The giant room they were in was looking smaller as every minute passed and more people filed in. Section seven had been relatively empty ten minutes ago, now half the beds had families crammer onto them. Like Calvin and Will, most families were deeply engaged in conversation with other families. Calvin wondered if they all knew what Hank knew or if they had just been given some real super secret information.
The silence was broken as Will repeated what Hank had just told him, just a lot slower, and clearly trying to sound as rational as possible.
"So you're telling me that we're all being recruited to fight off a rogue faction from Mars that's currently attacking earth," he paused running his fingers through his thinning hair.
Hank gulped again, nodded, looked back up at his wife and then said under his breath, "I know a way out." He motioned for Calvin and Will to move in closer.
"Not everyone is going to be able to fight, they know that, but they also know we're all going to try anything we can to make it looks like we can't fight. And that's why I have these," he folded open his palm to reveal a handful of clear pill capsules.
Calvin's eyes grew bigger, and while he couldn't see his Dad's face directly, he was sure it looked relatively similar.
"What are those?" asked Calvin - it was time for him to jump in.
"These are genetic modification pills, they change, well more like adjust your genetic code, only for a somewhat short duration of course," folding his hand back he dropped the pills into his coat pocked. "You can't have any kind of genetic disposition that could cause you to have any trouble breathing contaminated air for a prolonged period of time."
Calvin thought this sounded strange, wouldn't toxic air be toxic to everyone. Hank saw the confusion on his face and as if reading his mind went on to answer the question.
"Sure, toxic air is toxic to everyone, but some people have a specific genetic disorder that makes it even more deadly. Taking these pills will cause that genetic marker to show up on a test, and you won't be able to serve. I know it sounds a bit crazy, and maybe a little too easy, but it really is that simple - of course getting the pills wasn't simple."
Before Calvin or Will could respond a new voice entered the conversation. It was one of the soldiers and he was making an announcement to the whole section. His stern stern face was staring forward, not looking at anyone but instead staring direction through the sector as if making an announcement to the wall behind them.
"Section seven. Rations will be delivered shortly, in an hour or two medical staff will come by to take a blood sample from each one of you. This is standard procedure during any contamination leak and will be completely painless. Until then please stay in your section unless you need to go to the bathroom."
He pivoted in place, turning in the opposite direction and walking over to the adjacent section, clearly giving the same message again.
"See," Hank said with surreptitious pride, "that's the genetic test."
Calvin and his Dad looked at each other. They both needed to talk to each other, debrief on the situation, but there really was nowhere to go so they just gave a look and then turned back to Hank.
"Do you have enough pills for us?" asked Will.
"I do, but we'll have to time it just right, if we take them too early the effects will wear off by the time they analyze our samples."
"Are there any side effects we should know about?"
"That's a bit of an unknown. I got these years ago so I'm actually not even entirely sure they're going to work, but it's our only shot. A co-worker of mine actually invented them and while they weren't intended for a situation like this, I'm glad I took him up on his offer to have some when he offered them."
"So...why did this co-worker invent them in the first place?" Will asked quizzically, he leaned in knowing that the answer would likely require more whispering.
"He wasn't trying to invent them, it was an accident. We were trying to create an appetite suppressant pill, you know, an easy way to lose weight, one of those - take one of these every day and shed ten pounds every week. But during our lab tests they had somewhat of the opposite effect, people gained weight more easily. So we did some additional testing and found that somehow we had triggered another genetic process, one that for a short-ish period of time slowed metabolism and at the same time made people particularly sensitive to airborne particulates."
Hank could see a look of concern sweep over Will and Calvin's face, he put a hand on Will's shoulder. "Look - I wouldn't give these to my family if I didn't think they were safe. Plus given the current situation, we're likely to be getting quite a bit less food that we usually do so slowing down our metabolism is probably a good thing don't you think?"
Before they could answer a shadow appeared overhead, a tall burly man in his mid-fifties wearing a orange plaid shirt and faded truckers hat waved sheepishly, "hey guys - hope I'm not interrupting anyone, looks like you're the only people I know here so thought I'd say hi."
The man's name was Frank, he had lived in the neighborhood for a long time and was known as a nice guy, but also someone who wasn't necessarily always the sharpest crayon in the box.
"Heya Frank," said Hank standing up to shake his hand. Calvin and Will did the same.
"So this is weird isn't it?" Frank clearly hadn't overheard any of their conversation.
"It sure is," said Will, pursing his lips and doing his best to look as genuinely confused as Frank did.
"How long do you think they'll keep us here?"
"Your guess is as good as mine - but hey, at least we'll have some tasty rations to look forward to," Hank tried to lighten the mood with just about the only joke that would resonate now.
Frank laughed and then crouched down and motioned for everyone to come closer. "I overheard some other neighbors talking - they said this has something to do with Mars."
Everyone went instantly silent, Calvin could see the color leave Frank and Will's face simultaneously. They all waited for more, but as the silence continued they realized that's all Frank had.
"What would this have to do with Mars?" Hank played dumb.
"I was hoping you guys would know more, I can't figure out myself what an contamination leak on Earth would have to do with Mars," he started actually scratching his head as if that might jingle loose some wild realization that would suddenly elucidate the truth.
"Can't say I've heard much about Mars lately myself," said Will mimicing Frank and scratching the side of his own head.
"Okay well if you hear anything, let me know, I'm right over here," he pointed to a cot about twenty five feet away.
"Will do buddy," said Will giving a little salute.
Frank stood up and made his way towards another group of neighbors. So they definitely weren't the only people who knew about the Mars connection but that didn't mean that anyone else knew they were all being lured into a military operation.
"Okay, well the word is out, or at least some of it, so we'll need to really keep our mouths shut," said Hank nodding to both Calvin and Will.
Duh, thought Calvin - Hank liked the role he was currently playing but he had to know that the last thing Calvin and his Dad were going to do would be to blab this to anyone else.
"Uh Dad, I have to go to the bathroom," Calvin said. It was time, not just to go to the bathroom, but to have a little chat, just the two of them.
"Sure bud. We'll be right back," said Will giving Hank a little wink and a pat on the shoulder.
It wasn't exactly clear where the bathroom was, or what the protocol was for going to the bathroom so Will approached one of the guards and asked, "my son needs to go to the bathroom - where exactly is it?"
The guard pointed across the room to a small opening in the wall, "over there, third door on the left, only one at a time."
One at a time. Hmmmm, well that wasn't ideal.
"I have to go too, so can't we just take turns," Calvin's Dad said, a sympathetic look on his face.
The guard thought about it for a second, "okay, but only one person inside the bathroom at a time," he said.
Okay, that wasn't too bad. They made their way across the complex, it was really getting packed now. As they passed different sectors themes began to emerge. Some sectors had very fit people, heck some of them were even exercising, unable to even think about missing a gym day. Other sectors had, well, less-than-fit people.
Calvin wondered if anyone in the sectors had started to pick up on these trends or if it was only apparent when you walked across the complex. As they got closer to the bathroom the people in each sector got older.
Reaching the opening in the wall a stone hallway lay in front of them. Dim yellow lights ran across the wall giving the hallway a warm but dark glow. Third door on the left, Calvin counted as they made their way down the hallway. The first two doors had big red placards across them, both said the same thing "Emergency Personnel only" - the third door, "Bathroom."
Now was the time, and since at the moment it was just Calvin and his Dad in the hallways this was their chance, Calvin started by stating the obvious - "Dad, this is crazy, do you think Hank is really telling the truth?"
Will scanned the hallway and paused for a second, clearly thinking more deeply before answering. "I don't know bud. I mean I think he think's he's telling the truth, and I guess we don't have any reason to think he would lie, right?"
"Yeah but riots on Mars? An attack here on Earth? Neighborhoods full of people being recruited for the military?"
"I know, I've been thinking the same things over and over in my head, but until we learn something else, I think this is the best information we have," he tilted his head up, indicating to Calvin that they were no longer alone.
A guard walked towards them down the hallway nodded and continued walking. One of them would need to go into the bathroom at this point.
Calvin turned the door handle and opened the door. "I don't know if I want to take those pills Dad," he said as the door swung open revealing an even more dimly lit bathroom. Calvin's Dad gave him an understanding look and their eyes met for a second before the door shut behind him. Inside the bathroom one red light is all that illuminated the cold concrete room which consisted of a toilet and sink. No mirror, no stalls, it was what Calvin imagined a prison bathroom to look like, just no bars on the wall thank goodness.
Calvin went to the bathroom quickly, washed his hands and splashed water on this face. He still couldn't believe this was happening. It all felt so surreal. He thought more about Hank's proposition - so either he needed to take some mysterious pills that would alter his genetics, or get recruited into makeshift militia to help defend Earth from an angry rogue group from Mars. Both options didn't sound great but he definitely wasn't prepared to go into battle anytime soon, so I guess the former was more attractive than the latter.
He opened the door expecting to see his Dad in the same place that he was when he entered, but he wasn't there. Looking left, empty hallway, right - empty hallway leading back into the complex. "Okay, no need to panic," he thought - they did say one at a time so maybe a guard had told his Dad to go back to the sector until Calvin was done, that had to be it.
Calvin walked quickly, half running back to Sector Seven. At this point the complex had become so crowded that he was actually bumping into people as he made his way back. It reminded him of what it was like to walk back from the bathroom at a crowded club, only this was a lot less fun.
Sector Seven was packed and it was tricky to find his way back to their are but he spotted Hank and made his way over to him as quickly as he could.
"Did my Dad come back here?" he asked trying not to look panicked but likely looking pretty freaked out.
"Didn't he go to the bathroom with you?" Hank said looking confused.
"He did, and he was in the hallway when I went in, but when I got out he wasn't there." Calvin could now feel his heart beating in his chest. The cacophony of voices seem to go silent as Calvin's mind began to race. He looked back at Hank, "maybe he's somewhere else in the Sector, I'm going to look around - you guys will be here right?"
Suddenly Hank and his family felt like all he had, he didn't want to lose them.
"Of course, we're not going anywhere Calvin, I'm sure your Dad just bumped into another neighbor, it's so crowded you probably just missed him on your way back."
Calvin looked into his eyes, the confidence he had before was gone, he was just as worried as Calvin was and did a bad job of hiding it.
Turning back into the crowd he thought the only thing he could do is retrace his steps. If his Dad had walked back he'd probably have taken the same path as before. Making his way back towards the bathroom he scanned in every direction as he walked back towards the bathroom.
He made it all the way back to the hallway. Maybe there was another bathroom further down? He hadn't thought about that. He walked further down, past the third door - the hallway was too dark to see down, as far as he knew it could have gone on forever. Every ten feet or so there was a door on each side, but after the third door on the left the doors on both sides contained no placard. He tried one of the handles on the right - locked, then the left - also locked.
At this point he was much further down the hallway, he was actually surprised the hallway went this far. A door on the right swung open - a bright light blinded him for a second - "hey what are you doing down here kid?" A man in a very elaborate dark green military uniform decorated with more colored flags and medals than he could count approached him from the room.
"I'm looking for my Dad," Calvin said desperately. "I went to the bathroom, he was just outside the door," before he could go any further the man stopped him, "is your Dad's name Will?"
Calvin froze. How would he know that? He was in a complete state of panic, all he could think to do at that moment was run, run as fast as he could down the hallway and back to Hank.
He turned at ran, while he didn't look back he could hear footsteps behind him. "Get him," the man said and almost immediately he felt a hand grab his shirt from behind. A piece of cloth was suddenly placed in front of his nose and mouth, he was being pulled back into the room, it was so bright, then everything got blurry right before everything went black.