TW: Gun violence
I lay in bed with my eyes closed tight, afraid to open them and see what kind of day it is. The lack of noise in my room is deafening, my alarm long since silenced. I ask my clock what time it is and its answer prompts a long sigh.
I need to get up and get ready for work.
I hesitantly crack my eyelids apart and see the room bathed in a reddish glow. The color is coming from a dense cloud of Red Fog choking the world outside my window.
“Fuck.”Read more: Red Fog Day
A Red Day- haven’t had one of them in a while. My stomach tightens and doesn’t let go the entire time I get myself dressed. Last night I laid out a respectable skirt and blouse combo, but I ignore it and grab a pair of jeans and a faded t-shirt that says “Science is for girls.” Most employers are ready to hand out participation trophies to anyone who even shows up on a Red Day. They’re not going to enforce the dress code.
I choke down breakfast, more so I have something in my stomach than out of hunger, keeping the tv off while I do so. No need to see the news this morning. I check the clock one last time and realize I can’t put it off any longer – I need to leave for work. The thought of calling out drifts across my mind. I toy with it for a few moments.
Could I? I haven’t called out in a while and I have plenty of sick time. It’s not like my job even means a damn thing.
Labs around the world have been trying to neutralize the fog for years to no avail. Is anyone really going to care if I take one day off from pushing the test button and logging in the failing results? Probably not, but I pull my shoes on anyway.
I slip on my filter backpack holding the tethered mask in my hands, step out of my apartment, and take the elevator downstairs. I don’t have to put my mask on until I reach the lobby. I’m lucky enough to live in a high-rise that’s sealed and air filtered.
Rufus the doorman gives a wave from the front desk. “Good morning, Ms. Osborne”
“I’ve told you before, Rufus, call me Victoria,” I say with a smile.
“OK, Ms. Osborne, be safe out there today.”
“Thanks, hope it doesn’t get too crazy in here for you.”
I slip my mask over my face and give a wave goodbye as I step into the exit chamber. The door buzzes behind me as it locks and the door in front of me gives a three second warning beep before opening.
As it swings open, the chamber fills with thin wispy fog as red as a rose. My lab is seven blocks away and the morning walks are always… entertaining. Not everyone can afford a mask or afford to use it daily; refill filters are way too costly.
On a Blue Day, the sidewalks are lined with people sobbing and mumbling nonsense at passersby or laying in the street hoping to be run over. Orange days almost no one uses a filter. The rebels didn’t create Orange Days, they were created by mistake by a lab in Russia trying to neutralize the fog. Everyone feels a little better on Orange Days- no one fights, traffic is bearable, people hum a happy tune as they work. Purple Days? Another mistake but, well, let’s hope we don’t see another Purple Day soon. I’m still trying to forget some of the things I saw on the last Purple Day.
But Red Days are always a mess. This morning, the sidewalk outside my building is host to a fistfight. Seven or eight people trade blows and the fight grows larger as unfiltered strangers pass by and join in. Angry car horns can be heard continuously blaring from every direction.
As I walk by the melee, I’m body slammed as a fighter in an ironic t-shirt shoves a well-dressed woman into me. Thanks to my mask, I continue on unbothered, shouting a muffled ‘have a nice day’ over my shoulder.
A block from my place is a coffee bar that is much better than the free coffee in the break room. I grab a sealed bottle of coffee to heat at work and pay with a tap of my phone. A flutter of annoyance passes through me as the cashier refuses to look me in the eye. As I turn to leave, a shattering sound fills the small store. The unfiltered cashier dropped a bottle of coffee. His coworker responds by launching bottles at the cashier’s feet while unleashing a string of obscenities.
Fucking idiots. What a waste of good coffee.
Back on the sidewalk the fog seems thicker as I head towards my lab. I can only see ahead a block or two but the way ahead is lined with unfiltered. I pass by a woman shredding a stack of papers and throwing the pieces in the air. I huff and swat away a few pieces when they get too close to my face. Next up is a man standing mannequin still with his head thrown back – a guttural scream escaping his open mouth.
“A Red Day, huh?” The muffled voice comes from behind me. I spin to see the face of a man I recognize from around the office.
“Obviously,” I snap back.
A brief flash of confusion crosses his face before it disappears. “See ya there,” he says with a small wave before picking up his pace, weaving between the unfiltered ahead. In a hurry to get to the office or away from me I’m not exactly sure.
Dumbass. Of course I can see it’s a Red Day. Who comments on the fog anymore anyway? It is what it is. This is our bullshit life.
My thoughts are disrupted when someone yanks on the sleeve of my shirt, throwing me off balance. I catch myself and turn to see my assailant. Pure rage fills the eyes of a teenage boy in a football jersey.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shout as I shove him with all my strength. He topples back into another teenager in a matching jersey. The two lock arms and begin to struggle, each trying to jab and pull the other to the ground, completely forgetting about me.
I shake my head and stomp away, cheeks flushed, cursing the parents who let their kids out on a Red Day.
Schools are closed on Red Days, kids should stay the fuck home.
I mentally unleash a volley of curses towards the kids’ parents before stopping dead in my tracks. I pull out my phone and tap on the filter monitoring app.
“Of all the fucking days,” I say out loud to no one.
The filter level is almost at zero. It’s been letting in small amounts of the fog since I left home. Any second now the filter will be completely worthless. Not enough time to get to work.
Why didn’t I check it before I left? This thing is dead and now I’m going to be late to work sitting in that damn decompression chamber.
I yank the filter off my face and breathe in the fog. No sense delaying it. The full force of the Red Day hits me and my thoughts turn dark fast.
I toss the mask and let it dangle from the hose at my side but by the second time it hits my ankle, I’m fuming.
“Fucking piece of shit motherfucker cocksucking–” the words tumble out of my mouth as I yank the mask up. I stuff it behind me into a side pocket of the backpack.
I stomp down another half a block, avoiding getting dragged into another brawl between two guys in high-vis jackets.
A car stuck in traffic on the street starts futilely blaring it’s horn and my attention turns to the driver. “Who are you honking at?! No one is moving you dumb piece of shit!”
The woman behind the wheel starts yelling back at me before throwing the car into park and hopping out. We’re both shouting at each other but I don’t even recognize the words coming out of my mouth. Deep down I know this argument is wrong. I know I should back down and get to work as fast as possible, but the fog makes it impossible to focus.
The woman makes it around to the passenger side of her vehicle, her face almost purple with rage. With us both distracted, a man across the street is able to hop into her car, slam the door shut and lock all the doors. It isn’t until he honks the horn that the woman and I stop screaming and notice what happened. She ignores me completely and rounds to the driver’s side door, screaming at the man to get out. He lays on the horn, screaming back that it’s his car now before throwing it into drive and using it as a battering ram. The crunch of bumpers sound as he forces her car into the car in front in an attempt to maneuver onto the sidewalk.
I continue walking as the man rams the stolen car into a fire hydrant, causing a huge plume of water to rain down on everyone nearby.
“Oh yeah, sure! Of course! Let’s go ahead and get me soaking wet! As if this day isn’t fucking terrible enough already!” I cross an intersection and somewhere deep down, I register that I’m less than a block from work. “This is such HORSESHIT!”
I see the entrance to my building up ahead and the armed guards escorting employees into one of two doors- filtered on the left, unfiltered on the right. A presence comes up along side of me.
“Uh-oh! Looks like someone’s filter ran out, what a bad day for it Vicky.”
I turn to see an older man I recognize but don’t know his name. If the whole world wasn’t already bathed in a red glow, I would’ve seen red at that moment. I lunge for him, hands swinging wildly. He remains out of my reach as a set of strong arms wrap around my waist. The arms belong to one of our building security officers who’s dragging me away. He pushes me through the unfiltered entrance and turns back to the crowd outside.
I’m corralled by masked employees past a line of airlock chambers until I’m dumped into an empty one. Inside is a bench bolted to the ground and a speaker on the wall. The opposite wall from the entry door is glass with a locked door; I can see the unfiltered building beyond. I slump onto the bench and distorted classical music begins playing. I look up to the speaker and see that this chamber’s last tenant ripped the speaker from the wall in a Red fueled rage and it’s now dangling from a single wire.
The music is meant to calm as the filtered air begins to pump in. A knock on the “exit” side glass draws my attention as an unmasked employee holds up a scanner, a silent prompt to show my badge and “check-in” for the day. I dig through my bag and stomp over, smashing my badge against the glass.
She gives an amused eye roll and scans the barcode on my badge before moving on to the next airlock chamber.
After only ten minutes, I can feel my thoughts becoming clearer as the fog wears off. I realize I’m not soaking wet as I thought and only mildly damp.
I sit back on the bench, close my eyes, and take deep breaths, trying to relax the tense muscles in my shoulders. My hands slowly uncurl from the fists I was making and little by little the world becomes right again. The employee who checked me in comes back after a bit and taps on the door, giving me a questioning thumbs up.
I smile apologetically and give a thumbs up back. She enters a code on the door and the door opens.
“I’m sorry, Sharon.”
“Don’t sweat it, Victoria, I’m used to that and much worse. Red Days…” and the rest goes unsaid.
“Red Days…” is all I can say in response.
I sling my bag over my shoulder and make my way through the maze of the building, swiping my badge to access the floors I need. I finally reach my lab and when I finally buzz myself in, I see my lab-mate Inah sitting at her desk, typing away.
Along the back wall is another airlock chamber, much larger than the one I was stuck in, and it’s already full with twenty volunteer participants.
I set my stuff down, throw on my white lab coat, and make my way over to the glass wall separating our lab and the volunteers.
“Good morning, everyone! Who’s ready to be experimented on?” I say with a laugh.
Most of the volunteers give a small chuckle or a little smile, but one guy with long blonde hair and a skater brand shirt throws both arms in the air and whoops!
“Bring it on! I’m ready!” He shouts.
I can’t help but laugh, as do several other volunteers. “Great, keep up that enthusiasm once the Red fog rolls in.” His big smile falters for a second before he drops his arms. “All right everyone, I’m running a little behind thanks to a faulty filter so hang tight for a few, then we’ll get started.”
I cross the cluttered lab to stand by Inah. Without looking up from her computer she asks, “how was the decompress chamber?”
“I’d forgotten how much I absolutely hate it. It’ll remind me to never leave without checking my filter again.”
She raises her eyebrows in agreement as she finishes typing up an e-mail.
“What’s on our agenda for today?”
She stands up, cracking her neck in the process. “Samples 121A to 126. This is a paid group of participants, not a convict group, so we have to give them at least an hour rest between each test.”
I nod along as I look at the paperwork she handed me. Each sample has small tweaks to the formula the company has been testing for months. The hope is that one of these samples can neutralize the catalysts for Red and Blue days.
“Did you hear about the attack-“
I cut her off with a stern look. She drops her voice to a whisper and continues.
“Did you hear about the attack on the St. Louis labs? The rebels broke through outdoor security and made it into the lobby before they were stopped. They’ve never gotten inside one of the buildings before.”
I match her whisper with my own. “That’s St. Louis, not here. We’re fine. No more rebel talk, we don’t want to spook the participants.” I clear my throat and speak at a normal volume. “Go ahead and load sample 121A, I’ll get the subjects prepped.”
I walk back over the glass wall. “Ok everyone, we still ready to go?” Again the skater-boy whoops. His enthusiasm seems to have rubbed off on some of the others as they offer a small cheer as well. “Great! I’m going to begin the recording now.”
I flick a switch and stand in front of one of the cameras facing the test chamber. “Today is June 14th, 2035. My name is Victoria Osborne and I work for Apex Labs. We are testing the efficacy of sample 121A against Red Fog. These participants are all here of their own accord and have signed all the consent forms.” I look over my shoulder and nod to the group before stepping out of frame.
“Now we will begin introducing Red Fog into the test chamber.” I turn to Inah who presses a few buttons. A vent opens in the wall and the first tendrils of Red filter in. There’s always a second right before the fog hits when the group is dreading the feeling that’s coming, but there’s nothing they can do but accept their fate.
It isn’t long before the semi-fearful looks on their faces transform. Foreheads crinkle, eyes squint, every muscle tensing like preparing for a fight. Which, in reality, they probably are.
Within a few minutes, the first punch gets thrown. No-longer-enthusiastic surfer boy is the recipient of the punch which he returns with a fist of his own. They tussle for a moment before Inah is over the loudspeaker. “Break it up! Everyone stand on the X’s marked on the floor!”
The participants comply, even though there are some harsh words hurled towards me and Inah. Two people fight over the same X until one of them shoves the other hard enough that they trudge away to a different X.
Once everyone is more or less in position, we observe them for several minutes. Mark down their agitation on a matrix handed down from the higher-ups. Another useless sheet of data for another useless experiment. But I do it anyway.
“Ok, now we will introduce sample 121A into the test chamber.” Most of the participants don’t acknowledge that I’ve spoken and those that do roll their eyes or flip me off. Inah taps away at her keyboard and a new vent opens, she starts the test timer. The test samples are black so we can visualize their dispersal into the chamber.
The black aerosolized sample mixes into the red fog, swirling until the air inside the chamber is a deep red. Several minutes pass and the color of the fog remains unchanged. The timer Inah started dings. I grab the second agitation matrix and reevaluate the participants. None of their behaviors have changed. If anything, they seem even more antsy and agitated.
“Sample 121A has no effect on the Red Fog.” I clear my throat. “Ok Inah, start the filtration system. Let’s get these guys off Red.”
A beep sounds as another set of vents open in the chamber. Filtered air pumps in as the existing air gets vacuumed out. It takes about 10 minutes to remove all traces of the Fog. Then the participants have a rest period before the next round of testing.
Another day, another failure.
I jot my notes at the bottom of the results sheet, remembering how excited I was for the first few dozen trials. I was convinced we were going to crack it before any other lab.
Not like I would get credit for it anyway. I’m just the experiment coordinator. Everyone in the lab creating the samples would be the heroes.
But still, to be involved in neutralizing the Fog at all would be amazing.
But that’s clearly not in the cards for me… at least not with sample 121A.
As the participants rest, I set up a screen outside the chamber and put on a movie for them to watch. I choose something light and funny to help them forget they’re about to get hammered with Red Fog again.
The day moves along with pretty much the same routine until early afternoon. Every sample has failed (obviously) and we’ve started to reintroduce the Red Fog back into the test chamber. The chamber is fully red when it happens.
The shrill alarm is the first indicator that something is wrong. The participants react wildly to the sound and the flashing of the safety lights. They thrash and pound at the glass.
“It’s ok everyone! It’s just a drill! Move to the X’s on the floor,” I shout at them through the glass. Some grudgingly move to their spots but a few just glare at me. “Now!”
Inah is up from her desk and stands next to me. She whispers, “What’s going on?”
“Not sure,” I whisper back. “It’s probably a drill and we missed the warning emails. It’s fine. Why don’t you run next door and see if Dr. Kay knows anything about it?”
She nods and rushes to the door.
I turn back to see her staring at me with wide eyes. “It won’t open.”
The test subjects yell obscenities at us which we ignore as I come along side her and find it locked as she said. I turn back to the chamber filled with red fog and remember our emergency training.
“Vent the fog as quick as you can, flush with filtered air. Once it’s clear, we’ll enter through that airlock and lead all the volunteers out the back door they came in through.”
Inah heads over to the control panel as the sound of gunshots ring out.
“The rebels are here! Let me out of here, I’ll stop them!” The surfer boy is back at the glass pounding with his fists.
“Stop! We’re venting the Fog and we’re going to evacuate but I need you to stay calm!”
“Oh shit! Sorry Vic!”
I turn back to Inah who’s staring at me with wide eyes. “I hit the wrong button,” she screams.
“It’s fine just start the venting-“ I stop mid sentence when her eyes somehow become even wider and she points behind me.
I spin to see the black fog swirling in the chamber. She released the next sample instead of venting.
And it’s working.
As the black fog mixes with the red the air inside the testing chamber is reverting to colorless, normal air. The subjects within are snapping out of their rage induced stupor and wear looks of fear as more gunshots sound down the hall.
“It works,” is all I can manage to say.
Inah rushes up next to me, “We need to go!”
I look from her to the locked door behind us. “Right. Ok.” I grab her elbow and we run around some lab equipment to reach the airlock door embedded in the glass wall.
My fingers slip as I rush to enter the airlock code and the red light flashes twice. On the third try, it flashes green and the door hisses as it opens.
A loud bang makes us drop to the ground. I scramble up enough to see the door and the rebels beyond it’s square window.
“They’re here,” Inah cries.
They wear all black with full face gas masks filled with red fog. An eerie red glow emanates from each mask, making the whole situation feel even more surreal.
Guess they felt they needed the extra “motivation” to storm the labs.
I push Inah into the airlock and am about to follow when I look back to the control panel. “Sample 124- Success” is blinking across the screen. I need to get that formula in someone else’s hands before the rebels destroy the lab and the data with it.
I slam the airlock door shut, the thick glass separating Inah and myself.
“Get them out of here. Now.”
She looks as if she’s going to argue but she must see the determination on my face. Inah pushes through the test subjects to get to the back exit. I watch her long enough to see the door open and the first few volunteers scramble through it.
My brain is screaming at me to get back to the computer but before my body can respond, a shower of bullets slam into the door. I instinctively duck for cover behind some lab equipment.
The heavy metal door holds firm, but their red fog fueled gunfire seems never-ending and it can’t hold up forever. I scramble to the computer as the gunfire continues.
My email app loads as the glass window in the door shatters, sending me to the floor for protection. The bullets have stopped but by the steady dull thuds, it seems they’ve brought out the battering ram.
It’s now or never.
I open up a blank email and start typing in every name I can think of. My boss, my boss’s boss, my boss’s boss’s boss, any VP, CEO, CFO, anyone I’ve ever met, anyone in the company who may make it through this. My fingers dart across the keyboard:
“They’re coming but: SAMPLE 124 WORKS. IT NEGATES RED.”
I click the paperclip to attach the internal documents on Sample 124.
The door behind me gives way and bangs open. I hear the thudding of several pairs of boots.
I click the correct document and attach. I hit the send button just as several pairs of hands grip my shoulders and wrench me away from the computer.
A fist cracks against my jaw and my mouth fills with blood.
Instead of crying, a laugh escapes as I turn to see their red-lit faces.
“You’re too late. It works and now everyone knows.”
As another fist hurtles towards my face, I think:
I’m really glad I came to work today.