Devlin Bledsoe scanned the clipboard next to the animal’s cage. According to the lab technicians’ notes, this mouse stopped eating yesterday afternoon, less than two days after the blue flush of its skin had faded into a sickly gray. At this morning’s 5:30 AM check, it was no longer walking. If it followed the pattern, it would be dead in the next hour, less than three days after QV injection.
One more little body given up for a bigger cause.
He supposed these experiments amounted to torture in their own way. So be it. His family was no stranger to torture. There would always be someone inside the cage and someone on the outside. Bledsoe knew which side he preferred.
He set the clipboard down and rubbed his eyes. The room’s “daylight-temperature” fluorescent lighting tended to make everything look flat and unreal. Among the endless ranks of steel shelves, nickel-plated cages, and white tiles, Bledsoe could only smell his facial mask’s chemical staleness. The thick hiss of pressurized air, hour after hour, lulled his senses. Bledsoe forced his knuckles into his temples and took a deep breath.
There were nineteen more cages in the row, each with a human nose protruding from its back like an oversized dorsal fin. Twenty clones, each identical to the others, and they would probably all be dead before the day was out — another month of work gone.
Even in Area X, they’d found that QV agents only interacted with higher primates. Obviously, the microscopic organisms required a certain genetic profile in their hosts. Just as viruses that affect pigs or cats usually don’t infect people, the QVs that could live symbiotically in humans wouldn’t survive in lower mammals, even if those mammals had been surgically implanted with tissue scaffolds in their backs that were seeded with human cartilage cells.
Bledsoe understood why his bosses wanted these experiments run. It was important to chase down all of the QV’s implementation possibilities. This had always seemed like a long shot, though, and it wasn’t even central to their main research.
The quasi-virus fell from the skies into a New Mexico rancher’s field in 1947. Billions of those tiny alien life forms had lived within another alien life form. Shackled with 1940s technology, Area X teams hadn’t been able to probe the QV’s inner workings. But before the end, they’d discovered the microbe’s ability to turn humans into something slightly different. Better. Superior. Which was why Bledsoe had stolen it for himself.
Every QV in this lab descended from that first group originally harvested from Bledsoe’s own blood. He’d been living with QVs in his body for seventy-five years — give or take a few decades — but on the outside he appeared just like any other man in his late thirties.
He reached for his earpiece. The thing made his ear itch almost constantly, but it was hard to scratch through so many layers of clean room gloves, hair net, cap, and body suit. He twisted and jiggled the thing looped to his ear, then settled it back into place and tapped its activation button.
“Dictation mode,” he said, feeling the cloth mask crinkle over his mouth and cheeks. “QV modification sequence bravo-six seems ineffective. All twenty subjects are exhibiting signs of rejection distress. Death appears likely. We still have several other possible modifications to genetic target strand fourteen that could yield a more positive outcome, but…”
He paused. This recording would be synchronized from his local server up to the army’s classified network for possible review by Management. They never liked bad news. Nobody did. And if he wanted to keep his funding, he’d better find a positive spin to put on these experiments and not say what was really on his mind.
“…success on strand fifteen seems less likely. We should assemble a round of mono-variant tests for strand fourteen and aim for an eight-week completion. Also, more exploration into mid-level primates, such as lemurs. End dictation.”
Management was terrified of primate testing, always saying it was an option for later, but “improved monkeys” were too much of a risk for now. Apparently, they’d watched Planet of the Apes too many times. Or maybe the idea of a human-like monkey hit a little too close to home among the officers and politicians.
Bledsoe unconsciously drew a puffy sleeve across his clean suit-covered forehead. When he got frustrated at the lack of progress in his labs, Bledsoe always became more aware of the oppressive heat. On the mainland, clean rooms were often kept at a constant 69 degrees, but here on Rota, stuck over a thousand miles off the coast of anywhere in the middle of the stifling Pacific, the native staff found 69 to be downright Arctic. So the facilities were kept at 74, and Bledsoe, despite being born and raised a Texan, never stopped sweating. He always wondered if the QVs made him more sensitive to temperature.
He’d been slaving away in this complex for the last six years and had little to show for it. If he had his own way, there would be a small army of infected fishermen and farm girls in his laboratory cells, but Management wanted none of that. Experimenting on humans was too risky, they said. Too expensive. Too this, too that.
But it would get the job done. On that point, Bledsoe had no doubt.
Patience, he thought. Plan for the World Series, but play the next pitch.
Three other people in clean suits moved about the cage room, feeding, watering, and recording. All of them had been on the crew for at least two years, and none of them had any notion of the lab’s true purpose. They believed they were testing experimental drug therapies for big pharmaceutical companies.
Only two other people actually understood the QVs and worked with Bledsoe to tweak the alien organism’s DNA. Both were U.S. military pulled in from different research and development divisions. But this wasn’t the old days. The three of them didn’t hang out after-hours as close friends. They did their jobs, reviewed each other’s notes, and went back to their apartments. They were barely on first-name terms.
Remembering 1948, that suited Bledsoe just fine.
His earpiece chimed twice, signaling a new message from Management. He groaned. What now? Had they already listened to his note on the mice and were calling to complain? Without Management’s funding, he wouldn’t have this facility or any way to conduct his research, but that didn’t make their endless ranting any easier to swallow.
He tapped the button. “Play message.”
A computer-simulated woman’s voice piped into his ear. “Message received eleven twenty-four AM local. Priority beta. Message reads as follows: Significant movement reported on Majestic Three. Possible identity on Majestics One or Four. A plane will retrieve you at nineteen-hundred hours. Confirm with Management ASAP. End message. Do you wish to replay?”
“No,” Bledsoe murmured, almost too stunned to speak.
Majestic Three. The Chase boy. How old would he be now? Twelve?
No, Bledsoe realized. Winston would be fourteen.
And Majestic One or Four? Was it possible that after all these years of looking, they had finally found Claude or Theo? Part of Bledsoe believed that his former friends were gone forever. These days, it was nearly impossible to stay off the grid and defy the resources of the National Security Agency, Homeland Security, and every other U.S. intelligence group. These two men had evaded them all, though. Somehow.
Bledsoe gazed across his laboratory, viewing it with a suddenly fresh perspective. Five minutes ago, his head had been filled with plans and frustrations all focused around QV development. But that wasn’t the real endgame. QVs would get him to the playoffs, but he’d never win the Series with that alone.
In Management’s eyes, Bledsoe was just another easily replaced researcher, even with the QVs in his veins. They now knew pretty much everything he knew, or so they thought. Sometimes, Bledsoe wondered if Management would rather kill him off quietly here in the middle of the ocean rather than risk him defecting to the Russians or Chinese. If they knew even half of what Bledsoe was actually thinking…
Bledsoe chuckled. No, the way forward was through Majestic One. Claude. His old buddy, old pal. The one who had betrayed him deep under the New Mexico desert and stolen away the last thing that had ever mattered to him.