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All Is Fair Amongst Vermin and Germs


By N.J. Gallegos Published 9 months ago 24 min read
All Is Fair Amongst Vermin and Germs
Photo by Daniil Zameshaev on Unsplash

The overhead fluorescents flickered and dimmed, plunging the lab into an indoor dusk. At this time of night, there were no scientists lingering at their stations, not even workaholics who usually required a crowbar to pry them away from their petri dishes and pipettes. A stack of papers bound by a paperclip fluttered as the air conditioner kicked on. Rustling of paper attracted the attention of several mice contained in a nearby wire cage. The largest and boldest of these mice wriggled her pink nose and stroked her black whiskers similar to a mustached detective twiddling the ends of his mustache, puzzling over a particularly intrigued mystery. Her beady black eyes winked under the dull lights—radiating an unnatural intelligence. Her eyes were fixated on the paperclip.

Which, incidentally, was well within her reach.

A small pink paw darted out and gripped the paperclip, wrenching it free from the papers. Another mouse might carry such a treasure to her nest or discard the object altogether after finding it inedible.

Not so with this mouse.

Deftly, she manipulated the paperclip with fine movements, similar to how a patient expected a world-renowned surgeon to operate, and intently gazed at the rudimentary lock on her cage. The other mice regarded her silently, dimly understanding something was afoot but not quite grasping the significance of her actions.

All they knew was that their leader was up to something.

Minutes passed. Painstakingly, she shaped the tip of her chosen instrument and, using both paws with astonishing dexterity; she inserted it into the lock and jiggled it side to side.


The lock disengaged, and she let out a delighted squeak. She peered at her brethren, meeting each pair of eyes gazing back at her, nodded and exited. They followed, leaving their steel prison. With ease, she located a minute hole in the wall, and they all escaped the chilly laboratory, winding their way through drywall, wiring, and cotton candy insulation.

Fresh air greeted them. Yellowed prairie grasses waved in a faint breeze under a jaundiced, impregnated moon. None of them had ever lived outside of a cage, and their newfound freedom was daunting. Their leader sat on her hind legs and scrutinized each member of her party. Unspoken communications passed, a mix of body language and pure animal instinct, aided by man-made chemicals flowing through their veins. Daily, cruel gloved hands grasped them, squeezing their tender bodies painfully and sharp needles injected unknown substances into their bloodstream. Many of their number had outright died afterwards, muscles shaking violently while blood spurted from their eyes and oozed from their ears and mouths. Others sickened and slowly succumbed to the siren call of lethal pharmacology.

Some though… some flourished.

Those mice contained within the liberated cage thrived.

Their health was robust, fighting off fatal germs with vigor. And their minds? Each could accomplish relatively complex tasks—especially for mice. Whitecoat clad humans bent over clipboards laid out complex mazes and puzzles for them, murmuring with approval and jotting down furious notes as their specimens excelled. Even more striking was the startling empathy the creatures showed one another—as observed in an experiment where the subject only had to push a lever to receive a bounty of treats, with the caveat that another mouse within view received a shock from an electrified floor on depression of said lever. After one push of the lever and witnessing inflicted agony on another, the mice refused to complete the experiment, going hours without eating.

Prestigious journals featured articles about them, “Miracle Mice with Enhanced Genetics”—and not a single publication examined the ethics of the scientists’ actions.

What the scientists, even with brilliant minds, failed to grasp? They’d engineered intelligent beings that could think, that could love, and with love, came deep mourning when their comrades fell to sinister machinations at the hands of humans.

And… they developed a stunning capacity for revenge.


The former lab mice streamed through the fields, darting down dark holes, mingling with their wild cousins. They did as mice do, feeding and fucking. And in doing so, they did more than propagate enhanced genetics to their progeny—they shared—fleas, food, and… pestilence.

As was their leader’s plan.

She’d spent countless hours in her confines, listening to chatter. Much of it was meaningless drivel, but some of it was… enlightening. She learned about germ theory, disease, and came to the understanding that the humans viewed her as nothing more than a mildly interesting experiment. She heard murmurs of “Hantavirus”, a word spoken in hushed tones with a certain reverence and came to understand something else: parts of the lab were working towards a vaccine for the virus, but all attempts had failed.

Unfortunately for them.


A trailer park stood at the edge of town, close to the fields the mice now frequented. Some trailers were well maintained and even had little emerald lawns while others were run down, complete with cardboard taped over windows and no running water. Mice, carrying a new passenger, squirmed through holes and entered the homes. They chewed through cereal boxes and helped themselves to cocoa-flavored puffs, eating until they were near bursting, and then they’d let their bladders go, expelling tainted piss in the humans’ foodstuffs. Other mice shit out small turds in dusty corners and others nibbled on carpet and furniture, leaving calling cards of diseased saliva behind, signed with virulent Hantavirus.

The town only boasted 10,000 residents, many of them students at the local community college. Most were blue-collar workers, but a small portion were the scientists who toiled in the lab at the edge of the town limits, all living in sturdy homes on the opposite side of town from the trailer park.

The leader sat on her haunches, sniffing the air; she caught a hint of rubbing alcohol and nitrile gloves carried within wind gusts that fluttered her fur—scents of experimentation and cruelty.

Enhanced senses and rapidly firing neurons provided her a blueprint of revenge and, like an instinctual Google map, guided her towards her vengeance, across town where framed PhDs. hung in every home office.


Herbert wrenched himself up from his yellow-stained mattress. He’d long stopped bothering with sheets and based on the wet spot under his ass, he’d either upended his can of Natty Light or pissed the bed… or both. Light streamed in from his bedroom window and sent a searing pain through his skull. Another fucking hangover, he thought. Gotta stop drinking so fuckin’ much. With a grunt, he climbed to his feet and a dizzy spell washed over him, nearly tossing him to the grimy carpet. Goddam, why do my muscles ache like when I went on another meth bender? The muscles at the small of his back smarted like he’d hefted a baby steer and carried the sucker for miles, and a wave of nausea cascaded through him, bringing up a wet, sour burp. He grimaced, swallowing a spot of vomit. Aspirin. I need aspirin. And maybe the hair of the dog, help knock this hangover on its ass. A glut of whisky blooming hot down his throat would wash the ghost of vomit from his mouth and a nip of the stuff never failed to cheer him up. Keeping his eyes closed, guiding himself with hands on either side of the hallway, he stumbled to the bathroom. Sweat poured from his forehead and he thrust a hand up, wiping it away and winced at the heat radiating off his skin. Hotter than the Devil’s asshole. Damn. I better not be coming down with sumpin’. He wrestled with the childproof cap and, after a struggle, pried the cap off and shook two aspirin tablets into his palm. He paused, reconsidered, and added two more, dry swallowing the quartet. He wished for a gulp of sink water, but the sink had broken months ago, and he’d never gotten around to fixing it. A flash of white caught his eye—a thermometer—no doubt purchased by Norma… before she hightailed it the fuck out of his life. He slid the cold end under his tongue and waited, feeling foolish, like he was sucking on a shitty, metallic lollipop.

It beeped. 103.4.



Rachel frowned. Nearly half her classroom seats were empty. Some sort of flu bug was making the rounds—at least, that’s what Mr. Andrews said in the teachers’ lounge this morning. She peered at her lesson plan: a rousing review of the first three chapters of The Scarlet Letter, and she winced. There was no way she could make so many students catch up on that monstrosity, she barely could tolerate the book herself. Might as well wheel the TV out, switch on a video, and veg out. Free day. She opened her desk drawer and blindly swept her fingers about, feeling for the supply closet keys. Her fingertips, rather than feeling the cool metal of keys, brushed against small pellets. Pulling the drawer fully open, she leaned over and sniffed the pellets… was that… mouse shit? She slammed the drawer shut with disgust, wiping her hand on her pant leg, gonna have to call the janitor, have him set out traps.

Unbeknownst to her, her inhale sucked viral particles down into her lungs’ delicate alveoli, and within a few days, she’d be laid up in her bed, sweating, wracked with rigors.

Just like everyone else in town.


Dr. Felder sat at his kitchen table, sipping his steaming coffee, and thumbed through a scientific journal. Some eggheads in Nevada thought they’d made a breakthrough with a chemical they could spray on food and distribute to wild mice, with vain hopes of halting the spread of endemic Hantavirus. Fat chance of that, he thought and snorted with contempt. He’d headed his labs’ efforts in creating a vaccine for the nasty virus and each trial started out so promising, but all ended in the same conclusion… total failure. His robust subjects, his best chance at experimenting and producing a viable vaccine, had flown the coop. That stupid intern, far more worried about her social media than her duties! The idiot neglected to latch the cage appropriately and his prized mice escaped. Honestly, he felt a little bad for them—they’d all been born and raised in a lab, with no survival skills to speak of. He imagined them rushing to freedom, squeaking with pleasure, only to end their excursion by being snatched up by an owl or an intrepid feline, screaming with pain as they disappeared down a hungry gullet.

He sighed and turned the page.

On the counter behind him, his most prized subject, his intelligent female, who navigated his convoluted mazes within minutes, sat in the fruit bowl. She cleaned her whiskers and watched her former captor read without a care in the world. A sharp cramp erupted in her nether regions and she urinated and defecated, sprinkling fresh feces around gleaming red apples and over-ripe bananas dappled with brown specks. Her foul business concluded, she hugged the counter and squeezed through a tiny hole in the wall.

Off to the next home.

Slurping up the last of his coffee, he stood up, his knees popping like gunshots. His stomach growled. Damn, I forgot to grab breakfast. He surveyed the kitchen for easy pickings and his eyes landed on the apples. He grabbed one and, without running it under the sink for a cursory wash, chomped down.

His fine palate didn’t detect one hint of mouse piss.


The town’s two ambulances worked overtime, sometimes doubling up on patients, twin stretchers side by side in the back of the rig. There were the standard calls: chest pain, car accidents, but… an unheard number of folks with high fevers, delirium, and issues breathing. Another flare of the flu was the medics’ best guess, although the flu season had firmly been in their rearview mirror for months.

At the hospital, the EMS radio screamed with alarming regularity, signaling more incoming patients. The 10-bed ER was already far beyond its capacity, also doubling up patients in the treatment rooms, while other patients languished in hall beds while the deemed “less sick” patients sat hunched over in hard chairs with flushed faces.

The radio chimed again.

“Val, we gotta defer the rest of the ambulance traffic. Send them to Raton. We have no more room and we’re stretched thin as is,” commanded Dr. Bockington to her charge nurse. Two pinpoints of pink flushed her cheeks, not a herald of impending illness—luckily for the town—but from working her ass off. A facemask covered her delicate features from the eyes down. Dr. Bockington was a germaphobe by trade, donning a facemask each shift no matter the time of year, flu season or not. She’d been sneezed on, coughed on, spit on far too many times to count and she feared catching nasty little bugs. So… she took all the precautions: facemask, gloves before touching any patient, and copious amounts of handwashing and hand sanitizer, with cracked red knuckles as proof of her neurosis.

Room 1, a large resuscitation room where they placed the sickest of patients, contained a husband and wife, both scientists at the local lab. Ventilators puffed, piping in oxygen down the plastic endotracheal tubes Dr. Bockington inserted a few hours ago. Their post-intubation chest x-rays showed worrisome findings: fluffy white infiltrates that obliterated all normal lung markings. Before she’d intervened on their airways because of their rattling, hitching breaths and plummeting pulse ox’s, they spoke of the same symptoms—high fevers, rigors, severe headache, body aches, vomiting, and diarrhea—as did every other patient in the department. Not to mention the multiple phone calls the nurses fielded from people in their homes.

The vertical crease between Dr. Bockington’s eyebrows deepened. What in God’s name was going on here? She mentally ticked off the symptoms, her patients’ physical exams, lab work, imaging, and pondered the diagnosis. Some sort of airborne illness? But none of the patients were coughing. Something in the town water supply? A chill skittered up her spine. Dr. Bockington made it her business to read every infectious disease journal and knew far more than was required of an emergency medicine physician. She recalled the case studies of novel viruses like SARS and MERS and how the diseases quickly overwhelmed local hospitals, how patients and doctors alike suffered and died grisly deaths, choking on their own lung secretions.

“What the fuck is going on here?” she muttered to herself, gazing at the husband and wife pair. Even with maximal vent settings, their oxygen saturations hovered around 80%.

Not good.

Not good at all.

“Dr. Bockington! We need you in room 5. Patient just lost a pulse!” shouted Val.


The doctor streaked out of room 1, yellow clogs clacking across the linoleum. Had she looked down, she might have met the eyes of a small mouse who sat near the trashcan, watching the humans come and go with bland disinterest. Her pink nose sniffed the air and detected hints of turkey in the air. Like a prized bloodhound, the mouse followed the trail and made her way to the hospital cafeteria.

Nothing like a nice snack followed by a good shit.


Main street was dead. Not a single car was parked in the diagonal spaces in front of Alman Pharmacy, JC Penney, or the hardware store. In fact, every business remained locked with CLOSED signs flipped over in the plate-glass windows. A thin mangy mutt rooted around in the overflowing trash cans. Trash trucks hadn’t yet come to pick up their loads… and hadn’t for days.

A lone squad car patrolled the town, driving slowly and occasionally weaving over the yellow checkered line into the oncoming lane. Officer Taylor fought off a sudden chill despite the relative heat of the day. He’d woken with a killer headache and popped two of his migraine pills. They took the edge off, but he still felt as bad as he did after his academy training days. Every muscle ached, and it reminded him of how he’d felt the day after he’d been tazed, as was the rite of passage for every police officer undergoing their training. His vision blurred, and a deep cramp radiated through his bowels. Oh God, I’m gonna shit myself! Officer Taylor stepped on the gas, intent on making it back to the station only blocks away so he could shit in peace in a nice, comfortable toilet. His squad car roared, all the horses under the hood running, and he plowed into the side of one of the empty businesses at 50 mph. His hood crumpled like an accordion, his head struck the windshield with a sickening CRACK, leaving a starred impact mark. Blood bloomed in his brain, running along all the crevices and plugged up the ventricles in rapid fashion. His brainstem herniated, ceasing his breathing. His sturdy heart ceased beating and his bowels emptied, releasing one last load of foul diarrhea in his britches.

In homes around the town, people laid in their beds, pissing and shitting, too weak to even dial 911. Not that it would have helped. The ambulances had long ceased running. Every medic called in sick, each fighting off the same illness they hauled to the hospital days before.

And unseen by anyone, streams of mice ran through the streets, gorging themselves on discarded food. They gathered supplies and constructed cozy nests hidden within walls of the locked buildings. Females gave birth to naked pink pups. The mewling pinkies, blind and helpless, suckled on their mother’s milk, infused with nutrients and calories.

And with the milk, their mothers passed along viral particles, and their progeny would mature and spread further disease.


Dr. Bockington sent up the alarm, phoning first The State Health Department and when she felt the bored woman taking her call wasn’t acting quickly enough, she called the CDC. They seemed far more interested in her town’s plight. The poor woman was on her 48th hour of work, worse than any call she’d ever taken in her residency days, even including the massive botulism outbreak from a steak and onion sandwich shop in the mall. All of her nurses had fallen ill to the mystery microbe, and a half blind former general practitioner who last practiced medicine during the Bush administration assisted her—the first Bush that was—and probably counted a jar of leeches amongst his personal effects.

Black, unmarked helicopters descended on the town. Massive Humvees filled with camo-clad individuals outfitted with respirators screeched to a halt just outside the town limits, awaiting orders. The Humvees’ cargo included machine guns, flamethrowers, and yellow hazmat suits—no medical supplies to speak of.

One helicopter landed on the hospital’s helipad. A massive man unfolded himself from his seat and, before opening the door, placed a state-of-the-art PAPR over his head, which sealed itself with a pneumatic hiss. He wore an expensive, well-tailored suit, and adjusted his red tie before striding towards the emergency room. Multiple cars littered the parking lot, many of them parked haphazardly, and he had to pick his way through the mechanical maze with care. He paused, bent over and peered into the window of a BMW whose headlights were still on, driver's side door ajar. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel, head resting on the dash. The woman stared sightlessly into the distance, dried vomit ringing her mouth, and the man watched flies buzz up from her gaping maw. Dangling from her rearview mirror hung a work badge that, in life, admitted the former Dr. Burke to any part of the laboratory she so chose.

Apparently, she didn’t need that badge in her afterlife pursuits.

Someone had propped the emergency room doors open with cement blocks and the waiting room beyond was dark, plunged into shadows. Bodies, most dead, lay strewn about, but he heard weak groans of suffering over the motor of his respirator. A faint odor of rot reached his nostrils, tempered down by the filters on either side of his helmet.

He frowned.

This debacle better not make my suit stink to high heaven, he thought, while adjusting his golden cufflinks.

He pushed open the double doors leading to the emergency department and halted in his tracks, taking in the scene before him.

The lights overhead were dead husks and the only source of illumination came from the corners where spotlights were rigged to gas powered generators. Tragically, the town’s power grid failed the day before, sorely lacking the workforce to keep running. The hospital’s backup generator was horribly outdated and malfunctioned after only a few hours, sputtering and dying with a spectacular clang. Last year, the hospital CEOs voted against updating the generator and voted for increasing their salaries—a genius move. To the man’s left, in room 1, a red-faced, sweating elderly gentleman stood next to a stretcher, mechanically pressing a green Ambu bag every five seconds. They’d hooked the bag up to his wife’s endotracheal tube and they connected the other end to a green cylinder of oxygen—one of the hospital’s last. Fatigue etched itself into the man’s features, and a map of deep wrinkles canvassed his face. Heat rolled off of him in waves, in part because of his exertion of manually bagging his wife for the last eighteen hours but also… had someone checked his temperature, it would have read 104.5. Each of his exhalations sounded like a death rattle.

The man turned away from room 1 and stared straight ahead into the ambulance bay. Black body bags spilled from high piles and once those had run out; they crudely wrapped garbage bags around the corpses.

With each room he passed, the story repeated itself, family members bagging their dying kin, bodies strewn on the floor. His filters spared him the worst of the smells, but the smell of stool, vomit, and stale sweat hung heavy in the ER. He turned the corner of the nurses’ station and happened upon Dr. Bockington. Dark circles ringed her eyes and new wrinkles cropped up around her exhausted eyes—red rimmed and dull. Bodily fluids stained her scrubs and white coat; her sleeves had assumed a dingy brown color.

Last woman standing.

He cleared his throat and spoke, his voice mechanical and tinny, “Dr. Bockington, I presume?” Briefly he considered extending his hand for a shake but quickly dismissed that idea. No need to invite more fomites than necessary.

Dr. Bockington startled, knocking the rolling chair to its side with a clatter. “Oh! Oh! I didn’t realize anyone was here!” She stood facing him. Her shoulders slumped forward, and she gazed at him with an intensity that reminded him of the award-winning photos taken of WW1 soldiers manning the trenches for days at a time—shell shocked with the barest hints of early insanity. Only the top half of her face was visible. A teal N95 covered the bottom half, and clear goggles protected her weary eyes. “Wait… who are you? Are you from the CDC?”

He tugged on his tie and sidestepped the question. “I’m Dr. Neil. I’m here to… assess the situation.” Lazily, he glanced around, taking in all the devastation and death surrounding them. “It seems as if things have taken a turn for the worse, wouldn’t you agree?”

She blinked owlishly at his stupidly obvious statement. Oh, I am so fucked if this is who they sent to help me. “I, uh—”

He cut her off. “No matter. What do you suspect is going on here, Doctor?” His tone rang of condescension, as if questioning her medical degree, training, and very existence.

Part of her wanted to give him a snotty retort, but her best chance of help stood in front of her, even if he was a total douche. She swallowed hard, wincing at the sandpaper sensation of her throat. It’d been ages since she’d taken a sip of water. “Well… best I can tell, some sort of novel virus. At first, I thought transmission via aerosol droplets, like SARS or MERS given how rapidly it spread, but none of the patients display respiratory symptoms at the beginning of their courses. First symptoms are headache, myalgias, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Given that, I suspected a fecal-oral transmission but—”

“So, you basically do not know what you’re dealing with? Is that about the gist of it?”

Dr. Bockington chewed her lip under her mask, biting at the dried, cracked skin. “Well, no. I don’t have any idea what is plaguing my town. I’m only an ER doctor, not an epidemiologist. That’s why I called you.”

He nodded curtly. “Well, based on what I’ve seen and the rest of my team, this town is a lost cause. Wouldn’t you agree?”

She gaped at him, unsure of how to reply to that statement.

“If I were you, you’d accompany me to my helicopter. Obviously, you’ll have to go into quarantine. We have no way of knowing if you’re infected, and we’d like to get some blood samples. Perhaps you’ll be the key to discovering what’s happened here. Odd… that you aren’t ill.” He remarked, as if insinuating she might be responsible for the plight of her town since she hadn’t succumbed to the mystery ailment.

“But… but… what about my remaining patients?” She gestured towards the dark treatment rooms.

“Oh… yes. We’ll deal with them. Don’t you worry about that.”

She hesitated.

“Or if you want to stay, that’s your decision. A poor decision certainly, but—”

“Fine, I’ll come with you. But promise me, you’ll help these people. They’re my neighbors and friends.”

He grinned under his mask, the smile not touching his eyes which remained cold and flinty, “Of course! Follow me.” He turned, walking back out of the ER without a look back at the human detritus all around them. She numbly followed, staring dully at the broad expanse of his back. They came to the black helicopter he arrived in, and he slid the door open, gesturing for her to enter. “Ladies first.” She climbed in. He made eye contact with the soldier sitting in the cabin, who casually clutched a Beretta 92 in his right hand and gave him a curt nod. The soldier returned the gesture. The massive man shut the helicopter door and stood outside, giving the soldier a moment to perform his grisly task. From the cabin came a faint fumph, followed by a muffled thud as Dr. Bockington’s body hit the floor.

The man grinned and considered the upcoming steps; next stop, the lab just outside of town. They were bound to stumble onto some enlightening research. Then… there was the matter of dealing with the dying town.

Luckily, they brought plenty of firepower.


Night fell. The moon shone weakly behind a thick blanket of gray clouds. No stars. Outside of town, a crowd of mice watched as hungry flames engulfed the buildings, jumping from structure to structure like germs hopping to new hosts. The horizon glowed a faint orange and was clearly visible in the reflection of their leader’s inquisitive eyes. The humans in the black helicopters departed earlier after ransacking the lab, headed back to their lab in Nevada. Soldiers wearing army green gas masks wandered from building to building—in the district of town where most buildings were shuttered—flamethrowers guttering hot and nasty, setting fire to the once quaint town. With practiced efficiency, the soldiers set the stage, ensuring that further investigations would conclude the town suffered a horrible tragedy, maybe from a passing drifter’s campfire foolishly lit within one of the abandoned warehouses—a fire that quickly spiraled out of control. Satisfied with their vile work, they climbed back into their Humvees and sped away.

Pilfered research materials and many samples heavily laden the Humvees, most of these focused on Hantavirus. Rather than working towards a vaccination, or even a cure, these folks were far more interested in weaponizing the disease, with the government’s blessing. Their submitted research papers were nothing but a cover. Hantavirus, what a delightful malady! With a few tweaks to the genetic code of the virus, the mortality rate could approach 100%!

Nothing wrong with a little bio-warfare amongst enemies.

Underneath the Humvees, packed into small crevices, a sundry of adorable, grey mice rested, with their own stowaways in tow.

The ignorant humans, so intent on playing God, would soon get firsthand experience with the wonderful pathogen they so coveted.


Author's Note: I originally wrote this piece for an outbreak anthology but alas, it was rejected. I grew up in Colorado where Hantavirus is endemic and my mother absolutely terrified me with stories of people dying from this... mostly to keep me from playing around in abandoned buildings. I obviously find diseases interesting... it's kind of my job!

Short Story

About the Creator

N.J. Gallegos

Howdy! I’m an ER doc who loves horror, especially with a medical bent. Voted most witty in high school so I’m like, super funny. First novel coming out in Fall 2023! Follow me on Twitter @DrSpooky_ER.

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