The alarm wailed. Flashing white lights accompanied the near-deafening sound. Dr. Phillip Shirley shuffled through the papers sprawled on the tabletop. He scanned the data, piece by piece, over and over again, searching for the answer to his mistake. None of his research implied things would go so wrong. He was supposed to reimagine modern medicine. Instead of changing the world, he ruined everything.
“Phil.” Phillip’s wife, Brenda, placed her hand on his shoulder. “It’s time to go.” Her words were calm and close to Phillip’s ear.
Phillip froze, clutching a sheet of paper to where the words formed an unreadable mass, frustration leaking from him by the sight of his trembling hands. He wasn’t angry with his wife. He was angry with himself. He couldn’t leave–not yet. Leaving meant quitting. Quitting meant finality. Phillip staked his entire career on nothing ever being final. Mistakes were never anything but hiccups—errors that slipped past eyes after eyes. He was a reputable Parasitologist. He had gone through so much to reach this point in his life. This was surely an error he could locate and fix. He just needed time. But time had never been a friend, and when Brenda spoke up, her nerves seemingly unperturbed by the chaos ensuing around them, Phillip felt the weight he’d been so desperately avoiding start to crush him. Everything became real. His mistakes couldn’t be fixed.
Why didn’t he predict the mutation? How could he be so stupid? It was elementary. It was careless. And it would cost many people their lives.
Brenda squeezed Phillip’s shoulder. “Let’s go,” she said. Phillip’s body relaxed at her touch. It always did; it always would.
When the alarm sounded, Phillip had checked his phone to see where it was triggered. The facility’s security application read HISTOLOGY: ROOM 240–second floor, opposite side of the building–though the reason for the trigger was unknown. The security application wasn’t designed to relay why; its only purpose was to tell you where.
Phillip figured it was tied to the riots and protests going on across the state ever since his experiment took a turn no one—especially him—expected. A mix of peaceful and not-so-peaceful protesters crowded the front entrance of the facility every morning, cursing at Phillip and his colleagues, even though his colleagues had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t like rioters hadn’t tried breaking in before. This was the fourth time within a month the alarm had gone off, the first three from attempts at unauthorized entry.
After staring at the papers in front of him, all with figures, notes, data tables, and charts, Phillip glanced at the picture sitting at the corner of his desk. It was him, his wife, and his daughter, Jackie. It was a simple image–the three of them standing outside the facility, smiling faces, Phillip’s arm around Brenda, his hand on Jackie’s shoulder–but it was them, and it was real. They were a happy, loving family. Phillip did it all for his family.
Jackie was diagnosed with leukemia when she was seven years old. She got weaker and sicker, and all the chemotherapy did was empty their bank account. By the time she was eleven, Jackie had relapsed twice. Phillip had dedicated his work to finding an alternative treatment after the first relapse, when Jackie was nine; the second relapse only reconfirmed Phillip’s doubt in the worldwide-accepted process.
Over six years of research and ParaSymbio was created. The biologically engineered protozoan parasites would target abnormal white blood cells and engulf them, while simultaneously strengthening the normal ones. It was FDA-approved and onto Phase IV where several hundred patients, including Jackie, would be injected with the parasites.
Philip glanced between Brenda and Jackie in the photo. Jackie looked so much like her mother, from the slightly turned-up nose to the twinkle in her eyes, and when the chemotherapy hadn’t taken her hair, it was the same shade of brown. She got her freckles and fair skin from Phillip, though when Brenda was pregnant, he hoped the baby would share his soft red hair. Once Jackie was born, that no longer mattered. One look and Phillip was in love. He vowed to be the best father he could be. The picture was taken a week after Jackie’s first injection. Sixteen years old and she could finally have the childhood she deserved.
All of that work disappeared over the span of a mutation. It was all for nothing…
Phillip closed his eyes, trying to hold onto the image of his beloved daughter. It wasn’t for nothing; it was all for her. She was healthy. She was happy. He stopped what would’ve killed her; although, Phillip couldn’t help but wonder: What if it had been her instead of Bobby?
Bobby Welding–ten years old, bed-ridden, diagnosed with fatal leukemia several months prior–was one of the several hundred patients injected during Phase IV. Having reminded Phillip of his daughter’s struggle, he injected Bobby personally. Phillip looked Bobby in the eyes and told him–promised him: “Everything will be okay now.”
It would never be okay again.
By the second week, Bobby could walk, albeit with frequent breaks as his muscles regained their strength. Bobby was unrecognizable by week four: the biggest, happiest grin, trying out for the soccer team, hardly ever becoming tired. It was an amazing sight.
It wasn’t until week seven that everything fell apart. Bobby became catatonic. He was rushed to the hospital where, upon examination, it was found that Bobby’s parasites had mutated during their replication phase. Eight hours later, still hooked up to wires connected to machines monitoring his vitals, Bobby woke up–but it wasn’t Bobby anymore.
The mutated organisms fused with the original organisms to form what scientists referred to as “Autocrat Parasites”. Bobby’s once friendly symbionts–the very things that made it so Bobby could, at last, enjoy his childhood–seized his Central Nervous System, turning him into nothing more than a shell of his former self–a means of spreading the parasites. That night, what used to be little Bobby Welding attacked his parents and a nurse before other nurses could restrain him.
ParaSymbio shut down. Corporations worked on ways to rid people’s bodies of the very thing Phillip spent years creating. What if it had been Jackie instead of Bobby?
Phillip shook the thought away, his mind desperately clinging to the image of his daughter, happy and healthy, rather than the “what if” image of her attacking others, having to be sedated–to be locked up for everyone else’s safety, like Bobby.
When he was sure Jackie’s image wouldn’t fade, Phillip nodded. Brenda was right: It was time to go. They should’ve evacuated the building already, but Phillip refused to leave his research. He spent so much of his career researching and creating these organisms. Maybe there was no way he could fix his mistake, but he couldn’t leave his work behind, even if it seemed like it had no place in the world anymore.
Phillip turned to face his wife and the first judge of his crimes. Her age shone with subtle creases at the corners of her eyes and shallow wrinkles at the middle of her forehead. Telling from the tank top under her jacket and the dirt marks on her khakis, her team must’ve been working in the field. Her hair probably started as a neat bun en route to her assignment; loose strands now dangled in her face. It wouldn’t be the work of a Geologist if it wasn’t a little messy; however, despite the dry sweat, the newly formed sunburn, and the dirt on her face, she was beautiful.
Phillip expected disappointment, even contempt. When he was met with soft, understanding eyes and a gentle smile, he remembered what his guilt tried so hard to cloud: Brenda would never offer the cruel judgement he thought he deserved. She knew he didn’t do it on purpose. His research suggested a symbiotic relationship where the host would house the parasites, and in return, the parasites would do what they were engineered to do—suppress the cancer. Dr. Phillip Shirley only ever wanted to help people. He only ever wanted to heal his daughter. Brenda knew that. How could he ever think she’d judge him?
“You’re my rock, Brenda,” Phillip said.
Brenda smiled, a contrast to Phillip’s frown. “And you’re mine,” she replied. She took his free hand and led them out of the lab, down the hall, Phillip still holding a mess of papers to his chest. Phillip’s lab was on the third floor. Following proper protocol during an evacuation, elevators were off-limits, leaving stairwells as the only routes to the ground floor. Once outside, Phillip would face protesters who mercilessly blamed him for the chaos erupting throughout the state of California. They’d throw garbage, curse his name, and chant for his resignation, even his death. When Phillip first started this experiment, he never imagined it would end like this.
The halls were empty. The last person Phillip saw was a female intern leaving a neighboring lab, heading toward the stairwell not long after the alarm first sounded. Phillip hadn’t seen anyone since.
“When we get outside, Phil,” Brenda began, “whatever’s out there, remember not to feed the trolls.” The lulls in the alarm allowed minimal conversation, the brief silence peaceful, until the alarm wailed again.
Phillip looked at Brenda, catching a glimpse of her sly glance following the joke. He smiled. The joke reminded him of Jackie, the sole motivation for his project. It was the advice he expected her to take when dealing with bullies–people who didn’t want to understand her condition. Then again, it’s always easier to tell others how to handle things.
Phillip wondered if he could ever apply his advice to his life. He wasn’t dealing with children bullying him because they didn’t like his shoes or thought he was a nerd for wearing glasses. He was dealing with adults–some of whom were other reputable scientists–judging him not for a simple error in his research but for an unpredictable phenomenon. Phillip’s mistake cost a little boy his consciousness and his parents’ trust in medical discovery. It was Phillip’s fault the state of California was in an uproar. Hundreds of residents were “infected” with the “things” that turned Bobby Welding into a “maniac”, and people were terrified it would happen again.
Phillip and Brenda turned right when they hit a T-junction. As they continued down the hall, Phillip spotted a piece of paper on the floor. One became two became a stream, until they traveled over a pile. He peered down the corridor, raising an eyebrow at the line of wide-open doors. Even the alarm, having masked every sound, left a cold, paralyzing stillness that prickled Phillip’s nerves. He turned to his wife, ready to discuss the peculiar observations. Brenda wasn’t beside him. Twisting around, Phillip was met with Brenda’s pale, horrified expression. Confused fear struck him. His eyes followed her fixed gaze.
He dropped his research to the floor. “Good God…”
Blood trailed across the long rectangular windows framing the entrance to the third floor Botany Lab. Beyond those windows, a ravaged workspace of turned-over tables and tossed chairs, broken glass and fallen file cabinets. Paper littered everywhere. And blood–there was so much blood.
Brenda wrapped her arm under Phillip’s. She might have said something. She could’ve said anything. All Phillip could hear was the alarm. All he could see was the destruction in front of him. All he could feel was the panic creeping into his chest, beating his heart against his ribs.
Phillip looked down the hall the way they came, then directed his gaze the way they were going. Nothing indicated anyone was still around, but they couldn’t just stand there, gawking. They needed to move. Phillip began to walk, unintentionally pulling his wife along with him. He reached into his lab coat pocket to retrieve his cell phone. With each passing moment, the real cause for the alarm became apparent, and Phillip could hardly stomach it.
“Where are we going?” Brenda shouted.
Phillip strode down the hall, fiddling with his phone, inwardly trying to discredit his horrible assumption. The blood-stained walls didn’t help. “Same as before,” he shouted back, “only faster.” The phone wouldn’t turn on. He stuffed it back into his pocket, waiting for a drop in the alarm to say, “Let me see your phone.”
Brenda pulled her phone out and handed it to Phillip. “What’s going on?”
Phillip said nothing. Admitting he had no idea what was happening would make his powerlessness feel too real. He had to focus on getting help and getting out.
He dialed 911 and brought the phone to his ear. A high-pitched beep answered. “All dispatchers are busy handling other emergency calls at this time. Please do not hang up.” Phillip hung up and re-dialed. The automated message replayed. Phillip hung up again, cursing under his breath, discarding the phone in his coat pocket. The alarm should’ve notified the authorities immediately. This should’ve been handled, yet the alarm was still screaming, and it seemed as if Phillip and Brenda were the only people around.
Phillip guided Brenda past lab after lab. The carnage followed, and Phillip’s assumption rang truer. Folders and loose papers strewn the floor. Handprints stamped the walls in blood. Trails of red led through doorways to the rooms beyond. They stared in horror, but neither investigated; the implication was enough for the both of them.
As they approached the third floor Pathology Lab–the last room before the stairwell–Phillip stopped at a puddle of something in the middle of the hall. It was a mixture of brown and red, and it smelled awful.
Brenda stepped out from behind Phillip, slapping a hand over her nose and mouth.
At a drop in the alarm, like a carrying whisper, Phillip heard a groan. He shot a look at the Pathology Lab’s door. It was ajar.
“Did you hear that?” Phillip turned his ear to the door. “I think someone’s in there.” He reached for the doorknob, only for Brenda to yank him back.
Brenda shook her head, her eyes wide, her face pale.
Phillip gave her a wounded look, stealing glimpses at the Pathology Lab. “There’s someone in there,” he said, barely audible over the alarm.
Regardless if Brenda actually heard him, or it was just a coincidence, she shouted, “The alarm is playing tricks on you!” She tugged his arm. “We need to leave!”
If Phillip was right, and it appeared he was, then a biohazard was loose within the facility. He couldn’t walk away knowing someone needed help. “We can’t leave them!” He pulled himself free and went for the door, sliding through the opening, disappearing into the room.
The flashing white lights slashed through the darkness, the guttural cry of the alarm begging something to sneak up behind you. Phillip fumbled for the light switch. The ceiling bulbs flickered on, illuminating a seemingly empty lab. Other than a computer chair pushed too far from its desk and a few pieces of paper on the floor, the room was tidy—or as tidy as a research lab can be. There were slides and cultures at stations, even a pair of glasses had been left sitting next to one of the microscopes.
“Hello?” Phillip called out. “Is anyone there?” A headache formed behind his eyes. It was faint, but it was there. He was growing tired of having to compete with the alarm. The authorities should’ve arrived a long time ago; the alarm had been on for well over an hour. If the authorities arrived, they would’ve shut the alarm off. Why hadn’t they come?
Phillip hated pondering “what if” scenarios, though science birthed discoveries based on such things. His mind wasn’t buzzing with ideas; it buzzed with fear and worry, and those “what ifs” weren’t making discoveries. They created nightmarish scenarios involving every horror movie trope Phillip had ever seen.
With every bit of strength, he pushed the obscene thoughts away, walking deeper into the lab, past abandoned research and data, past equipment left in the middle of use. Nothing indicated anyone was still around. Maybe Brenda was right. Maybe the alarm was playing tricks on him. Nobody was there. And Phillip was wasting time.
As Phillip turned, ready to leave, there was another groan. It was louder, clearer, closer. Phillip whipped back around, continuing his search, his eyes scanning the lab. He halted at the sight of a foot sticking out from behind a desk. The foot flinched.
“Hello?” Phillip called out.
The foot retracted, and the person rose. The man stood with a slight hunch in his back, his eyes glazed, his jaw slacked. His short gray hair was wild and his skin was pale. Dr. Stanley Pearce, Senior Pathologist. He and Phillip had worked together for years.
The tear in Stanley’s coat sleeve caught Phillip’s eye. The material was drenched in red. “Stanley?” Phillip’s eyes darted between the wound and Stanley’s face. “Stanley, are you okay?”
Stanley wobbled before finding some sort of balance. He said nothing, staring at Phillip with a dazed expression as he stumbled drunkenly around the desk.
A chill straightened Phillip’s spine—a chill that demanded he turn and run. His racing heart and trembling knees agreed. “Stanley.” Phillip’s voice quavered. “Please talk to me.”
Stanley stopped at the front of the table. When he went to speak, he doubled over, wrapping his arms around himself. Vomit poured from his mouth. He retched and retched, the viscous liquid splattering on the linoleum.
Phillip stepped back. As he watched his colleague vomit, an awful thought bled into his mind, threatening to rise the more he forced it away. There was a biohazard loose in the facility. There was no doubt about it…but its origin…Phillip shook the absurd thought away. It was impossible.
Stanley adjusted himself, his movements slow and crooked, until his gaze settled on Phillip. His eyes were no longer glazed but fixed with an intense focus.
The air in the room thickened. Phillip’s heart beat faster, his knees threatening to give way at any moment. His intuition burned with a single command: run.
Phillip put up his hands in surrender as he slowly backed away. Stanley matched those steps, going forward, rolling his shoulders, cocking his head from side to side. “Stanley,” Phillip said, “whatever’s going on, you don’t—” Phillip smacked into the corner of a table. He hissed, grasping at his hip.
Stanley kept coming, unfazed by Phillip’s words, more interested in his movements. He cornered Phillip against the table, towering over him.
Like a child, Phillip trembled in fear as his colleague’s bloodshot eyes picked him apart. He could smell the vomit on Stanley’s breath, the acidic aroma churning his gut.
Stanley licked his lips, then opened his mouth. His tongue glided across his upper teeth, saliva dribbling down his chin.
As Phillip fought the urge to yell, that awful thought sank deeper, rooting itself, until it was the only possible answer. It didn’t make any sense, and Phillip prayed he was wrong…
“Hey!” Brenda’s voice was half horror, half confused, but it cut through the alarm loud enough that Stanley shot her a look. He growled a gargled noise that made Phillip’s skin crawl.
Taking the opportunity with haste, Phillip drove his knee between Stanley’s thighs. The Pathologist howled, and when he stumbled back, Phillip maneuvered around the table and fled. He grabbed his wife’s hand, yanking her along. Brenda slammed the door behind them.
The pair hurried to the stairwell. Brenda shouted for Phillip to tell her what happened, but Phillip didn’t answer.
What he inferred wasn’t sensical, was it? No. It couldn’t be. And yet…
Dr. Stanley Pearce’s symptoms were comparable to Bobby’s symptoms: strange behavior, unresponsive, hyperfixation, burst blood vessels in the sclera, vomiting…There was no denying it. It was unmistakable. And it hardened Phillip’s stomach like a rock.
He didn’t know how, but what happened to Bobby was happening to his colleagues.
Read the rest of Symbiosis: The Beginning, parts 3-7, on Neovel.
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