Virulent The Release Online - Shelbi Wescott

PROLOGUE

365 days before The Release

Two thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth, two men stood on the edge of a dirt walkway. The generators around them hummed with vibrant energy, and the lights flickered in a syncopated beat. The rich smell of mineral-fresh dirt, mixed with the softer and foreign smells of clean plastic and cut lumber, filled their hearts with equal parts longing and anticipation. They exchanged a fleeting look before venturing further into their creation, stopping to peer over the handrails and the expanse of a white domed ceiling where sporadic ‘sun’roofs let the men sneak a peek at the hard-hatted workers below.

“Our face-time conference is in five,” the younger man said to the older man, checking the time on the tablet he kept tucked under his arm. He swiped a finger across the screen activating the device and typed in his password. “Ready to ascend?”

The older man took a long scan of the dome and nodded. Then he cupped his hand around the younger man’s shoulder and gave it three small congratulatory pats. “This is good, son,” he said. “This is very good.”

“It’s coming along,” the younger man answered and slid out from under the touch. “But my concern is not with the shelter. Come on, the call. We can’t miss the call,” he turned to the vertical lift, a metal box with exposed sides, and climbed aboard. He entered a secondary code, pushed a bright yellow button, and they rose—foot-by-foot—back up to the bright morning sunlight, which was spilling over the yellow grass and porous dunes of the Sand Hills.

The two men stood together—not speaking. Beneath their feet, the younger man thought he felt the rumble of their generators, but he assumed he was imagining phantom vibrations. Everything was secured underground, meticulously hidden away from all detection and threats of discovery.

The tablet beeped with a chipper ding ding ding, and the young man answered without delay. “Hello, good morning,” he said to the man whose face materialized on the screen.

“Good morning,” the clean-shaven man with gray on his temples replied, delivering a perfunctory smile before reaching down to adjust his screen—his hand looming large in front of the camera, springing out at them then retreating. He sat at a desk, his white lab coat opened to expose a blue and green plaid shirt, a red Pilot pen stuck in the front pocket. “Calling in for

confirmation meeting at an undisclosed location, employee code on your command.”

“Go ahead,” the younger man repeated with a glance backward.

“Seven Two Four Eight Three Zero.”

“Validated. Hello, Scott, hello. Sorry if you tried to catch us a second ago. We were touring the system and the service underground is lacking. By the time we reach the release date, however, we should be wired for all communication needs. Our best men are on it. The dome is coming along nicely. It's an impressive work of art.”

“Sorry, art is not my area of expertise,” Scott replied, putting his hands up in mock surrender, then dropping them to the desk, a nervous laugh covering his failed joke. “No, no; I caught you on the first try.” Scott paused and then cleared his throat. “Well, I have good news this morning. We’ve made significant progress. I can brief you again at our next scheduled conference...to confirm...but as of this morning, control group six has responded successfully to the release.”

“That is wonderful news,” the older man answered.

“We’ve been pleased, yes. It appears that our initial projections were not far from reality.”

“Incubation period?”

Scott nodded and consulted a yellow legal pad in front of him. “Our observations seem to put it anywhere between twenty-four hours and six days. The average around thirty-six hours after exposure.”

“Any immunities?”

“None in the first six control studies, but it will be impossible to know for sure until we graduate to a more representative sampling.”

The younger man turned and stole a look before focusing back at the screen. “Does that mean we are ready to begin the next phase?”

Scott scratched at the corner of his eye. He blinked and nodded. “Yes. On your word, my team will begin to test the subjects your company has procured for our next stage.” Scott closed his eyes and sighed—the deep exhale of breath rushed against the microphone and was audible to the gentlemen. The younger man bristled and glanced backward to the older.

“Scott,” he said, his voice tight and terse, “I hope that sigh does not indicate that you are having second-thoughts about our work? Because you guaranteed me…”