Indira rubbed her eyes exhaustedly, trying to blink out the pain. She accidentally glanced at her watch and winced, knowing her betta fish and her boyfriend probably hated her for staying so late. God, what if Martin killed Bubbles? He was always insisting that she underfed Bubbles, what if he fed him too much or something, and-
Indira was shaken out of this terrifying spiral by the sounds of a door slamming somewhere. She jumped, but nothing dangerous happened. Indira yawned and turned back to the glaringly bright screen. After a few minutes, she decided she wasn't getting anything done, and the office only looked more depressing without the bustle of scientists, dream-makers, and other personnel.
She heard another door slam, much closer this time, and saw someone enter the bullpen, breathlessly placing their hands on their knees. It was Sabine Heydari, and Indira surprise was replaced with a mixture of annoyance and confusion. "Sabine?" Indira asked, waving to get her coworker's attention. "Hey, what are you doing here so late?"
Sabine's face split with a grin as she spotted Indira, and she straightened up. "Indy 500, I'm so glad that you're here! I could ask you the same question, by the way."
Indira smiled politely. She knew from experience that those dimples, goofy grin, and childish mannerisms hid a sharp mind. Sabine had twice won awards from the company and was one of the most senior scientists here. "Working late, this new project is pretty incredible." She reached for her purse, dropping scattered belongings into it. "You?" She dropped in her phone and assortment of mildliners.
"There is a massive blizzard outside, and I was about to leave but Markos won't let anyone go. We are, officially snowed in. But before that, I was checking up on something. All good." Sabine held up a thumbs-up, glancing back the way she came.
Indira instinctively looked too. There was nothing there, and like everyone else in the company, she decided to ignore this newest set of bizarre behaviours. "Wait a minute. What do you mean Markos won't let anyone leave?" The security guard had always been gruff and sarcastic, but she doubted he would actually make them stay.
Sabine leaned against a pillar, tucking one foot up. "The cars are buried, busses cancelled, the temperature dropped like crazy and traffic is jammed. It's unfortunately against company policy to let brilliant scientists turn into Indira-cicles, you see? So Markos is keeping us all prisoner here."
Indira smiled at that but tilted her head at Sabine. "Us all? Are there more people here? Sorry, I meant prisoners." She had always tried to get to know Sabine better, it never hurt having friends and mentors, but it was difficult to understand her sometimes.
Sabine's eyes narrowed for a moment before she broke into another grin. "Well, there's my assistant, Gabe, but that's about it, I think. Depends on definitions, since Gabe's not technically a person." She moved towards the hot chocolate dispenser and started fiddling with it. "Want some deliciously warm, diabetes-inducing hot chocolate?"
Indira laughed awkwardly and shook her head. She set her bag down heavily, gloomily accepting that she was stuck here. She stretched and inwardly cursed herself for getting trapped in the office with Sabine-freaking-Heydari of all people. Martin would only laugh and say 'I told you so' when he heard this story.
"What were you working on?" Sabine asked, shaking the machine for some reason, and it made a sound before expelling some weak-looking hot chocolate. Indira wrinkled her nose at the manufactured smell of it.
She snapped out of her trance. "Huh? Oh, our dream makers wanted some sea monsters, and I stayed back to fix some of my theories on what genomes mixed and matched for that. I was thinking, killer whale, squid, octopus, and shark should do it. But the client wants more scare value, and honestly, maybe I should just make some giant water snake." Indira nodded idly as Sabine drank the hot chocolate in one gulp.
Sabine whistled appreciatively. "That sounds so cool! Man, everyone else always gets the coolest jobs." She shrugged, rolling her shoulders back. For a moment, she looked at Indira like she was going to say something.
Inspiration struck Indira suddenly, why not bond with Sabine while she was here? She could cross that off her collaboration to-do list. "You know what, since we're here, why don't I just show you?"
Sabine immediately grinned, like she'd won something. She chuckled excitedly, tossing her empty plastic cup into the garbage bin. "Yes, yes I want to see your sea monster."
"Settled," Indira clapped her hands and made to head down to the pool. "Let's go through corridor C and D? That's your lab, right?" She was surprised when Sabine cut her off by moving in front of her.
"Why, why don't we take an alternative route. Like corridor A to the lifts, and from there to the pool? I think a walk would be nice, and besides, it'll build up the suspense." Sabine smiled, but something in that smile made Indira back off.
"Uh, sure." Indira automatically smiled back, that's how conditioned she was with good manners. And getting to see Sabine's project was definitely an unexpected bonus to this annoying mess.
The walk to the elevator was filled with Sabine's anecdotes about how clueless her assistant Gabe was, and how funny it was to scare him, or "accidentally" trap him in places. Indira didn't think harassing an undergraduate student was that hilarious, but she had to laugh at some of the stories.
"So," She started, trying to hold back her giggles. "He just got in the tank?" She hadn't been the smartest undergrad either, but some of Gabe's hapless actions were ridiculously dumb.
Sabine entered the elevator and held it open for her, chortling. "No questions asked! And I had filled it with non-flesh eating piranhas and he panicked when he saw them charge at him!"
Indira inwardly cringed, okay, this story was less funny and more problematic. "Oh wow. So, why keep him if he doesn't help?" She grabbed the railing as the elevator moved down with a beep.
Sabine put on a more sombre tone. "Oh, he helps. Poor kid constantly memorizes facts and literally does everything I say. It sucks that he won't be around anymore." She sighed, tapping the side of the elevator with her engagement ring.
Did he decide to respect himself and leave? "Is he graduating?" Indira asked kindly, stepping off the elevator. She wondered if she could ask later how on earth Sabine found someone willing to tie the knot with her. She'd been dropping hints to Martin for over a month without any success.
"Nah, he just got too involved in a project. I'm not sure if he can continue as a lab member anymore." Sabine waited for Indira to swipe them through multiple doors.
Indira hummed in response and put on her lab coat by habit as they reached the final set of doors.
Finally, they were at the pool. That's what everyone called it at least, the gargantuan tank of dark green-blue water. This was where they tested out the mermaids, the sea monsters, even some human trials for breath-holding or gills. It could be divided up, or used as one large tank. The amount of time Indira had spent here was insane, and she had seen enough to never want to get in any body of water deeper than a bathtub ever again.
"Here," Indira motioned for Sabine to follow her to the edge of the centre tank. Sabine jogged over, staring at everything with awe. She curiously peered into the unfathomably dark water. When Sabine leaned over, Indira had the crazy impulse to push her over. Indira shook herself out of it, realizing she probably needed some sleep.
Indira pulled out a sterilized, packaged needle from her pocket and held it out.
Sabine caught on and held up her hands in surrender. "I'd rather you did it, I'm scared of blood."
Indira smiled at that and pricked her finger on the needle, only afterwards noticing that she had overdone it a little and now it was bleeding a little too much. Oh well.
"Show off." Sabine teased, watching eagerly as one drop fell off of her outstretched hand and into the water. "How big-"
The chains attached to the deck suddenly tightened, and Sabine fell silent as a strange, rumbling roar was heard. The dark water spilt over the edge of the deck as something ghostly began to appear.
It rose up to the surface, a giant, shiny thing with rows of shark dorsals. It was black and white, with deep, dead eyes. A large sea monster indeed. It shrieked again and Sabine laughed, awed.
It splashed fiercely, trying to get at the blood.
"This is incredible! And where will this baby be released?"
Indira rested her head on her uninjured hand, leisurely waving her hand. "Oh, this is just the proto, the real thing has to have more teeth and tentacles apparently. But we're thinking Florida, blame it on some freak shark attack or boating accident."
Sabine snickered. "Will there even be a boat left?" She gazed longingly at the sea monster again, only reluctantly pulling away.
"Doubtful," Indira turned to Sabine, intrigued now. "So, what are you working on?"
"Let's go, shall we? But as a teaser, I'll just say, think of the apocalypse." Sabine grandly gestured, stepping off the deck back the way they came.
"The apocalypse?" Indira repeated, swiping them through the same set of white doors. Her mind flashed through possibilities, and she honestly worried a little. A sea monster eating some locals and terrorizing a city was one thing, a biological or nuclear weapon something else entirely.
Sabine held out a bandaid that she had materialized out of nowhere, and Indira noticed a spot of blood on her sleeve.
"Oh, you okay?" She asked, tilting her chin at it as she wrapped the bandaid around her finger.
"Vaccine." Sabine pulled a face, pushing open the door. "Isn't this crazy? I remember you joining this place, and now, look at you, your first major commission." Sabine smiled widely. "So whose nightmare fantasy is this? Which billionaire asked for Moby Doomsday back there?"
Indira was effectively distracted from her concerns, and she smirked slyly, finally enjoying talking to Sabine.
"You have to tell me," Sabine pressed, playfully crossing her arms and frowning.
Indira giggled, unable to contain it. She couldn't tell anyone anything about her work. Ever. "Legally, I can't, but off the record, it's-"
The elevator beeped as it began to move up. Sabine cackled with laughter and clutched her stomach. "Wow, so the philanthropy-"
"Just a front, but this was seriously detailed, I mean, the Dream Maker had some specific desires to pass onto me." Indira followed Sabine off the elevator. "I don't know, every year the ideas get crazier and crazier. I mean, those mermaids?"
Sabine snorted, "You're talking about their weird accents right?"
"Yeah, we had to train them for months! I mean they were part dolphin, that shit was hard!" Indira rolled her eyes, smiling as Sabine held the door open for graciously. She finally spotted one of the signs on the door. "Oh, biological-so, is this like a disease?"
"A disease?" Sabine echoed, laughing incredulously. "I put a ton of effort into this, call it something cooler! Here, put this gown on."
Indira smiled awkwardly, trying to hide her fear. "Yeah, thanks. So, uh, how does it work?" She put in on, following Sabine into a room with a shatterproof observation mirror on the outside, and a curtain separating them and the other side inside.
As they entered, Indira was distracted by the rustling on the other side of the curtain. Almost a shivery sound. The room had a strange smell too, a strange cross between meat some sterilizing liquid.
"I'm so glad you asked. Basically, I used a flesh-eating disease to get the overall look, a parasite that makes shrimp into cannibals, and the prions that cause mad cow disease. Blended 'em together, took a few attempts to get it right. Then I weaponized it and tested the antidote on myself." Sabine turned the lights on and when she turned, Indira realized with a lurch that she was wearing a face mask.
"Wait, wait, why are you wearing that?" Indira asked, starting to feel the beginnings of panic.
Smoothly, Sabine left the room and clicked the door shut behind her.
"No! Wait!" Indira cried, racing to the door and pulling at the handle. "What are you doing?" Indira pulled and hit at it but it didn't budge.
Sabine appeared at the glass, her voice muffled. "Relax, if the disease doesn't affect you, you'll be fine, mostly. I don't know how far gone he is yet." Sabine grinned again behind the glass, the picture of innocence.
"What?" Indira screamed, hitting at the glass, causing blood to leak out of her finger. "What's going to happen to me?! Help! Someone help me! Please! You can't do this! Let me out, please!"
A sharp rustling behind her made her whirl around, breathless.
"Now, you've done it, he's attracted to noise!" Sabine declared behind her, sounding despairing.
The curtain ripped open and something rotting and dead emerged, hands outstretched and eyes wide with madness.
"Oh my god! No! Please, please Sabine let me out!" Indira sobbed, pressing her back against the glass.
The dangling name tag from the rotting zombie's coat read: Gabriel B., and Indira let out a cry of shock. "You-you infected him?!"
The creature looked up at the sound of her voice and focused on her. Indira realized with a lurch that he could smell her blood, dripping down from her finger.
"Hey, hey, Indira, you want to hear something?" Sabine asked, her voice a perfect mix of glee and soothing. Without waiting she spoke, "Curiosity killed the cat, but science fiction brought it back!"
Indira screamed as it lunged for her, it's gaping, bleeding mouth wide, Sabine's laughter ringing in her ears.