11 Months and 2 Weeks Ago
The government lab was pretty damn impressive as far as Jill was concerned. From the high-tech equipment to the dedication of the research team, she had to say that she was impressed and she’d only started consulting there two days ago - if it could really be called that. She’d never felt more out of her depth.
The morning usually started with a pep talk from Fred about the importance of stopping the virus. Then he would bugger off, leaving her with a sense of impending doom. Greg, who’d been assigned to keep an eye on her for the first day, told her that the pep talks had begun shortly after their first researcher died in the line of duty. Fred’s speeches somehow seemed to motivate everyone else, which was probably why he had his PR-oriented job. Personally however, Jill would’ve preferred to skip them but this morning was no different from any other.
“Good morning!” Fred chirped, taking his usual position at the front door, his body strategically blocking their only exit. “You’ve probably all read in the news about the latest outbreak and the resulting attacks. This problem isn’t about to go away people! We’re not being funded for nothing and I would like to see results, results, results!” Fred cried, slapping a fist into his palm for emphasis.
Greg, whose workspace was just across from Jill’s, looked up at him wearily. Jill wondered how any of the team had the energy to listen to Fred; she’d seen so many of them work all-nighters. This job was life-consuming and all this man seemed to do was waste time talking at them. She was glad that she was merely a consultant with a licence to do her own thing, provided that it was useful.
“And I’m not the only person who wants to see these results! We have a brilliant team here so let’s get down to business! It’s us or the virus.”
Jill wasn’t even sure if that last sentence made sense but Fred was out of the door before she could question his rhetoric.
She cast Greg a sympathetic glance and he smiled back at her before she returned her gaze to the glaring monitor before her.
She’d spent the past couple of days collecting and combining any data she could gather about the infected individuals’ routines. So far she’d managed to produce a rather complicated diagram, which was designed to show any potential correlation between the victims. It was neatly colour-coded but Jill still felt like she was missing something. She simply couldn’t find any links between the victims.
“Greg?” she said eventually, sliding over to him in her wheelie chair.
He looked at her knowingly.
“You want to go down to the observation cells again?” he said.
She picked up his glasses from the desk and handed them to him.
“Please? You know I like it no more than you do.”
Greg sighed and nodded, putting his glasses back on.
He picked up his laptop and tucked it under one arm. Then he proceeded to unlock his desk drawer and grab a slip of paper from its depths.
Jill followed him to the door that Fred had left through. They entered the corridor, turned the corner and began the trek downstairs.
Jill hated the observation cells with a passion that she could tell Greg shared. Some of the other researchers had spent hours down there with the creatures in order to study them but the very thought of being alone with them was something she could not stand, even though there was no risk of the creatures escaping.
They came to the large iron gate at the bottom of the steps. Greg lifted the slip of paper up so he could read it in the dim lighting, before typing a series of numbers onto the keypad below. Due to various regulations, the code for what was effectively the “people enclosure” changed on a weekly basis and was decided by a random number generator. Fred would come round to lock the code into each of the researchers’ desk drawers every Monday morning. You couldn’t be too careful and Jill, due to her consultant status, always had to be accompanied in the area. She didn’t get the automatic access that the others were granted.
The gate swung open and they entered.
The observation cells set Jill on edge for a number of reasons, the most obvious one being that they existed to box up human beings as if they were animals in a zoo. Each cell was transparent and no bigger than a couple of metres in any direction. They were clinically lit with bright LEDs that made Jill’s eyes water.
Greg set his laptop down on the table in the centre of the room.
“Let me know when you want to go back upstairs,” he said.
Jill had brought only her pocket notepad and a pen with her. Steph had presented her with the notepad as a birthday present (alongside some chocolates and a well-deserved night out on the town) because of its fish-based design. At the time Jill hadn’t thought much of it but she’d quickly found it to be incredibly useful for jotting down her scientific observations and initial notes concerning various specimens. It was also comforting to still carry a piece of Steph with her.
Jill decided to observe Nick first. He was the latest addition to the cells and the biggest cause for concern, considering that he used to work in this very facility. However, because nobody had been expecting more arrivals, he had been forced into a cell with another victim. So far the parasite had yet to act against a fellow parasite host.
She cast a glance at Greg, who was staring very determinedly at his laptop screen.
Jill sat down by the edge of the enclosure. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine her carefully colour-coded diagram. She could remember its contours off by heart, having spent so much time creating it in the last few days.
Blue was for liquids consumed and green was for solids. Then things got more complicated. Jill had place names and times of visits as well as names of the potential victims that they’d come into contact with. Needless to say, the work hadn’t been easy and there were still a lot of gaps in her knowledge, which had to be filled in via further interviews. Nick was simply the easiest to start off with because so many people at the lab had known him.
Jill opened her eyes to find Nick clawing at the wall between them. She flinched and crawled back slightly before she brought out her notepad and pen.
Hostile reaction to me
None of that was particularly unusual for any infected individual.
“What did they have for dinner last night?” Jill asked.
“Some wood trimmings I think,” Greg replied, not looking up from his screen. “They’ll eat anything.”
“Yeah,” Jill murmured. “What do you think would happen if we starved them?”
This question made Greg look up from his laptop.
“Nick tried that.”
Greg stood up and came to sit beside Jill.
“They will eat anything,” he repeated. “Fred didn’t bring you here to repeat our mistakes.”
Despite the fact that Nick was only a few inches away from him Greg refused to look at the creature who’d once been his fellow colleague. His eyes focused solely on Jill.
“Will they also drink anything?” she asked suddenly.
Greg paused before answering.
“I don’t know.”
“Then that’s what we need to find out,” said Jill.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one drink but I don’t come down here that often. You’d have to ask Tom,” Greg pondered.
She was pleased to note that he wasn’t fiddling with his glasses for a change.
“Well that’s something to explore,” she sighed. “My diagram is just starting to frustrate me. I can’t find any links between anyone!”
“You’ll find something,” said Greg, giving her a reassuring smile.
She liked it when Greg wasn’t on edge. Such occasions were fairly rare but when they did occur he was like a completely different person, more relaxed and youthful. It had taken her a couple of days to realise but underneath all that stress he was a genuinely nice person.
“Why don’t you talk me through what you’ve got so far?” he suggested. “Sometimes that helps.”
“Okay,” Jill agreed. “My diagram currently shows details for all of our resident zombies -”
“Please don’t call them that,” Greg snapped suddenly.
Jill frowned. Stressed Greg was back.
“What should I call them?” she said, a little defensively. “Nick’s not Nick anymore and we still don’t have a name for the virus.”
“Sorry, I don’t know,” Greg sighed, scratching his head. “Just don’t call them zombies. It makes this whole situation seem even more impossible to deal with.”
“Fine,” said Jill. “My diagram shows most of the details for all the current creatures - including what they consumed, where they went, who they met and at what time.”
“Is this all pre-parasite?” Greg asked.
“I think so,” Jill replied.
“Then maybe you’ve only got one half of the data. What about once they’ve been infected?” he asked.
Jill looked at Nick’s hollow eyes and then back to Greg.