A/N: This is one of those ‘I don’t know what will come of it’ stories, but the majority of you were okay with that in the polls, so here it is! I don’t have a cover or an actual title for it right now, so we’re just going to go with what I have it titled in my drafts, lol. I hope you enjoy chapter one!**
Riley barely managed to get one salsa-dipped tortilla chip to their mouth before the door to the break room opened. They lifted their head, eyes finding a relatively short black man in the doorway. He wore a laminated ID card around his neck, but he was too far away from them to read it.
“I don’t recognize you. Are you the new intern?”
“Yes, ma’am. Are you Mrs. Johnson?”
“It’s actually Mx. Johnson or Doctor Johnson, but yes I’m the Johnson you’re looking for.”
“Oh, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know”
Riley smiled. “It’s not your fault. Whoever sent you to find me could’ve told you, and they didn’t. That’s not on you, so don’t sweat it. What can I help you with?”
“Umm, Doctor Murphy wanted me to tell you, and I quote, ‘Lunch break is over, get your ass to the lab now’. Umm… end quote, I guess?”
Riley couldn’t help but snort. “Yeah, that sounds like him. Thank you.” They shoved the chip into their mouth. They couldn’t have lunch yet–not until well after suppertime, if they knew anything about Murphy–but they could have one damn chip, if nothing else. Murphy owed them that much for all the hours he worked them without giving them the lead position in a new assignment. Or any assignment.
Riley folded down the top of the chips bag, clothespinned it, and put their salsa in the refrigerator. It’d still be there waiting for them when Murphy was done with whatever he wanted. Still fresh and homemade.
They walked toward the door, flipping off the light as the intern backed into the hallway. “So”–Riley glanced at his ID–“Morgan. What brought you to Cromwell Labs?”
“My mom worked here for a while before she got sick. Sick enough she couldn’t work anymore, I mean. I changed my whole game plan after that. I was gonna be a lab geek for some police station, do the whole crime scene analysis thing, but… Well, I wanted to make Mom as proud as I possibly could. Cromwell is the way to do that.”
“Well, we’re happy to have you. It’s always good to have young people around that are still interested in science and research, even more so when it’s at our facility.” Riley stopped at the elevator and swiped their ID card through the reader. The doors dinged open. “Are you coming down?”
Morgan shook his head. “Doctor Murphy said I’m not to come down to the lab until further notice.” Morgan rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t mean to… pry or be a bother, but do you know why that is?”
“He’s probably just feeling you out.” Riley stuck a foot in the track of the elevator doors to keep them from closing. “Murphy can be… suspicious of new people, even the ones he hires. He probably just wants to make sure you’re legit in your interest in working here instead of trying to steal company secrets or something. He can be a bit paranoid.” Riley smiled. “Don’t worry, Morgan. You’ll be downstairs in the lab in no time.”
Morgan offered a smile of his own, one far less timid or nervous than his voice. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“No problem.” Riley stepped into the elevator, pressed the button for the lab, and offered a little wave as the metal doors slid closed. With a sigh, they leaned back against the wall, hands wrapped around the bar that ran along it. Admittedly, the bar in an elevator gave Riley far more anxiety than comfort. Bars were usually reserved for stairs, where people could slip or fall. They were usually reserved for handicapped stalls for people who needed help standing or sitting. They were usually reserved for ‘oh shit we’re gonna die’ situations.
And if an elevator ever entered the ‘oh shit we’re gonna die’ roller coaster, the bar sure as hell wasn’t going to help Riley survive.
But they tried not to think about that. Sort of. It was kind of hard not to think about it, actually.
The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened. No oh shit roller coaster this time around, either. Riley stepped out into the hall, letting out the breath they’d been holding on the ride down.
The next inhale caught in their throat. The hall was dead silent. No doctors chatting. No equipment running. No music playing. It was eerily still and sterile.
Riley ran through a quick list of the bad things that could happen down in the basement of Cromwell Labs. Scientist thievery. Ghouls. Flickering lights. Power outage. Zombies. A mugging, surely. Good ol’ fashioned human-on-human homicide.
“Or,” Riley whispered, “maybe you’re just crazy and everyone else decided now was a good time for a lunch break, too.” They clutched either side of their lab coat and forced themself to start down the hall. “You aren’t the only person who gets hungry around noon, Johnson.”
They stopped in their tracks as the door at the end of the hall opened. It was to the decontamination chamber that connected to the main lab in Cromwell. Riley couldn’t remember the last time it’d been used, the last time something had been considered dangerous enough or viral enough to require the extra precautions.
Two men walked out of the chamber, assault rifles in hand. Riley backed up toward the elevator, as if being silent and walking away would keep the men from seeing them in the well-lit hall.
A third man stepped out. He wore the same black suit as the other two, but he lacked the BFG. “Doctor Johnson?”
Riley lifted their head, rifling through their mind in search of any answer that wasn’t acknowledgment. They settled on, “That’s me.”
Which was… so not cool.
The man and his armed goons came down the hall, and Riley did what they could not to shit their pants. “Doctor Johnson, you’ve been chosen for a very important job. You’ll be tasked with creating a vaccine for a new… virus. Disease. Sickness. We don’t care what you call it, so long as you fix it.”
“Did Doctor Murphy put you up to whatever this is?” Riley waved a hand in their direction. “Fake guns to try and scare me out of asking for an assignment of my own?”
“No. Mister Murphy knows nothing about what this assignment is. All he was told was to send you down here to speak with us. End of story.”
Riley shoved their hands into the pockets of their lab coat, hoping it hid at least some of the fear rolling off of them. “If the assignment isn’t from Murphy and it isn’t a joke… then what is this?”
“That would be the U.S. government, Doctor.”
“Oh,” Riley whispered. “What… does the government want with me? I-I mean, why me? I’ve never been a lead scientist on anything in Cromwell. Anywhere, for that matter.”
The guy in the middle–the shorter one, the one without the gun–chuckled, shaking his head. “Your government doesn’t care about which scientist Mister Murphy considers the best or the worst. We don’t care who he deems important. We care about who will do the best at this job. And that’s you.”
“Doctor Johnson, do we have to play this game?”
“Yes, we do. Because… because two of you have guns and just came out of the decontamination lab, and I can’t even remember the last time something we worked on was so dangerous that it was through decontamination.”
The shorter man sighed, but he tried to cover it with a smile. “Can you let me explain on the walk to the lab? You don’t have to go in until we’re done talking.”
Riley forced themself to nod. “I can do that.”
“Perfect.” He turned and started back toward the lab, but his goons didn’t move until Riley was in front of them. “You’ve done a lot of research that’s of great interest to us when it comes to this vaccine. You have a lot of theories you can finally test, too.” He offered a smile. “To say the least, you’re the only scientist we are currently aware of that has such an interest in such a unique situation. We need that interest. We need that intrigue, that curiosity. Curiosity drives discovery, and discovery is incredibly important.”
“I-I don’t understand. All of my research has been with other scientists here. It’s all been done with other people. They have the same ‘interests’ under the belt that I do,” Riley said.
The shorter man slid an ID card through the reader at the lab, and the glass doors of the decontamination room slid open. “It’s better if I can show you. It’s one of those things you really have to see to believe. So, Doctor Johnson… what do you say?”
A part of Riley–a very large part–wanted nothing more than to run away, but they couldn’t outrun bullets or goons. They couldn’t even outrun their neighbor’s dog, and he was a thirteen-year-old tripod who barely even walked out the front door to take his morning pee anymore.
Riley swallowed, forcing themself to nod. “Okay. Let’s see it and believe it.”
The man smiled. “Great.” He turned and walked into the room. With a harsh release of breath, Riley followed. “You’ll only need to go through actual decontamination on your way back out of the lab. On the way in, I need you to put on the neck gaiter mask, the face shield, and the gloves. You should also button up your lab coat in case your shirt rides up or lifts when you raise your arms.”
Riley glanced back over their shoulder as the doors closed. “That’s a lot of safety equipment for something I have to see to believe.”
One corner of his mouth lifted. “You want your skin covered, believe me.”
Riley stared at him for a moment before letting out a breath, shoulders sinking. Unless they had a death wish, there was no way out of the room. Doing as they’d been told was the only option now. They buttoned up their lab coat and put on the gaiter, pulling the mask portion up over their nose. The gloves felt like kevlar, like they were designed to be cut proof, and they went up to their elbows. They grabbed one of the face shields from the bench, though ‘shield’ didn’t quite do it justice. The damn thing looked form-fitted, more like a helmet than the standard shields they had in all the labs.
Once all four of them were outfitted with the required gear, the shorter man swiped his ID card and walked through the decontamination room. Riley followed him through the room and into the lab.
The usual hum of the lights was overcast by something else. Something low. Something rumbling. Something… dangerous.
Riley stepped out in front of the man. When he didn’t stop them, they kept moving toward the noise. The curtain by the back examination table had been pulled, but they could make out a shadow through it. A person sat behind it, rocking back and forth slowly. As Riley drew nearer, the shadow’s head shot back, and the terrifying scream stopped Riley in their tracks, hands flying up to their ears.
They flinched as a hand touched their back. The shorter man stepped past them and grabbed the curtain with one gloved hand. “Prepare yourself, Doctor Johnson. Even when you see it, it’s still a little hard to believe. But we need your head in the game. Okay?”
Riley forced themself to nod, hands still covering their ears, though the screaming had stopped.
The man pulled the curtain back.
Riley’s hands fell to their sides. “Oh… my… God.”
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