Short Story: Sample One-Nine-Nine

One of the rats stood on its hind legs. It sniffed at air flowing into its plexiglass cage. The rest lounged about in a heap, doing their best to keep warm in the chilly lab. These weren’t ordinary rats, or even extraordinary rats. They were utterly average. Genetically neutral. Their genes had been selectively bred to ensure as average a life-span and health as possible. They were kept free of mutations, but their genome diverse enough to keep from diminution. Lives depended on the strict adherence and upholding of these principles.

That was the requirement for laboratory rats in the modern age. Complete and total perfection in the realm of being average. They were simultaneously boring, dull as dishwater, and some of the most important and intriguing creatures ever born or bred. Their species and lineage had achieved perfected average with such regularity, that in a roundabout way, they were extraordinary.

Each rat was hand-fed at birth, their mother sequestered elsewhere to ensure both the purity of her health and the survival of all of her young. Each rat was as valuable as the next or last, and each one bred for a lone purpose: to save lives.

While there were, on average, roughly a few hundred rats in the lab’s various cages, all came from the same, few mothers. Those females were treated as near to royalty as their circumstances and handlers could allow for. They were fed well. Expertly cared for. Immaculately healthy. Even pampered in ways.

None of that had helped to deter the misconception that a million animals were being horribly mistreated in labs world-wide, of course. People honestly believed dogs, cats, monkeys– even horses, were being kept in tiny cages to be experimented on like the lower class of a dystopian future. The economics of such things were clearly against them. Holding onto a few hundred, larger animals required housing them, feeding them, and caring for them. All of that was cost-prohibitive when modern labs cost a million dollars to turn on the lights each morning.

Logic, too, was against them. An already-sick animal could not become infected with something needing a cure tested on it. Though various animals were used for differing reasons– pigs, for example, whose cardiovascular systems largely mirrored humans’– it was rare to find anything outside the common lab rat. In effect, the humble rat had more than made up for its supposed role in the plague. It had become humanity’s savior. Their unsung heroes. Certainly, it led a more distinguished life than the average human it served. If it weren’t for the common lab rat, and its benign genetics, few modern humans would ever receive vaccines or antibiotics.

No one knew this better than Gene Henley, head of the viral contagion lab at Vira-Lin Genetics. The place was on the leading edge of genetic engineering and viral vaccination research. Their billion dollar labs were just the tip of an iceberg involving a mission statement about “saving Humanity,” and a bottom line fat enough to try if it cared to. Several millions of dollars in salaried researchers staffed their various complexes worldwide. Each was the top of their field, or as near to the top as possible. Gene Henley was merely one of them.

Henley wasn’t so naive as to believe he’d ever save Humanity. At most, he figured he’d save enough of it to fatten V-L-G’s bottom-line without risking its dissolution. In truth, as much as he was head of his viral lab, the accountants dictated his research more often than not. He didn’t particularly like it, but his salary, bonuses, and benefits were better than living off intern or assistant scraps and choosing between meals or rent.

Corporate research was the wave of the future, for better or worse. The very least Henley could do was cash in on it. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d even make a break through. Maybe it would garner him recognition, renown before reaching an age where it was impossible.

Only time would tell– that was, if the next few minutes of his morning weren’t about to go horribly, horribly, wrong.

The little rat looked up at him had all the same trademarks of its species; red eyes. Pink hands. Ultra-white fur. The longing to be part of something beyond its small enclosure– okay, Gene imagined that one. Otherwise, it was an ideal candidate for testing contagion 18-199, commonly known as weaponized rabies. In simplest terms, Henley needed to infect the rat with it, then test a possible vaccine. Rabies was one thing they’d only recently been able to augment effectively. Weaponized rabies then, allowed for dispersal of the virus on large targets via aerosolized, missile-dispersal systems. Chaos would ensue within the “target zone” rendering it unmanageable by even the most powerful forms of governance.

So, maybe Gene had been a little optimistic on the “saving” part of humanity, but it wasn’t like the stuff was likely to get used. At least, he hoped it wouldn’t. In order for Vira-Lin to do anything with it, they needed both the virus and the vaccine. Otherwise entities– corporate, governmental, or otherwise– would string the board of directors up if they survived the apocalyptic nightmare it might pose. Besides, if V-L-G couldn’t vaccinate their own people and hold others hostage with the vaccine, there was no point in making the stuff.

Henley reached into the cage and fished out the lone rat with his thick, chemical gloves. He made his way to “the Box,” a thick, plexiglass, air-tight case for animal containment with gloved armholes for working with the contagion to be injected.

He set the rat in its housing to one side of the Box, then fished out a batch of 199. The few compiled possible vaccinations came with it, pulled from a LN2 freezer nearby. A quick rifling through a drawer for a set of syringes, and he slid the tools into the airlock opposite the rat. He straddled his stool, slid his arms into the sealed gloves fitted before it, and began. With an extension of his arm, he released the rat into the Box, then slid the samples and syringes from the airlock into its inner chamber.

Perhaps if he’d known what was to come next, he’d have better prepared himself. Perhaps even, he wouldn’t have gone into work that day. Alas, if there were fates, they’d surely already sown his future upon a golden thread. If only he’d known, he might have done something to avoid the next few minutes, or at least to make them go smoother.

The apprehensive rat sat at the edge of its enclosure, as if sensing its perverse destiny. Gene sighed. Normally the rats were curious, inquisitive. They seemed to need to know what was happening all over the Box. This rat was the opposite. It knew exactly what was happening. It wanted none of it. It was all the more evident after Gene readied a syringe and grabbed for the rat.

It squeaked, struggled, sank its teeth into the thick gloves. Gene shook his head, apologized, and moved the rat toward its injection. Its jaw released, and its body began to slip and struggle against the slick rubber gloves shielding Gene’s hands and arms. He readied to jab the needle in. The rat slipped. His hands went with it. The syringe sank through layers of rubber into his skin. Before he could stop it, the auto-injector flooded him with 199.

Alarms began screaming. Codes went off on a PA. “Code yellow, containment breach,” they said with a synthesized voice. Before he knew it, the door behind him burst open. A team of men in riot gear rushed in. Gene’s head swam. Rabid fury coursed through him. A tranquilizer gun rose. His arms tore free of the Box, gloves still attached. Two, gaping holes. Now, one with a rat scampering through it. He whipped ’round, growling like a rabid animal. A rabid human. The alarms screamed, echoed in his head. Reality went black. He felt himself lunge. It was the last thought he had.

The incident was recorded, the lab decontaminated, and Gene put in isolation until a cure might be found. Or rather, so he could be used as a test vector. Unfortunately, without him working the lab, things weren’t looking promising.

Scouring the lab for decontamination, revealed only a lone rat was missing. According to security footage of Gene’s botched experiment, this was the same rat that had caused his accidental injection. After reviewing the footage, the lab team deduced the rat would not have been contaminated. It’s lack of contact with the injector, or sample 199, was only the surface reason. In truth, the researchers under Gene had concluded one simple fact; the rat had wanted to escape. Given what it had done to do so, finding and euthanizing it seemed an unfair reward. Such determination, cleverness, and lust for life deserved better. At last report, it remains at-large.

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