Prelude: Amazon Rain Forest – Brazil
The moon broke out from behind the clouds, illuminating the junglescape with silvery light that reflected in dazzling highlights from the small stream. The light barely illuminated the ground below the jungle canopy but did reveal the buildings squatting in the middle of the large, cleared field as well as several men wandering slowly up and down the rows of crops growing there.
In the darkness beneath the canopy, a shadow moved beneath a tangle of leaves and vines. David Stone lifted a pair of night-vision binoculars to his eyes, carefully angling them to avoid reflecting the moonlight toward the fields ahead, and scanned the area. He lowered them again, touched the earpiece he was wearing and whispered quietly.
“I count six. You?”
There was a slight pause then the earpiece crackled. “Yes, six on patrol. But I think there is another on the roof of the lab building.”
David lifted the binoculars again and looked, then cursed quietly to himself. Gabriel was right; another man stood on what looked to be a platform built against the slope of the roof. He noted that this guard was also using a pair of binoculars to periodically scan the area.
“I see him.” he whispered to Gabriel through the earpiece. “He’s running surveillance too. That’s going to make it more difficult.”
“Agreed.” came the response. “Should we pull back? Wait for your government or mine to send more people.”
David shook his head then remembered that Gabriel couldn’t see him. “No. The fact that they have someone up there shows that they’re already expecting trouble. And recently too; the sat photos we got were from two days ago and that platform wasn’t there then. If we delay they may move the lab and we’ll have to hunt them down again.”
Gabriel grunted and fell silent. David settled back down to the ground, trying to ignore whatever it was that was crawling across his leg and watching the movement of the men in the field. Their patrols should have been random but human beings will subconsciously model their movements on others; remnants of an ancient herd instinct. So the guards’ movements fell into an irregular but predictable pattern.
It took about another 15 minutes before all of the guards were either moving away from David’s position or were on the far side of the field. The watcher on the roof had just lit a cigarette, the flare of his match momentarily ruining his night vision.
“Moving.” David said. Crouching, he moved forward quickly. There was about a 20 yard cleared strip between the edge of the jungle and the start of the field and he needed to cross that before the rooftop guard recovered. He moved as fast as he could while staying low and quiet but the guard never even looked in his direction. He reached the edge of the plowed corn; incongruously growing in the middle of the jungle to be used as feed for the equally incongruous cattle penned in the barn on the far end of the clearing, and slipped out of sight between the rows.
He was now closer to his destination but now he had to avoid the guards wandering the field. He slipped forward, shifting between plowed rows as the guards came and went. At one point he had to remain motionless for several minutes as two of them together one row over from him and spent the time complaining about having to work double shifts and how long it had been since they last got back to the nearest town of any size. As they moved on he stretched out a leg that had been getting cramped and nodded. Double shifts. That may make whoever was in charge here feel better but it made the guards tired and more likely to miss something. An advantage for him.
A few more moments brought him to the point nearest the first of the buildings. He waited until the rooftop guard was looking the other way then rushed across the open stretch and pressed himself against the unpainted cinder block. So far, so good.
The building appeared to be a dormitory. At least, someone inside the open but heavily mosquito-netted window was snoring loudly. David slipped around to the far side of the building to put it between him and the patrolling guards. There were no guards on this side of the building. Apparently they were expecting the one on the roof to spot anyone coming across the wide, open clearing between the buildings and the stream.
What they were calling the lab was the next building over. From here the roof of the building itself partially blocked him from the view of the guard so he crouched at the corner, looking back toward the field until the guard there passed, and then crossed the last stretch to his destination.
The windows here were closed and no light showed from within. David slipped around the side of the building until he reached the door and tested the knob. Locked. That wouldn’t be much of a problem, but he would be in clear view of the guards patrolling in the field while he worked and he couldn’t take that risk. He slipped back to the side of the building facing the river.
His earpiece beeped. “I lost track of you.” he heard Gabriel whisper in his ear. “Are you in?” He tapped the earpiece twice, signaling no. Gabriel understood he was remaining silent and did not reply.
David slid back to the nearest window and examined it. A double layer of mosquito netting covered the window, which was itself closed and latched. He carefully checked the window frame. It didn’t seem to be alarmed but it was latched and he couldn’t just break it. Plus, even though there were no guards on this side of the building right now he couldn’t assume that no one would wander over this way.
Making his way along the wall, David checked the windows. His luck broke on the third, which was not only unlatched but was even slightly open. Pulling a multitool from his pocket, he unfolded the blade and slit the netting along the sides and bottom. He then carefully pulled the window open enough to crawl inside. He pushed the window shut behind him then looked around the lab. It was silent with only the power lights on various pieces of equipment showing in the darkness.
He touched his earpiece. “In.” he said as quietly as he could. The guard on the roof probably couldn’t hear him over the normal, night time sounds of the jungle but there was no reason to take a chance.
“Understood.” came the reply. “Moving.”
Gabriel would take several minutes to get into position but David had plenty to do in the meantime. He moved around the lab, carefully noting the equipment. Hoods and covered workbenches used for biological experimentation took up most of the space. A glass-fronted cooler held racks of Petri dishes while others sat in incubators. An impenetrable maze of glassware covered one long table. At one end of the lab two computers sat, screen savers flickering across their displays.
David removed the pack he was carrying, sat it on the floor and opened it. He pulled out a pair of gloves and, after donning them, went to the cooler and pulled several of the Petri dishes from it more or less at random. He glanced at then briefly then carefully put them in a padded envelope when he then in turn sealed in a zip-lock plastic bag. He did the same with several of the dishes from the incubator.
He then turned his attention to the two computers. He didn’t attempt to use either one. Instead, he pulled the plugs on both then pulled out his multitool again and removed the cover on the first. Reaching inside, he detached the drive which he then placed in its own padded envelope and plastic bag.
He was in the process of removing the drive from the second computer when he saw a flicker of light. He dropped to the floor and ducked behind a lab table as a flashlight beam swung about the room. Someone was standing outside the window through which he had entered and was flashing a light about the room. David cursed to himself. He hadn’t secured the mosquito netting he had cut through to get to the window. It had probably started waving in the breeze outside and someone had noticed the motion and come to investigate. It would be impossible to not realize that something was amiss.
“Trouble.” he said, touching his earpiece.
There was no answer for a bit. Outside, whoever was holding the flashlight yelled something up at the guard on the roof. The guard yelled back, and then he heard footsteps from overhead as he came to the side of the building and spoke to the one on the ground. He could not understand what was said, but the one on the ground came around to the front of the building. There was a pause, and then he heard the unmistakable sound of a key in the door.
“Shit.” he said to himself. He tapped the earpiece again. “Gabe? I got problems.” This time he was rewarded with a double tap; message understood but unable to respond. “Shit.” he repeated. He dropped the multitool into his pocket and pulled his combat knife instead.
The door opened and the guard stepped into the room, flashlight in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other. The light played around the room, flickering over then suddenly moving back to David’s pack, still lying open on the floor. The guard yelled something at someone outside then stepped into the room, moving toward the pack.
He hadn’t noticed David, crouched down near the computers, and his back was partially turned away. When he knelt down to examine the pack, David moved. The guard caught a glimpse of motion and started to turn and rise, but David was on him before he could react. Already partially bent over, David knocked the guard off-balance, forcing him down and causing his head to hit the cement floor with a solid crack. The guard was stunned but David couldn’t take chances; he brought the knife up and under the guard’s chin, driving it upward through the soft tissue and into the unprotected base of his skull. The guard gurgled and died.
David pulled his knife free and grabbed at his pack, dropping the bloody knife and second drive into it, not worrying about padding or bags. He then pulled the other, padded case from the pack before zipping it up and slinging it back over his shoulder.
Someone yelled a question from outside. David grabbed the guard’s gun, a 9mm automatic, and darted out of the line of the doorway. He then opened the case he had just retrieved and took the first of the objects from within just as a second guard stepped into the building.
“Gabe? I’m out of time.”
The guard saw his colleague lying on the floor, blood still forming a puddle around him. He dropped his flashlight and grabbed at the radio on his belt, backing toward the door and yelling as he did.
David shot him, the bullet catching him in a shoulder and spinning him about, the radio flying. His second shot was on target and dropped him but with the sound of gunfire the camp was alerted. He heard cries of alarm outside and running footsteps crossed the roof overhead.
“So much for the stealth approach.” Gabriel said in his ear. A moment later a pair of loud *bang*s were heard outside and dazzling white light shone through the windows. Gabriel had activated the remote flash-bangs and thermals he had been placing to cover their retreat. Now they were having to use them earlier than planned.
David twisted the timer on the top of the thermal he was holding. The same as the ones Gabriel had placed, it would spray burning liquid for a dozen feet around itself and then ignite in an inferno that would prove to be almost impossible to extinguish. The jungle was wet enough that the fire they started would not spread much, but anything within the thermal’s radius would be burned to ash.
David placed the first thermal in the cooler with the Petri dishes and the second in the incubator. He was placing the third in the midst of the glassware maze when another guard came through the door. Fortunately his eyes took a second to adjust after coming in from the now brightly-lit outside and David shot him before he had time to react. David kept the last thermal for the moment, dropping it into a pocket as he sprinted to the door. Crouching, he glanced outside.
Two more guards were sprinting toward the building. David shot one who dropped, screaming and clutching his leg. The other fired twice, wildly aimed shots slamming into the door frame, as he ducked back around the corner. David popped out the door long enough to fire another shot in his direction to keep him running. The shot missed and the slide locked back on the automatic. Empty.
David dropped the automatic he had been using and pulled his own. He had to move. In a few moments this building would be an inferno but outside there was nothing but open space between him and the edge of the jungle. There was no way he could make it before the guard spotted him.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the last thermal, gave the timer a slight twist and rolled it low toward the corner where the guard had retreated then sprinted toward the jungle. As expected, the guard spotted him and took a step forward to aim at the retreating figure.
The thermal detonated.
The guard let out an inhuman sounding scream as he was instantly engulfed in flame. David changed direction, cutting back and forth as he raced for the safe darkness of the jungle’s edge. The muscles in his back were tight, expecting to feel the impact of a bullet at any moment. Someone apparently did spot him as he heard a gunshot from somewhere, but their aim was apparently disrupted when the thermals in the lab detonated. Flames shot from the windows and he heard another scream from a guard caught in the spray from one of the blasts. Still, they knew where he had gone and he heard several shots tear through the foliage around him.
David crashed through the jungle, stumbling over vines and roots and barely avoiding crashing into trees in the darkness. Someone in the camp had turned on a spotlight and it and the guards’ flashlights were sweeping through the jungle, but the shifting shadows they were producing caused more problems than pure darkness would have. Fortunately, the same shifting lights made it more difficult for his pursuers to spot him. Still, they knew the direction he had gone in and, from the sounds of shouted orders behind him; they were starting to get a search organized. They would be after him in minutes.
Open moonlight suddenly shown ahead of him and he grabbed at a vine to avoid tumbling forward as he stopped suddenly. He had reached the stream.
He quickly looked up and down the stream bank. He and Gabriel had left a boat, a small canoe actually, near hear when they had arrived earlier that evening. There was a larger powerboat downriver but they had elected to use a more silent option for the last few miles. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the canoe anywhere.
He touched his earpiece. “Gabe? Where’s the canoe?”
“Over here.” came the reply. A faint light flashed briefly across the stream. “What are you waiting on?”
David looked nervously at the water then hissed. “What? Why did you take off!”
“And lose our transportation? It’s twenty yards! Swim for it.”
David cursed. He felt cold sweat break out across his back. “Um… could you move closer?”
“Closer!?” He could hear the surprise in Gabriel’s voice. “We’re too close as it is! Come on!”
David looked around. The guards had quit shooting blindly into the jungle, probably since several of their own numbers were now making their way through it. He could see flashlights back near the installation, but he knew that others would be moving through the jungle without lights to give away their position. They knew the stream was here and knew their quarry would have run into it.
A gun fired and David heard the “whip” as it passed his head. Out of time. He took a last, wild look around then, with a strangled cry, took two sloshing steps into the water and leaped forward into the current.
He swam down, putting distance between him and the surface. The stream wasn’t very deep but the guards were still some distance from the bank and shots fired at that shallow of an angle would just glance off the surface. The pack he was still wearing dragged him backward, but he didn’t dare dump it. What was in it was half the reason they had come here and he wasn’t going to abandon it now.
He stayed under as long as he could, fighting panic as much as the aching in his chest. It wasn’t the water that was getting to him, it was the *dark*. With that realization the panic suddenly took hold again and he launched himself toward the surface.
The canoe was barely 5 yards away. He lunged toward it and grabbed the side, attempting to pull himself on board and nearly overturning the canoe in the process.
“Whoa! Watch it!” gasped Gabriel, almost falling out of the canoe as he threw himself to the far side in an attempt to prevent the small boat from capsizing. “What are you doing!”
“Sorry.” David gasped. “Sorry.” He made his way to the end of the canoe and started to pull himself aboard again. This time Gabriel was able to help. He kicked upward hard and Gabriel hauled him on board. David collapsed onto the bottom of the boat.
“Are you OK?” Gabriel asked, annoyance turning into concern.
“Just get us out of here.”
At that point two guards appeared on the bank. One saw the canoe and pointed, yelling. Bullets flew overhead and splashed around them. Gabriel returned fire, causing the guards to duck back into the trees. He then hit the start button on the electric trolling motor attached to the canoe. Not fast, but mostly silent and let them concentrate on things other than paddling. Gabriel fired off another couple of shots to keep the guard’s heads down. David reached for his own gun, then realized that he had lost it sometime during the flight into the jungle or his brief panicked swim. So he just lay on the bottom of the canoe while Gabriel gave the small motor as much power as he could and maneuvered the canoe around the bend of the stream. A few more shots flew past them, but at this distance in the darkness there was little chance of them being hit except by bad luck.
There was silence for a few minutes. “Are they following us?” David asked, finally.
Gabriel shook his head. “I left one of the thermals on their dock. They don’t have a functional craft at the moment, and I doubt they are going to go running through the jungle at night. If they’re smart, they’ll scatter. As soon as we get back to the Alimented I’ll call in and the FAB will schedule some nighttime bombing practice on an uninhabited area of the jungle. There will be nothing left here in the morning.”
David nodded and slumped back down in the bottom of the canoe. Gabriel looked at him. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” David sat up and removed his pack then pulled the unprotected drive from it. He held it up and watched water drain from the housing. Oh well, someone would still be able to recover the data from it. Probably.
Gabriel looked at the drive. “Is that it?”
David nodded. “Yeah. I got some samples too.”
“The government will be happy to know that. At least, the parts of it that will need to know.” He paused, then sighed and shook his head. “Hallucinogenic diseases. Hallucinogenic *addictive* diseases. You die, and you don’t care. Why do we even want to keep it around.”
“So we can stop it. So we will be ready for it if it appears again.”
Gabriel looked at him. “Or so your military can weaponize it themselves.”
David shook his head. “No, not that.” He hauled himself up and onto one of the bench seats and gave Gabriel a slight smile. “We’re not the Division that does that.”
Chapter 1: Washington D.C. (six months later)
The ascent alert screamed. David struggled, trying to silence the alarm while continuing to swim upward through the freezing water. Chunks of ice clung to him, blocking his path as he pulled upward toward the narrow opening, silhouetted far above.
The walls of ice moved in, threatening to crush him but he twisted around them and shove upward, bringing a fresh round of alarms from the ascent monitor. He could now see the raft floating overhead and swam toward it but the walls of ice moved in closer, blocking his path. He tried to scream a warning but his mask muffled his screams.
The ice closed in, crushing him. He screamed, then screamed louder as the raft was crushed as well. The water instantly turned red and he struggled, pinned to the ice and screaming along with the ascent alert. He shoved himself up and away from the ice…
…and sat up instantly in bed, sweat-soaked sheets cold and wrapped around him. The sound of the ascent alarm resolved into the trilling of his cell phone and he struggled free of the sheets and reached for it, noting as he did the amber light indicating a secure connection. That meant work. He tapped the answer icon and the trilling stopped.
“Stone.” he said.
“Good morning, David.” said a calm, probably synthesized female voice. “Please report to general aviation hanger 16 at Regan National airport. Details will be waiting for you there. All appropriate parties have been notified as to your updated schedule. Please acknowledge.”
“Yeah…” he said, still somewhere between sleep and dream-induced panic. “Got it.”
The phone clicked off. David sighed and headed for the bathroom, glancing at the clock as he did. 2 am. “Why do these things never happen at normal hours.” he wondered.
The phone call had been less than informative; he had no idea where he was going. So after showering he threw a few basic clothing items and his shaving kit into a carry-on bag, pulled on his travel vest, dropped his multi-tool and phone into its pocket and headed downstairs to call a cab.
An hour later he was standing outside a hanger. A security guard at the entrance looked at his ID with seeming disinterest, but David noted that he was more alert than someone in his position would normally be at this time of the morning. The guard pointed to the corner of the hanger. “Your plane is out front; they’re expecting you.”
David nodded and walked around the hanger. It was dark, but bright lights illuminated the tarmac and the Cessna jet sitting there. He noted the National Science Foundation logo on the tail as he made his way up the stairs to the open doorway.
The interior resembled a conference room more than a passenger jet. A conference table that could seat about 10 people faced a trio of large screens at the front of the cabin, integrated keyboards and screens at each position. Behind it were a dozen passenger seats that would put the first class seats of a commercial airliner to shame. Beyond them were what looked like computer workstations and, of more interest to David at the moment, a bar. More specifically, the steaming urn of coffee sitting on it.
“Looks like I’m moving up in the world.” David commented.
A man had been carefully arranging folders in front of several chairs at the conference table and he looked up at David’s voice. He smiled.
“The NSF normally uses this to fly corporate bigwigs around that they want to impress.” He held out his hand. “Peter Blaine. I’m your operator this mission. You’re David Stone, right? Looks like you’re the den mother this time out.”
David grimaced. “Den mother? How big of an op is this?”
Peter shrugged. “Four. Three in the field plus me. You run the field team, I run your support.”
David continued his grimace. “Not sure I’m the right one to be field team lead; I’m usually on my own. Who’s the team?”
Peter looked at him askance. “Your file said you had leadership background. Military, right?”
David shook his head and headed for the coffeepot. “That was a long time ago. I just count fish now.”
That seemed to surprise Peter even more. “Fish?”
“Yeah, pretty much. These days I’m just a marine biologist with the Bureau of Fisheries. Want to know estimated rainbow trout populations in the Allegheny watershed? I’m your man.” He paused. “Of course, my Division seems to have a few other responsibilities these days.”
Peter was looking in one of his files and did not respond to the weak joke. “Biologist?” He flipped through a few pages. “Then it must have been your military background they wanted.”
David snorted as he poured a cup of coffee and took a sip. He made a face. The coffee was definitely government issue. “No idea why then, but if I’m den mother I guess I should find out who the team is.”
“Ah, yes.” Peter picked up a stack of folders and handed it to him. “As I said, there are a total of three of you on the field team.” David sat down with his coffee and opened the top folder. Peter continued. “Your primary geek is Brandon Howard. PhD with Lawrence Livermore. He’s currently in the capital for…”
“Geek?” David interrupted.
“Sure.” Peter shrugged. “Science specialist. You know… someone on the team for their knowledge in a specialized area, not their actual ability.”
“I see. Is that what operations calls us?”
“Us?” Peter suddenly looked uncomfortable.
“It’s *Dr.* David Stone.” David said, emphasizing the title. “Marine biologist, remember?”
Peter shook his head. “But… you were in the Navy. SEALs, right?”
David looked at him. “*Was* in the Navy. That was a long time ago.” He stared at Peter for a few seconds longer. “Anyway… Howard, was it?”
“Ah, yes.” Peter, a bit too quickly, flipped open the file and continued. “PhD, high-energy physics. He’s here in the capital at a budget meeting, but he’s security cleared and Division aware, so probably the best they could come up with.”
David ignored the implied slight. “And the other?”
“I suspect you are talking about me.”
David looked up. A tall black woman, dressed in a conservative business dress and carrying a small carry-on and laptop bag stood at the top of the entryway.
“Alicia!” David got up and went to the door where he gave the smiling arrival a warm hug. “It’s been… what? A year? How have you been?”
Alicia returned the hug then let him take her carry-on. “Not bad, I suppose. Got assigned to the Washington office so I’m not out in the field all the time anymore. It’s nice to be able to come home for dinner every night.”
David laughed. “In an office and not in the field? Sounds bad to me.”
Alicia shook her head. “You aren’t married and don’t have two little ones at home. Trust me, being home every day is a major improvement.” She paused. “Though I do miss field work. It will be nice to get out for a while.”
Peter looked from one of them to another. “You two know each other?”
David nodded. “We worked an assignment together about a year ago. Someone was running an unauthorized drilling operation near the Alaskan/Yukon border and the runoff was screwing up a couple of lakes and streams on both sides of the line. We had to go in and shut it down before the Canadians figured it out and started an incident over it.”
Peter had been flipping through a folder again. “Ah.” he said, looking up at Alicia. “So you were in the military too?”
Alicia looked at him strangely. “Yes, Corps of Engineers. I joined so that they would pay my way through school.” She paused. “I didn’t plan on spending 4 years in the Middle East.”
Peter became more visibly interested in what she was saying. “But you saw combat? Action?”
“Combat isn’t something you look forward to.” she told him, sounding as if she was addressing a small child. “If you are shooting at someone, or if someone is shooting at you, it means that someone messed up somewhere. You’re only in combat if something has gone wrong.”
Peter was visibly taken aback but something in her expression made him not pursue the issue further. He took her carry-on and took it toward the back of the plane.
David turned back to her. “So how’s the family? How’s… Martha?”
“Marsha.” she corrected with a smile. She pulled out an iPhone and tapped at it for a few seconds. “Here.” she said, showing a picture of a young boy and girl. “Marsha’s in the third grade now. Daniel just started kindergarten.”
David nodded approvingly. “Hard leaving them behind, huh?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I had to wake them up and say goodbye before I left. But Nathan will take good care of them, I’m sure.”
“Well, their mother will be back home soon.”
“Yeah. So, where are we off to this time?”
“I dunno yet.” He turned toward Peter. “So, what’s the mission about.”
Peter shook his head. “Sorry. I don’t even have the details. We’ll all get briefed when we’re airborne. For now we’ll have to wait for Dr. Howard to show up.”
“Dr. Howard?” Alicia raised one eyebrow. “We’ve got a full load of PhDs this time?”
Peter gave her a wilted look. “You too?”
David waived a hand. “Don’t worry about it.” He sat back down and gestured toward the bar. “Coffee’s back there. We’ll figure out what is going on when Howard gets here.”
Time passed. David finished looking though the files then started looking through them again. He knew Alicia of course. Her background was chemical and petroleum engineering and her credentials were enough that she could have picked a job at almost any company she chose. But she was also the third generation of a government family, so there was never a thought as to who she would ultimately work for. The Division had gotten interested in her because of her education, because part of her military background made her an explosives expert, and because she had a pronounced, innate desire to always do the right thing.
As for Brandon Howard, David almost felt bad for agreeing with Peter; Brandon was a geek. Dual PhDs in both Particle Physics and Nuclear Engineering from Cal Tech, both achieved before he was 25. He had almost immediately gone to work as a researcher at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Labs. No military background at all, though he was apparently a highly ranked Call of Duty player. David smiled. The things the Division kept track of.
Then there was Peter. His file was a bit thin; 4 years in the Army, 2 at a community college in Georgetown then to the General Accounting Office. David couldn’t see anything outstanding in his file that could have put him on this assignment. Of course, he still didn’t know what this assignment was.
“Three PhDs and an accountant.” he thought to himself. “A particle physicist, an explosives expert and a marine biologist.” He paused. “One of these things is not like the other, I think.”
Further thought was cut off by a series of loud *thunks* from the doorway. He looked to see a tall, thin man dressed in jeans and a Star Wars t-shirt pulling two heavy suitcases up the stairs. He was further burdened down with an enormous backpack and an oversized computer bag. He and Peter moved toward the doorway and helped pull the two bags over the threshold.
“Hi!” said the man, sticking out his hand as soon as it was free. “Brandon Howard. Call me Brad. Glad to be here.”
“David Stone.” David introduced himself back, smiling at the man’s enthusiasm. He gestured at the bags. “Planning a long trip?”
Brad looked around. “Yeah, I wasn’t sure where we were supposed to be going so I just brought everything I could think of.” He looked at Peter and Alicia, who were watching him curiously. “It’s my first active assignment since they let me know what was going on so I wanted to make sure I was prepared.”
David rolled one of the suitcases to Peter, who sighed then started pulling both toward the back of the plane. “The Division tends to make sure we have whatever we need once we’re Aware.” he said. “No real need to overpack except for personal items.”
“Oh.” Brad turned red in embarrassment. “I thought I…” He hesitated.
“Don’t worry about it.” David assured him. “It happens to everyone the first time. One of the problems of working for an ultra-secret government agency like this is that there isn’t a whole lot of information on what they expect from you. Here, let me introduce you.”
A few minutes later, after introductions had been made and Peter had finished storing everyone’s luggage, Peter made a call on the plane’s phone. The flight crew made its way from the hanger and into the plane, barely even glancing at the four in the back as they immediately made their way to the cockpit and closed the door. They had been on flights like this before and knew better than to try to learn too much about what was going on. A few minutes later the four found seats. The plane taxied a bit, then blasted down the general aviation runway and into the still pre-dawn sky.
The plane reached cruising altitude and swung out over the Atlantic, heading east. David went for more coffee while the others found places at the conference table. Brad looked over the computer terminal built into the table, then pulled a mouse out of his bag and plugged it in. The others looked at him curiously.
“Your own mouse?” David asked, sitting down with his cup. He sat the carafe of coffee in front of him as well.
Brad looked around. “Hey, I’m used to this mouse.”
Peter reached into a cabinet and pulled out a zippered bag. “We’ve got mice here, if you need one. No need to use your own.”
“Hey, I *like* this mouse, OK? Do you know how long it took me to find one that was the right size and balance?”
David shook his head. Brad finished connecting the mouse to his satisfaction then opened the browser on his terminal and started changing settings to his liking. David pulled up his e-mail and was changing to his standard out-of-office settings when Peter announced that they were ready.
The main screen lit up with the National Science Foundation logo. This was replaced a second or two later with the empty circle of the Division, which in turn was replaced by a video feed from an office somewhere.
“Good morning everyone.” the woman behind the desk greeted them. David recognized her as Sharron Burtner, one of the higher-placed members of the Division. By its nature, the Division had no actual command structure or hierarchy, but some members were more appropriately placed to detect issues and make the appropriate assignment. He had worked for Burtner before but had no idea what her actual position was. He had guessed the NSA but obviously didn’t know.
“Sorry to wake everyone up so early,” Burtner was continuing, “but we needed to get someone on this before the usual bureaucracy woke up.” She smiled thinly.
“As you may or may not have heard, about 8 hours ago, at around 11 pm local time, there was an explosion at CERN; the European high-energy physics lab.”
“I saw that.” Brad said. “Some sort of transformer overload on one of the accelerators.”
“That was the initial report.” Burtner said. “Now we aren’t so sure. The lab in question did not have any scheduled experiments running that time of the night. However, someone was there.”
An image of a young woman appeared on the right screen. “This is Sofia Meneely. She is a graduate student from UC/Berkeley who is currently in Geneva as part of a team from there. The team is being led by Dr. Allan Folts.” An image of a gray-haired, bearded man appeared on the left screen. “He and three graduate students from Berkeley are currently working at CERN on some research.”
“I’ve met Dr. Folts.” Brad interrupted. “He’s pretty much your stereotype of a Berkeley scientist. Pure research and couldn’t care less if his discoveries have any practical value. In fact, he would probably prefer that it didn’t; one of his big issues is that all science seems to be taken over by the military.”
Burtner nodded. “Which is tied into the current problem. About 10 pm local time Meneely and an unidentified male entered the CERN lab that was assigned to Folts and his team. They were not scheduled for anything that night but since the science teams tend to work odd hours anyway apparently no one thought anything of it.”
“At about 10:40 a linear accelerator in the lab powered up. It wasn’t one of the main units there but was the one that Folts had been using so Meneely was obviously familiar with it.”
“The accelerator ran through what seemed to be a series of test runs then went to full power for several minutes. At 10:57, something happened. There was an explosion, apparently centering on the room containing the target chamber for the accelerator. It’s hard to tell, since the explosion destroyed about half the building.”
The photos from the left and right screens vanished and were replaced by a pair of shots showing a ruined building. Emergency vehicles were spraying water on what was left of a three story brick and glass structure, one end of which was completely destroyed. Another shot apparently from a helicopter showed debris scattered across a wide, grass courtyard.
Alicia frowned. “That debris field isn’t random. It looks like a directed blast of some kind. Some sort of shaped charge.”
Burtner nodded again. “Exactly. That’s when we started to get interested. A simple overload would have produced a regular explosion. This looks different.”
Brad seemed dubious. “Could it be that there was heavy shielding of some kind in the building? Say, lead plates or something that restricted the force of the explosion in some directions?”
“We thought about that.” said Burtner. “But after reviewing the building’s design the interior features don’t match up with the pattern from the explosion. Then, there is this.”
The images changed again. This time they were looking at a second building. It was of similar design to the first, but mostly intact. It was heavily damaged though, windows were blown in and the facade shattered in places over a large area.
“This is another lab building, about 200 yards from the one where the explosion occurred. Notice the damage pattern here.”
David spoke for the first time. “The damage was from the outside.” he noted. “Everything is blown into the building.”
“Exactly.” Burtner gestured, apparently pointing to her own display. “The damage to this building is directly in line with the directed blast pattern from the first. Whatever directed the force of this explosion, it let the blast travel in more or less a straight line to blow the front off another building a few hundred yards away. I don’t know of any kind of shaped charge that could do that.”
“Well, it *could* be done.” mused Alicia. “But it would require a huge amount of explosives. I doubt they just happened to be storing that much high grade military explosives in the building though.”
Burtner nodded. “You are starting to see the issue. Here’s our best analysis so far. Somehow, Folts or one of his team has apparently developed some type of directed, non-chemical explosive. Something that doesn’t require tons of stored volatile materials.”
“Just a massive linear accelerator.” David said. “I’m not seeing the advantage.”
“Reusability.” said Alicia, nodding slowly. “A truckload of C4 gets used once, destroys a building and is gone. Mount an accelerator on a ship or something and you can use it again and again as long as the power holds out.”
“*If* that is what happened. We don’t know that yet. It could simply be a freak equipment overload.”
“Black holes?” Brad suddenly spoke up.
Everyone turned to him in confusion. “What?”
“Black holes.” Brad looked around. “That was Folts’ research area. He was working on using accelerators to generate enough ‘pressure’ to force bits of matter into miniature black holes. Nanoholes he called them.”
“What was he planning on doing with them?” David asked.
Brad shrugged. “For Folts, just creating them would probably have been enough. He would then use them to explore their behavior and that sort of thing. But…” He thought for a moment. “Miniature black holes are unstable; they lose mass through what is known as ‘Hawking Radiation’. Lose enough and they suddenly release all the matter than had been put into them as energy. And it doesn’t take much matter to energy conversion to produce a pretty big bang.”
Burtner was making notes. “Could that account for the directed nature of the blast?”
Brad thought. “I’m not sure. I can’t think of why the blast would be directed, but the size of the explosion could be about right.”
“You say Folts didn’t care for military applications of science.” David said. “Would he have been researching something that would have an application like that?”
“Honestly, he may not have thought of it.” said Brad. “Like I said, classic scientist. He was mostly interested in the research itself, not its application. It could have been a side effect.”
“A side affect for who though.” said Alicia, thoughtfully. “Dr. Burtner, you said that someone was with Ms. Meneely when she entered the lab. Was it one of Dr. Folts other students or do we have any idea who it was?”
Burtner shook her head. “No we don’t. The other members of Folts team are accounted for and have already been questioned by both the French and Swiss authorities. None of them know who the man could have been. They have been there for several weeks and none of them could think of anyone that Ms. Meneely had been spending any amount of time with outside of their group.”
“I think that is actually where we need to start then.” said David. “This man, he’s the unknown factor here. Who was he, what was his relation with Ms. Meneely and why were they in the lab that late.” He thought a moment. “I’m willing to bet that Folts knows nothing about this; Meneely was doing something on her own. What and for who are the real questions.”
Burtner nodded. “Yes, but our real priority is figuring out what happened and how. If this is a weapon prototype of some kind, or even just something new that can be used as a weapon, we need to make sure that the information on it is properly handled.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure who we want having something like this.”
David nodded. “Understood.”
Burtner picked up some papers. “Folts and his team were performing their research on an NSF grant” she said, more formally. “Officially, you and your team are there to determine what has happened and if Folts or his researches are to blame. Folts is probably expecting someone to show up and if you threaten his grant money he will probably tell you whatever you need to know.”
“Unofficially,” she continued, “you are there to determine if we are dealing with a new, potential weapon. You are to determine what it is, give as much of a threat assessment as you can and take whatever steps you feel necessary to lock down information on it. Any questions?”
“Can we get information on Folts and the other students?” David asked. “And do we have a contact over there?”
Burtner nodded. “Files are being sent to you now. You will be met at the airport by a Dr. Max Strackbein, he’s the NSF liaison with CERN. He should be able to help you but he isn’t Division aware. As far as he is concerned you are all NSF, understood?”
Everyone nodded. “Good luck then.” Burtner signed off.
Brad was excited. “I’ve always wanted to visit CERN! Hell, I’ve always wanted to visit Europe.”
“You’ve never been to Europe?” Alicia asked in surprise.
“Hell, I’ve never been out of the country before. This is going to be fun!”
“Be careful.” David said. “We’ve got a job to do here. Remember, we’re an NSF audit team trying to determine what happened. That’s it.”
“Sure, sure.” Brad said. “Still, my first Division assignment. This is going to be great!”
David and Alicia exchanged glances. “We’re NSF and NSF only.” David said. “Unless you want to stay on the plane when we get there.”
“OK, OK. I get it.” Brad stood up and held up a finger and thumb as if he was holding a gun. “Howard. Brandon Howard.”
David sighed and lifted the carafe. “We’re going to need more coffee.”