"Dr. London, I presume," said Milano, offering a hand.
"Yes. And you're Dr. Milano?" They shook. "Where the hell are we?"
"Somewhere in North Dakota, I think. It doesn't matter. This is your home, laboratory, office, and lecture hall from now on."
"At least it isn't a missile silo."
"Actually, it was. Only the offices are upstairs. Your office is next to mine. You can drop off your laptop and any papers you brought there first, then I'll show you the rest of the place."
"Look," said London, on the elevator ride down, "I'm having second thoughts about this. Who are we working for here? The government? The military?"
Milano sighed. "Those are just subsidiaries. We're a third subsidiary."
"We're working for… the rulers. The one percenters, some call 'em. To say this is top secret is… well, top secrets are secret from citizens, but governments share them around as needed. This place, not even the governments know about."
"Whoa. I was promised top-notch research facilities, opportunities to publish papers, the works. Not some crazy billionaire's private spook factory."
"Actually, you'll have all that. Your papers won't appear in Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine, but we have our own network of journals and lecture circuits. And the facilities are beyond anything you've ever dreamed of. Trust me." London stopped before a steel door and again took out a packed key ring. "This is where we'll be working. Your keys are in your desk upstairs, by the way."
"What's with the keys? Why not magcards?"
"It's too easy to hack. This place was fitted with mechanical locks back when, and they'll work even if the power goes out. Come on in."
"Nice." London tried to take it all in at once.
"Only the best for the pet researchers. Let me give you an overview on what you'll be doing. It was your immunology research that called attention to you, by the way. Level 3 biosafety training didn't hurt." Milano pulled on a pair of latex gloves from a wall-mounted dispenser then lifted a vial from a rack. "This is UW-401, the virus we're studying now. It's classified Biosafety Level 2, as it's similar to HIV in its transmission vectors. Our job is to devise a vaccine for it."
"What's it do?"
Milano sighed. "The sooner you see this, the better." He led London to another steel door at one end of the laboratory, marked "OBSERVATION." He swiped a finger across a tiny scanner, and it clicked. "I'll add your fingerprints when we're done there," he said. "We got cleared to use biometric locks for interior doors. Keeps things interesting."
They looked down at the figure on the gurney. "What — ungh!" London held his nose. "Is he dead, or did he start rotting before he died —" He gasped and grasped the railing, forgetting to hold his nose and breathe. Below them, the figure moaned and writhed, pulling at the straps securing it to the gurney.
"That is a victim of UW-401," said Milano. "One of the superpower militaries developed it, looking for a way to create the ultimate soldier."
"Looks like they created a zombie instead."
"That's pretty much what it is," Milano admitted. "They thought it rather promising at first. I can show you some video from the biowar group that developed it."
"That's impossible," London breathed. "His heart's gone — you can see daylight right through that hole!"
"You can see why they thought they had a winner, huh? The virus rewires the central nervous system and shuts down all autonomous systems but locomotion and digestion. They eat, they kill. You have to decapitate it, or blow it to bits, to stop it."
"You said 'at first.' What changed their minds?"
"A minor detail with soldiers: they have to be able to follow orders. UW-401 victims don't. They just keep going, killing and eating. And transmitting the virus to those they only wound."
"What's the symptoms?"
"Numbness within a few hours of infection. Loss of appetite. Vomiting, if the victim eats anything but fresh, raw meat. The numbness progresses to loss of higher mental functions and a dampening of senses… except sense of smell, which gets keener. After eighteen hours, the cardiopulmonary functions cease and you have a zombie."
"How does it live without a heart or lungs?"
"Badly. Digestion continues to provide enough energy to keep it going, but it's continuously necrotizing. After about six months, it quits. But that's plenty of time to infect other victims."
"Do they think this is gonna get out of the labs?"
"They know it will. As soon as they have a vaccine, they're going to release it."
"Yeah. They're freaked out about that Occupy thing. They're afraid it's going to go viral, so they're going to immunize themselves and let something else go viral."
"End of November. They'll push down fuel prices so people will be in a spending and traveling mood for the holidays. Computer models suggest it'll be worldwide in a week."
"Why bring me in on this? Immunization isn't rocket science. Dead virus, weakened virus… they've been tried already for sure."
"Of course. The problem is, the immune system doesn't recognize UW-401 as an invader. There's no immune reaction to stimulate."
"So we have like six months to invent an entirely new immunology, so we can destroy the human race?"
"That's the gist of it."
"Fuck that. I'm outta here."
"You think they'll just let you walk out? You have a family, right? Why do you think they talked you into coming out now and letting your wife and baby 'catch up' in a couple weeks?"
London reeled, caught a chair, sprawled into it. "My God."
"Play nice, report some results, and they tell me they'll bring our families out here come fall. I want to show you one more thing, then we'll head back to the offices." Milano gestured toward another door; behind it was a room lined with foam spikes. "An anechoic chamber," he explained, closing the door. "It was part of the original facility." His voice sounded flat.
"Damn. It's so quiet in here it's hurting my ears."
"Yeah. I've checked this room as best I can, and they can't monitor us in here." He sighed again. "I apologize, Dr. London. It was me who recommended you for the position. That was before I realized they don't intend to hold up their end of the deal."
"What do you mean?"
"When they're safely vaccinated? If they're merciful, we'll get a bullet in the head. If not, they'll feed us to the zombies. They've set up another silo for themselves. They'll hole up, release the virus, and come out in a couple years when all the zombies are dead."
London paled. "Shit."
"Yeah. I've got family out there too. I think they're toast, when it comes right down to it. So this is the plan: we continue to research, and come July we announce a breakthrough. We inject the entire one percent with live virus, grab our families, and make a break back for here with as many others as we can round up. If we're lucky, we'll be able to take advantage of the chaos. If not…well, we're no worse off."
"I… that makes sense. I'm in."