Falling Out – Part Nine

The constant drone of circulation fans in Carruthers suit lent an eerie undertone to the surroundings. Carr checked the printout, noting the location of the shipping container “ER2C”. The containment team had done well, each towering column of stacked containers were completely encapsulated.

Below, the low ceiling of semi-translucent plastic reminded him of tent caterpillar webs in mulberry trees. Yellow suited technicians swarmed the other columns, trudging up scaffold-supported stairs to each level. Arriving at the container door, Carr unlatched the mechanism.

The door swung outward with an extended metallic groan. Carr’s flashlight played over the boxes inside, shrink-wrapped electronics and assorted parts. He marked it off the list, and shut the door. Whatever was infecting people, it wouldn’t be lurking on circuit boards.

Just to be sure, a backup team would be sweeping every container when they were done taking samples. Carr doubted it was on anything inorganic. Most infections needed something with cellular structure to propagate. The search became a tempo of climbing, opening doors and checking off lists.

Carr didn’t mind, it let his brain tumble over the puzzle of facts in his head. Frank, the embattled Baxley CEO knew something. It was in the way he spoke, how he became agitated when there was another perceived delay. Frank was under a form of quarantine, along with his administrative assistant.

Carr stopped, rubbing his wrist. Figures he’d have an itch while wrapped up in this suit. He wished for a coat hanger he could straighten into a scratching implement. Wouldn’t that be a sight, him in a yellow hazmat suit puncturing the seal to get at an itch. Ridiculous.

As he walked to the next container, Carr noticed a dark pool of liquid on the plastic lined floor. Checking the manifest, he matched it up with the line item “Chiral Medical – Assorted Protein/12 kilo ea.” Carr heaved on the door latch, forcing it into the open position.

The container was half empty, multiple clear plastic pouches stacked on racks wrapped with plastic. This container was a “reefer” or refrigerated. The cooling tubes lined the walls in regular patterns, like a maze. Something was wrong, the compressor must have stopped running. The interior temp gauge was a balmy 70F/21C.

Carr walked closer to the racks, avoiding the dark rivulet of fluid down the center. He tore the plastic containing a shelf of pouches, lifting one up to the light. A pig hoof attached to a foreleg floated in some kind of brine, the end rounded in the same way as the body in the morgue. There were other oblong pieces in each package, all truncated in the same fashion.

He reconstructed it mentally, picturing how the refrigeration unit must’ve failed. With the internal temperature soaring, each pouch became an incubator for whatever was left behind during the packaging process. Some had burst, leaking the fluid Carr saw on the floor. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine someone stepping in it, or a rat running through it.

This was it, ground zero. Carr dropped the pouch on the floor, running out to the scaffold edge. He keyed the mic, feeling light-headed.

“This is Carruthers, we got a hot zone up here. Chiral Medical container. It seems like… it…”, Carr felt sleepy, like the whole world was pressing down on his shoulders. He shook his head, slumping down to the floor. Just had to take a rest, that’s all. The fans whirred a white-noise lullabye as he fell unconscious.

Burning sensation. Pain. Dryness in the back of his throat, grainy and uncomfortable.

Carruthers opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. The last thing he remembered was the container, going outside and radioing for help. His right wrist felt like it had been sunburned, radiating pain in a circle all around. Carr lifted his arm, looking at the gauze bandage wrapped around his hand.

A pulse sensor was clipped to his finger, and multiple discs were attached to his chest. He was in a hospital. A light blue curtain ringed the bed. Carr moved his toes and wiggled his fingers. Well, at least he wasn’t paralyzed. His head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton. Detached and woozy.

The curtain parted, the Chief in dress blues with a few of his co-workers. Even the kid was there.

“Forgive me for not getting up.”

“You’re a lucky man, Carruthers.”, the Chief presented a folder with Carr’s name on it.

“What’s this, my report card?”

“Its your medical report. You got whatever those bodies had. Lucky for you the doctors here managed to save you and your hand.”

Carr paged through the folder, skimming the reports. Bolded words like “Subcutaneous mycelium structures” and “Zygomycosis like properties” gave him an instant headache.

“I’m not a doctor, just give me the summary.”

“You got whatever bug was crawling on those bodies. They’re still trying to figure it out. Lucky for you the infection on your wrist was contained to the skin which had to be removed.”

The itch. Carr rewound events in his head, recalling when Frank grabbed him before going in to the warehouse. That must meant that Frank was infected too.

“Before you ask, yes, Frank is in critical condition. We’re checking out everyone that had contact with him. So far nobody touched him, so they should be out from isolation soon.”, the Chief took back the folder putting it under his arm.

“What about Chiral Medical? If any other shipments made it out of there-“

“They’re shut down tight. We’re working with the Chinese authorities on the matter. Got two other ships that need to be inspected, but they know enough not to open the containers.”

“One more question – why? What was Frank doing dealing with an outfit like that?”

“Seems Frank struck a deal with the Chiral folks, they’re a supplier for medical applications. One of their breakthroughs was a way to ‘auto-quarter’ livestock. They’d infect an entire pen of pigs and collect the parts in the morning. Problem was, they didn’t anticipate it jumping species. The lab boys are still trying to figure it out.”

The Chief waved off the crowd, waiting until the door was shut.

“Seems that Frank was trying to use the parts for another deal involving pig farmers wanting to make a quick buck. He jumped over a bazillion regs and laws in doing so. Looks like he was trying to undercut the meat packing plants with an exclusive contract with Chiral Medical.”

Carr furrowed his brow. That would have meant introducing the tainted meat into the food supply. That bastard. Chasing money with zero ethics. It reminded Carr of his youthful mistake, letting greed dictate his actions.

“Thanks Chief. Sounds like we caught it in time.”

“Its not over yet. The Chiral CEO went missing before the Chinese could pick him up. We’ve got our international partners looking for him.”

“I’d like to be part of that, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure Carr. Get some rest. Plenty of work to do when you get back.”, the Chief patted Carr on the shoulder, exiting the room.

Carr pushed the call button, looking back up at the ceiling.

He needed a drink, maybe some food.

Anything but a ham sandwich.