Chapter VII

Dr. Nancy Salinger pushed open the door, and led Michael Hall into the next room. Michael saw immediately that this place was more active, as a decontamination room was adjacent to them, and a Plexiglas viewing station right in front of them. Michael stepped up to the Plexiglas and looked in on the subjects. There were six or seven of them, all of which looked incredibly bored, and to Michael's eyes, frustrated. They also to him looked like a Sasquatch. Long white fur covered the entire length of their now naked bodies, and their gender was quite plain to see, for the males at least. The breasts on the females had shrunk, and Michael could see on one particular specimen that there seemed to be new mammary glands forming along her chest and belly. Their faces were even distorted, the mouths jutting out form the face awkwardly, and the teeth seemed shaped oddly. The nose was flatter, and it flared regularly, probably drawing in more air in single breath than Michael was capable of in two or three.

Michael turned to face Nancy, "These were all once human?"

"Yes, they were all teenagers two weeks ago. Perfectly human. Now, they are not quite anything."

"They look like Bigfoot to me." Michael pointed out.

Nancy shrugged. "This is a transitional stage. They haven't stopped changing yet."

"What do they eventually become?" Michael asked, curious.

"You will see in a moment." Nancy told him.

"So can you explain to me why exactly they become deadly?"

"The virus that is changing them at this point mutates into two separate forms. Why it does this, we do not know. The first form continues the transformation further; it is completely harmless now to humans. If I injected it into your bloodstream, you'd probably have a mild cold for a day or two, and then nothing. The second form however, will kill you in a matter of moments. It acts faster than any African disease I've ever seen. Thankfully, if this virus ever was place din a large city, it wouldn't be able to do much harm since it would kill everybody it infects too quickly to spread. What it does is it chemically bonds with the proteins in the cell lining, essentially poking holes in the cell membrane. From here, it is a simple chain reaction, once it combines with the proteins, they break apart into millions more of themselves, until all the protein is exhausted and then they die."

"Why doesn't it kill them?" Michael asked.

"As far as we can tell, it is attacking their proteins as well, but their DNA makeup seems to be replacing the proteins just as fast as the virus is destroying them, so no breakdown occurs." Nancy explained.

"How do you know that they are deadly?" Michael asked.

Nancy's expression grew distant for a moment, and then she moved towards the door at the other end of the hall, "Perhaps I should show you the third stage of the virus."

"No.", Michael caught her by the arm, and turned her around. "You're not telling me something. Everytime I ask you about this virus being deadly, you get this look on your face and you avoid the question. What happened?"

Nancy shook her head. "I'm afraid you're going to have to talk with Asgaard about that. I don't have the authority to answer your question."

"Fine then," Michael said. "Take me to meet this Dr. Asgaard."

Mily Vasilyevich Balakhna looked at the man seated across from him with distaste. Of course he could not ever once underestimate this man, for already he had proved himself a most resourceful annoyance. He knew that he was snooping around in places he shouldn't. He knew that he had sent men up to the gulag that Feodor Arensky had escaped form. He knew that one of his men had not come back from the patrol he had been on. He knew all these things about Mstislav Kordei Raporov. However, he also knew, that Raporov knew that he knew. It was a neat little game they were playing, but trust Raporov to go and make a mess out of it all by taking those photographs and confronting him with them.

"What do you make of these comrade?" Raporov asked him angrily. "Is this what we are after? Something more a beast than a man? Tell me comrade, just what is going on?"

"Raporov, you know I would never hide anything from you that would be vital for your task. I have given you everything you need to know. There is nothing else you should worry about. Leave those details to me."

"I do not like being kept in the dark, comrade Balakhna, and you seem intent on insuring that I know nothing. This is not your everyday hunt for an escaped convict; this is a biological terror running amuck throughout Siberia! You cannot in your right mind expect me to sit here and except the piddling information you've given us as enough of a reason to stop all our economic production and hunt this thing down."

"So what do you want to know?" Balakhna asked calmly.

"What is it?" Raporov asked, idly scratching his crotch.

"This is Feodor Arensky." Balakhna replied, holding up a photograph of Feodor looking mostly human. "This is also Feodor Arensky, " he held a photograph of him looking only barely human, "and this is also Feodor Arensky." the final photograph looked nothing like a human, but more a beast trying to be human. "What is your point?"

"That's not a human being." Raporov insisted.

"At least not anymore." Balakhna agreed.

"So what is it? Not who, what."

"It is a freak of nature. We must capture it and destroy it."

"How can we do that if everytime one of my men gets close enough to it to capture it, he dies?"

"Shoot fist, ask questions later." Balakhna replied. "Kill it before it kills you."

"I thought you said you wanted it alive?" Raporov seemed confused.

"Not anymore. He is better dead than alive anyway. There is nothing we stand to gain from him, so it is best just to kill him now." Balakhna pointed out.

Raporov then looked thoughtful, "All right Left Hand, why does he exist?"

Balakhna shrugged. "That information is not for you to know. You may try to find it if you wish, I'm sure once your men get back form the gulag they'll be able to tell you more."

Raporov looked startled, then he sighed, "Of course, you realize that I am not going to stop until I find out what is going on."

"Keep at it, eventually you'll start to understand." Balakhna replied.

"Don't think you can kill me either Left Hand."

"Swan," Balakhna replied completely honestly, "I have never planned on killing anybody in this town. My intention is to kill Arensky. Anything that gets in my way will also die. As long as you keep your little investigation out of my way, I will have no reason to destroy you. Now do be good boys and kill Arensky for me, then you can get back to whaling and fishing again. Dismissed."

Raporov stalked from the office in a huff. Balakhna congratulated himself on the way he handled it, and then looked at the photographs of Feodor taken over a period of just days. He looked at them in disbelief, how had the transformation taken place so quickly?

Feodor had long since stopped running. Following the stream to the ocean proper was not going to be too difficult, already he could smell the salt coming from it. Now he sauntered along, exhausted from his exertion, and aching in every bone in his body. He wished he had a mirror so that he could see what he looked like, as his face felt funny, and when he brought his hands up to feel it, it was strange, twisted, no longer human. If that was their plan then, to turn him into something else, then they had succeeded a long time ago. From the first moment he had set foot in that gulag, he had stopped being human, and had become an animal. All an animal cares about is survival, and procreation. All he cared about was survival; no longer was he concerned with art, literature, music, any of the higher pursuits of man, nor was he concerned with the future. If he ever did reach safety, he had no idea what he was going to do. The incident by the stream bank where he had eaten the five moderate sized fish had shown him that wherever he went, he would have to be in isolation. He did not want to kill anybody else like that, it was simply too horrible.

What made him think that he was responsible for that man's death? He'd been in the gulag for ten years, at least that's what he counted, who knows what new diseases had been discovered in that time, for all he knew man could be living on the moon. However, when he first saw the man he looked completely fine, and he hadn't seen anybody since he left that little hut by the frozen lake several days ago. After a few moments of being near him, the man died. What other explanation could there have been? True, there was a chance that he had some obscure disease that only just then manifested itself, by the likelihood of that was slim.

Shaking the thoughts from his head, Feodor continued moving toward the ocean. It was only another hour before he caught his first glimpse of it. He stood there for a few seconds before his exhaustion took hold of him, and he slumped belly first onto the ground. He looked pensively out at the sea, marveling in its massiveness, its expansiveness. Looking out upon the endless sea, he felt a slight rejoicing in his heart, but not as much as he thought he would have. By now the stench of the salt rising from the breakers was quite nauseating, and he found that after lying there for a few moments marveling at the white caps smashing against the rocky shore that he was quite sick to his stomach. He raised himself to all fours, stood, and then moved back into the line of conifers some distance from the sea. Amidst the pines, he found the overbearing scent of salt was diminished, and replaced by the much more pleasant scent of the woods and of the snow.

However, he had to get to the Bering strait, no matter how much he didn't relish the thought of going near the sea again, he found that in the end, he was going to have to face that repulsion head on, and conquer it. He looked back over his shoulder to the sun that was low on the southern horizon. Summer was abating quite rapidly up in the northern latitudes, and he didn't imagine it would be much longer before the sun never shown its face. Getting the bearing, he started heading parallel to the sea, always keeping the sun at his back. Eventually, he would reach the Bering Strait going like this, eventually.

Dr. Emmanuel Asgaard's office was pretty easy to find and to get to. Signs directed them there, and Michael began to notice a sort of scheme to the layout of the complex. It was based on a set of concentric squares, with passages moving between them. Asgaard's office was not as he expected in the center of the complex, but off to one side on the furthest edge of the outermost square. Even then, it jutted out a little bit further, the secretary's desk sitting at the front, and his offices set back into the wall almost like an alcove. Salinger smiled to the secretary as she walked by, and to Hall's amazement, she did not stir or make any move to deny them access.

The door in front of them was cracked slightly, and Michael could make out Morgenstern's voice behind it, ".....the information. Houck has no common sense. He still has trouble putting his shoes on in the morning, takes him fifteen minutes just to remember that his left and right feet are not the same shape." Morgenstern had obviously been ranting a little bit, as he had knocked the chair siting in front of Asgaard's desk down. Asgaard sat behind the desk, his face pale, and his eyes looking down at the floor. Morgenstern turned to look at the two, "Ah, Dr. Hall, Dr Salinger, what a pleasant surprise, did you find the facilities to your taste?"

"Haven't finished the tour yet." Hall replied. Looking Asgaard full in the face, he had to admit that he did look familiar. He had seen this man before, but since they were apparently in the same field, he had probably met him at a convention of one form or another sometime in the past. "I have some questions about this project your working on, and Dr. Salinger here wasn't answering them."

"What sort of questions?" Asgaard asked, staring Hall full in the face. Hall noticed that Morgenstern was watching them both carefully. He didn't like that feeling.

"Well, everytime I asked why the second stage of the mutation is deadly to be near, Dr. Salinger balked." Hall pointed out, glancing at her, who was now quivering.

"Nancy, why didn't you tell him?" Asgaard asked her in a calm and detached voice.

Nancy glanced briefly at Morgenstern then back at Asgaard, "I though you didn't want him to know."

"I see." Asgaard nodded. "However, Dr. Hall is now on this project. Do you mind if I call you Michael?"

"Go right ahead." Michael replied.

'Well as I was saying, Michael is now going to be working with us. I think it is time we showed him the project notes." Asgaard reached down into a drawer in his desk.

Morgenstern looked startled, "I don't think that's a wise idea, Emmanuel."

"That's not your decision, Samuel. I am the project leader, not you. I will make the decisions here." Asgaard replied bluntly, dumping a couple loose-leaf binders on his desk. Morgenstern remained silent, staring at the binders as if his eyes could make them catch on fire.

"So how do you know the second stage is deadly?" Michael reiterated.

"One of our scientists went in there with a suit that was damaged. He melted in a pile of lipids and other cell matter. These are his notes." Asgaard pushed the binders towards Michael, and he hefted them in his arms. "Read them thoroughly, and maybe you can make some sense out of them. None of us have been able to decipher it. However I'm sure your familiarity with his style of note taking will give you insights we did not have."

"What are you talking about?" Hall asked.

Asgaard ignored the question and looked to Salinger, "What haven't you shown him?"

"Just the third stage of the mutation." Nancy replied, her composure returned now.

"That's fine, don't show it to him, I want to see if he can figure it out from the notes alone."

"Who am I replacing?" Hall asked again.

"What game are you playing Emmanuel?" Morgenstern asked, looking slightly irritated.

"If he has to figure out what is going on by those notes alone, his conclusions will be unbiased, however if we show him the third stage, he might have preconceived notions that will flaw his thinking. It is best this way." Asgaard replied, his eyes straying now to the balcony over looking the Hudson Bay that was clearly visible on the far side.

Hall was by now definitely frustrated, "Look, who is dead? Whose job do I have? Whose notes are these?"

Asgaard turned back to look at him. He smiled then, the first time Hall had seen him smile. "Oh, those are Dr. Lane Sauer's."

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