18. Strangulo

018strangulo

 

After a quick stop in Fabrication, Nicolai hit the Genlabs early. He went alone, without Kash, because he didn’t want to hear any more of his partner’s bitching. Kash was continuing to follow the cult angle, and after what Cornelia had told him about Zane’s behavior, he didn’t think it was such a bad idea. Nicolai knew Zane was involved with the cults. One only had to talk to the man for five minutes before he brought up the glory of the Reclamation, which as far as Nicolai understood was their version of Judgment Day, though not as bright and cheery.

It was a good idea to cover as many angles of this thing as possible, he’d decided. They had no time for pride. And then there was the fact that maybe, just maybe, both Officers were right. Just because an animal attacked Baptiste didn’t mean Zane couldn’t have been behind it.

Nicolai had always found the Genlabs a bit creepy for his tastes. Just getting in required going through one of the Decon Rooms, a twenty foot space with benches and lockers and contamination suits hanging in small alcoves like deflated corpses. Once inside, the place was wall-to-wall cloning vats and dissection tables. The work they did was obviously important, and of great use to the Ark, but the way they went about it didn’t make for comfortable viewing.

There were three Geneticists that day in Genlab 12, two young women working side-by-side in contamination suits, and an older, pony-tailed man with his eye buried in a microscope. He first approached the two young women, hoping to ask them a few questions, but quickly backed off when he saw they were pulling newly-cloned worms from a plastic tray. He approached the older man instead, patiently waiting for him to finish what he was doing. He didn’t want to piss off the Scientist the way they’d done to Will Miller. After a few minutes of silence, the man became aware of a presence behind him and turned to see.

“I need to ask you a few questions,” Nicolai said.

“Oh, God. Haz didn’t send you, did he?”

That was the second time in two days someone had mentioned Abdul Haz. “Is he giving you problems?”

“He’s relentless. I don’t know what this book of his is about, but he asks the most bizarre questions, and too many of them.” His lab coat said his name was Rees. He began to prepare a new slide. “I told him I didn’t have time for his nonsense and he threatened to come back with the proper authorities, which you appear to be.”

“That I am, but I assure you Haz didn’t send me.”

The older man’s features relaxed. “Well thank God for that.”

“Actually, I came here to ask your opinion about this.” Nicolai took out the model of the claw he’d had fabricated and handed it to the man. Holograms were helpful, but sometimes a person needed to hold an object in their hands to really understand it. Nicolai himself had been bothered by the sight of the fabrication when he’d picked it up. Something about seeing it rendered physical made it all the more real. The scientist turned the model over in his hands, fascinated with its anatomy.

“Where did you get this?”

“Sunn reconstructed it, from wounds we found on a man’s arm.”

The Scientist wrinkled his face. “I find it doubtful that any man could survive an attack from something like this.”

“Yes, well, the arm wasn’t attached to the man at the time.”

The older man’s demeanor quickly changed. Unlike Will Miller, his shock was genuine. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Who was he?”

“His name is Baptiste,” Nicolai replied, making sure to use the present tense until he knew otherwise. “He’s the new science teacher. You haven’t heard about this?”

“I’m not very good at following current events.”

Someone needed to get out of the lab more. “An arm was discovered, badly damaged, with tooth and claw marks made by whatever this belongs to. As of now we don’t know where the rest of him is, or what condition he’s in.”

Rees looked at the fabrication again, this time closer. “I can tell you it looks insectoid, possibly arachnid, but much too large. It certainly doesn’t look like any animal I’ve seen.” He seemed suddenly uncomfortable.

“What about one you haven’t seen?” Nicolai received a confused look in return. “The DNA we carry on board, everything we took from Earth, some of it comes from extinct animals, yes?”

“Well…yes. Most of them by this point.”

“Could someone have cloned some long-forgotten creature?”

The man scoffed. “If you’re suggesting that a dinosaur is running around the Ark…”

“Well, maybe not a dinosaur, but something old. Something none of us have seen.”

“Cloning of that nature isn’t just illegal, it’s extremely unlikely.” Rees handed the fabricated claw back to Nicolai, seemingly done with it.

“True, but I have an extremely unlikely arm in the Medbay. You’ll have to forgive me if it seems like I’m reaching, but I’m not looking for likely here, I’m looking for possible.”

“Well, then yes. I suppose it’s possible. It could be something old. It could also be something entirely new. Either way I’m afraid we won’t be much help to you here. You’ll have to check with the Archives.”

 

\^/

 

The Archives. Every plant and animal on Earth existed there in miniature, its DNA floating in glass tubes, filed away in massive freezer rooms. Samples here were remotely accessed by robotic pickers and sent directly to the appropriate lab for either cloning or research. Rees had a good point sending him there. The only way someone could have engaged in illegal cloning on the Ark would have been by accessing the Archives- and you couldn’t do that without leaving a trail of time-stamps.

The woman running the show was a slender, dark-haired woman by the name of Victoria. Nicolai found her to be a confusing individual, flirtatious one moment and downright hostile the next. When he explained the situation to her, briefing her on the investigation he was conducting, she insisted on an official injunction from the ship’s court office before she would even allow him to set foot in the room that contained the Archive’s computer system.

“That’s not how it works,” he informed her.

“Well, it’s how I work,” she replied, “and that’s what really matters here.” Over her shoulder, eight mechanical arms moved behind cold glass, carefully making their predetermined selections.

“Do you want to be the one who tells the Chief Inspector you’re impeding an official investigation, or would you rather I make the call?”

“I’d love to,” she replied. Without hesitation she brought up the ship’s communication system on her screen and called the Peace Officer station, asking to speak to the Inspector. That was a first, Nicolai thought. After a few transfers he heard the sound of Inspector Raymond’s voice on the other end. She made her formal complaint to the Inspector, who thankfully shut her down quickly, explaining the overriding jurisdiction of the Peace Officers to her. She fumed at Nicolai during the conversation, which clearly didn’t go the direction she wanted.

“Fine,” she said after disconnecting. “Follow me.”

She let him into the protected room, but not before having him sign his name on a series of releases that said he was responsible for any loss of data incurred during his stay. He assured her he only wanted to look at the access logs, not copy or erase them, but she ignored his words and continued to show him where to sign. Then she walked him to the room that housed the computer in question, used her clearance to let him in, and walked away without another word.

He had to hand it to her, the woman was passionate about what she did.

Nicolai spent several hours in the protected room going over the access logs. He saw the same ten or twelve names repeated over and over, and all on samples no more dangerous than a coyote. From there he delved into some of the other files, including current experiments, and was surprised to find that some of the entries were inaccessible. After his third attempt to open a blocked file, he asked Sunn for help.

“The files you listed are blocked,” Sunn’s voice replied.

Nicolai frowned. “I thought all files on the Ark were open access.”

“Personal files are open access, however many files pertaining to the science and operations of the ship are available only to relevant persons.”

Nicolai’s eyebrow raised. “I’m a Peace Officer conducting a potential murder investigation.”

“Yes. You are not a relevant person.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. “So I would need to be a Scientist to view these files?”

“Not just a Scientist-”

“A Geneticist.”

“Correct.”

“Can anyone else see them?”

“Ship’s Captain has full access, as well as Members of the Archives staff.”

“You mean the ice queen out there.”

“I do not understand the question.”

“Never mind. And don’t repeat what I just said.”

“I will not tell Victoria you called her the ice queen.”

“Thank you.” He thought about Rees, the Scientist who had sent him there. The man had seemed helpful, and maybe he would help Nicolai access the files, but he had a feeling it would be a dead end. The unavoidable truth was that anyone smart enough to dabble in Genetics would be smart enough to cover their tracks. Still, seeing the trail through to its end could yield some helpful bit of information. It might also have the added side-effect of rattling some guilty nerves enough to get someone running.

If you’re looking for bugs, you have to pick up a few rocks.

The alarm on his wrist sounded. It was the code for a medical emergency, Level One. He was surprised to see how close it was, just up the hall in one of the Genlabs.

Not just any lab, in fact- Genlab 12.

 

\^/

 

“It’s starting, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“How many will die?”

“As many as are needed.”

“The will of the cenancestors. That’s what you promised.”

“Of course, my dear. They speak in blood, can’t you hear them?”

“I don’t care if I die, just make me better.”

“You’re already so much better. But soon, my dear, soon, you’ll be perfect.”

 

\^/

 

Nicolai ran out of the Archives with Victoria shouting after him to log out. He ignored her and ran as hard as he could, reaching the Genlab in less than a minute. The shouting and screaming were what he found first. Rees and one of the women were at the far end of the lab, in front of a sealed door. It led to the Emergency Decon, a higher grade of decontamination room for spills and other emergencies. The woman was still in her contamination suit, her helmet thrown to the floor. She was arguing with Rees in panicked, angry words, waving a small device in his face.

“She’ll die,” the woman shouted. Without her helmet Nicolai recognized her as Mitsuko. He’d once escorted her to the Medbay when she broke an arm rock-climbing in the gymnasium.

“She knows the risks. So do you,” Rees replied. His voice was loud, but much calmer than hers.

“Please! She needs our help!” Nicolai reached them in seconds. He asked them what was happening. “She’s hurt,” the woman replied, turning to look through the observation window. Nicolai joined her, seeing now the second woman was on her back on the Decon Room’s floor. She was fully suited, helmet and all, and suffering some kind of attack. She twitched and writhed on the floor, smashing her gloved fists against her chest so hard she looked as if she was trying to crack her own ribs. The room’s contaminant alarm was sounding, bathing the woman in cleansing, blue light. “There’s something wrong with her,” Mitsuko cried.

“How did this start,” Nicolai asked. Mitsuko took a breath, trying to compose herself.

“She took a break. Not even ten minutes. When she came back she started screaming, making these awful sounds.” She turned to Rees, her face turning into a scowl. “He panicked and pushed her into Decon.”

“I didn’t panic, I was following protocol,” Rees replied coolly. As the lead Scientist he had final say on all quarantines, and only his authorization would open the door.

Nicolai took in all the information. He knew action needed to be taken quickly. Seconds counted in medical emergencies, yet there was no denying the sensitive nature of the work done in the Genlabs. The Geneticists routinely worked with infectious diseases, researching ways to engineer them into extinction. If Rees was concerned, that said something. And yet that didn’t change the fact that a woman was dying on the floor just a few feet from where Nicolai stood, and that didn’t sit well with him. “Alright,” he said, “you did the right thing. Now let me in and let me handle this.”

Mitsuko sighed, relieved to hear it, but Rees shook his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

“I recognize your concerns here, Doctor, but we have a responsibility to that woman.”

“My responsibility is to the ship. The needs of the many.”

Nicolai took a step closer. “Noted. But now I’m telling you to let me in that room.”

“And I’m telling you I can’t. What’s the point of a quarantine if we make exceptions? We have no way of knowing what’s doing that to her, or how fast it could spread.” He turned to Mitsuko and added, “I’m sorry. You know it’s true.”

A new, horrifying sound came from the Emergency Decon as the woman inside began to choke. With her air passages closing up the woman would be dead in minutes, maybe seconds. Nicolai was done fucking around. He rushed at Rees, pushing the older man against the wall. “If you don’t let me in there, I’ll make sure you never see the inside of a lab again,” he growled into the man’s face.

Rees hesitated, but he pushed his thumb against the control pad, speaking his override command. As the door opened, he looked back at Nicolai. “It’s all of our funerals if you’re wrong.”

“Just lock it behind me,” Nicolai replied. He pulled the door the rest of the way open and rushed into the Decon Room. Just before it closed again, Mitsuko threw him the device she’d been waving at Rees. A second later the two Scientists resealed the door, locking Nicolai inside with the convulsing woman.

He looked down at the device in his hand- it was an epinephrine pen. Awash in disinfecting blue light, Nicolai dropped to his knees next to the woman. He wasted no time undoing the locks on her helmet and throwing it to the side, where it clattered and banged into the wall. He took only a moment to study her face before he hit her with the epinephrine, jamming the pen into her bulging neck. There was a slight hiss from the pen as it did its work. He could only pray it was enough, and in time.

After a few, excruciating seconds, the choking subsided. As she gasped for breath, Nicolai realized he knew the girl. She was Peace Officer Luisa Brigham’s younger sister, though he didn’t know her first name. He’d made the right choice, he knew that now. If he’d have let her die, Brigham would have been devastated. And yet, what if by doing so he’d infected himself with whatever the girl had? There was only one epinephrine pen between them, and it was already empty. He doubted Rees would open the door a second time.

The Brigham girl was trying to speak. “Th…there w-” Her voice cut out, still weak.

“Just relax,” he told her, “don’t try to talk.” But she was determined to get the words out.

“s-something in my…suit,” she finished.

As the warning settled into Nicolai’s ears, he heard something else: the sound of something skittering across the floor.

Nicolai spun on his knees to look behind himself. There was nothing there. The helmet by the wall wasn’t moving, but from where he was he couldn’t see inside it. When he turned back to get more information out of the Brigham girl, he realized she’d already passed out. Likely she’d exerted herself and lost consciousness. He took a quick check of her pulse and found one, though it was erratic at best.

Nicolai was on his own. He rose to his feet, pulling the Peace Stick from his belt. He armed the weapon and set it to full-strength.

Like the other Decon Rooms he’d been in, this one had multiple alcoves, each with rows of contamination suits hanging on hooks. There were also a few shower pods and an eye flush station scattered around, along with medical instruments and bottles of chemical wash.

In other words, plenty of room for something to hide.

First he checked the girl’s helmet, giving it a light kick with his boot. It tipped over, seemingly empty. He noticed a few black marks on the plastic inside. If he survived the next few minutes, he would have to go back and check them out closer.

More skittering. This time it sounded like something running up a wall. The half-wet, half-dry noise made Nicolai’s skin crawl, but he pushed the feeling away and ran toward the source of the sound, determined to root out whatever had attacked the girl. He found another row of contamination suits, this one rocking slightly, as if something had brushed against them just seconds earlier.

He charged the Peace Stick with his thumb, feeling the familiar hum of electricity in his palm, and jammed its end into the first suit. It had no effect as the stick discharged its electricity into dead plastic. It was going to be like this then. Flushing out some animal trapped with its back against the wall. He wasn’t going to know what he was dealing with until he either incapacitated the thing or it jumped out screaming at him.

Nicolai moved to the second suit in the row. He readied the Peace Stick again, letting it reach full charge, and jammed it into the suit.

Nothing again.

That wet-dry skitter at his back. Something ran behind him, a hurried retreat. The animal was getting away.

Nicolai spun and ran after the unseen prey, already recharging his Peace Stick a third time. It only took two steps for his efforts to be sabotaged. His boot hit something slick and he slipped, his feet coming out from beneath him. The floor rushed up at him and a moment later he hit it hard, the wind knocked out of him and light flashing behind his eyes.

Pure luck and training had saved his ass. He’d just barely managed to hold onto the Peace Stick. A few more inches to the left and he would have discharged the weapon into his own arm. Set to full-strength, he could have been incapacitated for hours. He rolled onto his back, catching his breath.

He was just in time to see a mass of black tendrils recede into the gas vent in the ceiling. They were like dead veins dragging across the ceiling, water-logged branches that made the same, wet-dry sound he’d been chasing. A mixture of tentacles and fingernails. He stared at the tendrils drawing out of sight, seeing that some of them had clusters of growths at their tips, like cancerous nodules of grayish-pink flesh, and one of them, just one, the last to slip away into the vent, in fact, formed a perfect cat’s eye that watched him, watched him coldly until it disappeared into the vent and out of sight.

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