So, after a very goddamned long time, I am writing fiction again. I threw this together so I’d have some place to post my piece for Chuck’s flash fiction challenge as my social media presence is basically only twitter. Linky link here.
My random numbers were 12 (vampire) and 18 (medical thriller). I ended up at 1500 words precisely, and didn’t have time to do much editing. God, I hope this isn’t completely terrible.
Jessica Warren buttoned her jacket as she stood to greet the stuffed suit tricked into begging her to work for—shit, where was she today? Velis Corp? Proxima Labs? She caught a glimpse of the suit’s key card—Catalyst Biological Systems. Right, youth regeneration drugs. Her list of possibilities was growing smaller at an alarming rate.
“Ms. Warren, we are so glad you accepted our invitation. We could use a mind of your caliber here…” As the suit droned on, Jessica let his voice fade into white noise. This introductory pablum was never informative, just a perfunctory performance to sweeten her view of the firm or the lab or the job. Her eyes swept from open door to open door, silently cataloguing what she could see and filing notice of what she could not.
She stuttered a step as her companion stopped to gesture her through another open door. He pretended not to have noticed, keeping up constant conversation as he crossed to the far side of the room to pour two glasses of water, dropping a wedge of lemon precisely in each, solicitous to a fault. Jessica forced herself to focus. Jessica Warren was a scientist. Jessica Warren specialized in synthetic bacteria. Jessica Warren was here to press any goddamn opening she could find to get to the information she was optimistically sent here to collect.
The suit began his interview like all the others, with the same tired questions. Jessica responded with the same rote answers she memorized long ago. She had been so engaged at the genesis of her appointment to the Trust, but now she was just sliding through. Months of chasing rumors and half truths whispered in the back rows of conference presentations and grasping at barely plausible hints in journal articles saw her desperate to get her hands on a concrete lead. Or hell, any indication at all this wasn’t a never-ending wild goose chase. Maybe she should call the office tomorrow and get a few days off; these endless meetings were blurring into a muddy nothingness.
A cautious note crept into the suit’s voice, and Jessica snapped back to attention. This was the first time in one of these interviews she had heard palpable hesitancy. She leaned forward slightly and tried to project an air of ethical curiosity.
“Essentially, we need a new perspective on our particular…issue. Your work for the CDC combating biological accelerants was of specific interest to our board.” He cleared his throat, squared the corners of the stack of paper on the table with his fingertips. Jessica didn’t miss the slight tremor of his hands. “Rejuvestine has been an absolute success, Catalyst’s flagship, it has made certain people significantly wealthy, but we are seeing a troubling increase in outbreaks of black and whites.”
“Black and whites?” She arched a brow, not exactly feigning a professional interest. He stared quietly at the tabletop, and gave a tiny sigh of resolution. Pressing his lips together, he met her eyes for a long moment.
“I should wait until you sign the NDA, but frankly we’re desperate.” He stood abruptly and strode to the door without pushing his chair under the table. “Please come with me. I want to show you the extent of what we’re facing.”
Jessica followed him down the hallway then through a door, and then another long hallway with a door he used his card to open, which lead to yet another nondescript hallway. They passed through door after door with increasingly invasive locks until the suit signaled her to stop. “This lock is a bit more robust.” He pointed as he spoke. “Retinal scanner, weight pad, retinal scanner, DNA confirmation. Wait until I’ve crossed before you start.”
She watched him clear each step, willing herself to not show her discomfort when the security guard handed him a bandaid for his bleeding fingertip as he crossed the marker. He straightened his suit, now slightly less crisp, and motioned her forward. It’s nothing, Jessica Warren, she said to herself. They can’t possibly have your DNA on file. Calm down, you idiot. Still, her joints felt a little wobbly when the guard asked for her details to put in his register.
“I’m sorry for all the cloak and dagger, but this cannot get out. Jesus Christ, it would be chaos.”
He hurried her into a protective coverall, giving her cheap sneakers to wear instead of her heels, helping her snap the hood into the collar. The practiced motions he used to get into his own coveralls gave her pause. Certainly he had spent not an insignificant amount of time changing into protective gear. Her pulse ticked up a bit.
The airlock opened into a large dim laboratory with many smaller rooms opening off the three other walls, each door flanked with large glass panels for observation. These rooms were all dark. “Ms. Warren, how much do you know about Rejuvestine?”
She bent her knees to get a better look at some of the equipment littering the lab table nearest her. “I know what’s in your official literature, and maybe a little more than that through word of mouth. I understand it works by flooding the skin’s lipid layer with moisture and stimulating cell development.”
“That’s more or less it, though clearly a bit more complicated. Unfortunately, some patients displayed an adverse reaction, an aggressive leaching of moisture from the skin that results in restricted blood flow.” Jessica straightened, alert. “This has resulted in necrosis of the mucous membranes and the surrounding skin, usually in a linear pattern. It also appears to affect melanocytes, hence: black and whites.”
The suit walked to a panel of switches on the wall. “The afflicted are particularly sensitive to light, since their eyelids are essentially gone. We’ve observed they sleep only in micro-naps. The current hypothesis is the lack of sleep and dehydration are fueling their delusional states.” He looked at her then, hand resting on the light switches. “We found them mostly at hospitals in the area, barely coherent, ranting that only more blood would help them recover, that only blood could cure their thirst. They deteriorated rapidly after the onset of delirium.”
“So they’re severely dehydrated and delusional? Not actually ill?” She felt a pang of disappointment. Looking at the pile of research on the counter, she started mentally cataloguing the few places she had left to try.
“Rejuvestine is not a drug exactly. It’s a benign self-replicating synthetic bacteria suspended in a gelling agent.”
Jessica’s breath went in a whoosh, and she sank heavily on a stool. “Oh, god. Is it communicable?” She snatched her hand away from an uncovered petri dish full of goo, and rubbed it against her leg, feeling unclean.
“It seems to transmit through bodily fluids, a lot like HIV.” She looked at him wide-eyed, a little lightheaded from the rush of being this close to her goal, and a little afraid of what would come next. “I’m going to show you what the afflicted look like now. It’s…well, not pretty.”
The lights flickered on in three of the rooms, and suddenly leering faces pressed close to the glass. They weren’t not pretty so much as utterly inhuman. All the pigment had leeched from their skin, and necrotic tissue sketched lines across their faces, black slashes where their eyes and nose and mouth had been. Their eyeballs had shrunk, the sclera no longer visible, pupils stretching to become nearly the entire eye. The worst of it was the way their lips had been eaten away, leaving teeth exposed in a rictus grin, shriveled tongues darting out as they hissed for Jessica to come closer.
Ignoring the bile rising in her throat, she peered at the afflicted in horrified fascination. “How do you keep them alive? Can they eat? Do they drink?”
The suit radiated palpable hesitation again. “The only thing they seem to tolerate is blood. And we can’t actually kill them. The bacteria replicate faster than we can eradicate it, and rebuild whatever structure it’s replaced in them. We cut them apart, poison them, burn them, nothing works. The means we have aren’t working. Which is why we’ve brought you here.”
She closed her eyes, gripping the table edge. Was this actually it? She breathed deeply. Jessica Warren was a scientist. Jessica Warren specialized in synthetic bacteria. Jessica Warren stretched her hand back for the baton. “So, if I am understanding you correctly, you want to hire me to develop an antibiotic for…vampirism?”
“Yes. And very, very quickly.”
She pulled out her phone. “I’ll call my boss and give notice. I can start immediately, if you’re amenable.”
The suit looked relieved. Grateful. “Let’s get you set up.”
Jessica Warren pulled the sword from the goddamn stone, the grail from the grave. Jessica Warren completed the quest. Jessica Warren was not her real name.
Jessica Warren was a covert agent of the Trust. Jessica Warren called her boss, and gave her notice.