Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.
The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.
She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.
When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.
Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.
Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”
“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”
“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”
Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”
Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.
“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”
“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”
Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.
“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.
Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”
“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”
Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.
The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.
“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.
Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”
“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”
“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.
Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.
“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”
Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.
She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”
“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.
“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”
Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”
MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”
“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”
MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”
“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”
“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”
“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”
“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”
The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.
The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.
Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.
Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.
She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.
She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.
Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.
The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.
Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.
They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.
“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.
“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”
“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”
Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”
“We’re about to find out.”
MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.
Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.
There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.
The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.
One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.
The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.
A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.
“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”
The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.
“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.
“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”
“Why?” Edwards asked.
“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”
“What will that prove?”
“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”
Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.
“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”
The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.
Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.
Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.
Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.
“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”
“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.
“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”
Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.
The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”
There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.
“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”
Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.
She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.
Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.
In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.
She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.
She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.
Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.
The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.
She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.
Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.
The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.
Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.
The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.
She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.
Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.
She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.
She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.