DISCLAIMER: This story contains coarse language and hot stuff (ahem, smut), and is intended for a mature audience.
Day nine-hundred ninety-five. A Thursday. September… something. He couldn’t remember the exact date. Fifteenth, or sixteenth, or at least somewhere in the tens – he wasn’t the one in charge of keeping track. The ruckus wasn’t loud, but the fact that he could even hear any shouting through the eight-inch mortar-filled cement walls and steel doors was somewhat unsettling.
Sitting on the edge of the lower bunk mattress, Aris Cheng hunched over, elbows resting against his knees and his clasped hands supporting his clean-shaven, pointed chin. In the dim shadows of the cell, a single strip of light from the door crack shimmered against his face, illuminating the narrow bridge of his nose and thin lips. The rest of his features were cast in shadow, but as something crashed into the door with a rattling thump, the man’s eyes narrowed and a glint of wariness passed through his green irises.
There was another shout, this one higher in pitch. A child’s voice – dismay flickered through Aris’s gaze but his lips remained frozen in nonchalance. There was another slam and this time the metal door shook. The man’s broad shoulders tensed forward as finally the door slid open and a hoarse shout spilled into the cell.
“Hey! I said let go, I can walk on my own!”
In the white glare of the flashlight, Aris only managed to make out three silhouettes. Two large, bulky humans in thick uniforms, and a small one in the middle. The little one continued to make noise even as the door slid swiftly shut with a clang and locked with a tell-tale dull click.
“… Jeez, that fucking hurt.”
The faint sliver of light provided Aris with a brief glance of his new cellmate. A curved nose, round forehead, and short chin. It was a boy’s voice but he couldn’t tell how old – maybe fifteen or sixteen. Way too young to be in the high security wing.
The boy was brushing dirt off his arms. He paused after a moment, the silhouette of his head tilting upwards and pausing. “What’s the deal, don’t they at least have lights in here? What am I supposed to do in the dark…”
The boy continued to grumble, walking forward blindly. There was a limp in his steps. Still until now, Aris shifted slightly, hesitating for a moment before moving his lips. “It’s past lights-out.” His voice, quiet and smooth, slithered into the air with a hiss.
The boy’s shadow froze immediately. Just like an animal with its attention suddenly caught, Aris couldn’t help but think.
“You’re late. They usually bring newcomers before twelve AM,” he continued in a low voice, watching the boy’s shadow carefully. The kid hadn’t moved, but he could tell that he was being assessed. Tone, pitch, and volume of voice – that alone was usually enough for him to determine if someone was a threat or not. Aris was always careful not to sound too pleasant.
There was another pause, then the boy jerked and reached up to touch his head. “What, so I’m just gonna have to greet you in the dark?” His bright voice sounded thoroughly confused.
He’s young. Inexperienced, Aris thought, reaching one arm over to the lone drawer beside the bunk bed. There was a lamp there, burrowed in the shadows. The type I hate the most. His finger hesitated against the switch for a second before he reluctantly pressed down. With a flicker, a warm orange glow thudded slowly into the room, illuminating the previously dark cell.
The boy stiffened, blinking rapidly in the light. He had been facing the opposite wall, but as he turned towards the source of the light his dark eyes quickly latched onto Aris’s wary gaze.
Asian – Chinese, Aris could safely bet. The boy was small and there was still baby fat clinging to his high cheekbones, but the hardened muscle tone of his bare shoulders betrayed the fact that he was probably older than he looked. His eyes were sharp, his black hair shaved short at the side but his bangs long and bleached. As his pupils adjusted to the light, the surprise in his face dissipated. The boy’s lips curved into a smirk, his eyes narrowing as he turned his body to fully face the man, hands slipping into the pocket of his orange uniform trousers. For some reason, his shoulders relaxed.
“Ehh?” A drawl fell from the boy’s flushed lips as they parted in a sharp-toothed grin, his dark eyes playful as he returned Aris’s hostile glare with reckless ease. “What a pretty face… Looks like they put me in the bitch cell.”
At 6:02 a.m. she finally spotted him. Walking across the parking lot between two large white trucks, dressed in a black long-sleeved dress shirt and jeans that were much too thick to be comfortable under the glaring late summer sun of south-west China. His white teeth flashed in a wide grin when he saw her, arms lifting in a gesture that was either welcoming or asking for an embrace.
“Saram Lara!” Wincing as her name was shouted across the compound, Saram forced her lips to stretch in a smile as she squinted at his dark figure in the sunlight.
“Uncle Luey,” she called in reply, half-heartedly accepting the man’s hug as he stepped towards her. She could see her reflection in his dark brown shades – her messy ponytail and curly flyaway hair blown awry by the heavy mountain wind, and her dark skin glistening with sweat from the earlier hike. At the very least, her makeup was very smudge-proof, and there didn’t seem to be a giant mess around her eyes yet.
“Darling! I didn’t expect you to have grown so much!” Luey’s teeth flashed again, blinding in the light as he stepped back and patted the young woman’s arms. He squeezed her well-toned biceps with a slightly gritted grin.
She could have pointed out that the last time this man had seen her was fifteen years ago and that she was twenty-four now, but instead Saram swallowed the words down her dry throat and smiled back. “You look well, too, Uncle Luey.”
The smile on his face became a little fixed as he paused after her words. Wondering if she’d said something wrong, Saram tilted her head, still straining to smile as she returned his strange expression. But a couple seconds later Luey nodded, patted her one more time on the arm, and turned around.
“Just Luey is fine. Come on, let’s get out of this blazing sun. I’ll give you a tour of the lab,” he said in an airy voice, waving her to follow.
“Oh – okay.” Adjusting the strap of her backpack, Saram followed the man forward.
The lab had been incorporated into the side of the mountain, she had heard, with most of it being underground. It was directly connected to the Siguang-Ri prison, named after the Himalayan mountain that loomed directly behind it. Compared to that mountain, the one they were on was just a grassy hill.
They entered through two automatic metal double-doors. Luey swiped his name card in the reader to get inside, where they encountered a second locked door. There, he stepped up to a scanning device beside the doors. A faint light shone into his eye, then the doors shifted open with a green blink and a beep.
“Fancy,” Saram commented, as the second pair of doors closed behind them to reveal a third, brightly-lit white room. Half the room was lined with hangers and lab coats. One wall contained several metal compartments with different labels of contaminants – she presumed it was for placing dirty coats.
Luey handed her a lab coat, meeting her intrigued gaze with a warm smile before turning around to grab himself a coat as well. “Did the professor tell you what we do?” He was smiling, but there was a dubious twitch in his eyebrow as he walked towards the double doors on the other side and lifted his hand to the metal button beside it.
Smoothing the lab coat over her shoulders, Saram noted appreciatively that the sleeves were actually the right length for her short arms, then shrugged her backpack on and gave Luey a wry smile. “The WWHO don’t tell me much, to be honest. I thought I won a job in a high-prestige laboratory in Tibet. Didn’t think I’d be hiking five hours to get up here.”
Chuckling, Luey opened the door and gestured for her to head inside. “Yeah, we have to handle the World-Wide Health Officials very carefully. Well, it’s a long story, so let me introduce briefly what we do and I’ll explain the details after you settle down.” They were walking through a long white hallway now, with multiple doors and glass windows. Glancing curiously from side to side, Saram saw familiar-looking lab arrangements inside the rooms – long tables equipped with rows of microscopes, tables, and fridges. Seeing her gaze, Luey paused and lifted a hand to gesture at a lab on their left. “You’ll be working in one of these areas. We’ll be providing you with your own room and as many workers as you need.”
“Everything’s so neat,” Saram marvelled, thinking briefly back to her own lab back in Canada. Their bench was always scattered with centrifuges, test tube racks and micropipette tips.
“It has to be,” Luey said with a shrug. “Contamination is a serious issue when you’re working with a lethal virus. I heard you wrote a ground-breaking report on in-vitro cultivation of the flesh-eating virus?”
“The NF-I, yes,” Saram said distractedly as Luey paused to open a door for her. Brushing past him, she found herself in a wide concrete stairwell. Her voice echoed as she spoke. “I addressed some of the very human-specific mechanisms of the virus, the reason why it’s been limited to cultivation in human hosts as of now. It’s… nothing solid.” She trailed off a little abashedly, letting Luey take the lead again as the man headed downwards. “But with the current pandemic, WWHO is desperate for any leads to stop the spread.”
“Yes, the current pandemic certainly calls for desperate measures,” Luey murmured, stopping at the very bottom of the staircase and pulling open the door. “You mentioned human cultivation of the virus.” He turned suddenly before she could follow him through the door, eyes narrowed in an almost suspicious look. “So you know what we do here, don’t you Saram?”
Halting, Saram stared back into his gaze, muted for a moment by the sudden flutter of panic in her chest. Then, regaining control of herself, she swallowed hard and looked off to the side, managing to release her voice raspily. “You create vaccines for people infected by the NF-I.”
“Do you know how, Saram?” Luey pressed, his voice low and gentle. “Do you understand why it’s necessary?”
Cringing, Saram squeezed her fists by her sides and nodded. There was a long silence, and her held breath was starting to feel hot inside her chest. But Luey sighed eventually and a hand came to rest comfortingly on her shoulder.
“Then let me introduce you to your test subjects,” Luey said, his voice hoarse but bright again as he pulled her into the next hallway and lifted his arms. In front of them, past the tinted glass windows in the grey cement walls, was a large cafeteria teeming with men dressed in white and orange clothing. The scene was brimming with activity, but there was a total lack of noise. People laughing silently, shouting wordlessly and scraping tables without the slightest screech – it felt surreal, somehow. Like they were separated by more than just glass and soundproof walls.
In front of her, Luey glanced over his shoulder, eyebrows lifted rather proudly as his white teeth flashed in a broad grin. “Welcome to Siguang-Ri Prison.”