Kacie had the sense that as soon as she stepped out into the hallway, the gunman’s pals would be on her immediately. And they might have if she hadn’t overheard their radio transmission echoing through the otherwise quiet hallways. They were coming for her; that much was clear. As Kacie glanced down the wide, empty corridors that ran away from her to the south and to the east, promising no sanctuary, she also noticed the cameras positioned at regular intervals along the ceiling. There was no doubt in her mind that these guys, whoever they were, had taken over the security room and now had eyes all over the facility … but there was one place in Black C.A.S.T.L.E. that even security was blind to.
Kacie made a mad dash down the hall going back the way she came. She could hear bootsteps approaching and, even though they seemed to thunder ever louder in her mind, she pushed herself to run towards them. Kacie ducked into the facility’s locker room just as the shadow of a man appeared on the floor of the hallway’s intersection ahead of her. She closed the door as quietly as she could. Even though there were no cameras in here, it would be obvious to whomever was watching from security that she’d hidden out in this room, this too-small room with no hiding places and no way out except the way she’d come in. The only other option was to go back into the BSL-4. That decision risked infection and contamination but only offered a slightly larger box for her to trap herself in. Unless…
Kacie’s eyes flicked to the linen carts that had acted as the Trojan horses for the gunmen. Maybe they could help her, too. Her eyes traveled up to the ceiling to where a run of rectangular ductwork was bracketed to a wall. Each of these ducts traveled up to the floor above and through the facility’s HEPA filtration system, and each of them had their own dedicated vent to prevent cross-contamination. Kacie knew that much from her training, but, with good reason, the training had never covered whether or not one of these ducts could handle the weight of someone climbing through them. It’d be a tight fit even for someone as slight as she was. On the plus side, if she could make it through the ducts, no one would be able to follow her.
With no way to lock the door behind her, Kacie tried to wedge one of the linen carts against it; the cart wouldn’t do more than temporarily frustrate the gunmen, but she’d take every second she could get. She pulled open the door to the BSL-4 to make it look like she’d continued on the obvious path, hopefully buying time with the decoy. Then, she positioned the other linen cart beneath the vent of the ductwork, turned the cart on its side, and climbed up on it. Luckily, the vent covers were of the variety that had no screws–a request of the maintenance folks who had to service them, she was sure–and so Kacie was able to pull the cover off with ease. She unshouldered her backpack and stuffed the vent cover in so as not to be an obvious breadcrumb on her path. Kacie then shoved the backpack into the vent ahead of her.
The moment of truth came. Kacie reached into the vent as far as she could and pressed against its sides to give herself the leverage to pull the rest of her body in. Her head cleared the opening, followed quickly by her shoulders. Once she got her stomach over the vent’s edge, she kicked against the wall for support as her feet left the cart below. It was noisy work. The duct threatened to wrench free from its brackets with every lurch forward she made, but before long she was fully encased in a rectangle of aluminum, as if some sort of metal snake was swallowing its prey whole.
Moving through the duct wasn’t easy, but it was easier than getting into it in the first place. She pushed the backpack forward as far as her arms would reach, and then wriggled forward until she was pressed up against it. In this fashion, she reached the 90-degree turn where the duct ran straight up into the HEPA filters on the floor above them. The air rushed over her and set her clothes fluttering, the sweat from her exertion drying as the cool breeze flowed over her skin. The hard part was about to come, but before it did, Kacie heard the sound of the overturned linen cart scraping across the locker room floor as the gunmen entered. She held her breath. Any buckling of the aluminum now would give away her position.
A burst of static sounded from one of the men’s radios, followed by a question from whoever was on the other end of it.
“Do you have our hero?”
“There’s no one here, but the other door is open,” said one of the gunmen in the room below her. She was separated from them by only a few feet of open air and a couple millimeters of aluminum.
“That leads to the labs. Be careful.”
Kacie waited, sure that her thundering heart would give her away, but all was silent now. She hoped the two men had gone on a wild goose chase through the labs. For her, there were now two decisions: go back the way she’d come and hope that she could escape before the eye in the sky could give away her position again, or soldier onwards and upwards. She chose the latter.
After a grueling climb in which her slung backpack kept getting hung up on the ductwork’s partitions and her feet kept slipping off of the few fasteners that offered tenuous footholds along the way, Kacie punched her way out of another vent cover on the floor above. She half-crawled out of it and allowed herself to fall to the floor since it was only a foot or so beneath the vent. Here, the ductwork passed into the HEPA filtration unit; the rush of air was the loudest she’d ever heard it. She could probably pound away on the aluminum duct and no one would hear her. Instead, she found herself pacing, restlessly, trying to think of a way out.
She found the only door on this level–a maintenance door–locked. The rest of the space was occupied by HEPA units and tanks of deionized water, along with the facility’s air conditioning units, back-up generators and air compressors. She’d only been in this area of the facility once before during a tour given while Black C.A.S.T.L.E. was still under construction. That had been the first time Kacie truly appreciated the amount of engineering that went into this place. Sure, the labs were state of the art, from the way they routed potentially contaminated air through a series of filters before neutralizing any remaining impurities and venting the cleaned air, or the way every water pipe was outfitted with sensors to alert maintenance in case of a breach.
But there were contingencies against outbreaks that she’d never even dreamed of: areas of negative pressure were positioned in such a way to prevent any possible contamination of any given room from spreading to others, almost like the way the “Titanic” was supposedly unsinkable due to the chambers that could be sealed off; Kacie thought briefly about how well that plan worked out. Or there was the fact that the BSL-4 itself was a “box within a box”, a chamber suspended within the larger structure of Black C.A.S.T.L.E. so that, in case of an earthquake or monumental explosion, the lab could resonate independently from the rest of the building, and vice versa. The demarcation between these two boxes was actually marked with a bright yellow line since the foot-wide separation was a definite trip-and-fall hazard.
The line on the floor gave Kacie another idea. This level covered the same amount of space as the BSL-4 and its surrounding offices, but there were no walls in between the rooms or locked doors blocking her way; Kacie could move freely up here. She studied the floor again and then following the ductwork. An engineering friend of hers by the name of John Heller used to drive her crazy by tracing conduit in any exposed ceilings they’d come across in school. Now, she silently thanked him for that peculiarity.
With her own knowledge of the floor below her and using the conduit and ductwork as a rudimentary map, Kacie found herself standing above her lab’s office suite. It was tough to pinpoint just where she was without any real waypoints, but at least the rushing ventilation was quieter here since the office air did not require intense HEPA filtration. And because it was relatively quiet, Kacie could hear a voice through one of the vents … a mad, excited, and frenzied voice.
She moved from one vent to the next, putting her ear against each to find where the volume of the voice was the loudest. Something about that voice made a connection in her mind: whoever he was, he wasn’t someone who worked for Black C.A.S.T.L.E., and he wasn’t talking just to hear himself talk … he had an audience.
Kacie pulled out her phone and hoped it would get reception in this strange attic space stuffed full of running equipment. She thought of Rick and his propensity to work late and suddenly found herself hoping he’d called it quits before everything went down. She doubted he had. Kacie pulled up her contacts and texted him simply, “Are you safe?”
A minute passed. Kacie wasn’t sure if the text had even gone through, if Rick simply didn’t get it, or if he had but was in no condition to respond. Then her phone buzzed with his reply.
She had no clue what she was going to do next until she did it. She pulled the vent cover from the duct that seemed to lead nearest to the mad speaker below.
Kacie texted, “Get ready.” After a minute, she climbed into the duct and dropped 15 feet straight down.