Dr. Bartholomew Albert Spencer
Day: E-Day+3Time: 0710 EST/ 1250 GMT
Location: Georgia State University, Institute of Public Health, Basement B
Al awoke to the sensation of falling, followed immediately by the jarring pain of the back of his head against a hard surface. He looked up at the lower half of one of the Institute's full body bio-hazard suits.
"Excuse me?" The tin voice projected from the suit's filtration system. "You okay?"
It took Al a few moments to register what had just happened and why he was now lying on his back on the floor of what the wallsign identified as floor B in the Institute. It started to come back to him in flashes: charging up the stairs at the sounds of the Biohazard Security Compromise alarm, banging on the door to be admitted to the floor, sitting down with Cara to wait, his back to the door, and falling asleep there.
Why had he wanted so desperately to go towards the BSC in the first place, and why had he been trying to break into it?
Al scrambled to his feet, forgetting that Cara had fallen asleep with her cheek on his thigh and remembering only after the hearing the resonating sound of her head on the floor. He stammered an apology as he pushed past the two suited technicians, and sprinted down the hall. It did not even occur to him that the security breach may not be fully contained; his only thought was that he get to his office. As he rounded the corner and dashed up another hallway he considered just how many possible protocols he was violating by not asking those questions about security. He would make those inquiries once he had seen that his sister was safe.
The door to his office was locked. He swung his ring of keys from his belt with a practiced motion despite his nerves, and fed the key into the lock. He pulled the door open and sprung into the room.
It was a large office by most university standards with enough space for a pair of couches, two desks, a small adjoining supply room that he had turned into a kitchenette over the last few days. Since the sealing of the lab, they had been using the couches as beds, and Mina had set up her laptop and other computer gear on the small coffee table rather than trying to clear room on the second desk. The desk was buried under boxes of supplies that he had been meaning to find appropriate homes for rather than resign to the recycling bin. It was always more efficient to re-use and re-purpose rather than recycle.
Mina looked up from the couch where she sat, her legs tucked up under her chin, and her face lit by the light of the laptop as it filled the room with a low blue glow. Her eyes opened wide as Al crossed the space in a pair of strides and threw himself down next to her, pulling her into an embrace.
"Thank God," he said, clutching her to his chest.
She was still there, she was breathing, and she was alive. All things he had prayed for as he had pounded on the door to the basement level despite the futility. He just held her and savored knowing that she was alright, the work he had done to get her to safety before the meteors hit had not been wasted.
"W-T-F to the 10th is going on?" Mina asked as she remained wrapped in Al's arms, her body shaking slightly. She was smaller than him by a good foot and nearly a hundred pounds. She had the same sandy hair, but her's was always tied back in a pair of low tails that would flop over one shoulder or the other when she turned her head. "One minute I'm kicking ass and taking names on my best gold run of SR3 Multiplayer, wave after wave of Grims, and next there are warning sirens, and men in suits telling me to stay in the office and the lights go out for a while and this is all just a few shades of not-cool."
Al quickly explained that there had been some kind of accident, that some of the sample they had been working with from the "cloud of death" had gotten released from its secure work area and that as a precaution they had been forced to take drastic measure to ensure it did not spread. It could be, he said, anything from a few microbes being detected outside of one of pressure areas, to a full human exposure. Given that it had taken only two hours to secure, it could not be that serious, he assured her.
This last statement was a lie. He was not sure the extent of Mina's knowledge but the bacteria or virus in the clouds was abnormally fast acting. Their tests suggested that it could consume two hundred pounds of simulated human flesh in just under ninety seconds. But even more freakish, the microbes seemed to die within minutes of feeding, doing their work and then disappearing moments later in a quickly evaporating pool of ethanol. It would barely take an hour to secure a floor after a full cloud had been released and killed everyone on it.
As a rule, dishonesty was forbidden. It was expressly banned in several varieties of religious texts from throughout the world, making it a cornerstone law in Al's mind. It could be easily argued, on the other hand, that this was the singular exception and if not he would face that reckoning if it should come.
"So it's safe now?" Mina pulled back from him, finally.
"It should be," Al answered.
"Is everyone okay?"
Al thought for a second. "I don't know." He pulled his phone out of his lab coat pocket and checked his email. At least they had managed to keep those servers up and running during the events of the last few days. It helped that Professor Meyer had also hired a full team of IT specialists for her research team this semester. As expected there were some flash memos posted by the head of the department related to the accident but no specifics yet. He relayed this to Mina.
"Oh," Mina said with a start. "I should let Angel know I'm okay."
"The one I was playing with before this all happened. I just shut the game down when the alarms went. She probably thinks I got caught in a cloud or something."
Al watched silently as Mina logged back into the computer, considering this. "Do you know this Angel?"
"No," Mina answered without looking up. "It was a random assignment from the game matchmaking. There's not exactly a lot of people playing right now."
"Yes, I imagine not, given with, well, everyone being dead, mostly."
Al stood up. "Sorry." He crossed to his desk, looking for something to keep himself active. He wanted to go investigate the accident, to be sure everyone was, indeed, alright, but he also did not want to leave Mina. "Do you know her story?"
"Not really," Mina confessed. "We talked a little about how hard it was to find someone to play with, shared a good whine about how the game requires multiplayer to finish, and then focused on the mission objectives. I think she's from the Midwest somewhere, maybe Chicago or something. Nice kid."
"Kid? You're barely twenty, yourself."
"I have two PHD's." Her frustration was evident in her voice.
"In computer games." His own disdain was equally on display.
"In Artificial Intelligence Algorithms and Synthetic Interface Development."
Mina rolled her eyes and sighed loudly. "You know, most big brothers would be proud that their little sister had two PHD's at the age of 19."
"Most people with the intelligence required to get a PHD by 19 would have also found one that actually has some kind of intellectual merit." This was a common argument, one they had been having for almost three years. It was familiar, if heated, ground.
"I've written artificial intelligences that have more intellectual merit than most freshmen."
"I've seen admission standards; don't congratulate yourself."
"You're such an ass."
"Runs in the family."
At this Mina said nothing, glaring back in clear anger. At least with the world ending, the two of them could be counted on for a good fight. Al sighed and sat down in the office chair, trying to get his focus back. A fight had not been his intention, yet there it was. The silence overtook them, the only sound that of Mina's fingers on the keys of the laptop. It was a gaming rig, really, and had cost more than his first car. Al thought it a colossal waste of money.
"I should check on Dr. Maple." He had momentarily forgotten all about her.
"You do that. I'm going to go find a beer and then try to get some sleep."
Al glared at her. "You're not old enough to drink."
"Oh my God, are you serious?"
"Even if someone around here has a stock of beer, which I doubt, you have to be twenty one in this state to imbibe it. Another nine months and you're clear."
Al was hanging up his lab coat and about to step out of the office. He turned back to see Mina staring at him, her mouth slightly open.
"Who do you think is going to card me? Did you miss the part where the world is ending? We have a lot bigger problems than underage drinking."
Al was about to press the point and realized that her argument had merit. Even if he were to forbid it, a mandate he had precarious standing to make, he doubted that anyone would be willing support him. "I'm not even sure you could find any. It's not really a high priority item to stock."
Mina laughed. It was that disdainful laugh she had mastered when she was amused and angered at the same time. "This is a biology lab. You think someone hasn't started mixing some sugar, some yeast and some kind of malt by now? I'm willing to bet basement D has a brewery and a distillery running in full glory."
Al started to shoot another comment back at her and stopped mid-syllable, instead simply making a long "Ya" sound. He mentally retraced and then found the thought that had given him pause. "Yeast?"
"Yeah, yeast. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, specifically."
It was Al's turn to stare. "How do you know that?"
"Jason. Made his own beer, grew his own pot, otherwise totally useless. It was a short relationship."
Al had made a point to forget him and his kilt. He shook his head and regained his focus.
Mina said nothing at first. "What's yeast?"
"The clouds of death," Al explained putting his lab coat back on. "That's it. We've been trying to treat them like bacteria, which it’s very similar to, but it's a form of yeast, a more complex organism. Consumes, reproduces, spreads, and then when it runs out of food it dies off leaving nothing but alcohol, which evaporates, and CO2. We're being wiped out by flesh-eating yeast."
"Okay that is so many shades of messed up, and helpful how?"
"If we know what it is, then we know how to stop it." He paused in the doorway. "If it's not too late."
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If you enjoy Bastion: The Last Hope, perhaps consider Mind the Thorns, a reader-directed web novel telling the story of Regan Fairchild: Accountant, Bachelorette and Vampire.
Mr. Osterman's first novel FantastiCon can be found on Amazon.com in both print and eBook editions. It is also available on Smashwords.