The beasts of barakhai b.., p.1

The beasts of Barakhai bob-1, page 1

 part  #1 of  Books of Barakhai Series


The beasts of Barakhai bob-1

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The beasts of Barakhai bob-1

  The beasts of Barakhai

  ( Books of Barakhai - 1 )

  Mickey Zucker Reichert

  Mickey Zucker Reichert

  The beasts of Barakhai

  Chapter 1

  RACKS of plastic hutches lined the walls of the biology laboratory at Algary campus, each with a testtube water bottle jutting from its mesh screen lid. Surrounded by wood-topped metal stools, six fused desks/cabinets filled the center of the room, a chaotic jumble of notepads, pens, pipettes, and goggles cluttering their faux wood surfaces. Stomach growling, Benton Collins ladled fresh wood chips into the pan of an empty cage while its usual occupant, a fat white rat, nosed at the corners of the cardboard box that temporarily held it.

  The odor of the cleaner churned Collins' hunger into nausea. He flung strands of dark brown hair from his eyes with a gloved hand, smearing wet food mush across his forehead, then immediately berated himself with sarcasm for the habitual gesture. Smart move. Good thing I wore gloves to protect me from this slop.

  As the sweet aroma of cedar replaced the chemical smells, Collins' gut rumbled again. He had skipped breakfast and lunch, the expectation of a Thanksgiving feast holding hunger at bay. He had promised his girlfriend to do whatever he could to make it to her family's home by 2:00 p.m., to meet her parents for the first time. Collins doubted his skinny, bespectacled self would make much of an impression on an old-money family like the Johnsons, especially reeking of rat and with green-gray smudges of food stick goo across his face. He glanced at his watch. 3:30 p.m. And he still had an entire row of cages to clean, as well as Professor Demarkietto's notes to review, before he could call it a day. The drive alone would take an hour.

  Feeling more like a punching bag than a graduate student, Collins filled the water bottle, placed a few fresh sticks of food in the cage, then hefted the cardboard box. He poured the rat back into its cage. It scuttled about, hurling chips, then hunkered down with a food stick clenched between its front paws. Collins clipped the lid back in place and replaced the cage on its rack. He peeled off the gloves with a snap of latex and tossed them into the trash can. Using a damp paper towel little finer than sandpaper, he scrubbed the grime from his forehead, then washed his hands and drank from his cupped palms. The water sat like lead in his otherwise empty belly. After drying his face and hands, he wadded the paper towels together and launched them, like a basketball, into the can.

  Only then, did Collins take a deep breath, close his eyes, and reach for the telephone. Fumbling through the papers for his own organizer, he opened his eyes and leafed to the last page for the home number of Marlys Johnson's parents. He punched it in.

  Marlys answered on the first ring. "Hello?" Her tone hardened. "Benton, that better be you."

  Seized with a sudden urge to hang up without speaking, Collins forced a laugh. "If I'd been Publishers' Clearinghouse, wouldn't you have felt dumb?"

  Dead silence.

  Collins cringed. He pictured her: long red hair permed and styled for the holiday, the green eyes that could as easily scald as melt him, the slender legs that seemed to climb to her smallbreasted chest. In his mind's eye, he imagined a glare that would send tougher men skittering for cover.

  The distant sound of laughter wafted across the receiver, followed by song. The background noise brought Collins back to his childhood, when his parents lived together and his Uncle Harry and Aunt Meg spent every Thanksgiving with them. Harry loved to tell jokes but butchered the punchlines. Meg would try to correct them, laughing so hard that she usually only succeeded in making them hopelessly obtuse. The interaction between the husband and wife always seemed so much funnier than the joke, even correctly told. Collins had spent last Thanksgiving with his mother and her new boyfriend, a paunchy, socially inept engineer with three visiting children he could not control. This year, the two were spending Thanksgiving in Vegas on their honeymoon. Collins' father was touring Europe with his quirky girlfriend, Aviva. Harry and Meg had not invited him.

  "You'd better be calling from a cell phone." Marlys' frigid voice jarred Collins back to the present.

  Collins sighed, hands sliding instinctively to the cell phone, pager, and multitool at his belt. "I'm still at the lab."

  "Why?" Her tone implied no explanation short of nuclear catastrophe would suffice.

  Collins knew better, but he could not resist another joke. "The rats invited me for dinner. I couldn't resist… food sticks."

  "That's not funny."

  "I'm sorry."

  "Am I a joke to you?"

  "Of course not." Collins rolled his eyes to the whitewashed ceiling, wishing he had not attempted humor. "I'd be there if I could, Marlys. You know that. But the power system's been touch and go with all the grain harvests. Lab loses electricity long enough, crash go some of the experiments. Including Dundee's two-million-dollar grant."

  "You're not working for Dundee," Marlys reminded. "Why can't her grad student handle it?"

  Collins sat on one of the stools, propping his sneaker-clad feet on another. "Marly, come on. You know Dave's parents live in Florida."

  "Don't call me Marly-"

  "Once they all found out my family wasn't available for the holiday-"

  "It's Marlys, Benton, not Marly. And why do you let people take advantage of you?"

  Collins gave the expected reply, though he had tired of it. "Just call me Ben. And it's not a matter of taking advantage. It's-"

  "Demarkietto's a slave driver."

  Though true, it was not what Collins had been about to say. "Well, yes, but-"

  "Why don't you just tell him to go fuck himself?"

  "Marlys!" Collins had never heard her use that word before.

  "You have a right to a holiday, too."

  Collins hated to remind Marlys of his shortcomings, especially when she had her mother to disparage him. "A lot of candidates applied for lab positions this year. I was lucky to get one."

  Marlys refused to concede. "No, Demarkietto's the lucky one. Lucky he could get any grad assistant after Carrie Quinton."

  Collins had also heard the rumors, that the beautiful postdoctoral genetics student had disappeared without a trace in an effort to escape Professor Demarkietto's demands. "I need the money, Marlys. I'm already three payments behind on student loans. And I need the recommendation. Whatever you or Carrie Quinton thinks of ol' D-Mark, he's well-respected in the scientific community."

  Something white caught the edge of Collins' vision.

  "Benton, my parents are starting to think you're unreliable."

  Distracted, Collins returned to wit. "So is student loan services."


  A white rat scurried from behind the desks, scrambling through the gap in the partially opened door.

  "Damn it!"

  "Benton! Did you just swear at me?"

  "Big problem." Wondering whose ten-year, million-dollar experiment he had just ruined, Collins said, "I'll call you back." Without waiting for a reply, he started to replace the receiver.

  Marlys' small voice chased him. "Don't you dare-" Then the earpiece clicked down, cutting off whatever threat Marlys had uttered. Uncertain whether or not he would ever see his girlfriend again, Collins bashed the door open with his shoulder.

  The panel shot wide, and the impact bruised his arm even through his emerald-green Algary sweatshirt. Collins caught sight of the rat squeezing beneath the door of one of the unused classrooms provided by grant money. He had once overheard some of the professors discussing the perks of earning such a room, then using it for storage, a badge of honor for bringing in a large endowment. Collins groaned, doubting he could find the escapee amid years of a scientist's accumulated crap.

>   For a moment, Collins froze, paralyzed by despair. If an experimental animal came up missing on his watch, he would lose his job for certain; and those who graded him might no longer feel so kindly disposed. His thesis might become less valuable than the paper on which he printed it. He would never get a job. His student loans would plunge him into poverty. He had lost his parents to the pursuit of their own happiness, and he had no siblings with whom to commiserate. He had probably just lost his girlfriend; worse, he was not sure he even cared. Suddenly, the idea of becoming a second Carrie Quinton, of disappearing without a trace, seemed the best of all his lousy options.

  Collins shook his head, tossing hair the color of bittersweet chocolate; it had gone too long since its last cutting. Driven only by a deeply rooted sense of responsibility, he pulled open the door. Light funneled in from a dusty window that made the room seem full of smoke. Mathematical equations, complicated and incomprehensible, scrawled white across a blackboard. Piled boxes, desks, and chairs crafted strange shadows across the tiled floor. On an open stretch, someone had sketched out a pentagram in purple chalk. A chill spiraled through Collins, and the urge to flee gripped him like ice. He calmed himself with logic. Role-playing gamers abounded on Algary campus, and they often sought out hidden rooms and alcoves for atmosphere. In his college days, he had played some Dungeons and Dragons on the roof of Domm Hall.

  Collins flicked the light switch. It clicked, but nothing changed. The bulb had, apparently, burned out. He debated leaving the door open to channel in a bit more light, but it seemed prudent to block the only exit. Rat in a dark storage room. Kind of makes the old needle in a haystack seem like simple hide-and-seek. He closed the door, pulled his sweatshirt off over his head, and stuffed it under the crack. Satisfied the rat could not squeeze out, he sat on the cold floor, half-naked. What now? A radioactive, rabid cockroach bites off my three chest hairs? He glanced around for a cup or empty box to hold the creature until he could transfer it to its cage but found nothing suitable. Accustomed to handling, the rat would likely prove tractable enough to carry in his hands.

  Hunger churned through Collins' gut again. Even the rubbery turkey slices Algary's cafeteria served up on holidays seemed like a treat, garnished with ketchup from a can as big as his torso. They would serve it up with some weirdly spiced institutional stuffing, a canned blob of cranberries, and something that vaguely resembled cheese. The denouement: cardboard pie colored some fruity color, as vivid and unrealistic as Froot Loops. The whole situation suddenly seemed hysterically funny. Shaking his head, he laughed until his ribs ached.

  A flash of white ran right past Collins' left sneaker.

  "Hey!" Instantly sobered, Collins leaped to his feet and gave chase. The rat skittered between a row of boxes and disappeared beneath a pile of desks. "Hey," he repeated, diving after the retreating tail.

  Collins slammed against stacked cartons; they exploded into a wild avalanche. Not bothering to assess the damage, he kept his gaze locked on the rat. His foot came down on something hard, and his ankle twisted. Pain consumed his leg. Afraid to lose the rat, he bulled through it, plunging into the darkness beyond the stack of desks.

  The world went suddenly black. Collins blinked several times, seeking a bare trickle of light leaching between boxes or around the irregular shapes that defined the desks. Worried about losing his target, he continued forward blindly, sweeping the space ahead with his hands to protect his head. An occasional squeak or blur of white movement kept him going far longer than seemed possible in such a small room. He got the distinct impression he was chasing his own tail instead of the rat's, caught in a wild spiral of madness constructed from nothing more substantial than stress. Focusing on this current problem kept him from dwelling on the anger his parents aroused, the advantage his preceptor had taken of a miserable situation, his inability to appease the one person he professed to love. His world narrowed to the excitement of the chase.

  At length, Benton Collins realized that the passage of time had become more than just a perception. His stomach gnawed at its own lining; dinnertime surely had come and gone. His memory of the telephone call seemed distant, indistinct. His back ached from stooping and his knees from crawling. He reached above his head, his groping fingers meeting nothing of substance. Cautiously, he rose and discovered he could stand without having to stoop. The room remained utterly black.

  Collins glanced at his left wrist. The hands of his watch glowed eerily in the darkness: 7:18. Shocked, he studied the arrangement of hands and hash marks. He could not believe he had been slithering around after a rat for over three hours. The thought seemed lunacy. If true, he should have crashed into a wall or door, should have stumbled over boxes, should have caught glimpses of light through the window. But his world remained dark, and he felt none of the stored items he had seen before while scurrying beneath the desks. I'm not in the same room. Can't be.

  Vision straining, Collins took careful steps forward, waving his arms in front of him to head off a collision. At length, the fingers of his left hand scraped an irregular wall. He pawed along it for a light switch, feeling damp and craggy stone. What the hell? He shook his head, scarcely daring to believe it. I'm lost in some dark, secret corner of Daubert Labs. But how did I get here? He sucked in a calming breath, then let it out slowly through his nose. Must have accidentally crawled through a vent or tunnel or something. No wonder the gamers like it here.

  A sharp squeak startled Collins from his thoughts. He glanced around for the creature, more from habit than true interest anymore. His heart pounded, and a shiver racked him. Rationally, he knew he could not remain lost in a campus building for longer than the four-day holiday, yet disorientation pressed him toward panic. Suddenly, his location seemed the most important piece of information in the world.

  Pressing both hands to the wall, Collins chose a direction and followed it to a corner. At some point, he reasoned, he would have to find a door into a hallway. From there, he would surely come upon a part of the laboratory he knew.

  A lump formed in Collins' throat. His heart hammered against his ribs, and his thoughts refused to coalesce. His elbow grazed something hard at his belt, and this finally triggered coherent thought. Pager. Got my cell phone, too. And other stuff. He fingered the odd assortment of objects in his pockets, identifying keys, calculator, and the lighter he used for bunsen burners and alcohol lamps before ending the silly game. Relief triggered a nervous laugh. What's wrong with me? He tugged the phone from its plastic holder, lengthened the antennae, and pressed the lower left button. It came on with a beep, the display revealing the word "on." The indicator showed no signal strength whatsoever. Weird. Charged it last night. Collins lowered the phone with a shrug of resignation. Who would I call anyway? He considered the situation. Hello, Dr. Demarkietto? I took a wrong turn, and I'm lost in the lab. Please send Lewis and Clark. He jabbed the phone back into its holder. His ego preferred no one ever found out about his little adventure.

  Collins continued his march along the wall, surprised by its irregularity, as well as his steady footing. He kept expecting to stumble over cartons or furniture, but he continued to walk unimpeded. Then, finally, he discovered a depression in the wall, its surface more like poorly sanded wood than stone. He groped for a doorknob but found none. Confused, he shoved it. To his surprise, it budged. Encouraged, he threw all of his weight against it. The wood panel gave beneath the effort, the hinges twisted free, and it collapsed forward. Momentum dragged Collins along with it.

  Collins hit the floor before he realized he was falling, his face slamming into the door. Pain jarred through his nose and chest, and his glasses tumbled. He rolled onto wet mulch that clung to his bare torso and realized he could see now, though blurrily. He lay in a crudely constructed room with a large, paneless window. He fished around for his glasses; his hand came up empty. He saw dust, shattered stone, and moss but no sign of his glasses. Drawn to the window, he abandoned his search to look through it, out onto a plain filled
with smeary weeds and wild-flowers beneath sky the color of slate. Beyond it lay the shadow of a vast forest. Stunned more by the sight than the fall, Collins spoke aloud. "Where am I?" It looked like nowhere he remembered on Algary campus. Panic returning, he shouted. "Where the living hell am I?"

  No answer came. Collins turned and drifted toward the fallen door. His gaze played over an uneven dirt floor, the piled dust displaying his every movement in bold relief: the starburst pattern from the gusts generated by the falling door, every treaded footprint, but no glasses. Collins dropped to all fours, searching diligently around and beneath the fallen door. He found only mud, stone, and moss. Hunger snaked through his gut with a long, loud growl. Great. What else can go wrong?

  Collins abandoned his glasses for the more driving need for food. He could never remember feeling so unremittingly, miserably starved. He knew he should turn around, should attempt to retrace his steps; but the thought of wandering aimlessly in silent darkness for another three hours or longer, weathering the growing agony in his gut, seemed impossible beyond reckoning. He studied the room. Four stone-and-mortar walls rimed with moss enclosed him, the only exits the doorway into darkness and the window. He cast one last look around for his glasses, but they had disappeared as completely as the familiar rooms and hallways of Daubert Laboratories.

  Collins dropped to his buttocks, stunned. Nothing made sense. In a matter of three dark hours, the world had changed in a way no logic could explain. He felt desperately confused, unable to find so much as a thread of logic despite his science background. Either he had plunged into madness or he had clambered into a parallel dimension, much like Dorothy and her Oz. Only, Collins reminded himself, that was fiction. In the real world, people did not follow white rabbits down holes to Wonderland. Or, in his case, white lab rats.

  Only one thing seemed wholly, unutterably certain: he was hungry. Perhaps if he satisfied that single, desperate need, everything else would fall into some sort of proper, or even improper, order.

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