A Siberian wind swept around Claire as she hurried to the lab. March in Osaka was always unpredictable, and she had underdressed for the icy chill. Wrapping her trench around her more tightly, she splashed through a shallow puddle in her rubber boots. The lab was a nondescript concrete structure, cold and bleak in the early morning light. She pulled her card key from under her coat, swiped it through the lock, and heard the click as the light flashed green. Stepping through into the fluorescent lit anteroom, Claire doffed her boots and coat and gowned in. After three years, this had become routine: first the indoor slip-ons, then the shoe covers, the first pair of gloves, the hairnet, the facemask. Then move to the inner part of the room and pull on the head cover, full bunny suit, outer boots, eye shields, and second pair of gloves. Wipe down the phone and tablet computer with isopropyl alcohol, and she was done. Glancing at her phone, Claire cursed. She was late. The Japanese didn’t tolerate tardiness. There was no excuse good enough here in Japan, especially when she needed to collect the blood samples at the same time every day for the best comparison.
Claire pushed through the plastic flaps into the inner vestibule, awash in amber light that protected the light sensitive samples. Was it really only three years ago that she had started this research? The marmosets, cute furry faced monkey-like creatures, were now Claire’s closest friends. She couldn’t remember the last time she had spent a day away from the lab. Hopefully, talking to a marmoset wasn’t too weird. The lab had developed the marmosets as pets. They genetically bred them to glow in the dark, and they’d succeeded, but only occasionally. She was trying to make a humane animal model for drug testing, and glowing fur was a promising means of seeing drug uptake. Claire’s research into genetics began at Stanford University, where she had worked under Dr. William T. Smith, genetically modifying walking stick insects to grow wings. That had worked, too, but the walking sticks became aggressive and eventually ate all their non-winged brethren.
Claire shook her head at the unwelcome thought. Lately, the marmosets had shown some signs of aggression. But otherwise, everything was on track and looking good. Her publication in Nature, the premiere journal in her field, had been a huge success last year. The glowing turned out to be a powerful new way to test for drug uptake without having to sacrifice the animal. It promised to improve animal testing both in terms of its humanity and its cost effectiveness, and that meant getting the blood tests done this morning before she missed her time window.
Claire jerked open the supply room door too roughly, catapulting her into the room with undignified clumsiness. No one was there, thank goodness, and Claire straightened up, rearranged her garments, and set her stuff down on the workbench.
She grabbed the rack of clean test tubes off the sterilized shelf and proceeded to set up the syringes. She hated having to poke the little guys every single day. The non-glowing ones broke her heart by coming up and voluntarily sticking out their arms, hoping for a scratch behind the ears when she finished her work. The glowing ones, however, now resisted her. She had to use an animal control pole, which was basically a noose, and then pin them down in order to draw their blood. Last week, one of them bit her on the shoulder just beyond the edges of her rubber apron and she had discreetly tested herself for infection. Reporting it would have caused a scandal. Things were under control. She just needed to be more careful.
Working quickly, Claire made up a few minutes. Good. She could punch the clock the moment she walked into the animal lab rather than after she had everything arranged, and it wouldn’t be obvious she was late. She rolled the cart down the hall and swiped her card on the lab door. This small room required yet another layer of protection. She donned the face shield, rubber apron, and third set of gloves. These gloves were thicker and made her hands clumsy, but it was important to not transfer any pathogens in either direction. Marmosets were too genetically close to humans to take any chances.
Claire swiped her card a third time, an awkward left hand move but the only way to get in with the cart before the door lock reset. She bumped the door with her butt when she heard the click and backed carefully through the heavy door into the animal lab, pulling the cart with her.
It was the silence she noticed first. Normally, the marmosets were screeching their high pitched whistle and climbing around rattling things. Also, she had a lab technician, a quiet, dignified man named Fuji-san. He’d been assigned to her, even though she preferred to work alone. When he worked in the lab, he seemed to have his own agenda, but as quiet as he was he still made noise typing sample data on the computer while he monitored the health of the animals.
Claire tripped over something on the floor and fell, pulling the contents of the cart down with her. The face shield fell off as her head jerked back. With a scream as her tailbone cracked against the concrete floor, Claire saw what she had tripped over. It was a marmoset, and it was dead. The whole body and even the long tail were shredded, leaking a pool of blood. She tried to push herself up with her bulky hands and slipped back again, her gloves slippery with blood. All of them. The whole lab was covered with the bodies of dead marmosets. She heard a noise and quickly pushed to her feet, brick red patches staining her garments.
Not all of the lab animals were dead. One of the glowing marmosets crouched in the corner under a steel counter, its eyes filled with rage. It held a broken glass shard in its tiny bloody hand. Claire backed away slowly, judging how she could get out. Edging towards the computer station, she saw Fuji-san crumpled on the floor, stab wounds everywhere. She shuddered, seeing his eyes had been gouged out. The desk offered no protection and nothing she could use as a weapon or shield. Shit.
Claire shivered and stared into the beast’s wild eyes. She ran for the door and the marmoset screamed, lunging for her. She shoved the rolling cart at him. It was Hugo, one of the dominant males, now barely recognizable for the cuts, bites, bald patches, and missing ear. His breathing sounded watery as the cart hit him, knocking him to the ground and sending the shard clattering across the floor. Claire wrenched open the door and yanked it shut, hearing a dull scrape and thud against the other side, then silence.
She opened the outer door, making sure no one was around, and dashed to the supply room. She pulled off the apron and gloves and dialed her phone.
“Hello?” he answered on the second ring.
“William! Help me! They’re all dead. And Fuji-san, he’s dead, too.”
“Claire, calm yourself. What’s going on?”
“The marmosets. They’re dead. There was some kind of battle in the lab. I have no idea what happened. Only one is still alive, Hugo. You remember Hugo, right? But he’s wounded.” She was whispering now.
Silence, then, “We can’t let this get out. We’ll lose all our funding and we’ll be the laughing stock of the scientific community. You’ve got to pull yourself together.”
“Fuji-san is dead, William. This is going to get out, and who the hell cares about funding compared to this?” Claire screamed into the phone then glanced around and lowered her voice again. “I’m covered in blood. I don’t know what happened, how they got so violent.”
“Don’t think about it right now. Remember the cylinder room for the gases? You can access it from the back of the lab. Go turn on the oxygen. Fuji was a smoker, right? Throw a cigarette in the room and walk away.”
“Oh, God! I can’t do that.” Claire slid down the door onto the floor.
“You want to throw your career down the drain? I thought we were going to be together again stateside, start our own lab together. You know we’ve got a great idea for a new project, but it can’t be done without you. This isn’t your fault, but it will ruin you. Just do it. Let Fuji take the blame for being careless. It will die down after a bit, and we can start over, do something revolutionary.”
Claire’s throat felt constricted and she couldn’t breathe. Her life, her career, was over. Tears began to slip unheeded down her face. “I need time to think, William.”
She pushed the button and ended the call, seeing she’d left bloody footprints everywhere. That meant there were footprints down the hall. I will figure this out somehow, she thought and pulled herself to her feet, stuffing her sticky phone in her pocket. Looking around the room, she saw a pack of cigarettes on top of Fuji-san’s bin.