs buried themselves in the wall opposite the corridor from the hazmat suit and another ricocheted off the wall nearest West himself, but a lucky shot punched its way clean through the target.
“Guess you’re not bulletproof, ay doc?” Wesley said to himself as he closed in on his kill.