"The sky broke like and egg into full sunset and the water caught fire."— Pamela Hansford Johnson
Lena sighed as she prepped the incineration chamber, her janitor’s uniform hot in the stuffy room. This was the fourth dead baby this week, but it, she, had been different. She’d lived three days, instead of a little more than two. The scientists up top were examining her right now. Lena had had hope for the infant. Since The Break started, They hadn’t had a child live past a year in four years.
The Break had been silent, it had come without warning. At first, newborns had lasted a year at most, so no one realized for a while. But then the deaths went from natural causes to something more gruesome. The infants had cried themselves to death, or scratched themselves until they bled out. The latter was always done silently, so by morning, the mothers would come in to a scarring scene.
When everyone realized this was happening too frequently, and perhaps that there could be a link, it was already too late. No children were making it past five months old, and no one could figure out why. Finally, after millions of deaths, they found it: a bacteria that controlled the infant's nervous system. The bacteria destroyed the white blood cells first, allowing them to become susceptible to infection, then entered the stem cells still growing, and controlling their movements. Since the white blood cell count was low to begin with, it only affected newborns, according to research. A sound behind Lena snapped her out of her thoughts, and she turned. At the door stood Donovan, wearing a sad smile and holding a small cardboard box in his arms.
“Hey, Len. Got another delivery for ya,” he mumbled. She nodded, opening the heated chamber which he then slid the box into.
“Did they find anything abnormal?” she asked while she fiddled with the controls.
Donovan shook his head with another one of his sad smiles before looking up at her, “No. Just the same. Nothing but Rotties and sadness.” Lena looked up at him and sighed again before pressing the button to turn on the depressing machine.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait for the next one won’t we?” She was trying to be positive, but that was hard when the world lacked a future. He just nodded and they watched hope turn to ashes together.
“Hey, Len,” Donovan said, directly beside her ear. The proximity made her jump and almost drop the book in her hands. Lena twisted around and smacked him on the arm, actually making her drop her book. Donovan laughed and bent to pick it up, giving it to her when he straightened.
“Don’t do that Don. That’s not funny. You’re gonna give me a heart attack one day,” Lena whined, trying to mask her own smirk. Donovan saw the curl at the corner of her lips all the same.
Lena just glanced at him and then back at her book.“I’m not sure actually. Just something I picked up from one of the lab lounges. They never clean up after themselves,” she said as they rounded a corner, almost smacking straight into a man in a white coat rushing down the corridor. He pushed past the two and continued on his way, not even bothering to apologize. They watched him rush off and then continued their walk.
“Rude. But... I mean, that’s why we’re here, right? I mean, they don’t exactly keep us here because we look good.” He gestured to their rather unflattering janitorial uniforms that matched each other, as janitorial uniforms tend to do. “They keep us here because they’re too lazy to take care of the space they work and live in. But... hey, we get what they leave behind.” Lena knew he was talking about the book, but her thoughts went back to the meager food they were given as pay, and the tiny rooms that bordered on closets that they were forced to sleep in.
“Yeah, we do,” she sighed as she pushed open a door labeled, “Work Quarters.”
The janitorial living quarters were in the basement, so the two would have to go down three flights of dark stairs to even get to the narrow hallway with about 30 doors. Their tiny rooms were filled with one twin sized bed, a small dresser with only their small supply of clothes, and a little trunk that slid under the bed to hold their meager personal possessions. She hated it.
Donovan didn’t mind it, though. In fact, he was grateful for what they gave him. He hadn’t grown up wanting to become a doctor like Lena. Actually, he never thought he would make it past 20 years old. He wasn’t that much past it but he’d still passed the milestone. He’d gotten lucky when they’d taken him onto the payroll right before The Break. When everyone had figured out it was happening, chaos had broken out. Riots, murder, confusion. Hell, Chicago burned. Burned. He’d been given safety when hell broke loose, and for that he was grateful.
They reached the bottom of the last flight of stairs and pushed open the last door between them and what they considered home. But what greeted them was nothing of the sort. Blood covered the concrete floors, staining their shoes. People they’d lived with lay sprawled in doorways and slumped against the wall, painting this sanctuary red with horror. They both stared, open mouthed at the massacre before them. A voice crackled over the speaker above them just as an unfamiliar man stepped from one of the rooms with a knife in hand.
“The building has been breached. I repeat, the building has been breached.”
The voice clicked out just as the man saw the two and a wicked grin spread over the his face. A little late, no? Lena thought before she turned and sprinted back up the staircase with Donovan’s hand on the small of her back, pushing her along, hopefully to safety. She could hear the man stomping up the stairs after them and pushed herself harder, almost to the second flight of stairs. She stumbled, almost falling on her face if not for Donovan’s hand catching her by the waist and straightening her. They continued up the steep steps, Lena having to take the steps two at a time to even keep ahead on Donovan.
Finally, they burst through the door, Donovan turning and throwing himself against it. They could hear the exact moment the man hit the door, only making it push out by an inch before Donovan's weight slammed it closed again. The man beat against the door, the metal edge of the knife clanking and scraping against the hard metal every time his fist hit it. He met Lena’s eyes, nodding towards the long hallway that they'd come down just before. She nodded in return, realizing his plan. He put up a hand, the man still pounding on the door. He held up three fingers, slowly putting them lowering them as he counted down. The moment his last finger went down they both sprinted down the hallway, the man busting through the door, sprawling onto the floor from his own momentum.
It took Lena a moment to realize that the emergency lights were flashing, bathing yet another familiar place with red. They continued to run, their sneakers squeaking against the white linoleum. She could hear the man stumbling as he got up, his maniacal laugh echoing up the hallway. He was…. enjoying this? Donovan made a hard right, Lena almost falling as she tried to follow suit. She knew where he was going; the only place the scientists didn’t know about.
The Hold. The one thing the lower staff had to themselves that wasn’t half assed or second hand. It was a panic room. It was a literal hole in the wall. One that could hurriedly be sealed.
They came to the dead end. But it wasn’t the end. Donovan pushed in the sliding panel slid it to the left. Without warning he shoved Lena inside, stepping in after her. The man reached them just as Donovan went to slide it closed again, lashing out with the knife. Donovan felt the blade cut through skin and almost lost his grip on the panel. He readjusted his grip and slid it home, the solid thunk of it locking into place— making a wave of cold relief wash through them both.
“You ok?” Donovan asked Lena who was panting beside him and she looked up.
“Oh my god, Don, your arm!” Lena exclaimed, immediately standing and going into the main living area before coming back a few minutes later with a red box he assumed to be a medicinal kit. She dropped to the floor beside him, popping open the box and pulling out white wrapped packages of various sizes. “I’m not going to stitch it yet, I'm just gonna wrap it.”
“I’m fine, Len,” Donovan hissed as Lena cut the bloody sleeve from his uniform and sprayed it with disinfectant from a small bottle. She looked up and gave him a glare, so he shut his mouth and kept quiet as she wrapped the cut.
“Len?” Lena looked up. “What happens now?”
“Now you wake up.”
Lena sighed as she prepped the sim lab. This was the fifth failed simulation this week. She’d had faith in Donovan. She just had to tweak the dose in which she injected him with. Maybe next time he’d finally kill the real threat. Maybe next time he’d finally kill her.