Please do not taunt the.., p.1
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Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus
A Newsflesh Novella
For Brooke and Vixy.
I cannot imagine the person I would be without you in my life. Thank you so much for everything you do. You make me be better, just to have a chance of being good enough.
I hate the term “mad scientist.” Shit yeah, I’m angry. I have every reason in the world to be angry. But what right do you have to call me insane?
—Dr. Shannon Abbey
Dr. Shannon Abbey is one of the more dedicated, driven individuals it has been my pleasure to know. Considering the company I have been known to keep, this is both high praise and a dire warning.
My day started like any other: with the sound of screaming from the next lab over, followed by one of the interns—Dana or Daisy or something like that—running past my door, her hands flung up over her head and her mouth open in an ongoing howl. She wasn’t on fire or covered in blood, so I figured it couldn’t be that big of a deal. I put my head back down and resumed studying the quarter’s expense reports.
It would be easy to think that running a semisecret underground virology lab wouldn’t come with any of the normal paperwork. It would also be incorrect. Contractors and supply companies don’t donate their time and wares just because a lab happens to operate outside the usual boundaries. If anything, they’re likely to charge more, since there’s always the chance that this month’s order will be the last. They have to get their dues in where they can. It used to piss me off, but there was nothing to be done about it, and besides, the more I paid, the more I could count upon their discretion. A bribed bastard never tells.
Thank God for the American Affordable Care Act. It was passed in a limited form right before the Rising began, despite the opposition of one hell of a lot of people who thought that providing health care to their fellow citizens was somehow, I don’t know, inappropriate. Honestly, it was a miracle the thing passed at all, considering that we’re talking about the era of vaccine denial and homeopathic cures for everything from autism to erectile dysfunction. If the Rising hadn’t come along when it did, most of the United States would probably have died of whooping cough before 2020, leaving the middle part of the continent ripe for Canadian invasion.
But resistance to public health aside, the ACA did pass, and after the Rising made the consequences of ignoring one’s fellow man blazingly apparent, it was strengthened and improved until the United States had one of the best health care systems in the world. My interns might be officially unemployed and not drawing a salary, but at least I didn’t have to worry about paying their medical insurance.
The intern—I was pretty sure her name was Daisy; I seemed to remember her saying something about flowers, or The Great Gatsby, or something equally inane—ran past again, still screaming, still not on fire. I narrowed my eyes and dropped my stylus on the desk before pushing back my chair. Joe, my black English Mastiff, raised his head and made a bewildered ruffing noise deep in his throat. I leaned down to stroke his ears.
“Good boy, Joe,” I said. “You guard the desk. I’m going to go cut a few strips out of my new intern. Maybe I can make you some jerky. Would you like that, Joe? Would you like some nice intern jerky?”
Joe made another ruffing noise, all but indicating that he very much would like some nice intern jerky. I stroked his ears again.
“Good boy,” I repeated, and made my way out of the office, pausing only to grab my lab coat from the hook next to the door.
There’s something powerful about a lab coat, no matter how dirty or threadbare it may become. I was never going to get the bloodstains out of this one, and even if I had, I’d spilled a glass of ruby port on my right sleeve the week before. That’s the sort of stain that nothing will remove, not even hydrofluoric acid. Although acid would remove the fabric, so technically, it would also remove the stain.
But yes: power. A person who wears a lab coat is a person who knows what’s up: a person who can change the world, for either good or ill, through the studied application of science. A person who understands the way things are done. And in my lab, when I wear a lab coat, it means that some serious shit is about to go down.
The screaming intern wasn’t screaming anymore by the time I stepped into the wet lab three doors down from my office. She was crying instead, her hands clasped over her face in what seemed to me to be an excessively theatrical manner. Three more of the interns were clustered around her, varying expressions of shock and dismay on their faces. The tank behind them was empty. I sighed.
“All right, where the fuck’s the octopus?”
One of the interns pointed up. I followed the line of his finger to the light fixture at the center of the ceiling. A large white mass was clinging there, three of its legs slapped flat against the plaster. The rest of its legs were twined around the light fixture itself, holding it in place.
“Barney, dammit.” I crossed my arms. “You know you’re not supposed to be up there. How are we supposed to take cell samples if you’re sticking to the damn ceiling all the time?”
“Eh-eh-it grabbed my face!” wailed probably-Daisy. Her voice was distorted by her hands, which was possibly the most annoying thing she’d done since the screaming began.
“Of course he grabbed your face,” I said. “If you give Barney the opportunity to grab your face, he’ll grab your face. Everyone knows that. Grabbing faces is his one true joy in life, since we won’t let him stick to the ceiling all the time, and he’s never going to get laid.” Octopuses died shortly after they mated. It was a biological kill switch that all my tinkering hadn’t been able to remove, which made hormone depressants and celibacy the only real solution. I needed my test subjects to live until I was done with them. Barney had been with us for ten years now, and I was planning to keep him for ten more, no matter how cranky he got.
Probably-Daisy finally lowered her hands and stared at me. I looked impassively back at her, raising an eyebrow for emphasis. If she was going to work in my lab, she was going to need to learn to deal with the fact that sometimes, things were going to get messy. She was honestly lucky that she’d just had her face grabbed by an angry octopus. Worse things had happened to my staff in the past, and not all of them had survived.
“Does anyone have a stick?” I asked. “We need to get Barney off the ceiling and back into his tank. Preferably today. I can’t authorize feeding the rest of the cephalopods while he’s still hanging around out here, and I don’t want an army of angry, hungry octopuses rampaging through the place.”
“Sorry, Dr. Abbey,” said Tom. He’d been with me longer than most of the research staff, a distinction he bore with dignity, grace, and a whole lot of marijuana. As long as he didn’t try to do delicate work while he was stoned, I really didn’t care. Besides, the more interested he got in hydroponics, the better everyone else’s food became. It was a win-w
“It was an accident,” said Jill. She hadn’t been with me as long as Tom, but she’d survived two outbreaks in her time, one by removing her prosthetic leg and using it as a club. She was also one of the only researchers in my lab that we hadn’t recruited. She’d just shown up one day, like a particularly tall, gawky, Canadian puppy with a fondness for bioluminescence.
Between the two of them, I had managed to create the perfect intern-hazing machine. Tom was lackadaisical enough that no one ever expected him to move quickly or act cruelly, and Jill was a safety valve on his occasionally dangerous impulses, turning what could have been harmful pranks into octopus antics and the occasional sewage line backup. Maybe it was cruel of me to put that sort of pressure on the new kids, but to be honest, I didn’t really give a fuck about whether I was being cruel. My interns either broke while they were brand-new and still under warranty, or they proved themselves capable of surviving under laboratory conditions.
Really, what one person saw as cruelty, another person would probably see as a mercy. There was no way of knowing who could and couldn’t hack it before they’d been put into a position to try, and the consequences for failure weren’t pretty.
Probably-Daisy looked from Tom to Jill and back again before finally turning to me, her tears stopping in the face of her confusion. “Wait,” she said. “Why are you acting like this is normal?”
“Because it is normal,” I said. Tom handed me a stick. I took it, and began gently prodding at the legs Barney had wrapped around the light fixture. “Didn’t you see the signs? The ones that say ‘don’t taunt the octopus’?”
“Yes, but…that was also the e-mail address you used when you offered me this job,” said probably-Daisy. She picked herself up from the floor, only wobbling a little. Her tears were by now completely forgotten, washed away by everything that was happening around her. That was good. It showed flexibility, assuming she wasn’t on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.
If she was, I was going to owe Tom another bag of fertilizer for his ganja garden. He had been betting against her since day one, when she’d worn high heels to the pharm lab. Jill thought—and I was inclined to agree with her, although I would never have said so—that Tom didn’t understand what it was to be a woman coming into an established workplace. We didn’t care about those conventions here: As long as my employees wore shoes, they could run in, and took their chemical showers on time, I could give a shit how they chose to present themselves. But the CDC didn’t work like that. The CDC might never work like that, not even now that the EIS was rebuilding their command structure. And probably-Daisy was just the latest in a long line of prettily gift-wrapped, beautifully disloyal CDC spies.
The sooner she figured out that I knew what she was, and didn’t care, the better off she was going to be. In the meantime, she had to survive her first week.
“I use that as my e-mail address in part because it’s a really basic aspect of lab safety,” I said. “The octopus has eight arms, incredibly good eyesight, and enough brains to hold a grudge against anyone who pisses it off. So when I say, ‘Do not taunt the octopus,’ what I’m actually saying is, ‘Have a sliver of self-preservation in that rotten walnut you persist in calling a brain.’” I poked Barney again with the stick. Barney took the stick away and poked me back.
Probably-Daisy looked to Tom and Jill, seeking moral support. They both shook their heads, and didn’t say anything. They knew when their input was not needed.
“What’s your name, anyway?” I tried to grab the stick back from Barney. He used it to whack me upside the head.
“Zelda,” said probably-Daisy.
“Wow, okay. I was way off.” I grabbed the stick again. This time, Barney let me have it. I tossed it aside and held my arms out, and he let go of the ceiling, falling like so much dead weight. The impact of him slamming into my elbows made me stagger a little. He curled his legs around me, and I pulled him close to my chest, providing the comfort and security that a healthy octopus needs. “Don’t let him grab your face again. Jill, Tom, don’t let the interns feed Barney if they’re going to freak out when he behaves in a totally reasonable manner.”
“Yes, Dr. Abbey,” they chorused dutifully.
“Good. Now go the fuck back to work.” I walked out of the room, Barney nestled comfortably in my arms and slowly turned a deep shade of orange as he adjusted his chromatophores to match my shirt.
Sometimes it’s good to be in charge.
It was generally pretty easy to get Barney to go into the recreation tank. It was wide and shallow and usually contained other octopuses, or sometimes an interesting crab or toy that he could take apart. This time, he clung to my arms and chest like he was afraid I was going to drop him, even going so far as to wrap the tip of one tentacle around the back of my head. The feeling of suckers trying to find purchase on my hair was bizarre, and made me glad all over again that I had abandoned the professional vanity of my youth in favor of the practical buzz cut of my…non-youth. Middle age.
“Just call me mature for my years, and don’t ask for my birthday,” I said to Barney, who responded, in typical fashion, by reaching up and trying to wrap his arms around my face. I sighed, pushing him away as I waded into the water. It was cold enough to chill my ankles and calves immediately, and my shoes were going to need some serious time in the dryer, but whatever. If it got Barney to let me go, it was worth the sacrifice.
“You need to let go now,” I said, bending forward until the back of his mantle touched the water. Barney lessened his grip, but didn’t release me completely. I moved my hands so that they were tucked under his central arms, rather than supporting his body, and began gently pushing him away.
Like most octopuses, Barney was smart enough to be a problem and alien enough to human modes of thought that he didn’t really subscribe to mammalian notions of right, wrong, and “I shouldn’t stick to that.” Still, he had been my lab animal since he had first emerged from his tiny, translucent egg sac and into a thick solution of protein, mutagenic agents, and Kellis-Amberlee. He was the first Giant Pacific Octopus I had failed to infect, and he was still at the forefront of my cephalopod studies. And after years of working with me—voluntarily or not—he knew when he was pushing his luck. With what I could only describe as a disgruntled pulse of his chromatophores, he released me and sank down into the pool, settling on the smooth, sandy bottom.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching down and pressing one hand flat against the surface of the water. He reached up and twined the tip of one arm briefly around my wrist before letting me go and ambulating off to look for something to play with.
It must have been nice, being an octopus. I couldn’t even say that the lack of sex was a deterrent, since I myself hadn’t gotten laid in more than two years. “Mate or die” might not be built into the human genome, but the need to actually form an emotional connection with someone is, chemically speaking, and running an underground virology lab leaves very little opportunity for dating.
I waded back to the edge of the pond and stepped out, grimacing at the way my shoes squelched on the tile. The two researchers currently responsible for maintaining the pool looked at me from the other side of the room, their expressions making it clear that they wanted, desperately, to ask why I had decided to take my octopus for a walk. I lifted my eyebrows and waited until they looked away. Then, smirking, I turned and walked back toward my office.
To say that this is not the future my parents envisioned for me when I said I wanted to become a virologist would be an understatement. They pictured a life of scientific accomplishment and research performed in perfectly clean, brilliantly white rooms, with no fewer than five layers of security between me and the things I worked on. They pictured marriage, a family, and above all else, safety. Their daughter was going to be a do
They were sort of right. For a while, I’d thrived in just the sort of environment they’d imagined for me. I had gone from Health Canada to the Canadian branch of the CDC, an organization established after the Rising for the purpose of keeping things on a relatively even, zombie-free keel. I’d met a good man, gotten married, and started thinking about children. There are people who say that it’s immoral to bring kids into the world we have today. Most of those people aren’t really thinking about the long-term consequences of their words. If everyone stopped having kids, the human race would die out. Maybe not directly because of Kellis-Amberlee, but does that really matter? We’d still be dying out due to the zombie apocalypse. Screw that.
Then came the outbreak at Simon Fraser University. My husband, Joseph Abbey, was on campus, giving a lecture to a class of future software engineers. Someone got sick, someone died, the dead began to walk, and rather than sending in a team of soldiers to save the healthy, the people at the switch decided to cut their losses and burn the whole thing to the ground. It was the first major firebombing on Canadian soil since the end of the Rising. There were no survivors. Including my husband. Including, once I had managed to beg, borrow, and steal my way into accessing the few shreds of footage that had managed to survive the “accidental” purge that followed the bombs, my professional career.
They—Health Canada, the CDC, the governments of their respective countries—were lying to me, and had been lying to me since the day I said, “I think I want to go to medical school.” They weren’t keeping us safe. They weren’t searching for a cure, or even for a solution. They were just writing us off as acceptable losses. After Simon Fraser, I couldn’t believe that any losses were acceptable. Not unless I saw them with my own eyes.