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I didn’t know what else to do—I was hard panicking at this point. So I pulled rubber bands on over my shoes and snapped them around the ankles of my chinos, and then I yanked those rats out of their cages one by one and stuffed them down my goddamned pants.
I looked at the CRISPR for half a second, then scrambled around the edge of my desk, worthless work shoes sliding out from under me, shoving every paper and trace of printed research inside my laptop bag and cramming it shut.
A smell in the lab was my first clue. The smell was the first hint of trouble; a text was the next. It had been six minutes since I got the text on my burner phone, the one my wife didn’t know about, the phone that inexplicably came with this assignment.
Boss arrives in 10
Pro tip: if you get assigned a new project at work, and it comes with its own phone, ask a few questions before you accept.
I’d get another CRISPR setup, another transilluminator. Whole new electrophoresis set, a new GelDoc system. Hell, I could get twelve. It was okay if these blew up. Not a problem. I’d have enough money to buy or genetically engineer whatever I wanted by next month.
But my espresso maker? Oh, the humanity. My terrorized, rabidly malfunctioning brain fed me half a thought about saving it before I realized I had a kind of distracted madness on the rise, slowing me down, the kind that would get both me and these lab rats killed. The quick wit of survivors always gets top billing after any disaster. Rarely do you hear about all the dumb minutia people think while they’re struggling to live.
I guess because those people die. So you don’t hear their stories at all.
Right now, if I couldn’t fit it down my pants or inside that laptop bag, it wasn’t going to survive past the next three minutes and forty seconds.
Thanks to my new super-slim, government-issue computer, I couldn’t even fit one rat in there, and get the case closed without compromising rat health.
Can’t do that. They’re the prize.
The ‘boss’ arriving, in this case, was an office-sized detonation designed to raze my entire laboratory. The odorous evidence was all around me, acrid in my nostrils, ruining that clean room absence-of-smell I loved.
My other bosses were responsible for this: the smell of explosives, my rush, a sudden decision to level my workplace. And I don’t mean the FDA. It’s just their building.
Three minutes to make it out of this office alive with four Zucker rats stuffed down my pants.
Yes, Zucker rats. Obesity research rats. Not an easy cargo. And not comfortable, for any of us. Pens, flash drives, sketches, a spare petri dish hidden under my planner…wait, why was I packing pens? Jesus, no, don’t wait.
I should have put the rats in my pants as the final act, not the first.
Go, go, go.
Here’s the other rub: one of those obesity research rats was already sliding out from under the rubber band.
Whoever they are, my bosses, I didn’t know they were the kind of people to commit domestic terrorism. Ballsy move, giving your lone employee ten minutes to save his life’s work or it gets destroyed forever.
And so does he.
Zucker rats can get to be two pounds plus, and these bad boys felt like it. I’m not much of an exerciser, but if I ever become one, I’m still not going to use rats as ankle weights.
A muffled digital beep went off, the sound of a microwave under a blanket. I jumped like it was the explosion.
One minute to go after the warning beep, they’d instructed. Raspy voice, blocked number. If I didn’t start out now, I would be inside-out, and so would the rats.
I grabbed my picture of Pritya and the kids, yanked one escaping rat out from under the cuff of my pants, hurled both into the laptop bag. Hippocrates caught mine with his own red eye. I pressed the case shut as best I could without hurting him, and bolted for the nearest door.
But I couldn’t use that door. It faced the cafeteria; everybody would see me flee an ‘accidental’ explosion.
I turned the corner, shouldered open the security doors on the interior hallway, shuffle-loped through another set of doors, rats bobbling up and down. I could feel Aristotle’s tiny heart thudding against my calf muscle.
It was a rough day for all of us.
Almost to the exterior doors that faced the parking lot, thirty-six seconds to go, three rats secured above the rubber bands, no colleagues in sight, in the home stretch, soon to be out the door, sixteen tortured paces to my how-does-a-government-employee-afford-that-911 Turbo, and then on to—
The exterior door opened and Richard waltzed in, whistling.
“Richard!” I must have shouted it, all stress. Luckily Richard didn’t pick up on social cues, or vocal inflection, or make eye contact, or even make eye-to-body contact.
I could have had rats taped to the outside of my body, and he might not have noticed. Certainly wouldn’t have said anything.
“Oh, um. Hi, Ravi,” he said.
“What are you up to?” Thirty-two seconds. My brain was going to explode before this bomb could. I had to get me and Richard and rats the hell out of here.
“I forgot my coat in the lab.”
“You know what? Ji-Sun has it. She’s looking for you.”
“Really?” His whole face brightened, though still pointed almost directly at the ground, ninety degrees.
“Yeah. I saw her just now. She headed over to the lunchroom. I locked up.”
This was a cruel lie under any other circumstances. Richard wanted nothing more in this world than to be thought of by another member of the team. But I was willing to risk his damaged feelings over a corpse squad scraping Richard’s once-interesting mind off the floor of my lab.
“Oh, wow. Okay. Thanks.” Richard led me and my covert rodentia out, even held the door for us. I peered out for a split second, torn between the indoors threat of a soon-to-explode lab and the outdoors threat of running into a more observant co-worker. Then I followed.
“Sure thing. See you later.”
I watched Richard saunter himself out of harm’s way. Imagined an investigator getting this information from Richard the day after the blast. Maybe Richard wasn’t oblivious. Could he actually see it all: my lumpy chinos, my bug-eyed stress? But the inverse situation: dead Richard, even maimed Richard, was worse. I’d have to take the hit of potential suspicion. Maybe he would forget all about my bizarre untruth, in light of the destructive excitement to come.
In twelve seconds.
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