76

Central Iran
December 5—0654 Hours GMT+3:30

The horrible screeches and metallic rattle of cages were nearly unbearable as Sarie entered the room containing the test monkeys. She fought the urge to strip off her stifling hazmat suit and run out, instead calmly setting down her clipboard and slipping a thumb through the ring at the back of an oversized syringe.

It was full of blood from an animal in the final stages of infection, and she knew that the sensitive parasites suspended inside would soon begin to die. There was no more time for reflection. No more time to second-guess or try to devise a less horrifying end to this. No more time for anything.

As she passed the first of the canvas-draped cages, the monkeys inside keyed on the sound of her footsteps and attacked the bars imprisoning them, trying desperately to get to her. The next section contained animals infected only a few hours ago, and they didn’t react at all, trapped in a dazed, silent stupor. It was the third section she was interested in, though — the one containing the group that hadn’t yet been exposed.

Each animal was connected to an IV that led to a central system for introducing drugs and pathogens. Sarie filled it from the syringe and tapped a command into a plastic-covered laptop. The parasitic load sent was an order of magnitude greater than they would have ever been exposed to in an attack. Based on the formula she’d come up with, groups of two and three would reach full symptoms around the same time. By then, group one would be dying but still in possession of around thirty percent of their peak strength and mobility. More than enough to be deadly.

The procedures for disposing of the syringe and shedding her protective clothing were pointless now, but she went through the motions with the same deliberate resolve as she had every other day. Even with time so short, she couldn’t risk the security cameras picking up anything out of the ordinary.

By the time she entered the outer office, the clock on the wall read seven thirty a.m. Yousef Zarin was the only person there, working on a computer terminal surrounded by files and loose papers.

She sat next to him, keeping her back to the surveillance camera as she looked at the schematic filling his monitor. In a monumental stroke of luck, the facility had been shut down so soon after flunking his inspection that no one had bothered to delete the passwords he’d been given. Zarin had full access to the system and enough knowledge of programming to put that access to use.

“Is everything ready?”

He nodded. “When we signal an emergency, all doors leading to the outside world will automatically seal, as they were designed to do. However, I’ve made two subtle changes. The first is to the interior doors. The original programming caused them to close and lock in order to section off the building and contain any leak in as small an area as possible. I left the locking subroutine intact but introduced an error into the subroutine that causes them to shut.”

“So they’ll still be open when the deadbolt extends,” Sarie said. “It’ll block them open.”

“Exactly. The other change was more difficult because I had to create the code from scratch, but I just ran a simulation and it is fully functional.”

“The monkey cages?”

“Yes. The locks on the cages will retract and then be permanently frozen in that position.”

She nodded slowly, trying to will her heart to slow. For all intents and purposes, they were turning the facility into a tomb. One that would descend into unimaginable violence and chaos before going silent forever.

“Are you all right?” Zarin said, concern visible in his dark eyes.

“Yes.”

“It’s not a pleasant prospect, is it?”

“No. But I’m coming to terms with it.”

“As am I,” he said. “But I would like to have seen my family again. There is so much left unsaid when you think you have time.”

She smiled weakly, a bit queasy at the realization that there was no one she needed to see. The university would have a tasteful memorial when it became clear that she was never going to reappear. Her colleagues would shake their heads and say that they’d warned her about spending so much time alone in the bush. And then life would go on.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Zarin said, standing. “I’m going to pray.”

She watched him leave, wishing she’d inherited her father’s devotion to the Bible. A little comfort from above would be welcome in light of the facility’s complete lack of alcohol.

The coffee machine still had some dregs in it from last night, and she’d have to settle for that. It seemed a bit surreal to have reached the point in her life that there was no longer time to brew a fresh cup.

She wondered what the people who found them would think of what they saw: the blood, the demolished makeshift barricades, the human and animal corpses still tangled together.

The important thing, though, was that by then, the parasite would be long dead.

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