Marcus Lanway slammed the passenger door on their car shut after they pulled up into the student parking lot. He carried all the information that Ralph had gleaned form Hemley's computer that he felt he would need for this meeting with him just beneath his arm. Sarah looked over at him from the hood, her eyes wary, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" In the last day, he had noticed a remarkable recovery in her spirits. Oh she was quite still anguished at the abduction of Jacob, but at least now she was capable of rational thought. Most of those thoughts he imagined had a good deal to do with torturing Morgenstern in some fashion. That man had wrecked their lives, but Marcus had never been one to give up, and apparently neither was Sarah. He sensed in her a determination, an absolute conviction that they would see this through, and that they were going to be successful.
He truly loved her, not only because of her dedication, but because she truly made him whole. Without her, he could not have made it through these days. With her leaning on his shoulder, it gave him a reason to stay firm, and to hold back his own sorrows, hopefully to vanquish them. He was strong because he had to be, for her. He imagined that if he faltered, she would collapse, but his strength had given her strength; her weakness at first had made him strong, and in so doing, she became strong, which made him all the stronger. Without her, he would not be able to do what he was about to do. In fact, he knew that though it may be dangerous, there was no other recourse, she would have to come with him.
"Sarah, we will get him back. Don't worry about anything." Marcus then turned to look at the buildings of the college campus. It was North Carolina State University. This was where Dr. Henry Houck still worked. He would almost certainly be here. He was their only link to their son, and the link was very tenuous. Marcus was making a big gamble. Whoever was running this show didn't want any information leaked to the public, so he and his family were going to be vessels of that information. If they died, the information would be passed along to the public. That was their insurance. Of course, Mennini needed to live for that to work, and he hoped and prayed that he did.
Finding Dr. Houck's office was not difficult; he didn't inhabit some hidden alcove or some obscure recess, rather he worked in a corner office immediately after a string of classrooms. There was nothing on his door other than his name, and a schedule of his office hours. Presently, he was in. Marcus sighed in relief; that was one thing he had been worried about. He wanted to confront Houck personally, and that required Houck's presence.
He knocked on the door, and then quickly glanced at Sarah, who had her arm wrapped protectively about Evan's shoulders. The gun that Ralph had given them was tucked away in Sarah's pants. She had the gun, she insisted that she use the gun. Marcus had relented only after she had assured him that until they told him where their boy was, she was not going to kill them. Marcus had the feeling that she would do that if even slightly provoked.
A voice from inside called, "Come in." Marcus immediately recognized it as the same voice he had spoken with over the phone when he had impersonated Morgenstern. Boy was he glad that he had pulled that off well. He had been so petrified during that whole spiel, afraid that he was incorrectly imitating the persona Morgenstern had left for him. He had come away convinced that Morgenstern was an unmitigated ass, with an over inflated ego. Obviously, that was actually the case, and Houck had bought it completely.
Marcus stepped in, followed by Sarah, whose jaw was firm and her eyes cold. Dr. Henry Houck was a tall lanky figure, more like a beanpole. He was very nearly bald, and he wore a red shirt and green tie. Marcus nearly gagged as he saw it, this man had no taste whatsoever. He looked also on first glance to be an eclectic, with gobs and gobs of books lining his shelves, papers sticking out of them haphazardly, and stacks upon stacks of star charts piled on top of desks as well as the floor. There was a large poster of Einstein looking down on his working space, bushy mustache and all, with another one of Dilbert on the far wall. It seemed more a hodge-podge of paraphernalia that littered his desk in heaps, from Far Side calendars to percolating coffeepots. This man, Dr. Henry Houck, was obviously not very organized either.
"Take a chair, what can I do for you?" he asked somewhat slowly, his whole face going slightly pale as he saw them enter. Marcus saw it and immediately began to wonder; did he know who they were?
"What have you and Dr. Drewe Hemley been working on for the past few years?" Marcus asked.
"Drewe Hemley died this last week." Houck replied, ignoring the remainder of the question.
"Yes I know, but what have you been working on?"
One of Houck's eyes darted toward a closed door across from him, and then back towards them. "Could you close my office door please?"
Evan kicked it shut, and Marcus saw Henry's skin spasm as it the door slammed into place. "You haven't answered my question." Marcus pointed out. He glanced over at Sarah, who was glaring at the man, as if her eyes could set him on fire.
"Uh.... would you folks like some coffee?" Houck reached for a pot he was brewing.
"What have you been doing these past few years?" Marcus reiterated a note of steel in his voice.
Houck collapsed helplessly in his chair, his hands visibly shaking, "I'm not supposed to tell."
"That's okay, we aren't going to hurt you." Marcus said, throwing a cautionary glance at Sarah. "I just want you to answer a few questions."
"I'm afraid the answers are classified." Houck replied stubbornly.
Marcus decided to try a different tactic, "The last thing that either of you two did was a proposed article explaining why a meteorite impact did not kill the dinosaurs. I want to know why that article wasn't printed."
"I can't tell you!" Houck replied.
"It doesn't have anything to do with the moon does it?" Marcus asked offhandedly.
Houck's face went white, and he nearly fell from his chair. "Please! Don't tell anybody anything! Nobody is supposed to know!"
Houck's lips quivered for a moment, his face staring dumbly at the floor.
"Because they told me not to tell!" Houck burst out.
"And who are they?" Marcus asked.
Again Houck quivered there silently. Marcus felt like slapping this jellyfish of a man. He had never met Houck before this, he had only known him by reputation, but that reputation of him was that he was a slight klutz, and he lacked a bit of common sense, but otherwise, he was a smart individual. He had never heard from anyone that had met him that he seemed even the tiniest bit afraid of anything. Now however, something had most assuredly scared him out of his wits. Marcus felt that he had an idea or two whom it might be.
"I asked you a question.": Marcus pointed out.
"I can't tell you!" Houck blubbered.
Marcus decided that trying to get information out of this man was going to be nearly impossible. Obviously, Houck felt that the impact of him revealing anything that he knew to Marcus would be devastating. However, there wasn't time for any of that. He was going to have to confront him with some evidence that he had discovered.
"Look, both you and I know that the world is going to be shaken to its foundations in five year's hence." Marcus began. "My question to you is, what does my son have to do with it?"
"I don't know anything about your son." Houck declared frightfully.
"Whom do you know anything about?" Marcus asked calmly.
"Nobody you'd know." Houck replied, sitting up in his chair, his hands at his sides.
"Do you know the name Samuel Morgenstern?" Marcus asked on a sudden thought.
"No I don't." Houck said quickly.
"That's bullshit and you know it." Marcus pointed out. "You called Morgenstern the day he abducted my son, you told him that Hemley had died."
Houck began to visibly shake.
"You then told him when he called you that you wanted access to Dr. Hemley's records, because he said that there was some mistake that you all had made." Marcus picked up the stack of papers, "Well here's your damn research, and here's your damn mistake that's caused my son to be abducted." Marcus through the papers to the floor, and they spilled neatly out of the folder at Houck's feet.
Houck stared blankly at the papers, not sure what to say.
"Oh incidentally, where is your Morgenstern now? I'd have thought he'd take better care of his associates." Marcus asked almost conversationally.
Houck with his right hand held beside his body and out of view from anybody standing in the other room, pointed at the open doorway to his left. However his face and mouth remained just as frightened, "I don't know!"
Marcus looked behind him and saw that Sarah had also noticed the surreptitious signal. She had pulled the gun out, and was moving toward the doorway with a steely resolve emblazoned across her face. Marcus grabbed her, and shook his head a fervent no. They locked their gazes for a moment, each looking into the other's eyes. From Sarah came that hatred and accusation, from Marcus's a stern reprisal, an order to wait. Sarah turned from him, still holding the gun, and sulked back out of view of the door. Marcus sighed in relief.
Marcus turned back to face Houck, whom hadn't changed expression during all of it. It was then that Marcus realized that Houck was not as great an idiot as he seemed. He was acting more frightened then he really was, and he was trying to help them survive. In a way, this realization gave Marcus a great deal of respect for the man, and a grasp of his situation. In all likelihood, Morgenstern would kill him if he uttered so much as a word that he didn't want them to hear. However, he was not above putting this man's life in danger for the sake of his son, since his research was in some way involved in his son's disappearance, somehow he knew this to be true.
"I take it Morgenstern is really the key to this whole thing." Marcus continued. "I saw him in a photograph the other day, he was with a trio of scientists, all of whom were up in Churchill. What's going on in Churchill?"
"That's where...." Houck realized then that he had spoken more than he should, and he began to shake uncontrollably.
"Where what?" Marcus asked, his own heart racing.
"I....it's where.....your son!" Houck suddenly screamed, "Your son is there!" he shouted, trying to jump from the chair at them. Suddenly, he fell tot he side, his head exploding in a crimson blast, soaking the papers that Marcus had so diligently worked on for the past day. Sarah had the gun pointed at the doorway, ready for him to come out. Marcus put himself in front of Evan, who was very nearly screaming at the sight of the dead man.
"Come on out Morgenstern!" Marcus called.
Morgenstern did come out then, but instead of casually walking out, he rolled out the door, came to rest just before the chair which had so recently been vacated, and then pointed his own gun at Marcus. "Drop the gun Sarah." he ordered calmly. "I can put six bullets through Marcus and Evan respectively before you even shoot me once."
Sarah gritted her teeth, her gun now aiming at the crouching form of Morgenstern. Morgenstern said again, "I took one of your sons away, I can kill your other. Are you going to sacrifice both of them?"
Sarah then started to cry, dropping the gun to the floor. Marcus dropped down and picked it up, but holding the barrel of the gun, so that there could be now way Morgenstern would think he meant to shoot him. "All right Morgenstern, where is my Jacob?"
"Near Churchill, like the man said." Morgenstern replied.
"If youíre so willing to tell us, why'd you kill him."
"Because you weren't supposed to know, and I was wondering just how useful Houck was to us. Apparently not that useful anymore."
"I want my son back." Marcus told him.
"I'm quite afraid that's impossible at this point." Morgenstern shrugged, still pointing the gun at them. "I assume that you know what's going to happen in five years."
Marcus shrugged as well and remarked in an offhand manner, "I know what you think is going to happen in five years. I also know what's really going to happen in the next five years."
Morgenstern actually looked surprised, "Just what do you mean by that?"
"If you kill me or any of my family, I'll never tell you. Put your own gun away, and let's talk like civilized people."
"I can find the same information. I can have other scientists look it over. I'm sure they will be able to locate whatever you've found and figure out what you have." Morgenstern replied, not moving the gun.
"I'm sure they can." Marcus nodded. "Well heck, if you do kill me or my family, it should be real easy to get access to the information, I'm sure it will be printed in all the upcoming scientific journals, news magazines, and newspapers."
"You didn't!" Morgenstern looked shocked.
"Not yet. But if I don't make a call in the next half-hour, every major news outlet will know about the meteor, and about Fate." Marcus really didn't know anything about Fate, but he hoped that the ominous sounding pronouncement he had just given would be enough to convince Morgenstern to relent.
"Oh, you mean Ralph Mennini?" Morgenstern asked suddenly, smiling. "I'm not too worried about him."
Marcus had a sudden sinking feeling, but knew that if he showed any signs of distress, he was dead. Instead, he continued his bluff, "You think I'd use him? He's too hot; I'm not that stupid. I made other arrangements. Now put the gun down."
Morgenstern scowled, and then slid his gun into his coat jacket. "All right, then where does that leave us."
"You are going to take us to see our son. And then we will negotiate. Nothing until then. Agreed?"
Morgenstern looked as if he would like to kick something. "Agreed." he said in a calm tone of voice that belied the frustration Marcus was sure that he was feeling.
Feodor Arensky looked up from what he was doing just then. On the ground before him lay the remains of a fish he had just been eating. Before that were his front paws that he had been resting upon. He turned his head to look at himself, he was fully four-footed now, and the distinction seemed to ensure that he was going to lose his humanity. His humanity! That thought suddenly reminded him of his whole reason for his constant travel. He wanted to cross that large body of water out there, what was its name, he couldn't quite recall. It didn't matter though, thatís what he wanted to do, otherwise he could not be certain that he'd ever be safe. He began to saunter down the incline toward the beach, which seemed somewhat more distant than last time he'd seen it. It was going to take him a little while before he would get there.
When the plane touched down, both Simpson and Harris were waiting near the entrance to the compound. It was not that chilly of a day and they both wore only their normal attire. However, both were a bit surprised to see the plane, for it was subtly different from what they had been expecting. When the tall gaunt figure started to walk down the ramp though, their questions about the oddity of the plane were answered. Others were raised.
"Mr. Balakhna," Simpson said in surprise, "what brings you here?"
"Him." Balakhna replied, gesturing over his shoulder at the short squat man who was casually strolling down the rail after him.
Harris and Simpson exchanged quick glances, and then looked back at Balakhna, "And who is he?" Simpson asked.
"He is Swan." Balakhna leaned over to whisper to them, "He's still an ugly duckling in my opinion."
"I heard that, you old maid!" Swan said as he reached the foot of the ramp. "Who are your friends?"
"This is Dr. Simpson and Dr. Harris. They are two of the men who work at this facility." Balakhna introduced them with an indifferent wave of his hand, "I was wondering if Morgenstern was in residence at the moment?"
Harris and Simpson exchanged another perplexed look, and then Simpson replied, "I'm afraid not, he said he'd be back later today though."
"Then where is Dr. Asgaard?" Balakhna asked unmoved.
"He's dead. Died yesterday evening."
"And who killed him?" Balakhna asked casually.
Harris and Simpson exchanged another one of those looks and Balakhna felt like he was about to get too irritated. "Look, policy around here states that nobody dies, they are killed for a reason. Now which reason was it that killed Asgaard? Did he spill coffee on Morgenstern's suit? What was it?"
The two of them looked at each other again, and Balakhna decided that it was enough. He slapped Simpson across the cheek, and pushed Harris to the asphalt. "Now, if you all are going to be useless, then I see no reason to let you to continue to live."
"You can't make that kind of decision!" Harris blurted. "That's Morgenstern's to make."
"And seeing that Morgenstern is not here, the power falls to me." Balakhna replied. "Now if you two will not start being helpful, I will make such a determination, and see to it that you are thoroughly dead."
"I killed Asgaard." Simpson said then, rubbing the cheek that Balakhna had slapped. It was already beginning to swell. "Morgenstern told me to kill him. He was giving information to Dr. Hall that he did not need to know."
"Who is Dr. Hall?" Balakhna asked.
"He is Dr. Sauer's replacement."
"That's ridiculous. Of course Hall should know what's going on, how else is he going to be able to cope with his work if he feels that it has no reason." Balakhna found the reasoning that was going on around here ludicrous.
"That's not the way Morgenstern felt about it." Harris pointed out.
"Well, that's just too bad. I'm rescinding Morgenstern's orders. Nobody else is to be killed here without my authorization, is that clear. Anybody around here dies mysteriously, I'll kill one of you two." Balakhna told them, starting to walk past them towards the complex.
"We understand, Mr. Balakhna." Simpson replied, looking after him with undisguised contempt.
The man called Swan trailed after Balakhna remarking in a voice clearly meant to be heard, "It's so hard to find good help these days."
Dr. Michael Hall held his left arm close to him, feeling the spot where he had injected the serum. His whole life was about to change, and there wasn't a lot he could do about it anymore. He was going to become an ursine morph, that much was certain, and in one way he liked it because he knew that it the new world that was going to be created, at least he would not have to worry about social rejection. However, the terror of transforming, and the fear that he would lose his intellect were very much with him. Looking back on that incident, he now wondered just what it was that had caused him to do that to himself.
The pair that was standing with him in his office could not have been more mismatched. The first was a tall overbearing man with a triangular shaped goatee, and a very menacing gaze. The second was a short squat man who was anything but refined carrying a look of constant amusement. Hall was not too sure he was going to be comfortable with them, but at least they seemed to sympathize with his situation, and getting information out of them was not like trying to give a root canal to a shark.
"So the world is going to be destroyed in five years?" Hall asked.
"About that time yes." Balakhna replied. "The people I'm working for wanted to keep as much of humanity alive as possible. That's why we employed Sauer in the first place. He could do what my superiors felt was necessary to ensure that at least some part of humanity would survive. Have you designed the abatement serum yet?"
"That's what I'm working on now. Sauer's notes on this were a little sketchy, so I'm making a few guesses, I want to get this working as soon as possible, I need to try it on the kids who are still somewhat human. I wish I could have saved them all though."
"You used kids?" Swan seemed incredulous. "Why would you use kids?"
Balakhna sighed, "They were never meant to be infected. Sauer infected them out of blind panic from what I'm told."
"Well unfortunately, they seem to be the victims of this whole thing, and I'm too late to save some of them." Hall sighed.
Balakhna shrugged. "I don't think some people want them saved entirely. There really isn't much that can be done with them, as when the time comes, where they'd be most comfortable now, will be too cold for them after the event."
"So they seem to be screwed whatever we do?" Hall asked.
"Quite possibly yes."
Hall sighed. "That means I'm screwed too."
"I injected myself with the serum, I don't know why now, but I did." Hall held out his left arm as if that alone was proof enough of what he'd done.
Swan shook his head, while Balakhna sighed again, "As far as I can tell, you sir are the first person to willingly subject themselves to the virus."
"Then how was it tested. Sauer spoke of some test group, but I never found out what that was."
Swan barked a laugh, "They tested it on prisoners of one of the gulags in Siberia. That's where Arensky was from wasn't he?"
Balakhna nodded. Swan continued, "That's how I got involved in all of this mess, one of the test subjects escaped, and Balakhna here had me track him down."
"You still haven't recaptured him." Balakhna pointed out.
"My men are still out there, and I thought you said you wanted him shot dead on sight?"
Hall blanched. To talk so cavalierly about such things made his stomach turn. These men may seem more human, but they were monsters just like Simpson and Harris.
"Is something wrong?" Balakhna asked Hall, who was paling.
"Why is it that everytime there is a problem, you people think first of killing the person that caused the problem?" Hall asked in a quiet voice.
"We don't." Balakhna replied.
"That's all I've seen since I got here. Simpson poisons Asgaard. Salinger makes the virus deadly. Harris tampers with Sauer's suit. Morgenstern orders it all. And now you two are trying to kill one escaped man. Just let him go! He can't do any harm! He's just going to turn into a complete bear before too much longer anyway. Let him live!" Hall was shaking again.
Balakhna looked at Swan, and then back at Hall. He sighed then braced himself for Swan's reaction. "Swan, tell your men to stand down."
"What?" Swan asked, shocked.
"You heard me, tell your men to call off the hunt. Tell them they can go back to being productive entrepreneurs." Balakhna reiterated.
"It'll take me some time to get in contact with them. But I'll go do that now." Swan turned to head to the doorway, grumbling something about inconsistency to himself.
Hall smiled at Balakhna. His opinion of this man was changing; he did indeed have some sort of heart. "Thank you, Mr. Balakhna."
"Know this, if I thought there was any chance that he could pose a danger, I would want him dead. However, there doesn't seem to be any danger as you have pointed out, therefore he can live."
Swan opened the door and got a surprise as a young woman stood there, about ready to knock. Hall saw her and wanted to sneer, it was Salinger.
"Yes Dr. Salinger?" Balakhna asked upon seeing her.
Salinger looked guiltily at Hall and then turned to look Balakhna full in the face. It was obvious that she had been crying, as her face was blushed and her nose was running. With an almost fatalistic sigh she said, "I thought I should let you all know that Morgenstern has just arrived."
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