Author's Note: All characters and their associated "morphs" depicted in this chapter are purely fictitious. Any similarity to real people, living or deceased, actual events, or classified technologies, is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed in this chapter are not necessarily those of the author.
Z-Minus 9 Hours:
They gathered at the College Station Bennigan's, as was tradition before the week began. The crowd was light, even for a Sunday evening. The typical fraternity types crowded the bar, shouting drunken slogans to one another. Some of the teaching assistants sat in the corner booths, or gathered at the tables. Several of them had yet-to-be-graded papers sitting alongside their drinks.
"Just the four?" asked the pretty brunette at the door.
"There will be five," was the response from the nearest of the Coalition Engineers, a man of average height, average build, and unremarkable features.
"Wes is out parking the car," chimed in the shortest of the group, a Japanese woman with shoulder-length black hair and coal black eyes that bespoke of great intelligence.
"What�s your smoking preference?" asked the brunette, gathering up the five menus.
"Oh, I�d prefer everyone not smoke." It was a rehearsed line, but one that few people had heard before. It sounded spontaneous enough, and the brunette laughed.
"Non-smoking it is, then! If you�ll follow me?"
The engineer nodded and followed after her, the rest of the group bringing up the rear. He didn�t think it would be too difficult to follow their server, what with the form-fitting dress she was wearing. The smell of perfume was sweet and intriguing to his nose.
The Japanese engineering student swatted him playfully on the shoulder. "It� s not nice to stare like that! You�ll get yourself in trouble," she said with mock severity.
He shrugged as they were brought up to a round table built for five. "Your server�s name will be Maxie, tonight," the brunette said, distributing the menus while the four engineering students took their respective seats. "Can I get you anything to drink while you�re waiting?"
Everyone had one brand of beer or another, with the exception of the first engineer and the little Japanese woman. They both had Cokes. The fifth and final member of their party, a tall and lanky fellow with close-cropped red hair, ordered the House MicroBrew. The brunette nodded and vanished into the dimly lit restaurant to fetch their orders. To any outside observer this group of five clean-cut and squared-away individuals, all of them wearing the required tan and gray-green uniform, might have seemed out of place in this college town. But this was College Station, home of one of the most prestigious technical universities in the country, Texas A&M. Established in 1876, the university had produced engineers first for the railroad expansion westward, then some of the finest officers both Great Wars ever saw, and today was commonly referred to as the "MIT of the South." "Aggie" officers achieved many awards during the Plague War, including 17 Medals of Honor and 26 Navy Crosses. The university�s fledgling medical facilities gained worldwide recognition for their work in the development of a treatment for the Plague that burned across the land after the end of the Plague War. Since then Texas A&M remained strictly a military school although it had, in 1963, formed the Engineering Corps of Cadets (ECC) as a response to the growing need for experts in cutting-edge technology for the military, FedGov, and the private sector. The five seated around the table were members of the most elite unit of the ECC, the Coalition Engineers.
The Coalition Engineering Project was relatively new, and some of the bugs of the program had yet to be worked out. People who generally tried out for the Coalition were widely considered to be either insane or brilliant by the general student body; the annual attrition rate for Coalition Engineers was approximately 90%. The five sitting around the table had been part of a candidate class of 120 top-notch engineering students. Suicide rates for the Coalition Engineers was generally the highest of any of the departments at A&M, and pressure had been mounted to discontinue the "Project," as it was known among the faculty. But the funding the University got for the Project was just too good, so routine psychological tests were administered the first of every month to weed out any potential problems.
Seated beneath the green-filtered overhead lamp, the engineering students made small talk. Leading the general course of the conversation was the tall red-haired fellow, Wes Shaw. Born and raised in rural Texas Wes was a self-acknowledged red neck. His family tree included Bootleggers, Texas Rangers and, way back down the line, the occasional outlaw. Outwardly he seemed rather dense, speaking in a slow Southern drawl and moving with a deliberate slowness. But beneath the easy-going, weather-beaten exterior was a mind that was as sharp as the boot-knife he always carried. He had come from a high school graduating class of only 75 people, wasn�t afraid to join in on the occasional bar brawl, and enjoyed the pleasures of life as much, if not a little more than, the average individual.
Sitting to his right was the small Japanese woman, Natsuko Okuda. Known as "Nattie" to the rest of those at the table, she was only five feet tall and light as a feather, but she more than made up for that with her bottomless reserves of energy and lightning-quick reflexes. What she learned in class she never forgot; what she did not understand, she studied and analyzed until there was nothing left. Occasionally she was known to work a subject through the entire night and still be fresh for classes and other Corps of Cadets functions in the morning. Her family originally emigrated from Kyoto shortly after the end of the Plague, hoping to find a new beginning, and had settled near the Austin area. Her parents were both doctors involved with the nearly complete Human Genome Project, and her brother was finishing up his graduate work in high-energy physics at Cornell.
The next engineering student was tall and pale, with slate blue eyes and dark brown hair. The name engraved onto the plastic plate on the right breast of his uniform read John Tratt. Known as "Blackjack" even before he came to A&M, Tratt was already "tracked" for placement into Information Warfare with the Air Force when he graduated and received his commission as second lieutenant. Coming from a working class family, Tratt had been told on many occasions, both by his parents and by his teachers, that he would never amount to anything in life. So Tratt took it upon himself to prove them wrong by squirreling away textbooks thrown out by the local schools, hoarding old technical magazines, and spending long hours at the local library. He taught himself mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology... Anything that piqued his curiosity he would learn, no matter how worthless it seemed to his parents or friends. Determination, pure and simple, was the reason he had been admitted into Texas A&M, and later the Coalition Project. Blackjack�s small mailbox frequently received letters from the mega-corporations offering Tratt a job once his tour with the Air Force was over. He never got any letters from his parents...nor did he send any to them.
"I would like to propose a toast," declared the woman to Blackjack�s right, Revatee Shah, a statuesque Indian beauty with a red dot on her forehead. She lifted her glass. "To Coalition Team 5, and yet another semester successfully completed."
"Another semester," they all repeated, and touched their glasses together. Shah�s parents came from Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, and were both intellectual giants of the computer industry. "Reeves" was the first of her family to show an interest in a field outside of computers, nanoengineering. Home-schooled in her family�s 90-room mansion overlooking the Pacific, Reeves had been solving algebraic problems while the rest of her friends had been learning long division. At age 12 her father had given Reeves a "build-your-own-robot" kit, and had been amazed to see his daughter glance at the various components arrayed around her, then throw the instruction manual away in favor of building a working robot of her own design.
The last engineer at the table, the man with unremarkable features, smiled coolly. His nameplate read Eric Bolzhauser, but everyone called him "Frosty." Standing approximately five foot six inches tall Frosty was the kind of person you simply did not see in a crowd, and even if you managed to catch a glimpse of him, he had a face that was easily forgotten. He rarely spoke in public, had a tendency to gravitate away from large groups, and generally only wanted to be left alone in his free time to pursue his own interests. To the group, though, he was a vital asset; for all his cold demeanor and lack of interpersonal skills, Frosty possessed a mind as sharp as a razor and a creative intuition that allowed him to "feel" his way through even the most complex engineering problems. It was primarily this creativity that had paved the way for his having the highest GPR in his class.
"So, Frosty, when do you pick up that award the boss promised?" Wes asked.
"I�m supposed to see the colonel tomorrow afternoon, just before we go to the graduation ceremony." Eric replied.
The colonel he was referring to was Col. Mark Whiteacre, their instructor. Every Coalition team was assigned an instructor/mentor. In a break with tradition, the Coalition Project did not have any classes for its students; rather five students were paired up with an active engineer. There were no tests in the Coalition, no homework. If you did not perform up to specifications, the university lost money, and you were put on notice. Screw up again and you were out of the Coalition. But if you knew your stuff and worked like hell, you obtained valuable engineering skills at the same time you attended your regular classes. Every Coalition graduate had a high-paying job waiting for them when they came out of A&M.
"I�ve got a meeting with the boss tomorrow morning�" Tratt said to nobody in particular.
"What about?" asked Reeves, munching on an onion ring.
"Wants me to do some research for him." Tratt looked as if he wasn�t going to say anything more, so Reeves made a give-me-more gesture with her free hand. He sighed and continued, "He didn�t say what about, but I think it has something to do with Frosty�s solution. The original problem was to come up with the epicenter for that energy flux thing that twitched the needles on some of those next-generation EMF sensors a few weeks ago. Well, Frosty figured out how to do that, and my guess is the client who gave us the problem wants an exact location."
"They didn�t like our original answer?" Nattie�s eyes were wide with disbelief as she said this.
"That it was focused �somewhere in the Midwestern United States�? Probably not. Whoever the client is they want a more exact location, and it looks like we�ve got to give it to them before we can all go on vacation for the summer."
Shaw rolled his eyes. "Can we talk �bout something other than school, please?"
The request was easily granted. The weekend was a time for the team to wind down from the previous week, rest, and prepare for the challenges of the next week. Wes took the remainder of the evening to get thoroughly plastered, and was carried out to the car in a semiconscious state by Frosty and Blackjack. In time Team 5 retired to their respective beds back on campus for some much needed rest.
This weekend the team would need all the rest they could get, for the next week would challenge them, and the entire planet, like none other in history.
Z-Minus 2 Hours:
The instant the radio alarm went off John Tratt�s eyes snapped open, a conditioned response to life with the ECC. He lay there in his bed with his eyes open but not seeing for a short while, then his conscious mind caught up with his body, and his eyes clicked over to the digital readout on the alarm clock.
It read 0502 A.M. and was playing the latest high-energy techno-rap from some foreign group he had never heard of.
Swinging his long legs out of the bed and letting them rest on the cold tile floor Tratt massaged his neck muscles. The beds here at A&M were rock hard, and the pillow he was using simply did not do the job. He blinked a few times, observing various aspects of his small, moonlit room.
The vertical blinds cast long parallel lines of shadow across the linoleum floor, part of his desk chair and the box of his computer, giving the whole place a surreal feel. This whole morning�or at least what he had experienced of it so far�had a strange feel to it. A feeling he couldn�t quite identify yet could still perceive.
Standing on stiff legs Tratt heard his back give off a few pops as he moved over and silenced the alarm clock, then walked to his computer and flicked the screen with his finger, bringing it out of its own electronic slumber. There was the usual chorus of clicks and whines as his computer sped up to its operating range, then his screen came to life. He ran through his usual checks of the day�s projected weather, a quick scan of local and international news headlines�the West Bank fighting was flaring up again, and President Hadden was calling for a "diplomatic solution"�and then he checked his e-mail.
There was one message, and it was from the Colonel:
"Physicists led by Dr. Damien Castir at MIT are going to attempt parsing an atom today. Let�s all wish �em luck, because they�ll be needing it. BTW, Tratt, be in my office at 0730 sharp. That�s all I�ve got on this end."
John grunted in response to the message. The Colonel was not the most eloquent man, that much was certain.
Turning away from the gas plasma, inch-thick monitor, he stumbled into his small bathroom and started the shower.
Alarms were going off in four other rooms as Tratt prepared for the day. The owners of the alarms generally struck the snooze button to get just a little more sleep into their schedule of the day. Wes Shaw�s alarm made his hung-over brain ring painfully, and he swatted the source of the offending noise off of his bedside table. The noise went away, and Wes began to snore again.
Eric Bolzhauser was a bit slower in his response, though. His hand was resting on the alarm clock when it froze, and his bleary eyes began to clear. Something about the air felt wrong to him, but he couldn�t put his finger on just what it was. He decided to ignore the sensation and deployed the snooze function, but not before removing a silver ring he always wore, a ring, which for no apparent reason, felt uncomfortably tight on his finger. The reason for his actions faded away as he drifted back into the veil of slumber.
Roughly one mile from where Team 5 was waking up stood an imposing white monolith of a building. Constructed of the latest in composite building materials, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, commonly known as C-Nest by those who worked in and around it, was the latest addition to the Texas A&M campus. Designed in the latest architectural style it resembled a smooth-sided, football field-long cube. Running along the corners of the building, and nicely disrupting the monotony of the cube, were circular stairwells. Atop these stairwells were innocuous looking glassed in observation towers, complete with the latest surveillance equipment and manned twenty four hours a day by highly trained security personnel.
There was a wide lawn extending 100 yards in all directions from the C-Nest, closely cropped, but no trees. Beyond this lawn was a twenty-foot tall chain-link fence with razor wire coiling along its top; only one heavily armored -- and armed -- gatehouse allowed people into or out of the facility. Security personnel wearing the latest sensory enhancement gear patrolled the perimeter of the fence.
To an outside observer this complex would seem intimidating, and would recognize that something inside was very valuable, very dangerous, or very secret.
The observer would be correct on all counts.
Deep in the bowels of the C-Nest, located in one of the lower sub-basement levels, was the Infectious Agent Research Lab. The elevator to take a person down to the sub-basement levels did not have any buttons, only slots for their access card. An access card was cleared only for its level, and none other. All access to and from the lab was monitored from a central station somewhere else in the C-Nest. The security, environmental control, ingress/egress, and emergency containment systems were all monitored by the latest and fastest quantum flux processor computers.
No one could enter the lab without someone watching over his or her shoulder.
The lab itself was cold and sterile, vaguely reminiscent of the old clean rooms used by computer chip manufacturers, only cleaner. Banks of next generation computers lined the workbenches, displaying at odd intervals the double-helix structure of DNA, a cascade of nucleotide data from some specimen, or atomic structure simulations of prototype nanomachines. Built into one wall was an airlock, and through its inch-thick transparent alloy window was the lock-in/lock-out chamber. Environmental suits like those used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) lined the wall like blank faced, hollow sentries. Sprinklers built into the ceiling would shower the occupants of the room with a noxious cocktail of chemicals that would destroy any infectious agent or rogue nanomachine clinging to their suits before entering or exiting the "vault." The runoff from this process drained through the metal grating that was the floor, was collected by a series of chemically treated pipes, and was promptly vaporized by an incinerator housed in an adjacent room. The entire room was bathed in ultraviolet light, cast down by bulbs in the ceiling.
Inside the vault everyone wore the environmental suit, which gave the wearers the appearance of astronauts, each tethered to the ceiling by an oxygen line and electronically linked via secure radio within their helmets. Each suit had the occupant�s name taped onto its front and back, for it was impossible to recognize anyone while wearing one of them. Sometimes you couldn�t even tell the wearer was human, especially if the onboard ventilation system went on the fritz and the faceplate fogged up. There were a few suited individuals in there now. They rarely spoke to one another, kept a distance from each other, and always always moved with a deliberate slowness. Cameras built into the ceiling constantly observed them with cold crystalline eyes and relayed images of their actions into the lab�s control center. These cameras could also be panned and tilted by the controller to observe specific aspects of an operation.
One of the cameras was moving now, following a blue-suited individual who ambled up to a large steel-door refrigerator. Brightly colored biohazard symbols decorated the door, warning anyone nearby not to play inside or anywhere near this device while in operation. A pudgy-fingered glove tapped numbers into the digital lock, and the resulting alarm was heard as a tinny buzzing noise over the control room audio system. The gloved hand gripped the latch, twisted down in a smooth motion, and pulled.
A wave of fog poured out onto the floor, and the camera zoomed in to watch as the lab tech removed a single frost-covered test tube from among the thousands of others. The lab tech closed the door, and cradled the test tube in both hands. His movements were now much slower, and far more careful than before. Emotion does not carry well through exposure suits, but the lab tech�s actions conveyed his feelings quite clearly.
The man in the exposure suit was patently terrified by what he was holding in his hands.
Anyone would, if they knew that there were only three latex gloves and a quarter centimeter of carbon-composite fabric separating them from what could be the next Plague.
Z-Minus 40 Minutes:
The sounds of cadence being called and feet hitting the pavement in unison carried clearly through the early morning air. In some ways John Tratt missed the morning PT runs, but not much. PT runs for the ECC were strictly voluntary; most engineering students volunteered not to run. This was usually a source of tension between the ECC and the regular Corps, who called ECC cadets "wanna-be Marines." This name did not apply to the Coalition branch of the ECC, distinguished from their ECC cousins by their khaki uniforms highlighted with gray-green and the black Coalition patch on their left shoulder. The Corps gave the Coalition engineers plenty of room, sometimes making Tratt feel as if he were making his entrance as Darth Vader when he came into a room and everything went quiet.
Tratt donned his cover�the name given to anything worn on one�s head�and checked with his fingers to make sure it was centered and the required distance above the bridge of his nose, and then he looked at his watch.
0625. There would be plenty of time to make it to the Colonel�s office in the Wisenbaker Engineering Research Center, located across campus. The building was twenty minutes away and it usually took another fifteen to get inside, go through the necessary security checks, and ascend to where the Colonel�s office was, on the fourth floor. The Colonel usually took people in early, so having over thirty minutes waiting time was a pretty good idea. Besides, the sooner he could get this meeting over with, the sooner he could resume his studying for the calculus exam Wednesday.
Setting off at his usual brisk pace, Tratt noticed that the glow given off by the searchlights at the C-Nest was particularly beautiful this morning. Kyle Field, the football stadium, had its lights on, too... but those lights had a different hue to them: more of a whitish color as opposed to C-Nest�s pale blue. He crossed the concrete expanse of the Quadrangle, hurried across the street so as not to get in the way of an oncoming formation on their morning PT run, and began to angle his walk in the general direction of Wisenbaker.
Ahead of him he could make out the Eller Oceanography and Meteorology Building with its huge parabolic dish antenna lit up like a Christmas tree. Other weather sensing antennae bristled from the roof, each one sporting a red beacon at the top. All in all the OM building was rather pretty to look at in the early morning hours. Someone was already at work in the building, since he could see lights on inside the small "control tower" beneath the big dish antenna.
He was just past the halfway-point to Wisenbaker when he felt that same unease from earlier in the morning creep up his spine.
Again, he ignored it.
Z-Minus 16 Minutes:
"Damn," Tratt muttered as he took the steps out front of Wisenbaker two at a time. "Fish shouldn�t be out this early. Couldn�t she see that I was going somewhere and was in a hurry? Whipping out at that time of morning... shit, they�ll never believe that one."
Tratt was berating a freshman engineering student who had "Whipped out" on him. Whipping out was the traditional term used for when someone greeted an upper-classman. This particular Cadet had approached from behind him, had adjusted her walk so that she was in-step with Tratt, and had jutted her hand out stiffly while reciting "Howdy Mr. Tratt, my name is Denise Rucker, Class of ninety-nine." Blackjack had taken her hand in the same stiff manner, all the while trying to conceal the look on his face, and finished the tradition. There really wasn�t much to it: what�s their name, where are they from, what�s their major. But it also took up time, and Tratt didn�t like his time wasted.
Glancing at his watch as he passed through the automatic glass doors, Tratt decided that he really shouldn�t worry too much about small things. It was 0644, and he had plenty of time for the routine security checks.
"Mr. Tratt!" called out the security guard seated behind the wooden desk. "Early business this morning? Please place your hand on the scanner."
"Hey, Tom. Yeah, busy morning." Tratt rested his hand on the cold metallic surface, felt a tingling sensation as his DNA was sampled. He noticed something new. "New scanner, Tom?"
"Yeah. Just got �em installed over the weekend." He was peering down into a green glowing screen. "Okay, you�re not a Pod Person. ID?"
Tratt handed over the slim plastic card, and the black-uniformed guard ran it through a slot in another machine. This was the part that took a while, for the information on the card was being matched with reference material stored in national databases scattered all over the United States. The guard sat back down into his chair and propped his feet up on the desk.
"Good weekend?" the guard asked.
"Quiet. Didn�t do Jack, and it felt great. You?"
"Took the son out hunting. Sighted in the new rifle. Got some paperwork outta the way."
The machine took more time than usual. Tratt and the security guard just stood there, talking about nothing in particular. After what felt like an eternity, the machine beeped and a green light appeared. The guard handed Tratt his ID back, commenting about how they replaced the wrong machines over the weekend.
Tratt grunted his agreement and made his way to the elevator.
Z-Minus 1 Minute:
The polished aluminum doors to the elevator slid open with a quiet hiss, and Tratt stepped inside, pressing the button for the fourth floor. The doors hissed shut.
Tratt rubbed the back of his left hand nervously. The feeling from when he first woke up was back, only this time it was so strong it made him break out into a sweat and feel as if his flesh were crawling. "I wonder if I�m coming down with something," he muttered, and rubbed his forehead as the elevator began its ascent.
Z-Minus 30 Seconds:
One of the technicians had stopped working in the Infectious Agent Lab inside the C-Nest. He was flexing his fingers inside the thick glove, trying to understand why he had lost nearly all sense of touch. In fact, his whole body now felt alarmingly numb... and he couldn�t shake the feeling that somehow his skin was melting.
"Oh, Jesus..." he heard over his radio link. "Are you two feeling the same...?"
That was all that was required.
"Evacuate the lab! Get to the decontamination chamber! Go, go!"
The three technicians moved quickly -- and carefully -- to the egress chamber, unsnapping their oxygen hoses just before entering. The last tech slammed the steel door shut as alarm sirens began blaring inside the vault. A shower of greenish liquid rained down on them as the decontamination system kicked in.
It was then that they realized what kind of situation they were in. Somehow they had become contaminated with the new Plague from the sample tube. This meant only one thing: as soon as the sprinkler systems shut off, other people in encounter suits would hustle them into a steel transport tube, seal them in, and transport them directly to the CDC. If they were lucky the CDC might be able to save them�if they weren�t, then the CDC would receive a steel tube filled with organic goo infested with Plague virus.
One of the technicians doubled over with a groan, then collapsed onto the metal grating.
Z-Minus 10 Seconds:
John Tratt�s vision clouded over for a moment and his world spun. His hearing began to fade out, replaced only by the sound of his breathing and the rapid beating of his heart.
"Ohhhh... Shit," Tratt moaned as he felt himself begin to fall. He put out a hand to steady himself, but his knees gave way. John didn�t really feel the impact when his body landed on the elevator�s floor.
0700 Central Time:
The overhead lights in the elevator began to flicker. John turned his head enough so that he could see this from where he had landed. Spots of color and flashes of light distorted his view, but he could tell that there was something very wrong with the elevator. His observation was confirmed when the elevator slowed, then ground to a halt.
And then the tingling began.
It started at the tips of his fingers and gradually began to work its way along his hands. Curious as to the strange sensation, Tratt maneuvered his numb arms so that his hands were in view.
His eyes went wide. What had been a pair of perfectly human hands was rapidly becoming something... else.
The two inner digits of his hand were somehow fusing, the flesh flowing like putty along them, and beneath his skin he felt what could only be bones knitting together. The little finger was thickening and lengthening, as was his index finger. His thumb gave off an alarming, yet completely painless, crunch, and began to drift free of its original location.
Tratt gave off a hiss of dismay, watching in mute horror as the digit slid around and repositioned itself in such a way as to be radically opposed to the others. It was as if his skin was made of some super-elastic material, that he was a play toy to be molded and reshaped at the whim of some demented child.
The lights flickered once, twice, three times more�then everything went dark inside the elevator. All Tratt could hear were the sounds of his rapid breathing and the distinct swishing of skin moving beneath fabric. His skin. Moving. Without his control!
And now he was effectively blind. All he could do was wait and listen. Listen to the sounds of his bones popping, crunching and moving inside of him and of fabric being stretched in ways it had never been designed to. His khaki button-down shirt became uncomfortably tight as the numbness spread into his chest and he felt it expand, and from his shoulders came sharp pains that made him grit his teeth and fumble to remove the uniform shirt. Eventually Tratt succeeded in ripping it off -� and he yelped in pain when he felt something akin to six knives slash across his chest.
And then it stopped. His body was under his control again.
Breathing a sigh of relief in the pitch darkness Tratt propped himself up as best he could with his back to the wood paneling of the elevator wall.
Great, he thought. Just fucking ducky. I�m stuck in an elevator, and I don�t know what�s happening outside. I don�t even know what the hell is happening to me!
On the slim chance that he might hear something through the soundproofing in the elevator�s walls, Tratt strained his senses to hear what was going on outside his black little world. At first he heard nothing, the elevator gave off a few metallic groans, and far above him he could hear the sound of turbine engines starting up.
If those are emergency generators, then this is more serious than I thought.
Then far off in the distance, over the increasing pitch of the turbines on the roof, came the sound of voices.
"What�s happening to me?!"
"You�ve changed too!"
"We should say a prayer before the End comes..."
"Get real, Moira... no End is going to..."
"Real? You�ve got antlers coming out of your head and you want me to get real?"
Despite his situation John emitted a dry chuckle. Even though he had no idea what was going on, or what he had become, he came to the conclusion that whatever had happened was widespread. The entire building was affected, somehow.
Z-Plus 3 Minutes:
He felt the numbness begin again, this time in his legs. Anticipating what might be to come, Tratt quickly removed his uniform pants. There was no reason to remove his boxers, he figured.
When the changes to his lower body began in earnest �- when his knees gave audible snaps as his legs folded the wrong way and the bones in his pelvic girdle began to rapidly shift position �- was when he reconsidered his earlier decision. A good thing, too, for as soon as he had them removed there came the sensation of rapid growth from the base of his spine. After that things seemed to calm inside Tratt�s body. There was still a strange sensation from his skin, as if something were growing from it...
The really strange thing was that he still felt like himself in his mind. Psychologically speaking, that is, he felt completely normal. A shift would occur, and he would be terrified, but then it would stop and he�d be fine upstairs. And that was scary. Once this was all done and he was out of the elevator, he�d have to look up a psychologist and see if...
The next surge hit him more forcefully than the others. Or perhaps it was because this one was focused almost entirely in the cranial region. Vertebrae popped and crunched as his neck stretched to an unnatural length, and he felt his muscles slithering beneath his skin and settle into their new positions. Several small, hard objects popped out of his teeth -- his fillings -- and he spat them out. Individual teeth began to fuse into a single, solid mass of bone, and his ears were filled with the sounds of the bones in his skull shifting and moving. Reaching up with trembling hands -- or whatever they were now in this black universe he was trapped in -- John felt his face as the bone and muscle beneath began to push outward. Something rock hard and sticky-wet and warm pushed passed his lips into his hands. His eye sockets began to enlarge, but his eyes remained the same size, and now began to retract into fleshy pits. Hair began to fall from his scalp in fist-sized clumps, and his ears began to shrivel into nothingness.
Now John started to panic, the new appendages on his back flailing and banging into the elevator walls, and what would have been screams emerged only as gurgling squawks as the changes worked on his vocal cords.
Elsewhere on campus similar changes were occurring. The formations of cadets dissolved into pure chaos as people began to warp and distort before each other�s eyes. Employees of the maintenance department simply deserted their posts and disappeared off campus. Computer network systems were the first communications to go off line, followed shortly thereafter by fiber-optic landline, satellite, microwave, and finally coaxial cable. Those who were already on the phone to parents or loved ones were abruptly cut off as the systems crashed one after the other. Texas A&M�s new quantum computers all burned out at 0700, leaving the body of the campus without a brain. All autonomous systems normally handled by the mainframes died. Emergency backup systems automatically kicked in, and the whine of alcohol-fueled turbine generators filled the air within ten minutes after the initial "event." This was just as well, for quantum processors controlled the main power station. When the processors died, emergency systems automatically shut the plant down.
For some unknown reason, conventional semiconductor technology continued to operate without a hitch.
The C-Nest�s central computer died at 0700, along with the other quantum processor computer systems. Backup systems based on semiconductor technology sensed the death of the master computer and reacted according to their programming: should the master computer die, assume a nuclear event and engage isolation systems along with emergency power; notify CDC and critical parties within the government infrastructure.
The backup system was swift and efficient: giant steel blast doors were lowered to cover all points of entry to the facility; the emergency generators were engaged; telephones that should not ring unless the worst comes to pass rang on the desks of some very important people. No one could enter or leave the C-Nest now.
Texas A&M was mute, deaf, and blind beneath the rising sun.
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