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.
The black sedan lumbered its way up the bumpy, poorly kept dirt road, its destination the expansive log cabin sitting atop a forested hill. Sunlight played across the polished sleek lines of the vehicle as it moved with a quiet whine under the ancient oak trees lining the road, and cotton fields stretched as far as the eye could see to either side. This was prime agricultural real estate. Cotton country.
Funny thing: that they'd choose this place as the site for a retirement home. But most of the guests of this particular retirement home were millionaires, having made their fortunes growing and harvesting the crops around the cabin. It was only fitting that the old cotton-kings should wish to live out their last days surrounded by the stuff.
"This is the guy?" asked the man in the dark suit seated in the passenger seat. It wasn't so much a question as it was a statement of fact. He had barely Changed through the morning and could still wear normal clothing. His eyebrows were gone, though, replaced with scaly ridges, and his hair had receded significantly. One scaly hand held the photograph of the old man up to the light. The subject of the photograph was a man in a wheelchair, gazing off into the distance through thick glasses. His withered face was mottled with age spots, and his hair was thin and white. An oxygen line ran beneath his nose, connected to the regulator of an oxygen bottle that was visible over the man's shoulder. Claw-like hands were resting on bony knees, and his whole body conveyed the sense of a man defeated and waiting to die.
The man in the suit knew that this ancient relic of a human was being eaten alive by cancer.
Perhaps this was a fitting punishment to one who had very nearly engineered the end of the human species, who had been responsible for the deaths of so many millions.
The Alaskan malamute driver looked down his snout at the photograph, icy blue eyes taking in the subject. His muzzle wrinkled (sneer or grin, the man in the suit did not know) and he nodded. "Yes," he said in a gravelly voice. "I'm surprised the old rat hasn't keeled over yet. Last we knew his weight was down to about 95. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for the bastard."
The man in the passenger seat shifted and crossed his legs. An identification card was now visible beneath his coat. Goldenthal, Edward, Officer of the CIA, possessing some of the highest security clearances of this nation's intelligence community. The well-dressed man thumbed through the dossier for perhaps the hundredth time.
It was all here. The entire life of one of the century's greatest monsters; only this monster slipped away from the light of Justice, aided by the United States government, and continued his work in secret. Secret, that is, to everyone except the people who had arranged for his escape to America. To the people of America - -and the world -- this man had committed suicide before his trial at Nuremberg.
The sedan rumbled to a smooth stop in the big circular drive, and the two men inside stepped out. Goldenthal's expensive shoes crunched on the dry gravel, and he slipped on his sunglasses. The summer sun beat down on them like a hammer, causing the malamute driver to begin panting out of pure instinct. Before them was a large open porch with a wide set of steps leading up to it. Hanging benches were arranged along its perimeter, facing out over the cotton fields. All were empty and drifted slowly in the breeze except for one that was occupied by a nurse with the features of some small spotted jungle cat. She wore a loose-fitting white uniform and a surprised look on her feline face.
"Miss... Edwards?" the malamute-morph asked, reading the nametag on her uniform as the two officers made their way up the steps.
The nurse hastily rose to her feet. "No. Nurse Edwards is out for the day. I just borrowed her uniform. It was the only thing that would fit."
Goldenthal noticed how her slit eyes had a haunted look to them. This woman had seen something incredible, he realized. Something other than the Change.
"How may I help you two?" she asked finally.
"We're here to see Mr. Jones," the CIA officer said.
The nurse's eyes widened in recognition of the name. "Mr. Jones?"
"Yesss," Goldenthal said slowly. "Is he available?"
"Oh." The nurse seemed stunned. Then she shook her head and continued, "Yes, he's here. I believe he is currently out taking a walk with one of our other nurses."
Goldenthal heard the other officer suck in a breath. He lowered his sunglasses and peered at her through yellow eyes. "Excuse me? Did you say that he was taking a walk?" That husk of a man? 95 pounds of decaying flesh? Walking?
The nurse nodded and led them into the cabin. They all saw the wheelchair, sitting empty in the middle of a finely furnished reading room with a green bottle of compressed oxygen nearby, but no Mr. Jones. The two officers exchanged looks, then followed the nurse through a well-stocked kitchen to the back door and out onto another, smaller porch. She pointed to two figures strolling along a garden path halfway down the hill. One of them was wearing the white uniform of a nurse. The other--
"I don't believe it," the malamute muttered.
"Isn't it a miracle?" the nurse asked, shaking her head and regarding the white wolf-morph that was Mr. Samuel Jones.
"Yeah," Goldenthal said, with not a trace of enthusiasm in his voice.
The lynx-morph slammed his furry fist into a file cabinet and growled. "This is a God damned disaster!" He glowered as the uniformed green tree-python casually flicked a bit of dirt out from beneath a claw, then examined his scale-covered hand. One benefit of being the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was having almost instant access to a tailor. General Alexander Furst was wearing a quickly and professionally-modified uniform that conformed to the contours of his new body.
"Mmm," General Furst said. "It could be worse. Much worse. Still, ranting and raving about it isn't going to make it go away, Jack."
Jack Tallman, National Security Adviser to President Benjamin Hadden, bristled at the General's comment. He was about to lash out but thought better of it. The general was nearing retirement, and Tallman was still new to his position. What could he have done to that snake? Force him to resign, take his retirement early? The lynx-morph jammed his hands into the pockets of the comfortable white robe he wore and slumped into his leather chair, regarding the stony-faced general from across the wide expanse of his oak desk. He'd not bothered to change into his suit since it was no longer able to fit him, so he kept the white robe he'd thrown on earlier in the morning.
Both he and the general had been among the people to receive "the phone call no one wants to get." It had been an automated message, sent through secure lines to their hot phones. These phones were used only in the event of national crisis. The message, delivered by a synthesized female voice, had stated simply, "Spiral research facility at location X-Ray Two-One reporting system failure. Possible containment breach."
"I've already dispatched some of my officers to pick up the plank-owners of the original working group. There's not many of them left anymore, but we might need all the help we can get, especially if this situation turns hot." Tallman was drumming his claws on the desktop as he said this.
"I had a chat with the Surgeon General about thirty minutes ago. She's got a go-team from the CDC fueled and ready on the pad. My people can hustle some of your tech-heads down from Langley and the Wyoming Facility to maintain operational security for Claudia's bug hunters. We've also got some people down at the site already.although they may not know it just yet." The general sat forward in his chair, gazing at the lynx-morph with unblinking eyes. "Jack, you and I both know the cat is out of the bag on this one. We've got no choice but to inform POTUS of the situation."
"Bloody hell." Tallman muttered as he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Silence reigned between them for a time, the only outside sound coming from a rattling air vent in the corner. Outside the window Washington was just beginning to roast beneath the summer sun, and cars jammed the bridge over the sluggish Potomac. "The President of the United States... Ben's going to have a shit-fit when we tell him."
"Got no choice," the python replied. "If we move on this thing without presidential authorization, it's going to bring down the whole house of cards. We've got one hell of a dirty little secret down there in Texas, and if the media gets just this much of a whiff," the general illustrated by holding his claw-tipped fingers close together, "then our careers are over. And I don't mean ours alone. Heads are going to roll for this for a long time to come, Jack. We've got the kind of man we need behind the Big Desk, the kind of man that will take this country in the right direction. To lose him because of some pimple-faced, newbie investigative reporter trying to uncover the Scoop of the Century... that'd make all of our efforts count for naught. We've got to brief the President on the situation down South, on Spiral, on everything. There's too much at stake now."
NatSec massaged his temples. "I hate this job," he muttered to himself.
Just then the intercom on the desk buzzed. Jack pressed the button. "Tallman here."
"It's me," was the terse reply through the speaker. "In my office. Now."
"On the way," Tallman said as he rose from behind his desk. The general stood, too, and followed NatSec out the door and down the hall. The Surgeon General, Claudia Franklin, met them in the hall. She seemed to have morphed into some aquatic mammal, an otter maybe, her dark-pigmented face blending in almost perfectly with the short brown fur creeping across her cheeks and down her forehead.
"I hear the hammers pounding on our gallows, gentlemen," she said by way of greeting.
A Secret Service agent, a deadly serious wolf-morph female toting a sub-machine gun (an MP-5, the general noticed) escorted them into the office. Since the Change the Secret Service had been running on full alert. People they had recognized on sight before were now total strangers, requiring full identity checks. The environment around the White House was one of near paranoia. Everyone was considered a suspect, a potential threat to the wellbeing of the First Family. All of the Secret Service agents on the President's detail were armed to the teeth -- or perhaps "fangs" would have been a more appropriate term. And from what Tallman could gather, it would be unwise in the extreme to make any sudden moves around the agents, most of them having assumed predatory forms, and all of them quite probably having itchy trigger-fingers.
NatSec took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, trying to calm his nerves as he walked through the threshold and onto thick blue carpet.
The door to the Oval Office closed silently behind them all.
It turned out to be the malamute driver who did the talking. Goldenthal didn't trust himself around the ancient Mr. Jones, even with all his coolness and training in how to deal with individuals of questionable history. So the field officer hung back and stood on the porch, sipping a glass of lemonade served to him by the nurse who had been attending Mr. Jones on his walk. His yellow eyes scanned the wooded hill for any sign of trouble. He glanced at the two men in the garden as they spoke.
"Sir," began the malamute-morph, "do you recall anything about your prior services for the government?" He had to test the old wolf's memory. If the old fart had developed Alzheimer's and lost most of his memory, then he was useless to them.
The aged wolf smiled, an odd wrinkling of his highly angular snout, and looked at the other with intelligent, icy blue eyes. He placed both withered hands atop the handle of his cane, tapping it on the earth. "Young man," he said in a whispering voice that spoke of great age, "I was working for this government long before you were born."
No, the old wolf had retained his memory. That was for sure.
"I am assuming," the white wolf went on, "that you two gentlemen are here to ask me about this...Change that has occurred?"
A nod. "That was one of our orders, yes."
"Well, you can tell your superiors that I have no clue. Personally I believe it was an act of God. He has given me a second chance at life." The old wolf looked down. "I never knew why He was keeping me alive so long, anyway. Perhaps as a means of punishment for my crimes, I suppose. But whatever He could do to me.I have subjected myself to far worse. You seem doubtful, by the look on your face.
"You can't even come close to imagining the kind of hell I put myself through. Every time I close my eyes I can see the people I killed. They never say anything, just watch me die as my lungs are-or were-eaten away. At night I can hear the cries of children on the wind. And sometimes I swear I can actually smell the decay of bodies."
His eyes closed tight and he looked away suddenly, but he did not cry. This old man had long since cried his last tear away.
"When it first started... the Plague? I was already here with the others in the United States, my name changed, my identity constructed. I read the first incident reports. Did you know they used bulldozers? They used them because there were so many bodies in the streets that the healthy ones couldn't hope to move them all. They piled them like logs into great mass graves, then incinerated them with flame-throwers and white-phosphorous. Time was there, but the pictures they took were never released to the public, they were so horrible. We got them, though. They're in the archives, probably still marked classified.
"Many of the great cities in Europe had to be fire-bombed to contain the Plague. Such a waste!"
"Then why did you do it?" the officer asked.
"I didn't do it, young man. It would be like holding the monks from all those years ago guilty of mass-murder for their invention of gunpowder. The four of us who were smuggled out already had our reservations when Herr Hitler ordered the first controlled tests on Jewish test populations in the Konzentrationslager. You have read the report, I trust?" A nod from the malamute. "Then you know about how we developed the Plague weapon. We had recognized the enormous technological potential of such a weapon... the scientists, I mean. The Plague was a machine; a mechanism constructed of biological materials from bacteria and viruses, small enough to enter into a human cell. Now we call this nanotechnology.
"Of course the scientists realized the destructive potential of the Plague weapon -- Hitler called it Der Heilige Messer, or `the Holy Knife' -- but we also saw unlimited applications in all other fields as well. Imagine structural materials stronger than steel but as light as paper and totally super-conductive. We felt the potential reward was worth the risk. Had we developed the Holy Knife on our own, without that fool Hitler's meddling... Germany would have won the war, no doubt, and with far less bloodshed. But as the war dragged on, and Hitler became more and more deranged?" The old wolf shrugged. "A small group of us, including the four top researchers, felt the situation had gotten out of hand. We opened up negotiations with the American OSS and were spirited away."
"Why didn't you destroy the Plague?"
"The Holy Knife had already been completed by this time, son. Hitler had secured untargeted batches and was holding them in secret locations all over Europe. We couldn't destroy the lab, because the Gestapo had already swarmed over the place when they got wind of our plans to defect. All we could do was disappear.
"The rest, as they say, is history. We went to work for a special operating group of the OSS, doing research on how to stop the Plague we had helped to create.
"But we did not come here to discuss my past, did we? No, you wanted to know my opinion of this Change." Mr. Jones sighed. "People do not suddenly change form. But for some reason, everyone has. Quickly, painlessly, but also in surges.
"Now, these surges. These are very interesting, for they begin with one area of the body and work their way to the opposite side. Might I remind you: the Plague worked in precisely the same manner." At the sight of raised eyebrows from the malamute driver, the old wolf continued. "The Plague destroyed cells by causing uncontrollable cellular mutation, rather like a cancer causes uncontrollable mitosis. And the Plague was not destroyed, remember. It was only made `safe' and continued to exist in the human body. Still, it retained the ability to cause cellular mutation, even with the safeguards in place, although it did not engage in such acts.
"You asked for my opinion. I will make a guess without any scientific data to rely on.
"An event transpired which caused the Plague devices to initiate cellular modification on their own. They turned back on and went to work on our cells, remolding us from the molecule up. But why animals I have no idea."
"That sounds better than most of the explanations I've heard," commented the malamute.
"What was the other question?"
With that the officer straightened, assuming a more business-like manner. "It is not so much a question as it is a request, sir. I have been instructed to inform you that your services may be needed in the near future. My associate and I are to transport you to a science facility immediately."
"Been a while since I looked down the barrel of a microscope, young man."
"We understand this, sir. Your services would be rendered as a technical consultant on medical nanotechnology."
"But I never worked with medical nanotechnology! I worked with the Plague devices, and--" The wolf stopped short and drew in a breath, putting one hand to his muzzle. His eyes were wide with fear and comprehension. "Oh, Gott in Himmel! What have you people done?"
"Sir, I cannot divulge that information at the current time."
"No, I imagine not! You people have been working on something new, haven't you? A new Plague?"
The malamute looked pained, and shifted his weight from one foot to another. When he had been human, he could maintain a straight, stony expression on his face that was unreadable. But now his canine features spoke more than words as his ears were laid flat against his skull and his bushy tail had curved down between his legs. "No, sir. It's not a weapon," he said quickly. "Please come with us. We can explain everything on the drive to the airport."
Mr. Jones calmed himself. "One last hurrah before being put back to pasture for good then? Very well, young man. I was responsible for millions of deaths; maybe I can save the same number now. I owe the people of this world that much.
"Perhaps this is the reason God gave me back my life."
Turning to walk back up to the house, the wolf suddenly stopped short, looked directly at the officer. "One more question: for whom do you work?"
"A small division of the federal government's intelligence community," the driver said. That much was not classified. There were so many divisions of the CIA, NSA, NRO and FBI that it would be next to impossible for anyone to guess the right one.
"Judging by the mission," Mr. Jones said as he took the lead in walking up the dirt path to the house, "I'd venture that you two are with Department Null." Jones stopped when he no longer heard the sound of the officer walking behind him, and he turned to look at the malamute. "You look surprised, son!" he said with a laugh.
The old man clapped the driver on the shoulder and grinned. "How'd I know about the Department? You need to read up on your history. I was the one who came up with the name!"
The Oval Office
This was the place where history was made. They had all been here, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and many others. The portraits of them all were hanging in the White House, expertly maintained by an army of service personnel. But the Oval Office had portraits of a different kind hanging on its walls now. They were portraits of people few would have recognized, many wearing glasses and lab coats. Most of these portraits were photographs, and nearly all of them had the central figure shaking hands with another person, the man sitting behind the Big Desk, President Benjamin R. Hadden; husband, father, engineer and leader of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.
Hadden wasn't a particularly handsome man. His thinning hair, hawk-like face, soul-piercing gaze and slim build made sure of that. In some ways he had looked more like an insurance salesman than an engineer, much less a President. Presidents before him had never had an easy time relating to the scientists under their command, but Hadden could understand technical jargon with the best of them, and since he looked like one of them -- and had actually been one of them, once -- he put them at ease.
And now Hadden didn't really know what he looked like, aside from an insurance salesman wearing a Halloween costume. His feet and lower legs were covered in yellowish-brown scales, and huge, curving talons tipped each toe. A thick layer of dark feathers covered the rest of his body, save for his head, which was still human, and his forearms and hands, covered in those scales and equipped with smaller versions of the meat hooks on his feet. Broad wings were pinned uncomfortably between his back and the bulletproof leather chair he sat in. His ribs had expanded and shifted forward to accommodate the huge flight muscles for his wings, giving him the appearance of a professional body-builder. Where his collar would have been there was now a ring of white feathers, telling him that his probable final form would be one of a giant bald eagle, a fate he found rather ironic. The bird portrayed so prominently on the Presidential Seal would soon be sitting behind the Big Desk.
The Oval Office had the appearance more of a zoo -- or perhaps some strange Hollywood visual effects party -- than a major policy-making center. Sitting on one of the two posh couches, still wearing a white robe, NatSec looked like a giant lynx. General Furst blended in quite well with his green uniform, and the Surgeon General was having difficulty manipulating the locking mechanisms on her briefcase with stubby brown fingers. Vice President Dustin Bryce, who was morphing into either a rabbit or hare, Hadden couldn't tell which, was looking very nervous as the air filled with the scents of predators. Dave Yarborough, his Science Adviser and classmate from MIT seemed aware of the tension in the room and was rapidly scribbling down his observations into a touch-sensitive palmtop unit. Yarborough didn't seem to notice that his physical form resembled a raccoon... but then again, maybe he didn't care.
All of this must have been taxing on Shandra Bishop, the head of Hadden's security detail, who had to keep an eye on all of those in the room. Her lithe and muscular body was taking on the form of a gray wolf. It was she who had been the one to summon him from a sound sleep into the waking world to discover his body already transforming. She had been in pain then as her body stretched her original uniform in all the wrong directions, so he had ordered her-and all the other Secret Service agents inside the White House-to don the loose-fitting, one-piece "flight-suits" used by the technical staff. The consequences of this action resulted in the Secret Service detachment having the appearance of highly trained paramilitary operatives. Bishop's new uniform fit her body well and she had already modified it accordingly so that her bushy tail protruded from the seat of her pants. The baggy ankles of the flight-suit, which would've hampered her running ability, were cinched tight around her lower legs, and her service issue firearm was holstered on a black nylon tactical vest of the type used by SWAT teams. She stood like a statue next to the door, ears swiveling to zero in on individual noises, her hands never far from the MP-5 she had slung in a combat harness over her shoulder.
The President rapped the talons of one hand on his desk, bringing all eyes to him.
"First issue, naturally, is this," Hadden held up his hands for all to see, fanning his talons out. "What the hell is going on? Claudia?"
"Mr. President, all that we know right now is that the process is a cellular one. Something is initiating a system-wide mutation of all the tissues of every human on this planet into something different. Something resembling higher animal life on the planet; creatures from the land, air and sea. The process is painless, progressing in surges, and to all appearances, irreversible. The Change seems to be genetically random, meaning that specific forms of animal mutation do not follow family lines. I'm mutating into some form of aquatic mammal -- an otter, I think -- but my son is taking on the form of a bear."
"What about women who are pregnant and undergoing this change?" Yarborough asked, not looking up from his palm-top.
The Surgeon General removed a series of glossy black-and-whites, handing them around the group. "These are prints from security cameras located in Bethesda Naval Hospital. As you can see, everyone has been effected except for the women in the maternity ward and the young children in pediatrics. Cut-off age seems to be just before puberty. As for the expectant mothers, we think that the hormones released during pregnancy may be holding back the Change. We've got physicians looking into that right now. There's the possibility of a treatment for the mutations, but I can't be absolutely certain until more tests are run."
"Give me the full report when it's completed," POTUS said. The set of photos reached his desk, and he studied them carefully. Black and white all, they were snapshots showing how the entire staff of the hospital had Changed, except for the expectant mothers in the maternity ward and the children in pediatrics. He had expected the images to show scenes of pure chaos, but in actuality the people were in a state of shock. In the lower right corner of the images was the timestamp. The prints were barely two hours old.
"We always do."
"Other health aspects?" Hadden scribbled a note down onto his own palm-top, a nifty white unit with the Presidential Seal emblazoned on its face just below the screen. When he didn't hear a response after a few moments he looked up with a raised eyebrow. "Doc?"
"The other health aspects, Mr. President... are too numerous to explain. Reality as billions of people knew it underwent a paradigm shift this morning. The medical facilities of the nation aren't equipped to handle what just happened, sir. Does a person who breaks her arm go to the hospital or the vet? And what about diseases? Does the influenza virus still pose a threat, or are we now also susceptible to all the diseases and viruses of whatever kind of animal we morphed into? Is it both, or none at all?"
"What do you mean?" asked the VP.
"Consider a person who has mutated into a canine, a dog. In this new form -- not quite a dog, but also not quite a human -- is he still at risk from contracting a cold virus, or what about distemper? Is his immune system capable of fighting off diseases found in both human and canines? Or has it been weakened by the Change?"
The long rabbit ears of the Vice President flattened against his skull. "Oh," he finally said. "Then I think we would have a problem."
"Awright," said the President in his most authoritative voice, "here's what we're going to do." He pointed a talon at the Surgeon General. "I want as many veterinarians as possible to work alongside physicians in the major hospitals. Have them combine their knowledge."
"Already in action, Mr. President," the Surgeon General said. "They did it without us telling them to."
"Good," Hadden said.
"But there's something else you should be aware of, Mr. President," added the Surgeon General as she removed a ballpoint pen from her briefcase. "We started receiving reports of unusual events from medical facilities. At first we thought these reports -- mostly of strange psychic phenomena -- were merely a prank."
The Vice President snorted, an odd sound coming from his altered throat, and shook his head.
Dr. Franklin placed the pen in her palm. "Yes, that's what we thought, too. But as you can see, there does appear to be something to it." She looked at the pen, her eyes narrowing and brow creasing with lines of concentration.
Then the pen began to shake and ever so slowly it floated into the air.
Over a collective gasp of astonishment, the Surgeon General calmly added, "It seems that everyone has some ability. We've seen phenomena ranging from telekinesis and telepathy all the way to pyrokinesis and polymorphing into other types of animal."
"Holy shit," muttered the President of the United States.
In the back of the luxury sedan now, Mr. Samuel Jones was signing documents. He'd signed documents similar to these almost fifty years earlier, but these were a newer version. Reading them carefully Jones came to realize that the game was still the same, even though the tools were different.
Swift and precise strokes of black ink signed his life over to the whim of a group of individuals who didn't officially exist. If he talked to anyone outside of the Department about his work he would face the penalty of treason, execution. The same penalty followed if he were to retire from the Department and utilize knowledge of classified technology to make millions in the outside world.
In some ways he felt as if he were signing a contract with the devil, a modern day Faust.
The two officers in the front of the sedan said nothing during the drive. Jones asked them to turn on the radio once, but all that came through was static. Evidently the operators of the radio network had abandoned their posts. The radio was silenced, and they drove on without conversation for perhaps thirty minutes until they arrived at an abandoned shopping mall. The complex had been abandoned for a good twenty years and all of the buildings were in a sad state of disrepair with windows boarded up and rusted chains securing the doors. Signs prohibiting trespassing were festooned liberally around the old mall, which was designed so that the stores formed a ring around a central plaza, which had probably contained a small park and playground. Lack of maintenance had turned the park into a dense thicket of tall grasses and thorn bushes, and the playground was a rusted disaster.
"What are we doing here?" Jones asked as the car came to a stop in front of an old department store.
"You're catching a ride, Doctor," said the driver, while Goldenthal glared at him with yellow eyes.
Someone wearing a dark green flight suit walked around the corner of the store. The driver spotted him in the rear view monitor and pressed the button for the door lock release. "Goodbye, sir."
The feline crewman in the flight suit opened the door. "Doctor Jones, please come with me."
Jones obediently got out of the car, which immediately sped away, and followed the crewman through a debris filled alleyway between the department store and another building out into the open plaza. Weeds grew thickly through the cracks between the concrete tiles, and off to his left Jones could see a half-destroyed playground slide, totally orange with rust.
Sitting in the middle of the plaza, and in stark contrast to its surroundings, was an executive transport helicopter, engines idling and rotors slowly rotating, painted in the immaculately clean blue and white scheme of one of the Fortune 500 companies. But Jones immediately recognized the charade when the crewman opened the sliding side door to reveal a sparsely furnished, utilitarian interior with fold down seats and metal floor. Electrical wiring ran in thick bundles along the bulkheads, which were painted flat olive green.
Once he had helped show the elderly wolf how to operate the safety straps and made certain that the passenger was as comfortable as possible, the crewman climbed in next to the pilot and fastened himself in. The pilot, meanwhile, was spinning the engines up to their operational speed.
Pulling on his headset the co-pilot keyed the radio. "Brushfire this is Hopper, package has been delivered and we are heading to the store, over."
"Hopper, Brushfire, copy that," came the prompt reply. "Speedbird is standing by, and upon your arrival will depart. Set one one eight five, advise ground when within two zero of Speedbird. Good day."
Dialing in the appropriate frequency to the communications gear, the co-pilot pressed the button to activate the radio again. "Set one one eight five, will advise when we are within two zero of Speedbird. Have a nice one. Out."
He turned to the pilot, whiskers twitching. "Good to go."
The gazelle-morph pilot nodded, twisted the motorcycle-style throttle to gun the engines, and pulled an armload of collective, causing the helicopter to fairly leap into the sky. The co-pilot flipped the lever to retract the landing gear as the pilot angled the helicopter's nose to the ground to gain speed. For one brief second the only thing visible through the front windscreen was the ground, alarmingly close, and then the flash of white insulation from the roof of an unknown store. An air conditioning vent whizzed past, then a line of trees to both sides, and finally they were racing over open pasture. Both the pilot and co-pilot were grinning, reveling in the pure joy of flight.
Behind the crew Dr. Jones closed his eyes, gripped the seat with what would have been white knuckles, and wondered just what he had gotten himself into.
The Oval Office
After the initial shock of seeing a levitating pen, the rest of the meeting seemed far less exciting. Hadden wondered what his own abilities were, and how he would find them -- or how they would manifest themselves, with or without his control. One thing was for certain, if these abilities were in everyone, then the scientific community of the world was going to have fits over how to explain the physics governing their behavior. Hadden envied them. He didn't want to be here, now. He wanted to be out there with his old friends at Lockheed. I'd rather be working physics than policy right about now.
But the image of a President wearing a lab coat wasn't the image his PR people wanted America to see. POTUS was supposed to be dignified, respectable, authoritative in his appearance; not some slide-rule toting atom-blaster that speaks in riddles of Greek letters and equations.
That didn't stop Hadden from smuggling into the Oval Office a good-size, double-sided dry erase board. The board was currently standing in a corner, one face-the face visible during working hours-had a map of the United States on it. The other face, accessible by flipping the board over, was covered in equations, none of which in any particular order, and all of them written in Hadden's legendarily illegible scrawl. POTUS may have been expected to present the image of a policy-maker in public, but in private -- during his maddeningly brief periods of free time -- Hadden squeezed in as much of the current trends in physics as possible, along with time for his family.
"Okay," Hadden said, tapping one of his talons on the surface of his desk to clear his mind. "Let's focus on the international scene. Jack, what's the Threat Board looking like?"
NatSec removed a bundle of folders from his case, all of which were lined with purple tape, indicating that they were classified Top Secret.
"The board is clear as of now, Mr. President. We haven't had much time to collect information, since this Change is only a few hours old. But we've got enough.
"NATO is currently on a state of Ready Alert, but we aren't expecting any trouble from anywhere inside Russia. The Kremlin got on the red phones to NATO as soon as the Change started, wanting to know what the hell was going on with their people, checking to see if it was some form of biological warfare or another, newer brand of weapon. When they got word of the Change happening in all the NATO countries they backed off of their alert. Their military now is mostly out to ensure that the social structure doesn't fall apart. We know there's rioting and looting in St. Petersburg, Kiev, parts of Moscow and Vladivostok," he handed the President a list of names. "The names of the cities in question are all here, Mr. President."
Leafing through them, the President shook his head. "My God."
"China has gone silent, cut off all communications to the outside world. No one can access their networks, and no one from inside can communicate out. Our resources currently in China don't want to chance satellite linking back, for fear the Chinese might be gunning for unauthorized transmissions. We've got some KH-11Ds almost on site now, and we'll patch you into the download from their orbital pass over the place. We've got unconfirmed reports that there have been public uprisings in Tibet and the GuangXi province, and that the People's Army opened fire on several large gatherings, inflicting massive casualties. But we'll know more when the KH-11s are on station.
"Their nuclear launch capabilities are still a problem, but their armories are secure. The Chinese may have no qualms with shooting their own citizens, but they won't go anywhere near to using unconventional munitions, chemical or otherwise.
"Japan isn't sure what to do. About half of the population has taken the Change as an excuse to stay home today, while the other half have gone to work, only to find that their communication networks are dead. Japan is in limbo right now."
"Middle East?" directed Hadden as he returned the sheaf of paper to NatSec.
"Surprisingly quiet, Mr. President. At first we were expecting the whole place to light up like a Christmas tree, but it didn't. The people there realized it's going on all over the world, and many of them feel that this Change has some spiritual significance, so they're waiting for a sign. Mosques are being overrun with people wanting to pray. We've got record turnouts at the Wailing Wall, too. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have called for a day of prayer. But what happens in the future is anyone's guess. We're going to be watching them very closely.
"Europe. France has decided today is basically a chance to party, but we've also confirmed riots in several cities, including Paris. Germany has mobilized their police forces to maintain order in the streets, and they're doing a very good job of it; no reports of rioting or crime. Seems that the local populace has taken up the duty to make sure no one steps out of line. The same is true of most of the Netherlands. Switzerland hasn't missed a step. People are going to work there like nothing has happened. We've got reports of some outbreaks of street crime in Poland, but with their police forces out en masse it's being contained. Italy is looking to the Vatican for an explanation, as are Spain and Portugal. Some of the socialist political factions in Italy are making a move to take the government there, as are a few of the smaller, more vocal parties in Czechoslovakia. Nuclear weapons are all secure, as are all of our interests in the area. Great Britain is having some problems with social unrest in Ireland, particularly the north, which is now trying to break away even harder than before. We've confirmed a wave of bombings throughout the UK and Scotland. The Royal Army and Navy have moved in and are kicking ass and taking names... of everybody they come across. We've got our embassy there trying to smooth the ruffled feathers -- no pun intended, Mr. President.
"Africa, Mr. President, is a total loss from what we can see. There is evidence of massive tribal conflicts. South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda. Most, if not all, of the nations in Africa have lost their governments. All social order has broken down. We've already pulled our interests out of the area, and the nuclear devices we have there have been safed and are on their way out of the continent.
"And I believe the Attorney General is best qualified to explain to you what is happening here in America."
"She already has, Jack. She links in via satellite every few hours and gives me updates. I already got my initial briefing before I called you all in."
The President's eyes widened as he felt the onslaught of another surge, and everyone in the room became aware of its passing, as they were each affected in some way. Hadden could feel his insides writhe and shift, and he felt some of the vertebrae in his neck shift and pop, then realign. His vision clouded over for a brief and terrifying moment, then cleared. When he opened his eyes again, he noticed that the colors in the room were more vivid than he could have imagined, and that he could make out much more detail in the objects he saw. He noticed that the Surgeon General had her fur-covered, webbed hands clasped around her face, which now sported a small muzzle and whiskers. Bishop had one hand against the wall of the office to keep her from falling and the other pressed against stomach. She looked as if she might become ill at any moment, with her ears folded back, eyes closed and tongue drooping out of her mouth.
When it was over, the President cleared his throat, a more difficult task now than before. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began slowly, "I believe this meeting is at an end. I want you all to take link phones, pagers and remote videoconference units. If anything happens, I want to know about it. Link in and give me reports. Good day."
Jack Tallman shifted on the comfortable couch. "Sir... Mr. President... I believe that we already have something that we must discuss with you."
The President raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"
The lynx-morph opened his brief case at the same time the Surgeon General reopened hers.
Hadden sat more erect as he saw the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs open his military attach‚ case, and his longtime friend David Yarborough unlock his own aluminum case. He saw the black folders they all removed, each bearing the identical title: Project Spiral.
What the hell?
The phony executive transport helicopter touched down on the tarmac in front of a large, dark gray and windowless Learjet. The airport was a local number, used mostly by crop dusters, and stood utterly devoid of people today. It was an "uncontrolled" airfield, meaning that there was no control tower... and no one on duty to observe the enigmatic jet aircraft cruise in quietly for touchdown.
Jones noticed the small but well-armed perimeter security force, all wearing black fatigues and toting sub-machine guns openly. A crewman from the jet was performing a pre-flight inspection walk around, ensuring that the aircraft was fit for flight. And when the co-pilot of the helicopter assisted him in unfastening the safety straps and stood aside to let the wolf emerge from the chopper, Jones got an even better look at the Lear.
Bristling with rows of antennae and bulging sensor clusters on the nose, the Learjet looked less like an aircraft than some steel dragon, resting on the ground with wings outstretched. Large exhaust baffles covered the aft portion of the engines while optical, infrared and radar jamming antennae jutted out from the fuselage. This Learjet had been modified for stealth work with the ability to become an electronic ghost. Watching and listening, but never seen.
"Dr. Jones, I presume," said the eagle-morph that approached him from the Learjet. Covered in a thick layer of stone-gray feathers beneath his dark blue trench coat and sporting a sharply curving black beak and massive talons, the eagle-morph regarded the white wolf with intelligent, dark eyes. Somewhere long ago Jones had seen the type of eagle this man resembled, it was... Yes, a harpy eagle.
"That's right. And you are?"
Behind him the helicopter lifted back into the sky in a cloud of blowing dust and dead grass. The harpy eagle angled his head away from the blast of debris, and Jones shielded his eyes. Angling its nose to the ground, the chopper rapidly built up speed and disappeared over a hangar, its engine noise growing fainter with each passing second. The eagle looked back around and removed a few blades of grass that had imbedded themselves in his feathers. "I must apologize for the rather crude treatment, Doctor. We are running on a very tight schedule. My name is Heywood, Dr. Thomas Heywood. If you would please follow me into the aircraft, I will begin briefing you immediately as to the situation."
Once inside the aircraft, Jones noticed immediately that some aspects of the Learjet had remained the same, while others had been changed completely to make room for the electronics systems that belonged to the dazzling array of antennae outside. The aft portion of the sleek executive jet was cramped, with very little headroom, but the seats were comfortable and made of expensive leather. The backs of the seats were missing, replaced with nylon webbing, an obvious spur-of-the-moment modification to accommodate how the Change had altered those onboard. Heywood's radically altered form made it necessary for him to straddle his own seat, with his great plume of tail feathers fanning out across the seat behind him and the rather huge talons on his feet poking holes in the carpet. The white wolf's tail fit easily through a gap between the nylon webbing and leather seat. Drinks were readily on-hand in a small cooler built into a mini bar that was part of the bulkhead to Heywood's right. Jones and the eagle sat facing each other, with Jones looking in the direction of the cockpit.
The crewman who had been performing the pre-flight inspection climbed into the aircraft, securing the hatch behind him, and disappeared into the cockpit. Jones caught a glimpse of a multitude of multi-function displays, computer screens, and instrumentation just before the cockpit door closed and the engines of the Learjet started with a dull hum. Outside the perimeter security force dispersed, returning to their well-hidden transport vehicles. Releasing the brakes on the landing gear the Learjet turned around and rolled swiftly down the taxiway.
"I hate flying," muttered the harpy eagle. His talons clicked nervously against one another.
"That's a rather ironic thing to say, don't you think?" Jones asked as the Learjet rolled onto the runway and the engines began to roar. If there had been a window next to Jones, he would have seen the radar-deflecting screen over the intake of the starboard engine.
Heywood looked over to the aged wolf. "It's one thing to be able to fly under your own power, quite another to trust another human controlling a multi-ton machine with your life. Something about flying without any control over where I go just doesn't sit right with me anymore. It's probably the instincts of the eagle talking to me."
Jones thought the eagle-morph might actually become ill as the Learjet raced down the runway and leapt into the air, climbing swiftly. But the eagle just sat there, talons clenched tightly, eyes firmly fixed to the aft bulkhead. "That's the worst part of it all," commented the eagle, blinking for the first time in a long while as the Learjet leveled off at its cruising altitude and at a speed very near Mach 1.
"Dr. Heywood," Jones said, "I woke up this morning to find that reality as I knew it had been fractured, that my body was rapidly becoming something that was not me. So for the first time in some four years I had solid food for breakfast, was able to dress myself, and decided to go out for a walk. Next thing I know two field officers from Department Null -- my baby -- showed up in a black Chrysler and whisked me off with all the appropriate forms. I was told that I was needed, and I signed my life back to the government again. Now I hear that there might be a new Plague about to ravage the world, and that somehow the Department is involved. Would you mind telling me just what is going on?"
Dark eyes bored deep into his own, but eventually the eagle nodded and removed a thick black folder and handed it across to Jones.
The Oval Office
The President took the black folder handed to him by NatSec. He opened it and began reading. For five minutes he sat there, flipping a page and reading, then flipping another page and reading. Those who were gathered in the Office cast nervous glances at one another. Tallman noticed a red flush creeping up the President's neck, veins standing out on end. His wings began to tremble. Everyone heard the sound of carpet ripping as Hadden's talons clenched involuntarily.
Finally he looked up, pure rage in his eyes, and slammed the folder shut. "I didn't know," he snarled. "Goddammit, I didn't know! This whole operation has been going on for over forty years, and only one President ever knew about it?"
Bishop, standing next to the door, felt the fur on her neck begin to stand on end. She had never seen POTUS in such a rage. Whatever information that folder contained, it was serious.
"I knew him when he was in office," Jones commented of Eisenhower. "Nice fellow; really knew how to operate the country. But I never would have expected him to authorize such a project as Spiral." He paged through the document, shook his head.
Dr. Samuel Jones had been with Department Null for nearly thirty years before his retirement in 1978 -- hell, he'd even been the one to come up with the name, replacing that God-awful code-name it was originally given -- but never had he heard of the Spiral Project, the modern incarnation of the Holy Knife. Nazi biological weapons reverse-engineered for military and industrial use by the United States government. Closing his eyes, Dr. Jones began to feel the icy grip of fear on his heart, a sensation he had experienced only twice before in his life. Once when he had seen firsthand the effects of the Holy Knife on a target group of Jews, and the second when the first incident reports of the Plague came across his desk at the Department.
Dr. Samuel Jones was one of the four top researchers involved in the Holy Knife project, the most closely guarded secret in history, to defect to America in late 1944 under Operation Paperclip. Once on American soil the German scientists went to work for a shadowy advisory group known as the Zero Sum, a group with the task of gathering information on ultra-advanced technologies and how they might best be utilized by the American government for the war effort. After an extensive debriefing about their work with the German nanotechnology efforts, Jones and his three other colleagues (Smith, Black and White) resumed their work for the Americans. Near the end of the war a number of disturbing reports of a strange disease floated across the desks of the Zero Sum, and Eisenhower, as if foreseeing the future, ordered the Zero Sum to drop all other projects and begin analysis of returned biological samples of Plague victims, in the hope that a cure might be found.
The nanotechnology research Jones and the others had been working on was never resumed -- or so he had thought. Now, however, he came to know the truth of the matter.
The Holy Knife project never died; it just went deep and silent, disappearing into the black world of secret projects. What had been used as a doomsday weapon had been harvested from the organic goo that had been the victims' bodies, grown in secret labs, and studied, analyzed and redesigned. No, the Holy Knife never died.
It just got a facelift.
But whereas the Holy Knife had been used as a weapon, Spiral was to be used as the ultimate tool, giving the United States an industrial head start by as many as two hundred years (by some estimates). Jones saw the electron microscope images: first of a lump of cheap carbon, and next of diamond. The carbon hadn't changed a bit, only the fact that a swarm of Spiral devices had modified the atomic lattice structure of the carbon. A cheap source of structural diamond would revolutionize the materials industry, paving the way for ultra-strong building materials and inexpensive components for light-based circuitry.
The next series of photos were of a cluster of cells.
The Oval Office
"Those cells, Mr. President, are infected with the deadliest known natural virus: Ebola."
Human cells were swollen with the tiny black dots that were the virus particles. Some of the cells had already burst, releasing clouds of deadly Ebola virus that would seek out new cells. The next photo showed the cells all dead, black virus particles covering everything, searching for something to kill.
He glanced up at Yarborough, flipped to the next photo.
"And these cells are also infected with Ebola. But notice the next photo."
All traces of the virus had been eradicated, but then again, so had many of the cells. Instead, millions of tiny flecks of what looked like crystal swarmed in and around the cells, which appeared to be huge blobs of cytoplasm in comparison to the tiny, swift machines. "Where are the rest of the cells?" asked Hadden.
"The Spiral devices destroyed them, Mr. President. These were merely prototype devices, mind you, and were not designed for much more than identifying the Ebola virus and destroying it. That means destroying cells already infected with the virus."
Hadden didn't ask where the human cells came from.
Good thing, too.
"How difficult is it to reprogram one of these Spiral gizmos?"
"Very difficult, Mr. President. Nanotechnology, as you know, is designed upon atomic interaction. The machines are built of them -- well, actually upon complex organic molecules from various viruses and bacteria. There are no electronic brains inside a Spiral device; instead the actual structure of the device dictates its program, rather like DNA inside a human cell. The original Plague was designed to accept a targeting cue, a phenotype common among the population it was designed to eradicate. Once a person was infected with the Plague, the nanomachines would scan the host DNA for a matching phenotype, and, if found... do its thing. If the host's DNA did not contain the target phenotype, then the Plague wouldn't do a thing. The reason everyone was at risk from the Plague was that there were so many phenotype target cues given to so many batches of the stuff that eventually one would match and... well, you get the idea. The cure we found for the Plague merely plugged the phenotype receptor, rather like sticking your finger behind the trigger to keep the hammer from dropping."
"Incredible," muttered the President. "How long until Spiral is complete and available for use?"
"We're in the advanced prototyping stage right now, Mr. President. Two, maybe three years."
Hadden let the folder fall from his hands and onto the desktop. "My God! And you've solved the problem of heat deformation on the molecular structure?"
"Yes, sir," smiled Yarborough. Benjamin R. Hadden the engineer was beginning to show himself, finally. "We've utilized some of the protein structure from sulfobales, bacteria that thrive in extremely high temperature water, well above boiling temperature. The original Plague devices couldn't handle the energy of high temperature water and broke up at about eighty degrees Celsius. Spiral doesn't break up until about one twenty to one thirty. The usual safeguards for the Plague work quite well on Spiral, though."
"You're talking about the maser, yes?"
"That's correct, Mr. President. The maser excites the molecules inside the Spiral device until the torque on the atomic bonds is strong enough to break the whole structure up. We discovered this with the Plague as well, but to use a maser on a living human is... not an option. A maser, basically a microwave oven turned into a gun, will do the same thing to a human as it will to a hot-dog."
"I don't understand," said Jones, closing the folder and looking at the harpy eagle. "If you've got the maser, then why am I here?"
Heywood, who had been sipping on a vodka martini, now placed the glass on a side table. "There's a research facility, Doctor. It's located in a very secure structure, nuclear proof, biological proof. You name it, and chances are it's safeguarded against it. It's a major development center for Spiral, but something has gone wrong."
Jones shifted forward in his seat. "Oh?"
"Contact was lost with the facility at precisely 0700 this morning. We know the emergency isolation protocols have been initiated, but we can't communicate with the facility for some reason. The facility is running on reserve generators, but those will run out of fuel eventually -- we don't know how long."
"What type of Spiral devices was this facility working on?"
"Medical devices, all of them lacking any guidance sequences. If there has been a containment breech and the Spiral devices somehow came in contact with an exposed sample of human genome? There's no telling what they might do to those inside the facility, let alone the population in general if the devices somehow got loose."
His mind racing, Jones swallowed down the taste of bile. "H-how long... how long would it take for Spiral to spread across--"
"We project thirty six hours for contamination of much of the southern United States; forty eight for the whole of the US and most of Mexico and Canada. Within a week it'll have spread around the world."
Speechless, Jones could only sit there and wish the Learjet could fly faster.
In four other states groups of armed men and scientists converged on military transport aircraft. Engines, already warmed for the flight, were cranked, and little time was wasted in taxiing before the big transports lifted off of the runways, retracted their landing gear, and angled in a southerly direction.
Their destination was a relatively small town between Houston and Austin: College Station, Texas.
The President of the United States ordered the scramble of the CDC's go-team in the same breath as the launch of the military transports.
The Oval Office
"Dave," Hadden called as the raccoon-morph was getting ready to leave the office. "A word with you, if you don't mind."
Yarborough felt Tallman give him an encouraging punch on the shoulder as the other stepped out. The Science Adviser rested his aluminum case on the arm of the nearest couch. "Mr. President?"
"This is off the record, Dave," Hadden said. "Today I learned that one of my greatest dreams, and one of my darkest nightmares, has come true. We're a breath away from nanotechnology and a new era of technological superiority. We're also staring down the barrel of God's scattergun, and the hammer is falling. The big question now is this: do we have the smarts as a race to duck our heads in time? Personally, I think we do."
Yarborough started to relax. Hadden was certainly the right person to have in Office; technically oriented, capable of setting apart his moral decisions from his analytical ones, and a no-nonsense leader.
Suddenly POTUS raised his hand and pointed a talon directly at the other engineer. "But know this!" Hadden growled, "If you ever pull this kind of shit again, I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"
Jesus, those aren't the words I would have ever imagined Ben of using. He's changed. And more than just physically.
"Got it, Ben. Clear as a bell."
"Good. Now get the hell out of here. I've got a press briefing to prepare for."
Yarborough left the room, Bishop closing the door after he left. Still sitting in his chair, Vice President Bryce was still trying to come to grips with what had just occurred around him. History had been made.
But this history, if all went well, would never be told for a very long time, well after everyone involved was dead and buried.
If all went well.
That was a very large if.
|WoC Archive||Top Page|
|Part 2: Details to Follow||Part 4: Critical Mass|