Debrief by David Smith

Thomas rounded the corner, dodging the on-comers like traffic cones on a test track. He had to tell Lydia what he’d found. She was the only one who could pull the plug on this nightmare. 

 A left, then a right. 

A familiar fluorescent buzz lit his way. The lab was on the lower levels of the building. The lack of natural light had always bothered Thomas. But he hardly took notice of anything now. He needed to get to the conference room.

 Another left. 

Thomas didn’t see the husky man, or his immovable shoulder, until he was already on the cold tile floor. The tablet dropped, skidding across the hallway. He pounced on it with a shriek, throwing a small mailroom intern out of the way to do so. 

“Mr. Fuller?” Lydia said from the conference room doorway. “What are you doing acting like a zoo animal? This is the CDC. Have some class.” 

“Ma’am, you need to see this data right away.” Thomas fumbled with the tablet as he approached the slender woman. She was small, but her presence demanded respect. “We need to shut down the Omega Project.” His panting filled the now silent hallway.

“Come with us, Mr. Fuller,” she said as she looked around. Her frustration never hid well on her creaseless face. One of her assistants took Thomas by the arm and led the pack down the hall. Away from where Thomas had come from. Away from the Omega Project. Lydia leaned to her remaining assistant. “Alert the president that we will have to initiate the Muzzle Protocol on Mr. Fuller,” she whispered. Thomas couldn’t read her thin lips, but his heart jumped up into his throat anyway.

Thomas stumbled into the cement room. The assistant had no trouble dragging him down the hallway. But it was the forceful shove into the dark room that convinced Thomas of this man’s unusual strength. There was a rusty chair bolted to the floor in front of him. It sat patiently facing both the door and the mirror next to it. In any other setting, Thomas would have marveled at seeing one-way glass. However, this sight only brought Thomas fear and panic. The yellow light swinging from their sudden entry made him even more anxious. “Wa—WAIT! THE PATHOGEN IS EVOLVING. IT’S ADAPTING!!!”

 With a heavy clank, the oversized assistant closed the door behind him. Thomas scrambled to his feet and ran to the mirror. The sweat on his palms left greasy smudges on the glass. “Listen! The virus isn’t behaving like a natural virus. It’s learning to actively avoid the bots.  We don’t have anything in place to deal with this.” Speaking made his throat feel like a child’s straw, chewed and crimped. His thick glasses slid with the sweat down his nose. 

The click of the intercom made Thomas flinch away from the mirror. 

“Mr. Fuller, please step away from the glass.”

 Lydia’s emotionless voice sounded even colder through the grainy speaker. He could see the small plastic box in the corner of the ceiling. Beside it was the camera. The shiny black eye didn’t have to move to follow his every movement. His own distorted reflection was all the proof he needed. It sent a bead of icy sweat down his back. His heartbeat shook his vision as he took his first look around. The rust ran down the back of the chair like a diseased waterfall. Even the concrete below was discolored and sick. This rust seemed to infect the whole room with malicious intent. 

“Take a seat, Mr. Fuller.”

Thomas stared at the doorman. The intercom sounded like background noise behind the ringing in his ears. This man didn’t look like a lab assistant. There was no sign of the posture that comes from long hours hunching over data sets. Nor the crooked finger tips from the lecture notes in grad school. The man that stood by the door was no lab assistant. His shoulders were broad and stiff. Scars had written a history on his sturdy hands that Thomas was sure would give him nightmares. The man’s jaw had more muscles than Thomas’s entire body. The man flicked an annoyed nod toward the chair, breaking Thomas out of his daze. He didn’t want to test how far this man’s patience could stretch. 

His back scraped against the rust, showering the ground below with dead metal. He shifted nervously, trying to keep an eye on both the mirror and the behemoth guarding the door to the left of it. His soft, wet hands gripped the cold steel. They stretched and flexed against the metal. Thomas wished he hadn’t left his pills in his lab. His head felt like it was about to explode, and he could see his fiery panic creeping up his face in the mirror. His knee bounced violently. Each bounce making a pitiful pat on the seat of the chair. A muffled thud came from the other side of the door. Thomas matched the noise with a shrill squeak, pulling his knees up and turning away from the danger. 

“Mr. Fuller, would you please explain the situation loudly and clearly for the record? Don’t mind Mr. Harris there either. He isn’t there to keep you in, but to keep others out, as to preserve the quality of the recording.”

The words didn’t comfort Thomas at all. He could have just told her in her office, then submitted his official incident report. That was the procedure for all the other developments in the program. He straightened himself in the chair and cleared his throat. 

“The virus is learning.” His voice cracked, despite his preparations. “The cells are adapting faster than the algorithm can progress.” The tremble in his voice began to disappear as his mind travelled back to his lab. He could see the scene playing out through the telescope as if he was sitting at his desk. “They aren’t attacking the bots anymore, but hiding from them. Disguising themselves as host cells. I—I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Another thud from behind the door tore Thomas from his mind’s lab. Mr. Harris didn’t bat an eye. 

“Former Queen’s Guard?” Thomas said with a nervous smile.

“Stay focused please, Mr. Fuller. What solution do you propose?”

His airways tightened again. He knew his next words would only be heard as numbers by the suits behind the glass. They’d dumped billions into this research, and he wanted to flush it all.

“We need to destroy the test subjects…” he said to the floor.

“Speak up, Mr. Fuller, we didn’t catch that in here.”

“We have to destroy the test subjects!” The demand surprised him. He didn’t know where the sudden confidence came from. He didn’t know where it went either. Mr. Harris showed no surprise. Thomas felt vulnerable again. He shrank back into the chair as silence swallowed the room. It felt like hours before the click of the intercom broke the shaky rhythm of Thomas’s breath.

“Very well. Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Fuller. You will now be debriefed by one of our Senior Operations Agents. After that, you are free to go.”

The words felt genuine, so Thomas let his shoulders relax. He sighed, allowing a bit of pride to creep into his thoughts. For the first time in his life, Thomas Fuller was in charge of a situation. He leaned back into the chair. He tried to contain the smirk reaching across his lips. Mr. Harris reached toward the lever-arm holding the door shut and pulled. It swung open to reveal an attractive redheaded woman. Her slender profile cast a tall shadow across Thomas. The expression she wore made him think that she really hated having to debrief lowly lab techs like him.  Either that, or she simply made her job her sole objective, pushing all other thoughts far away. Thomas admired her focus. Her long hair was left down. It poured down the back of her pinstriped suit. She seemed out of place in that sense. It was contrary to the obligatory lab-safe buns and clothing he usually saw. He wondered why a senior member of any department might not abide by such basic guidelines. It was for safety purposes, after all. Safety. That brief moment of relief Thomas had felt just moments before started to dissipate. 

The woman finished preparing something on a cart just out of view. There was a flat, sliding clap, like a perfectly fitted cabinet drawer sliding shut. The woman turned and began walking towards Thomas.

“So, how does this work? Do you explain what the pr—”

The bullet dug in to the concrete floor behind the rusty chair. Thomas’s head lulled back, dumping its contents down the back of the chair. Fragments of bone and tissue dove clumsily into the thick pool below. Mr. Harris pulled a pair of latex gloves out of the pocket of his suit. 

“Your aim is getting worse,” he said flatly.

“Maybe you’d like to shoot the next one then,” she replied as she unscrewed the silencer from the barrel of the pistol. The soft plopping and splashing worked like a metronome for their work. 

“The cremator is firing up. Fluer is on her way up with a gurney. Good work as always, Agent Bizyayev. Mr. Harris will assist you with the clean-up.”

The two nodded in unison and picked up the body. They positioned the corpse at the doorway, the hollow head pointing down the hallway. Agent Bizyayev pulled a box from the cart in the hall and dumped its contents on the pool behind the chair. The sandy substance swelled and turned to a brown mass of sandy gore. They scraped it into a dustpan, leaving only a dark red stain among the many already tainting the floor. Fluer came, and the three of them loaded the body onto the gurney. Mr. Harris then sprayed a cleaning solution on the back of the chair. The rust caught and pulled on the cloth he used to wipe the chair. He never cleaned it well. He liked the way the rust looked. 

They left, leaving the door open behind them. 

“I’ll shoot next time,” Mr. Harris grunted. The Agent smiled and handed the gun to the statue of a man. 

“Straighten up then, Brian. We have another Muzzle to fit at the field lab in Iceland.” She pulled the silencer out of her jacket pocket and handed it over. “Plane leaves in 20.”

Mr. Harris slid the smooth metal tube into his jacket and smiled. It was the smile of a man who only had one joy in life.

“God, I love this fucking job.”

The End