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EP565: The Zombee Project 3.0 (Artemis Rising 3)

Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

 

 

 

AUTHOR: Allison Mulder

NARRATOR: Ibba Armancas

HOST: Divya Breed

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…

Allison Mulder is most likely a failed science experiment which originated in small-town Iowa. She is unabashedly addicted to puns, often lapses into a nocturnal lifestyle, and tweets too much as @AMulderWrites. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, and is forthcoming at Intergalactic Medicine Show. These stories can be found at allisonmulder.wordpress.com/ along with other experiments in fantasy, scifi, and horror.

about the narrator…narrator Ibba Armancas

Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on twitter or instagram.

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

 

The Zombee Project 3.0

By Allison Mulder

Jensen brought the job offer to each of them in person, like no one did anymore. She poached them from the best labs and the best apiaries, all over the world. Put everything she knew on the table, in out-of-the-way cafés and fine-but-nothing-fancy hotel rooms and home kitchens which smelled strongly of coffee and not much else.

She handpicked them. She made that very clear. Like she was assembling heroes, forming a unit–a rescue unit, with a crucial task.

At that point, it wasn’t recruitment. It was a higher calling.

“It’s not legal,” Jensen told each of them. “But no one who could enforce that knows about it.”

None of them cared. They signed Jensen’s contracts and confidentiality agreements.

And from then on they were all members of Jensen’s team.

Nothing less and nothing more.

#

Jensen’s team wasn’t ready when the first resurrected bees began twitching in their wire-covered frames.

The team had gone through so many cases of small, still bodies sent by the collection branch of the project–fresh bees, long-dead bees, solitary, bumble, and honey. Pollinators, honey-makers. Stinging and stingless and every one of them dead from Colony Collapse Disorder, and a dozen other hypothesized causes, and more unidentified threats besides.

Jensen’s team was made up of professionals, happily married to their work, caring tenderly for the in-laws that were their safety protocols. But they got used to failure, administering the compound to insect corpses that stayed corpses. Observing only decomposition during the dictated test periods. Burning the samples to cinders, then receiving new batches of bees for testing.

Jensen’s team got so used to failure that they got used to other things, like neglecting their bulky, white protective suits when not working directly with the dead bees. They filled out paperwork and cleaned beakers in quiet corners of the lab, bare-faced, chatting with the team members who handled the compound and the corpses at the far table.

When the first stiff, disoriented honey bee wriggled back to life and slipped from a surprised scientist’s forceps, several team members across the room were not wearing their protective suits.

“Got it,” he called. “I’ve got this one–”

He deftly swept the runaway bee from midair and–no alternatives in reach–cupped the beaker against his own gloved hand.

A wince. Wide eyes.

He slid beaker and bee onto one of the lab tables, waving a teammate forward. “Take it.”

The wire bee veil didn’t hide his colleague’s horror. “Did it–”

“Quarantine.” He edged to the door, heart racing. “I need to quarantine myself. But it’ll be fine. Just keep the others contained. Everything will be fine.”

He sprinted to the observation rooms, clawing his glove off and scraping the stinger from his skin on the way. He swore a long string as he swiped his ID card on the first hexagonal chamber he saw, then entered through the doors constructed like a spaceship’s airlock.

The observation rooms weren’t ready either. Structurally, they were complete and functional, looking labyrinthine–a carnival mirror maze–to anyone who hadn’t glimpsed the blueprints of the architect’s honeycomb aesthetic. Interlaced hallways isolated individual chambers, providing innumerable combinations of ways to get out, and ways to section rooms off with barricades that rose from the floor. But clinical trials were still far off, and interior room dressings were still being fiddled with.

The lab technician had just switched to the softer of two chairs in opposing styles–warring beside a white table littered with color swatches–when Jensen arrived outside the observation room. Her face was a pale flash through the miniscule windows embedded in the double set of doors.

“Definitely this chair,” the lab technician said with a laugh that cut off too suddenly. “Much comfier. Glad I could help decide that while I’m in here.”

He stared at the table legs bolted to the floor. His white lab coat huddled in a heap beside them. A toolbox tucked into one obtuse corner of the room, orphaned by the plumbers who’d worked on the shoebox-sized bathroom.

He spun a ring of color swatches on their loop like the flashcards he’d studied before exams in medical school, waiting for Jensen to comment on the mottled red rash radiating up his arm, gophering above his shirt collar, burning at the base of his neck.

Finally, Jensen’s voice buzzed into the small room through the intercom. “Tell me you have a bee allergy.”

Her team member spun the color swatches faster. “That would go against the ethics of accurate scientific research.”

Jensen didn’t hit the intercom when she swore, but the lab technician smiled like he heard her anyway.

“It’s fine,” he said, sitting rigidly. “Someone was bound to get stung eventually. It probably won’t be the last time. We all knew this was coming. Just…don’t look away. Learn everything you can from this, and keep moving forward with the project.”

He stayed in the observation room, and Jensen and the rest of her team observed. Because he asked, and because despite the circumstances and the sadness, this was their first time witnessing the potential side-effects of their measures to save the ecosystem. They didn’t look away.

An hour in, the red rash completely covered their teammate’s body.

Three hours in, it bruised to a sickly green, and patches of his skin began to rupture. Sitting still as a hostage, teeth clenched, the lab assistant tapped one of the color swatches with the edge of his blackening pinky. He forced a smile that split his lip. “Look. I match.”

Seven hours in, he stopped responding to their questions through the intercom. He stared vacantly at the fluorescent light above him, scratching deeper and deeper gashes into his arm.

At seven hours and seventeen minutes, he circled the door, slamming the pinhole windows with his black, bloody hand. When he finally upended the toolbox and turned the heaviest, sharpest tools against the table, the windows, and himself, Jensen gave the order.

Flames filled the honeycombed room, a six-sided crematorium, burning him the same way they burned the bee specimens.

After, Jensen made several long phone calls.

Her team pretended not to eavesdrop, but her brusque tone had a way of ghosting through walls, and her team was conditioned to listen for her commands from down the hall or across the lab or back in the parking lot’s far end if one of them dared to come in late.

When Jensen moved from her office to the conference room across the hall, her team filed in behind her, gathering close and quiet.

“Tragedy,” Jensen said, pinching the bridge of her nose.

She broke off, whirling to the whiteboard behind her, and swiped away big green block letters–THE ZOMBEE PROJECT 3.0–with the bare palm of her hand.

She never let them call it The Zombee Project.

The phrase was always appearing overnight, looking very at home despite Jensen’s threats to fire anyone she caught scribbling it on the whiteboards. Everyone blamed the janitors, practicing the same discretion and tight-lippy-ness that got them their positions in the first place.

Jensen just couldn’t, couldn’t keep talking knowing those words were behind her, not when composing a eulogy was already so much harder than spouting strings of facts. She grasped for the things she was supposed to say, cross-referencing them with the things that she meant.

“We’ve seen tragedy today,” she said. “Tragedy, and success. We knew one was coming, and could only hope for the other. Our colleague hoped for that success too, so intensely, and we know from his last moments…he didn’t regret this. He was our teammate and friend, and he will live on in the good our work will bring to the world.”

Jensen flexed her marker-stained hand against her coat, leaving verdant smears as she waited for a tissue box to reach every team member who required it.

“His replacement will be here tomorrow,” she said. “I know reading them in will be hectic while sorting through our new data, and–in his own words–we need to keep moving forward, but if any of you need to take tomorrow to mourn, tell me now.”

In the following silence, one of the lab assistants half-raised her hand. “His parents, in New Zealand. Someone should call them.”

Jensen closed her eyes.

She crossed back into her office, and she made another phone call, and she didn’t come out for a long time.

#

Success felt subdued.

Jensen’s team worked in silence, reviving roughly half of their remaining honey bee specimens–including several queens–and introducing them to observation hives in the lab’s carefully contained rooftop apiary.

The one break in their grief-laced hush came from the lab tech who’d dyed his riot of hair to match the roof’s layout of flowerbeds and blossoming plants.

“The bees won’t do well enclosed by glass, no matter how many plants we stuff in here.” And he grinned, drawing a finger across his throat before flashing a different finger in the direction of the beehives. “Revenge by substandard conditions. So there.”

It got a few smiles, even though none of the team members–least of all the one who’d spoken–really blamed the bees.

“They were dead to start with, and they’re dangerous,” the lab tech mumbled to himself, lifting another bee cage delicately. “So it’s fine, cramping them like this.”

They moved forward with the work. Subdued. Determined.

Jensen’s team members were handpicked. She’d built her team carefully, and bound them together tight as a spider-trap. They all had stone-solid priorities and thorough background checks supporting their loyalty and commitment to the project.

But they’d also seen a friend die.

They had taken careful notes while watching a friend die, nobly and accepting of his fate.

They knew with real certainty now that their work had no comparison in the running list of cheesy B-movie recommendations that clogged the lunchroom whiteboard. The major motion pictures came closer–the ones where survivors were rare as the Cockerell’s bumblebee. Thank God or whatever else worth believing in that the original compound–the one only Jensen was allowed to handle in its unaltered state, the one that was a mystery no one wanted the answers to–had never been leaked, informationally or literally.

Their colleague’s death reminded them of the facts behind their project: a top-secret zombie virus was saving the bees (in a controlled environment) and things could go very, very wrong when that got out into an uncontrolled environment.

So they often found themselves gritting their teeth as they watched the resurrected bees perform their tasks, over a period of months. Thrills of fear mixed with their pride when the resurrected bees mixed seamlessly with bees that had never died, no divisions between the two kinds beyond green dabs of color like those used to mark queens. When successes stacked up, and they finally exchanged the bee-related Hallmark cards they’d been hoarding in desk drawers since the beginning, they also exchanged a hell of a lot of alcohol.

They napped. God. The greatest, longest naps, dragging every one of their desk chairs into Jensen’s office and stretching them to the limits of their ergonomic design.

But then, after the naps and the long-planned celebration, they met with the recruitment branch of the project to prepare for the clinical testing stage. And the first stone-solid priority of Jensen’s team was rigorous safety assessments. Safety measures. Safety, for everyone and everything involved, because hell. The compound. The catastrophic potential. One casualty already, and the clinical trials hadn’t even started.

Representatives of the recruitment branch filled the lab’s largest conference room, and they all had a tendency to gush.

Even while discussing worst-case scenarios–outbreaks and pandemics and extinction of the human race–the recruitment branch fawned over Jensen, their eyes already glassy with glossy-covered information packets quoting her above inspirational images. Packets of persuasion, to be passed around quietly to amenable parties, then sealed away. Or burned, like the bee samples.

Jensen’s team couldn’t blame them, exactly, for truly believing in the thing they had to talk people into. But the team members did nurse some well-pedigreed skepticism, listening to the unreserved praise.

When one of the recruiters discussing likely candidates made a bad joke about “zombie wannabees,” it hit Jensen’s team like a sting on the rear.

“Not zombies,” five of them said at once, sharp.

“For one thing,” Jensen said distractedly, still poring over a page of liability legalese, “people already use zombie bees or zombees to refer to bees parasitized by Apocephalus borealis, thanks to the abnormal nocturnal behavior caused by eggs laid in the bees’ abdomens–”

“Well of course, not real zombies.” The recruiter backpedaled, jotting quick notes on her pad. She bit her lip. “But. It is one way to market–”

“No.” Jensen did look up then, eyes cold.

“A very…select group of candidates might consider the similarities a draw–”

“No.” Jensen shook her head. “No.”

The resulting silence was quickly smoothed over by a different recruiter, pen tip hopping excitedly on his notepad. “That’s ok, that’s fine. We should have no trouble finding volunteers, not for something this huge. What you’ve done here? It’s unthinkable. In a good way, I mean. Beyond the scope of imagination. You have done the impossible.”

“With the help of my team,” Jensen corrected tightly, raising her coffee thermos to her lips. “And bringing dead honey bees back to life seems easy now, compared to what comes next. Uncomplicated.”

So uncomplicated, compared to the human trials looming near with the smell of ash still hanging–months later–in Observation Room 5.

All it took to resurrect the bees was a handful of years in a lab, fiddling with the third incarnation of a compound too classified for Jensen to officially know about, even if she was expert enough to tamper with it. She was not allowed to ask about the first two incarnations–who made them, and why, and how it all turned out behind closed doors and the black ink censoring half the files Jensen had been given. But all the building blocks were there, all the ingredients. All the dance steps.

A shuffle and a fumble and a lot of nights sleeping in her office chair, or not sleeping at all.

That was all it took.

#

The compound itself always came in slim, sealed vials, encased within layers of several different metals, packed into the bubble-wrap innards of thick manila envelopes. Slimmer than you’d expect, and nondescript despite and because of their lacking any postal markings, shipping labels, or identifiers of any kind.

The packages appeared in Jensen’s locked office overnight, as mysteriously as the whiteboard zombie references or the flowers delivered to the lab for Jensen each Mother’s Day.

The project’s first human test subjects appeared in much the same manner.

Jensen’s team had always questioned the value of such a large lobby in such a secure, secretive building, but the seating area perfectly contained the first batch of applicants–bused in suddenly several days before they’d been expected. The group’s jittering and fidgeting trended more toward excitement and curiosity than terror; they were the type to wander off and touch things they weren’t supposed to, unless they had cushioned chairs and magazines holding them in stasis.

“You’d mentioned wanting to interview them–in your office?” a flustered lab assistant asked Jensen.

“No, thank you, but that wasn’t approved,” Jensen said. “The recruitment branch thought it might make the volunteers more nervous. We’ve been directed to eliminate second thoughts and avoid planting any doubt. If they’re here, they’re committed.”

Jensen’s team passed out one last round of forms, more waivers, a sheet all to itself with bold lettering at the top affirming that yes, the undersigned had been tested for bee allergies, and no, no allergies had been detected. All the fidgeting, whispering, humming test subjects signed, without protest.

Nervous, but determined.

Adventurous, and discreet.

Those had to be among the qualifying factors the recruitment branch had pinpointed, but Jensen’s team could only be certain of the logistical guidelines they’d submitted. Blood types and age groups and backgrounds and medical histories. Many more sample groups would need to be tested, but this was the first. This was the threshold.

They led the applicants to the finished, solid-framed observation rooms. The ones with reinforced walls, and doors like a spaceship’s airlock, and lots and lots of cameras. And bees. Unseen, but heard. Kept apart for now, but soon to be released. Or maybe they weren’t heard–the walls seemed too thick, come to think of it. But Jensen’s team knew the bees were there, and the applicants sensed they were there, and the buzzing of the overhead lights sounded close enough to put edged nerves on the verge of hysteria.

The harder of the two chair options had been chosen. Easier to clean. One boy applicant dropped into the rigid seat, laughing a bit roughly as he folded his hands on the white table. “Is it strange if I’m more scared of being stung than I am of the zom–the virus?”

The team member who’d led him in smiled wryly, her chest tight, trying to forget the extra parental consent form stapled to his other papers. “Not at all. The sting is certain. The odds of you contracting the virus are low.”

Eliminate second thoughts. Avoid planting doubt.

When all the applicants were in their observation rooms–their new homes for the duration of the testing period–Jensen went from room to room, having a little talk with them before the doors were sealed and the testing began.

The cameras were off. Jensen’s team pretended not to eavesdrop.

When Jensen emerged from the last room, she retreated to her office and made a phone call.

Jensen’s team pretended not to eavesdrop.

Four and a half minutes later, Jensen emerged again.

“Let’s begin.”

The project moved forward.

The results were not as bleak and bloody as everyone had feared. Most applicants were unaffected. The most they suffered was the sting, or the placebo effect. One woman in the control group had a bee allergy after all, but Jensen’s team had expected that. Treatments were on hand. They were just difficult to administer to someone in the thrall of a panic attack.

However, some subjects were affected by the virus.

Jensen’s team cleaned the rooms themselves–they couldn’t leave anything to chance, couldn’t leave something like this to the janitors, couldn’t leave the mess alone for many reasons, most of which fell somewhere between their consciences and Jensen and Jensen’s conscience leaning on each of them.

As two lab technicians scrubbed ash from the floor of Observation Room 19, goosebumps traced up one’s arms and down her hip in sudden waves.

“Do you think the miracle bees seem that horrific, to other bees in the test colonies?” she asked under her breath. “If they can’t do their jobs, or if they start cannibalizing other bees–”

“That’s what we’re here to find out.” The other technician scrubbed harder, strands of bright yellow, green, and red hair escaping the tie at the back of his neck. “We’ll follow Jensen’s lead, like always. We’ll keep moving forward. Make everything worth it.”

They swept the last ash crumbs into sealed biohazard containers, to be stored for further study.

#

They fixed what they thought was wrong, and more subjects arrived.

Jensen stopped talking to every applicant in their observation rooms, but she did perform a quick sweep when they were waiting in the lobby, an artificially distant glance as she strode through the room like she was on her way to somewhere more important.

During her sweep of the fourth clinical trial’s applicants, Jensen stopped short in front of the row of chairs nearest to the lab entrance.

“No,” she said.

The young woman sitting before her nodded expectantly and closed her magazine. “Mom.”

“Not you,” Jensen said. “Leave. Now.”

A ripple of discord ran through the lobby as tension tugged at the attention of the applicants. Jensen’s daughter took her mother by the arm and pulled her to the family restroom in the hall, turning the lock behind them.

“You’ll make them nervous,” she said. “You’ll make me nervous, acting like it’s a sure thing that–”

“It’s not sure, but it’s not smart,” Jensen said. “I don’t want you risking it.”

“I’ll be at risk no matter what if the project ever reaches the public stage.”

“It will.”

“Then I’d rather take my chances now instead of cowering every time I have to weed my flowerbeds.”

“Misato.” Jensen pressed her daughter’s shoulders.

“There are seven billion people in the world, increasing, while bee populations are decreasing,” Misato said. “We can spare some human lives to make things better. That’s what you said to me when you told me about the project. That’s what you really believe, right?”

Jensen didn’t speak.

“Right?” Jensen’s daughter pulled her arms free, retreating until the cold sink basin pressed against the small of her back.

“Even if we can spare lives, that doesn’t mean the deaths don’t count.” Jensen’s voice broke, low and hoarse. “They’re necessary. But you taking this risk is not. Turn around. Go home.”

“Can’t.” Misato folded her arms. “They make it pretty clear that once you’re on the bus, there’s no turning back.” She unlocked the bathroom door. “If this is really as necessary as you claim, if it’s that important and not just you playing Frankenstein or Messiah, then pull a Marie Curie and sink your teeth into it for once, not just on paper.”

She left the bathroom, and the lab assistant outside ducked her head over an armful of forms, pretending she hadn’t eavesdropped.

Jensen rubbed her forehead. “It would be unethical to ask you to put her in the placebo group, wouldn’t it?”

Before her team member could summon an answer, Jensen walked away.

For the duration of the observation period, Jensen hovered in the hall outside her daughter’s honeycomb cell, scribbling on the clipboard at her side, red-eyed and wild-haired and looking more like a mad scientist than she had on any of the hung-over day-after-Mother’s-Days her team had joked about in the past.

There was no rash. No turning. No burning. Not in Misato’s cell, at least.

At the end, Jensen’s daughter hung her coat and purse strap over one elbow and followed a lab assistant back toward the lobby without looking at her mother.

Jensen caught her arm. “Um.” The lab assistant–pretending not to eavesdrop–could tell Jensen’s mind was spiraling through possibilities, but differently than usual. Like she was following a hundred linked ideas down a hundred different rabbit hole connections, and she couldn’t settle on one subject long enough to spit out the usual nervous string of facts and simplifications. In the end, she just said, “We should have dinner. Soon.”

“In about–” Jensen’s daughter checked her exit papers. “–three weeks, I’ll call you to discuss any potential side effects I notice.” She bent over her purse and stuffed the papers into a side pocket. “Goodbye, Mom.”

She left.

Jensen buried herself in the new data. Her team did the same, even though word spread fast about the daughter, her daring, and the Marie Curie dare directed at Jensen.

The team pretended they hadn’t eavesdropped.

They moved forward.

#

The first casualty’s replacement lived like a ghost.

Quieter than most of her colleagues, no matter how assured she was that she belonged–handpicked–on Jensen’s team. Sleeping on a cot in a little-used conference room. Wandering the rooftop apiary within clouds of cool, cloying smoke pumped through to keep the bees calm and honey-stuffed and slow to sting.

She took every shift she could, even though the apiary was one of the least-desired tasks in the facility. Even ash-collecting was preferred to donning the white beekeeper suits and managing the hives face to face.

But ongoing observation of the resurrected bee colonies was invaluable. The more they watched, the more they learned. A bee could die of natural causes (generally lifespan) and revive up to three times before requiring another application of the adapted compound. This held true even for maimed bees missing a head or a wing or a barbed stinger ripped from their abdomen, though such bees had limited value if too incapacitated to complete their functions.

The work was fascinating, and no one minded trading tasks with the first casualty’s replacement, so she worked there almost every day, every hour, until Jensen dragged her into the locker-room armed with a color-coded shift schedule and a news article printed off the internet.

“What happened to the assignments I wrote up?” Jensen demanded, shaking the schedule as the team member stripped off her suit to check for stowaway bees. Smoke stuck in both their throats. “What happened to even divisions of risk? On paper, on the ID logs, they’ve been followed like clockwork. So, explain yourself.”

The young woman relinquished an ID card she’d traded with one of her colleagues, wincing. “I like working with the miracle bees. I feel more useful here than anywhere else in the lab. I came in late on the work with the compound and the honeycomb rooms…” She paled as the mention of the observation rooms left her lips. “I prefer to be outside.”

“It’s not a matter of preference,” Jensen said. “It’s sharing the risk. What’s the longest shift you’ve worked out here? If you slip up, if you get stung–”

“It wouldn’t hurt the project.” She met Jensen’s eyes. “It wouldn’t set anything back. I’m most useful here, and my absence would do the least harm.”

“And what about this?” Jensen waved the news article. A missing person bulletin, itself missed in an inbox set up with search term alerts. Jensen should have noticed it months ago. “You didn’t read any of your family in? You didn’t even tell them you were leaving? You’ll let them think you’re dead?”

“I know my family,” the team member said. “They can’t keep a secret. Not like this. It’s better this way.”

“Ha!” It was the most unreserved, bitter laugh of Jensen’s life thus far. “I doubt they agree. You’ll have to answer to them when you go back.”

The girl’s eyes flashed, fearful. “Are you sending me back?”

Jensen stilled. Said nothing.

Her team member breathed out, choosing her words carefully. “I didn’t think you go back from this kind of thing. The work will always be here, won’t it? And with the risks involved, for me, for everyone…” She swallowed. “For a lot of reasons, it’s almost better if they think I’m already dead.”

Jensen ground her teeth, considering boundaries, considering the obligations of a human being, considering options she could or could not take. Then she ripped the helmet and bee veil from the girl’s arms. “The shifts. At least. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

“Well,” the team member said. “You didn’t notice, for a long time. As long as the right name showed up on the logs–”

Jensen slammed a locker door closed on the edge of the wire mantle, then swore, pulling it back out to check for holes. “I know your name, damn it. You may be the newest, but how long have I worked with everyone else? I know everyone’s names, I know where they were born, and where and what you all studied–”

“Yes,” the girl cut in. “You know all our names. They just…”

“Just what?”

The lab technician stepped out of the rest of her protective suit, avoiding Jensen’s eyes. “They aren’t really important, are they? As long as the work moves forward, like everyone says here.”

She waited for Jensen to respond, but Jensen just stared, silent, like she was waiting for more.

So the lab technician gave it, fiddling with the bracelet on her arm. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s a true thing, and we all know it. If we minded, we wouldn’t still be here.”

The team member finished stowing the gear in the lockers, and left Jensen mentally sifting through conversations, sorting and shuffling and analyzing.

The topic needed more study before Jensen could come to any conclusions.

She tweaked the work schedule, and checked regularly that everyone was where they were supposed to be. She started listening to her team, she unnerved everyone by listening more than talking for once. But the data and chatter and in-jokes and whispers refused to form an actionable hypothesis.

Jensen continued her sweeps of the gathered test applicants. She studied the bees, and the ashes, and she altered compounds. Jensen and her team fixed what they thought was wrong, and more subjects arrived.

They fixed what they thought was wrong, and more subjects arrived.

Another Mother’s Day came, and more flowers drooped over Jensen’s head as she sat at her desk reading blacked-out files, and she fixed what they thought was wrong, and more subjects arrived.

Until, finally, they fixed what was wrong.

The trials continued to make sure, sure, sure, but no bodies turned, and no samples were burned, and eventually a date surfaced on one of the whiteboards. The important whiteboard, in the room across from Jensen’s office.

It was a launch date.

#

On the night before the project spread to the wider world through flower, field, and forest, through rooftop gardens and backyard bee colonies, through all the nations that made up the world, Jensen’s team met in the lunchroom, in the dark.

A box in the center of the table buzzed, the contents smuggled from one of the rooftop colonies. The team members rolled up their normally-neat closefitting sleeves. The whiteboard for movie recommendations and birthday announcements defiantly proclaimed, “THE ZOMBEE PROJECT 3.0,” in remembrance of the first casualty–the first team member to christen their project in green, dry-erasable ink.

They lit some candles, because that looked like ceremony. Made it more like a rite of passage, a test of mettle, rather than one last clinical trial behind their queen bee’s back.

Two minutes to the agreed-upon hour, just as every team member started holding their breath, Jensen burst through the door and smacked the lights on, jolting everyone.

“Here you are,” she said, breathless, clutching a stuffed binder to her torso. “I thought one of the observation rooms, or the labs–” She shook her head. Deepened her breathing. Glared. “I know most of the why, but not all. Explain yourselves.”

“Your daughter,” one of the team members stumbled. “I heard what she said–about pulling a Marie Curie. She’s right, we can’t just throw this into the world with no stake in it. If we’re not every bit confident, and committed, and willing to test it ourselves, then we can’t ask the world to accept it.”

Jensen’s hands flew to her forehead–a sign that all the pieces had come together. “So that’s it. You misunderstood.”

“Her point seemed clear,” another team member said. “She took the miracle bee’s sting–”

“To goad me,” Jensen said. “She wasn’t asking me to risk my own skin, just to watch her risking hers. To remember what the stakes of this project are, exactly.” Her eyes drifted to the words on the whiteboard, and stuck. “It’s been a point of contention with us for some years now. When she got herself into the trials, she was reminding me to think about the real people I’ll be affecting.”

Jensen dumped her bulky binder on the table, spilling manila files that bumped the base of a still-lit candle, making it waver. The bees buzzed louder. She grabbed an eraser from the whiteboard and zig-zagged blank slashes across all the listed movies–a white gash cutting the word “ZOMBEE” in two.

And her team members stared at the closed files, reading the first names jotted on the labels.

Ameena, who’d lied to the boy in the first test to dispel his doubts.

Levi, whose hair matched the flowers of the rooftop apiary.

Marisol, who called the bees miracles and chose the lab as her new family.

And on, and on, and on.

“This is not an academic problem,” Jensen said, stretching to reach the edge of the zero. “This is not a movie. We can’t think about this distantly, and we can’t do whatever it was you were about to do. If it goes wrong, we’ll need to be here. We’ll need to fix it. That’s how we’ll manage, whatever comes next.”

She put the eraser back on its silver tray.

She didn’t turn around, but her team was conditioned to note every variation in her voice, even if they sometimes misinterpreted.

“We can spare casualties out of necessity,” Jensen said, “when tragedy strikes, or to avert future tragedies. But not for noble gestures. You are not worker bees. You are more than this project, you bring that to this project. And I need all of you here.”

She jerked her head toward the files on the table, and her team members sprang for the files with their names on them, as if released from a vise.

Nothing in the files was blacked out. It was all written by Jenson, in the lengthy, rambling, grandiose sentences they’d come to expect from her.

Each of the files outlined Compound 4 at length. Described it at every stage of its conception, the steps needed for production, the location of the hidden safe where samples were currently being held. Each Compound 4 was different, personally tailored for every member of Jensen’s team. The conclusion was that Compounds 1 and/or 2 had failed to revive human hosts free of symptoms because they’d been aimed toward mass production rather than a more personal resurrection.

Numb, Jensen’s team members stared at their personal resurrections. Handcrafted.

“I started them after Randall was stung,” Jensen said, staring at the blank whiteboard, arms crossed. “Now never, ever make me test them. Because I can’t spare any of you.”

She picked up the buzzing box, tucked it under her arm, and pulled her phone from her pocket to bury her face in emails and jotted-down memos as she headed for the door.

“Besides,” she said. “If you were going to pat yourselves on the back for being martyrs, you wouldn’t have waited until the altered compound was this safe. Now tomorrow, despite our policies up to this point, the world will hear about our success, but they won’t get superfluous details from any of us. We will share the unclassified essentials when asked, to subdue panic or misinformation, but if I see any blabbering on your personal social media accounts, so help me–”

Her voice faded down the hallway.

Ameena and Marisol and Levi and all the rest followed her.

They dragged all their desk chairs into Jensen’s office, and they slept, and they waited for the next stage of the project to begin.

Comments (3)

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  1. Joe Goodrich says:

    Wow! Saw the article on Facebook and then had to read the story. Amazing. You are very talented.

    Originally planned to just glance at it, but once I started I had to read the whole way through.

    Keep up the writing Allison!

  2. […] on March 3, “THE ZOMBEE PROJECT 3.0” went up in podcast form (and text) at Escape Pod, as part of their Artemis Rising event […]

  3. Bjorn says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed this story while listening to it on my personal audio device.
    Keep going !

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