Month: October 2012

The Enemy Within – Conclusion

This is the second half of the story started in The Enemy Within – Part 1

 

COMM LINK ESTABLISHED:

Stephan:  Stephan 13Zeta reporting in sir.

NGC 7331 and Stephan's Quintet

Commander:  Thank-you Zeta.  I see you’ve got the lights back on.

Stephan:  Yes sir, Levi did a great job with that.  (Good, maybe that will do instead of an apology)

Commander:  Excellent.  Proceed with your report.

Stephan:  Sir, we have found the scientist alive and well.

Commander:  Yes, I rather thought you might.  Well done.  Now if you don’t mind I’d like a word with Frank.

Stephan:  Er Frank sir?

Commander:  Yes the scientist.  Frank’s not his real name of course but none of us here a very good at Japanese so we all agreed to call him Frank.

Frank:  (off camera) It’s not that hard Bob.  Sa-da-hi-ra.  Sadahira.  I would have thought even you could have mastered it by now.

Commander:  (rolling his eyes) Zeta, just put Frank on will you.

Frank:  (elbowing Stephan out of the way) I’m here, I’m here.

Commander:  So Frank, you’ve been a bit incommunicado for a while now haven’t you.  Tell me, did we really have to send a team out?

Frank:  You don’t know what it’s like out here.  I warned you that I needed more than just you meat heads sitting on the other end of a vid link.

Commander:  Yes we know, you’re lonely.  But you knew the risks when you signed up for the research grant.

Frank:  160 years is a long time Bob, a guy might change his mind in that time.

Commander:  So what’s your plan then?  We know you’re alive.  You know you can’t come back.  You know we need that research.

Frank:  Yes, but you realise these guys can’t come back either now.

(Off camera):  What?

Commander:  (big sigh) You haven’t done something rash have you Frank?

Frank:  Two words Bob.  Flask 15.  That’s all I’m going to say, I don’t have to paint you a picture.

Commander:  Indeed no.  Zeta?

Stephan:  (appearing back on camera) Yes sir.

Commander:  Frank’s in charge.  I need time to work out our next move.

Stephan:  But sir…

Commander:  I said Frank’s in charge.  Obey orders soldier!

COMM LINK LOST.

 

—————–

 

Levi sat down heavily in his chair.  Jodi glanced at him in shock, a slight blueish tinge seemed to colour her face as if her blood had suddenly drained out of it.  She felt light headed and quickly followed Levi to find a place to collapse into.  Stephan characteristically continued to stare at the vid screen, lost in some other world.  One thought dominated the room.  What did he mean by, “You realize these guys can’t come back either”?

“He he he”.  A scratchy giggle cut through the thick atmosphere of shock, totally incongruous to the moment.  Oblivious, beaming from ear to ear, Frank danced a little capering jig of joy chattering, “I’m the boss.  I’m the boss.  They sent out troopers, but that’s their loss.  Alone so long it’s not for me, this’ll teach them a lesson that I’m awesome.”  He paused for a second and mumbled, “Doesn’t rhyme – hmmm I’ll have to work on that.”  Then gaining momentum he started again, “Who’s the smart one now meat heads?”

Suddenly remembering himself, he stopped his dance and clapping his hands yelled, “Oi people, over here.”  As if waking from some deep sleep, three heads turned slowly to face him.  Amidst the stupor, a hint of hatred could now be seen in the eyes that glared in his direction.  “It’s time to start fixing up the mess you guys made getting into the place.  Silicon-brain, you got the power back up, congratulations.  But that ain’t gonna do for long while the hole this lump blew in the door keeps leaking air and heat into space.  I’ve seen the patch job you guys did and I’ve got a colander in the kitchen with less holes.  Now I need you guys to go and get it sorted properly.  I’ll send the maintenance bots down to give you a hand.  Off you go.”

Stephan wasn’t in any mental state to argue, and in lieu of any other direction, Levi figured Frank had a point.  He could deal with the little weasel once they were less likely to freeze to death.  They moved towards the door with Jodi trailing in their wake.  “Not you sweet cheeks.  You’re the real brains of this outfit right?  I need you to stay here with me.  We’ve got research to do.”  Jodi groaned and stopped.  Levi made a move to protest, but she signaled him with her eyes.  “Just go, he’s insane but he’s not going to harm me.  I’ll be fine.”

When they were alone, Frank asked, “So you got any idea what we do here?”.

“We?  What do you mean we, blue man?”

“Ah you notice my color.  Fair point.”

“How could I not notice your color?  It’s you biggest feature, apart from your obvious insanity that is.”

“Insane?  No…  Well ok, maybe a bit.  But it’s because I’ve been here by myself for so long with this research.  It’s the research that’s also turned me blue, ironic how this passion has defined my two most prominent characteristics.  But you’re wrong about the ‘we’ bit.  You’re my new assistant.”

Radiating defiance she retorted, “And what if I don’t want to?”

“Easy there, I haven’t even made my pitch yet.  Bear with me.”

A solemnity not yet seen came over Frank.  “One hundred and sixty-three years ago an unidentified ship entered out solar system.  Initial attempts to make contact failed, so the United Nations Space Agency decided to put together a mission to investigate.  I was selected as the biological expert for the mission.  We rendezvoused with the craft as it passed the orbit of Jupiter in-bound on a path that would eventually take it through the solar system and out the other side.  By all outward appearances it didn’t seem to have any destination here.

On approach we scanned and attempted further contact with no result.  The scans revealed that the craft was obviously full of life although none of it was moving or otherwise active.  For two weeks we shadowed the craft seeking some method of communication or sign that we’d been noticed.  Everything remained exactly as we found it.  In all there were 3279 distinct life signatures registered.

The Space Agency council deliberated for a further three days about what to do.  With such an abundant diversity of species available to make contact with, the craft presented an exceptionally tantalizing prize for investigation.  I personally was pressing for further action.  I so badly wanted to study these creatures, but the problem was that we didn’t know how they would react unless we could get them to respond.  In the end the allure was too strong and with a 69% majority, the council voted for us to force entry into the craft.

We breached the hull and forced our way on board to find everything silent.  The systems were humming along nicely keeping alive a menagerie of creatures,” he waved his arm indicating the specimen jars, “all in stasis.  That explained the silence.  The ship was running on auto-pilot carrying its cargo asleep to their destination.

Various theories were put forward, proposing answers about its purpose.  Some said that it was this civilisation’s normal mode of transport.  These were simply space wayfarers making their way to a destination.  Others however countered that the diversity of species showed that there was more to it.  Why would such a large number and diversity of distinct species be present for a routine space journey?  The proportion of individuals was too homogenous to be a random distribution of passengers.  An arkship was their favourite theory.  Either a civilisation expanding to colonize other regions of space or seeking to survive a disaster on their homeworld.

A gestalt consciousness made from a conglomeration of species from across the galaxy was also theorised.  If the assumption was made that these creatures were all sentient, it seemed unlikely that they would all originate from the same location.  The ship therefore was a transport for an ever growing singularity of combined minds forming a new individual.  Its journey throughout the universe saw it collecting new species to add to the singular consciousness and improve its capability.

They were all theories however because no matter what we tried, we simply couldn’t make contact.  The big flaw in all theories was why such a sophisticated ship would have no capacity to communicate its purpose or wake an occupant to fill the role when encountering difficulties?  Something was wrong.  Again the council deliberated, what should be done?  Leave the ship to go on its way, or intervene more directly to find answers.  The debate was stronger and more prolonged this time.  After a further two weeks, the council passed by a majority of just 53% a motion to continue investigations.

I was thrilled.  I was going to get first access to research a vast cache of alien biology.  My role was to start taking specimen samples for study.  No decision had yet been reached about what to do with the long term direction of the ship and we wanted as many samples as possible in the event that we would let it continue on its way.  To this day, no-one quite knows what caused the disaster to occur.  I was busy collecting samples from the creatures in stasis.  Our technical crew was trying to interface to the ship’s systems and the military crew were attaching extra restraints to the hull so that we could harness our ship to redirect if necessary.  However within 29 hours of the council’s decision to continue investigations, the entire ship’s occupants were dead.

The stasis fields had started to de-energize within hours but not in a controlled manner.  Rather than gradually bringing entire creatures back to reality, sections of the fields in each chamber would collapse without warning leaving them half frozen and half living.  Irreparable damage to their bodies occurred as cells started living again without the support systems needed to provide oxygen, nutrients and the components of life.  Then the collapse would invert leaving hearts, nervous systems and osmotic chambers seeking to push bodily fluids and signals into non-responsive inert tissues.

The technical crew worked feverishly to stabilise the fields, but in a foreign system they were experimenting at best and had no success.

I did the only thing reasonable in the situation and started preserving the specimens so that the journey would not be a complete disaster.  There would at least be generation’s worth of research that could be done on the alien cadavers.  It was my duty, and at the end of the day we would get away with it.  This unresponsive craft would simply be lost to its owners, if there was anything actually waiting for it in the first place.

Taking 15 specimens at a time, I would transfer them to research flasks to preserve them and then send them to our ship for storage back to Earth.  However time and again, the crew would report only 14 arrived at storage.  I knew that I’d sent 15 because that’s how many I could pack into the transport.  The crew knew that 14 arrived because they assured me that they could count.  Something strange was going on, and that was the time that I started turning blue.

Another mission council was called and it was concluded that I’d been infected with a virus.  Something alien in origin.  Something capable of altering my memories.  Something changing my physiology.  Something we wanted nowhere near the Earth.  Was this the key to the alien ship or just a coincidence of physiology?  To be honest, we still don’t know.  The council’s decision however, was that if we could quarantine the ship, there was still the potential for the research to continue.  That’s how it ended up being parked out here in the asteroid belt.

I was the only one to catch the virus.  We didn’t know its long term effects so the rest of the crew was kept away from the specimens.  No-one was allowed to return to Earth however, the risk of an unknown virus running rampant on the over-crowded planet was simply unconscionable.  My research continued and it’s made the sacrifice worthwhile.  Many of the pharmaceutical and genetic advances that you’ve taken for granted your whole life have started here in theories or data I’ve collected from the creatures.

Over time we learnt something else about the virus too, the rest of the crew eventually succumbed to old age and died.  160 odd years is a long time ago isn’t it?  Wondering why I’m still here?  I know I am, but it appears that the physiological changes of the virus have extended my lifespan.  It’s something I’m hoping we can learn more about, as are our bosses.”

A wicked little grin crossed his face and he wagged his eyebrows suggestively at Jodi.  “He he he.  You’re going to stay, I can see it in your face”, he said.

Jodi grimaced, “No I don’t want to.  You’re wrong.  I didn’t agree to this …”.

“I’m afraid you misunderstand me”, Frank replied.  “It’s not your desire I see in your face, it’s your infection.”

Jodi paused in shock for a second trying to grasp his meaning.  Then slowly, as if fearful of what she might see, she held up her hand to find the blueish hue growing on her skin.  She glanced at the specimens trying to gain some insight into the implications of her situation.  Seeking to suck some meaning from their lifeless corpses.  “I’ve been played”, she thought, “can I live this life?  Do I have a choice?”.

Frank bustled over to the console ignoring her pain.  “So about these crew mates of yours”, he asked, “how strongly would you object to their, shall we say, absence?  They are by the airlock at the moment, wouldn’t be hard to ensure they’re sealed outside and not able to distract our work …”

 

—————–

 

The Commander sighed and opened the mission file.  It had been neither easy nor rewarding choosing a squad for this mission.  Knowing that they’d probably never return both simplified and complicated the choices.

Stephan had been easy.  His total incompetency at leadership meant there was nothing to lose and it actually solved the problem of what to do with his future.

Jodi on the other hand had been tough.  He needed someone intelligent enough and with a similar field of expertise to keep Frank from going mad.  Yet it was a sacrificial assignment, no matter who he chose he’d be losing a good person.

Levi was essentially collateral damage.  The squad needed a techie and the short straw fell to him.

The biggest factor in all his choices had been that these people had no family or close friends who would come asking questions later.

 

The Enemy Within – Part 1

Kuiper-belt

My apologies if anyone is waiting for an update on the story I started with my Prologue post.  I’ve realized that it’s a much bigger story and I need to plan it some more.  Here’s the first of a two part-er – I promise I will finish this in my next post and before I start anything else new.

 

 

“I tell you sir, there were 15 flasks in here when I secured the room,” yelled Jodi.  In the background wailing klaxons continued to blare.  The alarm had been triggered when the team forced entry to the facility and their constant drone was taking its toll.  Jodi was trying to keep calm, but needing to yell over the noise was not conducive to having a reasoned discussion and her nerves were getting frayed.  “Well I can only count 14,” countered Stephan, “and I graduated military academy so I know I can count.  Sometimes I wonder what they teach you academic types at college, it’s not difficult.  If you use both hands you only need to take off one more shoe to get to 15!  Or maybe you didn’t understand me when I said ‘secure the area’?  How can a flask go missing in a secured area?”

If anything, Stephan’s composure was fairing even worse than Jodi’s and that wasn’t good.  He was supposed to the leader of this expedition.  It seemed like everything was going wrong.  After being dropped onto the asteroid, they’d turned up to the facility that mission control has assured them would be open only to find it locked.  Three hours of searching for an override, unlocked door, or any signs of life and he’d had enough and ordered the door blown.  Now they were in, but 4 continuous hours of the alarm was just too much.

Something snapped.  Turning his wrath from Jodi, he spun, strode across to his Techie and hoisting him onto his feet by his collar yelled, “Dammit Levi, get that alarm silenced now or I’ll silence it with your face.”

“I’m doing my best”, he stammered, “but this scientist guy has changed the system.  He’s patched his own mods into the kernel and changed the alarm system itself.”

“So?”, demanded Stephan.

“Well I think he’s got the power system requiring a watchdog signal from the alarm system otherwise it will shut down too.  Sort of like a fail-safe in case someone wants to hack in.  Don’t turn off the alarm properly and the whole facility goes down.  I just need more …”

“Too late”, bawled Stephan yanking the power cable from the wall.

Silence blossomed over the trio.  It felt like a physical pressure had lifted and mild tinnitus rang in their ears as the assaulted ear drums tried to recover.  As one, the three sagged slightly tension draining from their frames.

“So what was this garbage you were going on about Whiz Kid?  Watchdog this!  It looks fine to me”, sneered Stephan.  With that the lights cut out plunging them into darkness.

—————

COMM LINK ESTABLISHED:

Stephan:  Stephan 13Zeta reporting in sir.

Commander:  Thank-you Zeta.  Why is it so dark there?

Stephan:  Slight problem with the power systems sir.  We’ll get it sorted.

Commander: (slight smile creasing his face)  I’m sure you have it in hand.  Proceed with your report.

Stephan:  We’ve now gained access to the facility and secured the area.  The entry protocols contained in the mission plan were inappropriate sir.  My goal now is to re-establish power and commence detailed reconnaissance of the facility.

Commander:  Good work.  As you know, we lost contact with the facility six months ago so there was always a chance that entry protocols were out of date.  I suspect that other aspects of the mission may require you to show similar initiative and lateral thinking.  Proceed with the mission as per the stated goals.

Stephan:  Thank-you sir.  Zeta out.

—————–

Behind Stephan’s back Jodi and Levi shared a glance, this wasn’t exactly the news they had been hoping for.  With a mission starting so appallingly as this one, the chance of meeting their stated goals seemed slim at best.  Neither of them were seasoned in military exercises, but it seemed that surely a commanding officer should be a little more competent that theirs.  Lurching from one bad judgment to the next, Stephan had seemed incapable of handling anything that departed from the pre-planning.  He covered his indecision with bravado, bad humor and insults and now it seemed that mission control had know up-front that it wasn’t going to be straight-forward.  Why had they chosen him, or maybe they just didn’t know their men?

“Better keep our heads down or we might cop a patella in the face”, said Levi.

“Huh?” asked Jodi.

“A patella in the face.  From his knee-jerk reactions”.  A broad smile lit Levi’s face as he glanced again at Jodi.  Sometimes you just needed some good humor in a bad situation.  He hoped it would make him appear suave and calm under pressure, a little something to raise her opinion of him.  She was gorgeous and he hoped he might be in with a shot.

She cracked a tiny grin and said, “I don’t know about that, but he might be copping my knee in another part of his anatomy soon if he doesn’t ease off a bit.”

They turned back to their equipment.  In lieu of the facility’s built-in lighting that had been so tactfully shut off, it was now important to get their portable flood lights working.  The stands had already been assembled with high powered halogens and placed in a hexagonal shape surrounding the workspace.  This lab would be their base of operations and so they wanted good lighting.  It had the benches and equipment that Jodi would require for examining the specimens contained in the flasks.  Levi’s workload had just increased dramatically, but once he’d got the main computer back online, he too would need somewhere comfortable to get stuck into the records contained there-in.  Hauling a tiny radioactive generator out of its travel crate, he joined the thick cables to the lighting equipment and entered the startup password.  On cue, the lights powered up quickly flooding the area with that slightly unnatural blue-ish tinged light expected of halogen bulbs and left the pair squinting as their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness.

From the corner of the room, the lights raised Stephan from the quiet reverie he had been in since closing off his communication with mission control.  He strode over to the pair, determination etched in the language of his stride and parked himself in front of them.  “Right.  About time, let’s get moving.  I want to know three things.  Firstly, who this guy is.”  He waved his arms to indicate at the layout of the room.  Research equipment, terminals, furniture and amenities all bore witness to a design obviously intended for a human occupant.  “Secondly, I want to know what he was up to.  Jodi start with those 14 specimen flasks …”.

“Sir, there were 15”, she protested.

Irritation flickered across his face, “Well I only see 14.  Just start with what you’ve got, we’ll work from there.  I want to know what those things are he’s been working with.  And thirdly, I want to know what’s happened to him.”

Inside the flasks, various alien forms hung suspended in cloudy liquid.  Their presence was a reminder that this lab was not a standard facility, a point compounded by the fact that it was built on an asteroid in the Kuiper belt.  Beyond the orbit of Neptune, it shared its orbit with other asteroids in a band extending out to approximately 50 AU from the sun, their most famous neighbour being Pluto.

Staring at the inert forms within the flasks, it was easy for the mind to wonder what dangers were being hidden so far out.  What was it about these specimens that required the safety of isolation?  They all looked dead, but something had happened to the scientist for contact to have been lost for the last 6 months.

A shiver passed through Stephan, not only because of his anxious mind.  This far out from heat from the sun was minimal and with no atmosphere to keep what little arrived in, the surface temperature was almost as low as it was possible to get.  With the power systems shut off, not only were they without light, they were without heating and it was becoming apparent.  A thin sheen of condensation was starting to form on visible metal surfaces as heat radiated from the outer shell of the facility into the near vacuum surrounding it.  If the systems didn’t get restarted, they would soon have to climb back into the added protection of their drop suits, a prospect that nobody was keen on.  They were too much of a hassle.

Stephan turned to walk out of the room, calling over his shoulder as he went.  “And Levi, get that power back up ASAP.  If you’d sorted that alarm out in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess.  I’m going out on patrol.”

As he strode out the door into the dark corridor beyond, Levi gestured lewdly with his arm and then kicked the pile of gear by his foot.  Glancing surreptitiously at Jodi to see if she noticed, he went back to work on the main system.  “Stuff it”, he mumbled to himself, “I’m just going to find all the speakers and cut their wires and let the alarm keep going off.  ‘Couldn’t be bothered working out how this guy’s twisted mind had changed the system.”

—————–

As Stephan patrolled down the dark corridor, he could feel the panic rising.  Turning to ensure that he was out of sight of the main lab, he pressed his back against the cool metal of the wall allowing a trickle of condensation to run down his neck.  A physical sensation was helpful, something he could concentrate on that wasn’t this insistent anxiety hammering in his head.  Breathe, clear your head he reminded himself.

It was all going pear-shaped.  Again!  What did he expect?  Why would it be different this time?  Worse yet, he couldn’t see how things could get better.  No matter what decision he made, he was stuffed.  There was always a way for them to be wrong.  A wave of depression threatened to overwhelm him.

His Commanding Officer had ushered him into his office a month ago.  “We have decided to give you a reprieve”, he was informed.  “But there will be no more chances after this one.  You will not be recovering if this goes wrong”, he’d been warned.  The CO had looked at Stephan as if he expected thanks, but all he felt was another nail in the coffin of his career.  A sledgehammer to his heart, crushing him under a burden he knew he couldn’t bear.  Even Stephan could see he wasn’t suitable for the task, why was he being chosen?  “Thank-you sir, I won’t let you down”, he managed to get out.

But a let-down he was, it defined him.  For some reason the CO had been hiding something and pretended the mission was fine when they talked earlier on the vid phone.  It didn’t add up.

The corridor lights snapped back on and once Stephan was jolted out of his thoughts by a burst of brilliance.  “I guess that’s something”, he thought.  “Levi’s got the power back on.  No sirens either.  Perhaps I should apologize later, or would that make me look like a weak officer?  Sheesh I don’t know.”

Hoisting his rifle into his arms again, he moved off down the corridor.

—————–

Jodi laid down her scalpel, rolling her aching shoulders she tried to get some relief from uncomfortable position the isolation cell forced her to work in.  On the other side of the glass, the latest specimen was laid out on the table.  With her hands through circular holes with built-in gloves that ended inside the cell, she could stay outside without risk of exposure while still working.  She was reticent to do much with the specimens however because she knew so little about them.

There was no way that she could unravel in a few days, mysteries that someone had dedicated years to investigating.  The real trick she decided was to see what their missing scientist had been doing with them.  That might give her some clue about what he was up to.  So far she’d found little and understood even less.

Now up to specimen seven, she’d found that no discernable work had been done on any past number 3.  The first one had been extensively dissected.  What appeared from outward appearance to be a fibrous fraying tissue sample, had on closer inspection turned out to be an entire creature.  The skin was mostly gone, the individual muscles and ligaments laid bare and separated.  The frayed appearance came from the multitude of muscles that joined its petite skeleton.  Rather than having a few largish muscles, this thing seemed to consist of thousands of individual muscles attached in a complex arrangement to small multi-segmented bones.  It would take more time to work out how it fit together, but she was fairly sure that it would be extremely flexible whatever it was.

The second one she really couldn’t make head nor tail of, primarily because there didn’t appear to be anything resembling a head or a tail.  The third one definitely had a head, but only the crown had been removed to reveal the brain sitting inside.  What she really needed were some of this guy’s notes, then she might be able to put some context to the problem.

Levi had done well getting the power systems up.  He’d smirked about that and made sure that he caught her eye.  She’d just rolled hers and shaken her head with a laugh.  She supposed he was a little cute and obviously interested, but she wasn’t keen to start anything while out on a mission.

Since the power system success however, Levi hadn’t made great progress.  He kept muttering about patched kernels and non-standard shells, but she also wondered if the lingering glances he kept casting her direction stopped him from giving it his full attention.  She’d been very tempted to call him on it by saying, “Hey Levi, would it help if I sat over in front of your terminal so then you wouldn’t have to turn your head so much?”, but she’d bitten her lip.  They needed to keep things amiable.

They both heard footsteps from the corridor and turned expecting to see Stephan returning from his patrol, but nobody appeared.  Instead a strange wizened little voice echoed from the doorway.

“Hmmm.  Curious you are.”  They stared blankly into the empty corridor.  “Much you have to learn, the two of you.  Yes.  Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.”  With that a figure launched itself through the doorway landing in a pose, arms stretched wide as if ready to take a bow.  “Surprise”, he shouted, “I bet I wasn’t what you were expecting”.  In front of them stood a slightly bent Japanese man, totally blue and bald as a bowling ball.  Not a single hair could be seen anywhere on his body, eyebrows included.

Levi and Jodi just stood there rooted to the spot, jaws literally hanging open with shock.  “Come on”, the little man prompted, “I bet you were thinking, Yoda right?”.  A look of complete incomprehension remained clearly etched on their faces.  “Hello, Yoda?  Star Wars?  What about you nerd boy, surely you’ve heard of him?”  Levi managed to regain enough composure to shake his head slightly and the man slumped.  Strolling over to the terminal, he sat in the chair, opened a small drawer and proceeded to make himself a roll-up cigarette from the contents.  “What is the world coming to eh, don’t they teach the classics in college anymore?  Star Wars is one of the quintessential pieces of early science fiction cinematography.  It’s inspired millions and been the subject of countless doctoral dissertations.  There’s just no culture in today’s society.”

Despite their shock, something in the back of Jodi’s brain rang a bell.  “Are you …”, she began, “… are you the scientist who runs this facility?”.  “Bingo”, he said, winking and pointing a finger at her, “give the lady a prize.”

Just then a roar erupted from the corridor.  “WHAT … THE … HECK?!”  Stephan had returned.

To be continued …

Crime Scene

Horatio Caine

Lieutenant Horatio “H” Caine pulled up to the scene, immaculate hair complimenting of a jaunty air of arrogance that marked him out as Miami’s top homicide detective.  The day was just starting to warm up at Long Beach.  The salty humidity stirred by a gentle sea-breeze promised the hope of another perfect day in paradise.  Perfect that is if it wasn’t for the dirty business of death.

Stepping out of the car, Horatio swaggered over to the scene of the crime.  A team of forensic specialists swarmed over the remains like an army of ants, analysing the sticky mess that dominated the lawn.  White fragments, thousands of them, could be seen scattered in amongst the sea of internal fluids.  The entire macabre location had been sealed off from any passers-by with the requisite miles of polices tape.

As his officers sought to record the visual evidence, cameras flashes popping like paparazzi at a Lindsay Lohan court appearance, Horatio looked past the immediate scene to the wall that stood behind it.  It was tall, probably 10 feet, and made of stone blocks put together by hand.  The type of extravagant designer architecture that he’d come to expect from the wealthy residents who lived in the area.

Cynicism running high, he reflected that he was unlikely to get much help from the local residents.  Preoccupied with their own doubtful celebrity, they tended to spend their time socialising, yachting and playing polo down at the aptly named King’s Polo Club.  Seriously, who played polo these days but English aristocrats and these pretentious doctors, lawyers and business men who in many ways considered themselves the royalty of America?

Detective Calleigh Duquesne extricated herself from the scene and, removing her mask and hood, she walked over to her boss.

“So tell me what we’re looking at?”, he prompted.

“Well notice those white fragments all over the scene?  Forensics have determined that it consists of predominantly 95-97% calcium carbonate crystals, stabilized by a protein matrix.  At first glance they all look flat, but over here you can see a bigger piece where the curvature is obvious.

Furthermore, this goo that covers the area is not just one homogeneous consistency.  These yellow patches here tend to stick together more tightly into lumps, and around the rest is this more clear fluid that runs more freely.  The yellow appears to be characterised by phosphorylated proteins, lipovitellins and phospholipids.

If I’m not mistaken, I would say that prior to death, these liquid contents would have been co-located on the inside of a three dimensional oval-ish structure with the white curved calcium carbonate encasing the lot.”

“So what you’re telling me, and let me get this right, is that what we have here is a giant egg?”, asked Horatio.

“That’s about the size of it sir”, she replied.  “Even more strange, you can see over here a whole bunch of foot prints.

These ones are unmistakably hoof prints from a horse, while these ones over here are human.  We’ve taken some plaster molds and will be checking the local sports shops, but for me, my money’s on them being riding boots.

I can’t quite understand why, but it looks like they were trying to piece the shell back together again.  There are a whole bunch of fragments over in this corner that have been lined up together, almost like a jigsaw puzzle.  Would be an impossibly hard one too, with no edges or pieces of sky to start from.

I think whoever it was must have realised that too and got spooked.  They certainly left in an awful hurry.  You can see there’s no human footprints leaving, only horse and they were going at a fair clip too.”

Bloody King’s polo club, Horatio thought to himself, why did they get involved?  Well they’ve now got me to contend with.  He rose from studying the footprints and looked into the distance.  With a wry smile he said, “It’s not going to be easy”.  Then whipping off his glasses, he turned to his deputy as said, “But we’re just going to have to take a crack at it.”

DUN-DA-Da …

Prologue

Dark Alley in Augusta

“Take me around the block.  I want a view from behind the house.”  The black saloon pulled gently away from the kerb.  It rounded the block, turning into an alleyway out back that ran straight past their mark’s place of residence.  It was an old style access lane, thoughtfully provided at one time to allow residents easy access to the back of their properties.  No developer in their right mind would build one these days, not when that land could be directly sold to buyers instead.

Sebastian smiled at the irony of the situation.  As a graciously provided gift, the alleyway now doubled as the perfect vantage point for him to begin a marketing revolution unlike anything in history.  A revolution that would make him rich.

“This good enough for you, boss?”, the driver asked.  The tone of the question irked him.  There was no respect in it, well not enough respect anyway.  This kid was just like all those other consumers out there.  There was no creativity in their consumption, no discernment.  They bought what was on offer and competed amongst themselves to see who could grab the most of whatever companies could convince them was cool.  Well if that was the game, he was going to play to win.  After all, it might as well be his junk that they were spending their money on.

“Er, boss?”, the kid asked again.

“See if you can pull off the road a bit more.  Beside that dumpster probably.”

Glancing up and down the street, he could see that the alley was empty.  The houses were all dark except one, but it always paid to be careful.  It would be difficult for anyone to prove foul play, the bio-chemists assured him of that.  He did need to keep it a secret however, at least for now until he’d proven its potential and sewn up the deals.  If he cracked it, no-one would have a chance of competing in business again without his product, and that was a powerful weapon to wield indeed.

The street’s solitary window of light flickered as a man walked past the window.  He had an extremely short haircut, probably self-shaved using a low cost pair of clippers.  A shirt that would have looked worn out in the 70s was on his back and his glasses could just be seen under the sticky tape that was holding them together.  It drew Sebastian’s attention.  His pulse quickened.  This was it.

According to his research, this man was the tightest man in Britain – Martyn Brynn.  The reason he was up now was because electricity was cheapest.  No point in using the more expensive rate earlier in the night when you could sleep first and get up later to do what you needed.  In fact if he could get away with it, Martyn wouldn’t even turn on the lights at all.  Tonight he was probably spending time scouring the newspapers he’d pulled out of bins yesterday to find any sales coupons on offer.

The research team had been good.  They’d even managed to find out that Martyn was down to his last month’s supply of toilet paper.  If he didn’t find a source on sale soon, he may well need to break his self-imposed rule and buy at something higher than 25% of the normal asking price.  That was the limit, 25%.  There had to be a limit or otherwise where would it end?  Martyn had broken out in sweat just thinking about the waste of money and resolved that if it came to it, he would find some other solution.  Leaves or something, anything.  He just couldn’t waste money like that.

Sebastian shook his head slowly as he re-read the report.  “Un-be-lievable”, he muttered to himself.  Hell it didn’t matter if this guy wasn’t the tightest man in Britain, he was already beyond Sebastian’s wildest dreams.  If the product worked on him, it would work on anyone.

“Wait here”, he said to his driver.

Getting out of his car, he checked his gloves.  They were the most covert part of his clothing.  He’d decided against wearing the cliché trench-coat and dark clothing, opting instead for a casual shirt and jeans.  Strolling across the road, he took care not to make fast movements.  They would just draw attention if there was anyone who happened to be looking out their window.  It wasn’t like he could be invisible, the best he could hope for was that they were all asleep.  Failing that, he needed to appear quite forgettable.  A friend dropping by for a chat.  “After midnight?”, he asked himself plenty of times while planning.  Well … no plan could be perfect and besides, any friends of this nutjob would know about his crazy sleeping habits and probably need to fit in with them.

As he walked up the stairs he slipped his hand into his right pocket and pulled out an envelope.  It was simple.  It was innocuous.  And most importantly, it wasn’t posted.  Whoever it had been that had posted anthrax all over the US a few years ago had really done the field of covert virus distribution a disservice.  “I mean come on”, he thought to himself, “it’s not like that was going to stay a secret for very long.  You don’t post something that kills quickly, it’s just too easy to connect back to the source.  Now every post-office in the western world is on guard against it.”

He paused at the top step to take one last look at the envelope.  This was the turning point, he could feel it.  Right here, right now the world changes forever.  A slight smile creased his mouth as he leant down and flicked the envelope under the door.  Then turning, he strolled casually back to the car and they pulled gently away again into the night.

The light in the window flickered again gently as Martyn noticed the white square sitting on the floor behind the door.  Bending down to investigate, he grabbed the envelope tearing it open as he rose.  A fine powder, almost unnoticeable, drifted up into his nostrils and with that gentle action the world was changed.  In a street of sleeping suburbanites, there was no-one else there to witness it.

Patrick’s War

English: Emblem of the United Nations. Color i...

Sending a plume of spray, the vessel turned sharply into the oncoming wave.  Her captain steadied himself against the main bulkhead, smiled grimly at his crew and gave the order to return fire.  As torpedo tracks streaked away from the ship, he could see out of the corner of his eye similar bubbly contrails racing past as the rest of his armada followed suit.  This was his throw of the dice, it was now time to see if the gamble paid off.

Being put in charge of a 13 craft fleet at such a tender age could have been a crushing weight for young Patrick.  Many who’d been placed in such a position previously had felt that weight all too keenly, becoming burnt out well before their prime and needing rotation to a gentler occupation.  Patrick it seemed had no such issues.  Perhaps he just didn’t realise the enormity of the situation and so the responsibility sat lightly on his shoulders.  Or maybe he was just made of sterner stuff.  Whatever the reason, his superiors were content, they’d found their man and he was doing brilliantly.

This latest conflict had arisen very quickly even by modern standards and, while he was fully committed to the cause, Patrick still hadn’t been given the privilege of knowing why he was fighting today.  One minute he’d been relaxing at the end of a long day and seemingly the next he was here plotting strategy and entering the fray.  Who knew what went through the minds of those in charge?

Still it looked to be going well, that latest salvo of torpedoes slammed home with a satisfying thud.  A massive crack appeared in the side of the enemy ship and it then split neatly in two, both halves sinking immediately to the depths.  Bodies littered the water, their forms stiff and unmoving as they bobbed on the surface refusing to follow their vessel in defeat.

In his mind’s eye, Patrick could imagine the cries of dismay and pain emanating from his foe.  As his fleet bobbed their way over to the scene of victory, he mimicked the sounds he imagined coming from their prone forms.

“Noooo…”

“Aaaagh…”

“Blub blub blub blub”

For such a young mind, it was fertile grounds for invention giving so much scope for experimentation.  An infinity of new ways to battle open to be explored.  A dreamer’s paradise of wondrous new weapons, ones that no-one had thought up before.  Like a giant under-water claw that reaches up and drags unsuspecting ships down!

Suddenly, excitement getting the better of him, Patrick re-enacted the explosion.  Arms flailing, energy welling up from some hidden internal reserve, he brought his hands slapping down on the surface of the water.

“Patrick stop that”, came the exasperated cry.  “You’re getting water all over the bathroom floor and now you’re towel is soaking.”  His mother came bustling over, weary exasperation born of countless past experiences etched on her face.  “If you don’t calm down right now, I’ll take your toys away.”.  It was the standard routine.

At the other end of a secret camera feed, a black suit clad agent smiled wryly to himself and muttered under his breath, “Not likely”.  His partner glanced across at him and asked, “What was that?”.

“I was just saying, it’s not likely his toys will be taken away.  What would the world do then to solve disputes?”

With his face a carefully constructed mask of innocence, his partner responded.  “You know I’ve been thinking about that.  Why is it again that we spy on this kid every night at bath time to see whether the lego or rubber ducks win his imaginary battles?”

“Because he’s the best of the best obviously.  We haven’t found any other kids who repeat the same type of battle night after night with such a low degree of bias for either side.  He’s the ultimate proxy for real battles.  He’s invaluable – I don’t know what we’ll do when he grows out of it.”

“Oh right.  Of course.”  The second agent subsided to quiet contemplation for a while before trying again, “Yeah, but what I don’t get right, is why we have need a proxy in the first place?  Kinda seems a bit silly using a kid’s imagination to decide who gets to keep possession of say Afghanistan.”

“Agent J, we’ve been over this.  It saves lives doesn’t it.  Back in the old days, we used to send soldiers over to fight the battles for real.  But all that would happen is the team with the most luck or the best weapons would win, and who says that they were right.  Just because you were lucky at fighting, or stronger than the other bloke, or could make a bigger bomb, it doesn’t mean you right.  And then when it’s all over, the loser just decides that if he tries a bit harder next time he might come out on top, so why not take another crack at it.  It all just didn’t work.

So one day, Ling Zu Chi turned up to the United Nations with a radical idea.  Since a real battle is no guarantee that the right side wins, and all it does is get people killed, why not run all future battles by proxy.  Pick some mechanism for randomly deciding the outcome of the battle and then each party agrees to be bound by the outcome.  It just makes sense, because then if you’re going to lose you’ll at least not be slapped with the massive economic and human cost of actually fighting a battle on top of it.

So after extensive research, it turns out that Patrick here is the perfect man for the job.  Seemingly without bias, but with that human touch just to make people feel like we’re still masters of our destiny.”

“Oh yeah”.  Another minute passed as they stared at the picture, mum mopping up the mess on the floor before bundling Patrick out of the bath, into pyjamas and whisking him off to bed.  Lastly the light went out accompanied by the gurgling sound of the remnant grey water journeying down the plug hole.

In the silence that followed, metaphorical mental cogs could still be heard turning.  “Yeah ok, but why are WE watching?”

“Because, if we can call our Bosses with the tonight’s result before Patrick’s mother gets on the phone to the UN, we just might be able to negotiate better terms of surrender after this loss.  Now snap to it, they usually spend about 10 minutes saying their bedtime prayers.”