Chapter 2A Chapter by Domenic Luciani
Picking up the action and the interest here.
The observation room was little more than a narrow corridor, dimly lit and packed with people in various colors of scrubs, all muttering quietly to one another. A hush fell over the gathering as the door slid open and Beck and Andrew entered. They were recognized and the collective murmuring resumed. The right side of the wall was fixed with a row of one-way mirrors that looked out onto another, larger room with concrete walls and a single hanging light. The room was also set about ten feet lower than the observation room, so Beck had to lean over the consoles in front of the windows to get a good look at what the vast majority of scientists at MedTech referred to as ‘subjects’.
Eight children, boys and girls, aged anywhere from toddlers to older teens where standing in a line in front of an empty white desk. The children all wore grey clothing with the numbers “117” to “125” clearly labeled over the left breast pocket. The heads of the departments would now be bidding on which subject they wanted which best suited their needs.
“I’m thinking of that one there,” said a chubby man in blue scrubs. “Number 119"you know, the thinner ones always make the best subjects for studying eating disorders.”
That would be Heimlich, Beck thought, the head of the Department of Food Cultures and Habits. The child Heimlich had pointed to was a frail looking boy who couldn’t have been a day older than nine. He had neatly trimmed straight black hair and was looking down solemnly at his toes.
The head of the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Understanding quickly and without question nabbed an older looking blonde boy who kept his hands balled into fists and was looking around nervously. The Department of Domestic Defense usually got landed with the more fit children, but as an unspoken rule, you do not argue with the DCNU. Once, someone tried to steal an untested formula that was meant to cure erectile dysfunction. His corpse was found a week later in his apartment. The statements said he died of an overdose of the medication, but a few people had gotten in to see the body and they said he had been covered with blisters that suggested a chemical burn. Anyone who had any sort of feud with the DCNU pretty much backed off after that.
One by one, the children were argued over, a few moans of aggravation and cheers of triumph clearly audible. As the head of Botanical Sciences, he was entitled to choose a subject, but was not questioned when he didn’t. Only a few select people knew of his research, and even they had ceased trying to talk him into taking on human subjects years ago.
“Still nothing, huh?” asked a balding older gentleman in green scrubs, sitting on a chair with his arms folded.
“I have all the plants I need, Alan,” Beck said. “They don’t bite, they don’t kick, and if they die, I can just throw them in the trash.
“Well, if you give them a little morphine, they’re not much different from plants then.”
“Are you suggesting we’re throwing them out now?” said Beck.
“Well, we are being encouraged to consume and discard of used products these days,” replied Alan, entirely unaware how close Beck was to knocking him out of his chair.
Andrew caught on to what was happening and intervened. “Beck,” he said. “Could I have a word with you?” Andrew eyed him cautiously. “Outside?”
“Of course,” Beck said, giving his best fake smile. “Excuse us, Alan.”
Alan nodded, uninterested.
Once outside, Andrew gripped Beck lightly by the shoulder and led him down the corridor. “Let’s go grab some coffee.” Andrew said cheerfully.
“I already had some this morning,” Beck replied.
“Oh, I insist.”
“Honestly, I’m fine,” But Andrew would not take no for an answer.
An hour later, Beck was walking back to his office, a half cup of coffee still boiling in the tin mug. His office door slid open upon approach, which was strange. He could have sworn he locked it on his way out.
There was a man sitting at his desk when he walked in"a strange man who Beck had never seen before. He was wearing a navy blue suit and a blood-red tie. Beck’s computer was on, and a cord hooked up to it was connected to a handheld device in the man’s disturbingly thick fingers.
Beck considered asking what the man wanted, but figured the evidence was on his side.
“Hey!” he shouted angrily. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Instead of snapping to attention, the man simply glanced up calmly, finished up what he was working at, stood up and offered Beck his own chair.
“Doctor Huxley,” the man said nonchalantly. “Please have a seat.”
Without waiting for Beck to react, the man continued. “The chairman wants to know what you’ve been up to these past few months. We understand that a project like yours is ambitious and takes time, but he and the board are growing somewhat impatient.”
“I have been making progress,” Beck said.
“Of course you have. I was looking at your research earlier, however, and I’m curious. Where exactly are you planning to go with it?”
Beck opened his mouth to answer, but the man put up a hand to silence him.
“It was a rhetorical question, I’m not actually interested. The chairman simply asked me to come down and make sure things were moving at a satisfactory pace.”
“I assure you it is.” Beck still had not moved from the doorway.
“Good. Glad to hear it. However, the chairman would like you to know that if your pace slips, even a little bit, then, and I quote, ‘A catalyst will be introduced to speed up the process.’”
“I can’t work any faster,” Beck said, exasperated now.
“So long as you don’t work any slower, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
With that, the man left, and Beck was alone in his office. The coffee cup was still in his hand. He threw it against the wall as hard as he could, exploding the cup and spraying its contents everywhere. Coffee streamed down the glass before swirling down the drain, though quite a bit remained pooled on the floor. He pressed the button at his desk and called for someone to come clean it up.
Beck sat down in his chair, feeling like a stranger in his own space. He quickly logged onto the computer to see what information the man might have pulled up.
On the screen, his notes were up and scrolled to the bottom. No surprise there, Beck had hoped he would look through these. What was there was all true and accurate data. It was the second tab that concerned him. His email account was up, but again, no immediate danger. Most of the emails were from other members of the department and a few general notices to employees. However, a few messages sparse and hidden within the mounds of business mail were a few messages from Tyler. Anyone looking at the inbox would assume it was a son asking his father when dinner would be, or where they would meet up after Beck got out of work, but Tyler had never once sent an email to his father. In fact, there were several contacts listed under his son’s name. There were a few with his mother’s name, and at one point Sarah had had a few contacts under her name as well.
He looked at the first message listed under Tyler and opened it. It read
“Hey, dad. I’m staying late at school for a project. Would you mind hanging around until about 8 O’clock, outside the old coffee shop? Thanks.
It was a message from the captain. Beck typed a quick response and shut off the computer. He leaned back in his chair and swiveled around in it for a while with his eyes closed, trying to imagine himself in a forest. He had not been to a forest since he was much younger, so it was difficult to picture. The trees all looked like preschool drawings of Christmas trees with jagged lines for leaves and branches. He gave up. Instead he imagined sitting on the couch watching television. Much easier.
A janitor arrived wearing a white jumpsuit with blue stripes down the side. Beck didn’t get a good look at his face; he was gone the minute the janitor entered. Beck didn’t like to be around the cleaning staff. For some reason they made him uncomfortable. Maintenance staff lived in the facility. For security reasons, they weren’t allowed to leave. Before Beck worked for MedTech, people inside had been leaking secrets to other companies, and this was their attempt to plug up the hole.
Beck sauntered down the hall, peeking into offices, looking for anyone he liked well enough to have a conversation with. No go; most of the offices were empty.
How long could it take to clean up coffee? Beck thought nervously to himself. He was thinking about checking back when something caught his eye.
A flash of scrubs"Purple: not his department. He went down the corridor the person had run down and followed. He usually received notification when someone from another department needed something from Botanical Research.
The corridor eventually ended up in the testing chamber, the room Beck had been trying to avoid as much as possible for months. He stopped for a moment when he realized this, finger hovering inches away from the door button. No choice. Turning around and walking away didn’t feel like an option. Besides, he thought, I’ve been facing all sorts of fears today, it seems.
Click. The door opened and Beck entered.
The first room was a sterilization room. White hazard gear hung from glass lockers along the wall. It got exhausting to throw on the hazard gear every day, so now most of the scientists only wore it if they were sure to be dealing with genuinely hazardous chemicals that day. Aside from being inconvenient, they were terribly uncomfortable and were one-size fits-all. They were shapeless and the joke was that they were one-size-fits-none. Beck ignored the signs warning of the dangers of not wearing a hazard suit and continued over to the sterilization chamber.
The door was sealed shut and someone wearing a hazard suit stood motionless inside.
After a moment, Beck rolled his eyes and pounded on the glass. No response, the person was facing away from him. He moved over and hit the intercom and yelled “Hey!”
The person in the hazard suit looked around quizzically then turned to Beck.
“It’s not on, dumbass,” Beck said. “Just hit the green button next to the door.”
The person looked at the green button then turned back to give Beck a thumbs up as thanks.
“Idiot,” Beck mumbled to himself as the blob of the hazard suit awkwardly waddled into the next room.
Beck went through himself, not even waiting for the doors to fully open to step into the next room. The room beyond was referred to as the dorm rooms. It was where the test subject (had there been any) were kept. There were no actual rooms, rather eight large glass boxes, four on either side of the room, with beds, toilets and sink. Various tubes and hoses were hooked into the top of the box. All of the boxes were empty.
The hazard suit guy had already disappeared into the room ahead. Beck stopped and glanced over at the door on the right. The double doors were thick and beyond there was another sterilization chamber, and beyond that were the gardens; a deadly jungle of genetically modified plants and trees, many of which were engineered by Beck himself. Without a hazard suit, a five minute venture into the room would most likely fatal, depending on which toxin got to you first. Once, one of Beck’s scientists was inside adding a catalyst to a rose that was meant to make it bloom prematurely, but instead, the rose grew poisonous barbs that punctured the suit and subsequently caused the man’s skin to melt off his bones. Beck shivered at the memory of the post-mortem clean up
He pressed on.
The third room was apparently where the party was. Beck was instantly bombarded by loud voices and sweaty bodies. The noise was indistinguishable and everyone was moving about so wildly, Beck had no choice but to make his way to the console on the far side of the room. The man at the desk glanced up as Beck came near. At first his head went back down, but then snapped back up as recognition hit. A look of horror washed over him.
“Give me that,” Beck grumbled as he grabbed the microphone. The man stuttered a raspy reply and quickly sank away into the crowd.
“Everybody shut up!” He yelled into the mouthpiece.
The commotion stopped immediately. Some looked around curiously, but most recognized the voice and turned towards Beck solemnly. The man in the hazard suit was facing the opposite direction and continued trying to have a muffled conversation with a scientist.
“Somebody, please tell me what the hell is going on here,” Beck asked. “And somebody get that guy out of here!” He pointed at the man in the suit who had yet to notice that anything was happening at all.
Someone escorted the suit-guy out of the room, but other than that, everything was silent. Nobody made eye contact. A woman pointed over to the two way mirror that looked into a smaller version of the observation room. Beck glanced down into the room and drew a sharp breath.
Laying unconscious on a gurney was a small boy, one of the youngest he had ever seen, with sandy brown hair and scrawny limbs. As he watched, someone wearing a hazard suit was hooking up a series of tubes into his arms. The tubes stemmed from a clear pack of opaque green fluid.
“Hey!” Beck called out, pounding on the window, “Stop! Hey!”
He turned to the scientists, all with downcast eyes and guilty looks. He pushed through them in a frenzy, calling for people to put a stop to it, but he was at the stairwell before anyone else could respond. He burst through the door and into the concrete room below. The man in the suit looked up at him.
It was all he got out. Beck tackled him to the floor and made a grab for the tubes, but it was too late.
The fluid was slowly flowing into the boy’s body. His eyes fluttered open, and he looked at Beck oddly, as if he was an old friend who had shown up unexpected. Then he looked down at the tubes and his eyes widened. His breathing quickened until he was hyperventilating. His limbs, strapped to the gurney, began to flail about. His heart was beating so quickly, that Beck could see the thumps as they pounded against the boy’s chest.
Then the formula, whichever one they had been using, started to take effect. The boy’s skin turned a sickly shade of yellow, and then continued until it was an effervescent green. His veins pushed up against his skin and even they began to change color to a violent purple.
Beck looked up to the window; the scientists concealed behind the black pane. He knew they must be watching. Concerned only for themselves. They had taken matters into their own hands, what would Beck do to them? But at the moment, Beck could think of nothing else other than the boys life. Already his mind was flashing back. He had been here before.
The boy’s breathing stopped. His heart stopped pounding. An eerie calmness fell over his green skin.
“Quick!” he yelled. “Someone grab the vials from my office!” He looked at the man in the hazard suit struggling to stand up. “You! Grab the defibrillator from the wall.” He didn’t wait for anything to happen, he went right to work giving the boy CPR. He didn’t know what contact with him might do to his own body, but he pushed the thought from his mind. The boy coughed after a minute, but quickly fell back into a comatose state.
The hazard suit man finally appeared with the defibrillator and Beck moved away. Charge, “clear” zap! Charge, “clear”, zap! Charge, “clear”, zap!
Beck pushed the man out of the way and held his ear to the boy’s chest. Nothing. The door opened and an out-of-breath scientist rushed in holding all three pink vials. Beck grabbed one at random"He didn’t quite know what any of them might do, so he wasn’t going to be choosy"stuck the vial into a compatible syringe and injected it into the boy’s forearm.
The reaction was immediate. His eyes shot open, his breathing started again and he started screaming. The green skin color persisted though. Beck pushed the boy back when he struggled with his bindings, but he wasn’t flailing about like before.
When the boy calmed down, Beck removed the tubes from his arm and handed them to the man in the suit. Then his mind went blank. What was in his system? What could be done for the boy? Beck considered asking the scientists upstairs, but his anger with them was returning, and it was so seething he could not imagine talking to any of them without knocking their heads in first. He put his hands on his head and took deep breaths, just how Sarah told him to do when he was mad. No dice. His mind was torn between rescue and revenge and he couldn’t focus on either.
“My head hurts,” the boy said.
Beck turned to him.
“My tummy hurts, too.” The boy’s voice was little more than a whimper.
He made up his mind. “Someone get down here, now!”
No response. He glared at the mirror, demanding someone come down and face him. He wondered for a moment if they had all left, stranding the other two in a concrete room with the sick child, Beck, and his anger. The door opened a woman walked out. She wore thick glasses that enlarged her eyes so much she barely looked human.
The boy was moaning loudly now, his body tensed and tightened as he struggled against the restraints.
“What did you put into him?” Beck growled at the woman.
“I’m sorry, Doctor. The MK 201 formula,” she said, her enormous eyes widening in shock as the boy started screaming and arching his back high off the bed.
The MK 201 formula was an old super soldier recipe that had been scrapped due to its incurable effects on the body. It made the skin hard like bark, but solidified the joints as well, and so those who had received it might have been able to withstand a bullet to the chest, but they were rendered almost entirely immobile. However, sponsor interest in the formula had been huge so Beck wasn’t entirely surprised someone was trying to reintroduce it.
Beck jumped back as something struck him hard in the chest. He looked down to see a branch. A tree branch had sprouted from the boy’s index finger. The transformation happened so quickly, Beck hardly had any time to react. In Beck’s mind, everything happened slowly. When he would think back to it, he could recall it only as a series of images, like vignettes, thrown together in no particular order. First the boy was there, and then the tree, and then the terrible in-between-thing. He could recall the sound of music playing, not something tragic, but something beautiful"upbeat even. A concerto, perhaps.
The boy’s fingers turned to branches, then his hands. The restraints snapped as his arms and legs thickened and grew bark. His body elongated and contorted. His legs fused together and his toes grew roots. His neck sprouted leaves that hid his face as it split into two and became branches themselves. He was on his feet now, or at least what was left of them, and walking toward Beck, branches held out to him as if to grab, but the joints would not flex anymore. He kept growing, more and more branches sprouting. Beck moved backwards until he was against the wall, and then he was trapped. The tree-thing continued towards him until it seemed its foot was caught on something, but its roots had burrowed through the concrete into the ground, keeping him in place. Its movements became more laborious as the bark solidified. It continued to grow until it was pushing against the ceiling of the room. The two-way mirror shattered as the branches would not be stopped.
The door opened and a group of hazard suit-clad men rushed in with flamethrowers.
“No!” Beck screamed as they began spraying the tree with fire. Beck crouched down to protect himself as the room became an inferno.
The tree wailed in agony, a deep bellow that could never have been made by a human. The green leaves were now wrought with angry red embers. It seemed to tremble, utilizing every last bit of mobility it had left. The limbs cracked. What was it that was breaking, Beck thought, a limb or a bone? It could be anything.
A group of men were ushering him out of the room, the creature still crying out"piercingly, even as the doors shut closed behind him.
“Come on,” one said to him. The group of men walked him to the elevator and took him to the top floor of the building. They sat him down in the recreational room and then left him. He sat alone on the hard-cushioned bench with his head in his hands. He could hear the rain rattle against the skylights above. It was too quiet here, he thought.
He could feel his heart beating against his chest. This feeling was all too familiar. Loss and failure, they ate away at him. He thought of Sarah, and how she had transformed in much the same way. It was an experience one should hope to never go through once let alone twice. His wife was dead, and now so was this nameless boy. Beck had known him as a tree almost longer than he had known him as a human. What have we done? He thought.
What have I done?
© 2012 Domenic Luciani
Added on February 10, 2012
Last Updated on February 21, 2012
Forest of Men
AboutThat is my real name, and that is really me in the picture. Like Patrick says, I'm not in the witness protection program. I mostly write books and stories. I like fantasy, or fiction, but if.. more..