Feodor Arensky was having trouble keeping up his fast pace from the previous day. Each mile he ran seemed to be harder, as if he was not only exhausting himself in the process, but also gaining some tremendous bulk. In some ways, he felt like he might be pregnant, but that was probably the single most absurd thought he'd ever had in his life. A man pregnant? It was utterly impossible. Now a man growing fur all over his body, feeling as if his whole body was going through some massive rearranging, that was not unreasonable. Given what had happened to him before he escaped, he had half expected it. Seeing his hands, the fingers thicker, slightly shorter, the nails blackened and harden, and his palms coarsened, almost as if they were paws, was an electrifying experience for him, and he reveled in the newness and simple rightness of it. For some reason, he felt as if some part of him had finally escaped, and was letting him be what he wanted, not what society was expecting him to be. For once he was an individual, not beholden to some arcane laws or regulations sent down from above by some mysterious and murderous head of government who's only interest lied in securing their place in history. No instead, he was acting on his own volition; his physical form was simply another manifestation of it. For the first time in his life, he realized that he was rebelling, and there was nothing they could do about it, for he was no longer in the proper sense a man.
This distinction caught him off guard, and he slowed till he was sitting on his haunches, feeling his vast bulk, the belly that had extended in layer upon layer of fat, probably from all the fish he had been eating recently, and the snow white of his thick fur. His face too was different. It was not too subtle, he still had that enlarged cranial capacity that distinguished humans from the other mammals, but now he had something that put him in a class with them. He had a muzzle, a short one to be sure, probably not more than two or three inches long, but it was a muzzle, nonetheless. He wished he could see his face now - when fishing, he hadn't really been paying attention to his reflection in the water, usually more intent on slapping the fish from the water - to determine just what kind of face it was. Feeling along his head, he found that his ears were still on the side of his head, but they were angled out more, cupped rather broadly to pick up the slightest sound. He wasn't sure if along with this bargain he had received any better hearing capabilities, he hadn't really noticed any to speak of; there wasn't a lot of life to hear as he moved northward along the rocky coast. All he could hear really was the splashing of the waves, and the churning of the wind.
One thing he knew was improved was his sense of smell. That was something he could tell quite keenly. The saltiness of the ocean had been overpowering at first, but as he got used to its odor he found that it was really rather pleasant, and a good landmark. Among the other scents he picked up was the crisp smell of the conifers that ranged up and down along the coast, the scent of snow that pervaded the entire landscape, the smell of the trickling rivers that spilled into the Pacific, and the occasional scent of a warm body, usually some small wildlife that he didn't feel like chasing after. His mind was focused more on reaching the Bering Strait. Several times he had looked out across the sea, hoping against hope that he would spot land somewhere in the distance. Each time he was disappointed, and each time made him wonder about something else. If his scent was getting better as he became more animalistic was his sight also weakening? He could still see in color, the green of the lapping waves was very vivid to him, and the bright blue of the sky sparkled, while the searing yellow of the sun burned him if he so much as glanced at it. No, his sight still seemed to be as it was when he was a man.
That he was no longer a man startled him. Sitting there on the snow, he continued to feel over the crevices of his new body. How had this been accomplished? He had never heard of even the remotest possibility that a person's physical form was malleable in any respect. Now he was something between man and animal, just what he wasn't quite sure, though he had a few ideas. From his physical appearance, he had a few guesses as to what he was becoming, but until he saw his reflection he could not be sure. Since the palms of his hands had callused up, making it almost a paw - he still had a good deal of manual dexterity - he had lost a good portion of the feeling in them. The same had happened with his feet too. He remembered the first night away from the gulag. His feet had been sore, and blistered. He was amazed that they hadn't been frostbitten. Now the foot had widened some, shortened a little, but not too much, he still had no trouble standing erect, though that growing paunch of his was rather weighty. The pads of his feet however had blackened slightly, and his toenails had definitely lengthened, and he could almost swear that they were claws.
He shook his head then. Everytime he thought about his philosophical predicament, his thoughts got distracted, why was that? Was he actually loosing intelligence? Was he becoming more like an animal? Was he changing in more than just physical appearance? Would he start growling and pawing at the ground, bellowing to scare his opponents? What did he sound like now? Could he still speak Russian, or for that matter, any human tongues? He moved his jaw up and down, feeling the jowls move across his teeth where there had once been cheeks. He tried to call out his name, and it sounded a bit like what it should be. He worked at it, making his tongue enunciate it clearly, trying with all his might to get the words to come out as he intended "Eeeooouuur Arrrrrnnnnnnni. Feooouur Arrrrrennnnns. Feooooood....Feoooooduuuur Arrrrrrennnnnnnnski." He continued at it till he could say his name with minimal difficulty. He tried a few other words, working them out with his tongue and loose lips. They were much harder to work with because he had very little control over them. It was quite an engaging task, though very difficult. He knew the words, but his mouth seemed to take forever to move to a new syllable, and it had real trouble with phonics that were short in duration. He was trying to recite the words of a book he'd once read, when after stumbling over only the fifth word in the first sentence, he gave up.
Rising from his haunches, he kicked at the snow, clawed at the tree, rending a portion of the bark in his frustration. He grabbed a nearby branch and shook it furiously, raining more snow upon his head. He bellowed in anger, pulling hard on the tree branch, till with a reluctant groan, it snapped off the tree and into his lap. Feodor tossed the tree branch to one side, and began to stomp onwards in the snow. He grumbled to himself. He was losing more than he realized, no longer was he able to talk in any language he knew, his mouth simply wasn't capable of producing those words anymore. It was one more little wall in his separation from all of humanity. He suddenly stopped in his tracks, looked down at his hands, and realized that he walking on all fours. He quickly stood up, and knew that he'd let himself get distracted again. He had let his mind wander into some unrelated territory, which it hadn't even stayed in for very long. Even still, in that distraction, he'd let himself sink deeper into the animal. He could not deny that he was slowly becoming an animal. That much was now plainly obvious. There was no denying it any longer. He was going to become an animal, at least in physical form. Just what sort of animal was still yet to be seen. However, was he going to lose his mind in this deal? Was he going to be just like any other animal, only able to think of eating and reproducing? On that note, he was rather hungry, it had been several hours since he had eaten. Raising his nose to the air, he could tell that not too far ahead was another stream. It would probably have more fish in it. His stomach would be fed, and his paunch would grow. Lumbering forward, he set off to satiate his hunger.
Mstislav Kordei Raporov hunkered down in the cellar of an nondescript house. The stink of whale carcasses was about him, as he dwelt in the hidden remains, the stores of the last catches that they made. This was the store of the useful parts of the whale, which amounted to not very much. It seemed such a waste to him that such a large creature could only provide so much to humanity. Looking at their huge size he wondered what inanity had thought up the whale. If perhaps a large portion of them had been useful, then they would be worth keeping, more of a breeding program, as was done with cattle where almost every last bit of it was useful. However, the whale only had a tiny portion, so it obviously was not much good to humanity. Its death would be missed by some, that was for sure, but in the end, they'd go on. Whatever failed to benefit humanity would of course in time be eradicated and destroyed, to pave the way for creatures more useful.
However, their use to him was not for financial reasons, but for the simple fact that he knew that none of Balakhna's men would be down here. He was sick of having that man spy on him wherever he went, whatever he did. Despite his reassurances that he would not be killed, he still did not trust him. He knew better than to trust the Left Hand, he'd worked with him before, though that time neither one had ever seen the other. On that occasion they were on different ends, coordinating an operation that needed precise timing and finesse. Swan was excellent undercover, since nobody ever took notice of him, more in the fact that they avoided him entirely. Also, he could speak with any accent he wanted, something most men could not do. This gave him an excellent talent for gathering information. He had other weapons at his disposal, but those were the most poignant ones.
The other man with him down amongst the whale blubber was signing to him. No sense giving anybody above them something to listen to. Raporov made sure that his best information could speak to him in hand signals, a gift that few possessed because few had need of it. Most thought it a skill for only the deaf, or those dealing with the deaf. Raporov knew better, it was the perfect language to conduct surreptitious conversations in.
<So what did you find?> Raporov signed once they were settled in.
<We found a lot of dead bodies, both human, and not.> the man reported.
<What was their condition?>
<They were charred. The whole place was torched, destroyed. We didn't find anything left there except the bodies. All personal objects were destroyed, every computer was smashed to bits, and the memory chips crushed and shattered, rather meticulously I might add.>
<How long ago did it look like?> Raporov asked, mulling over the possibilities. Why would they destroy their own facility?
<I'd say not more than a week, maybe even a few days.>
<Somebody doesn't want us to know something. Somebody is trying to hide something. I'd say Balakhna.>
<That's what it looks like.> the man agreed.
<What did the bodies look like? Did any look like Arensky?>
<Yes, some of them did. Not many, but some of them did. The groups were all segregated it seems, we'd only find one type of creature in each section, and no others.>
<What do you think they were doing there?>
The man thought for a moment. <It looks like it might be a science experiment of some sort. We found it in the Black List like you suggested. Obviously they were doing some research there.>
<It would appear that their research had something to do with physical transformation. It looks like they've succeeded too. Hard as it may seem, the human form is no longer a constant.>
The man nodded.
<I don't know what we can do though. Any word on Arensky himself?>
<Well, we are trying to keep a good distance, but he is very hard to spot, as his fur blends in with the snow so well. Reports indicate though that he is steadily moving north now.>
<Good. I want him out of the way as soon as possible. Radio our men, tell them to shoot him on sight. I don't want to take the chance that they would die too. Maybe then Balakhna will leave.>
The man smiled broadly, <We'd all appreciate that.>
<Yes we would.> Raporov smiled, scratching himself idly after he had signed. Then another thought occurred to him, <Have you managed to get that number I asked you for?>
Dr. Michael Hall looked back over the notebook that he had spent the last day meticulously deciphering. It wasn't hard work, it was just exhaustive, and rather immense. Lane Sauer had written everything in code, a code that Hall knew because of the time that he had worked with him which culminated in that article in the Science News. It had taken him a while to remember it, but after staring at it for an hour, the old connections started to come back, and he began to spin out chemical equations and lines of prose rather quickly. By now he had translated the notes in their entirety, as most of the words in Sauer's notebook had been lengthened by adding extra letters in predesigned places. Hall knew which letters in a word were always fake. Numbers were a different matter, numbers were actually replaced by combinations of letters, but all the words would begin with a capital letter, unlike his regular prose that was written as any other bit of prose would be.
It took him nearly eighteen hours to translate the entire set of notes. After which he collapsed. When he woke about seven hours later, he finally set himself to the task of making sense out of what was written. It was lucky for him that Sauer, while not overly comprehensive, made sure that he didn't leave anything out. Every formula was where it should be, and the explanations and descriptions of the work read almost like a diary might. Hall was not surprised to find that sometimes Sauer referred to the project as if it were a real person. To anybody else this would prove confusing, but to Hall, it made perfect sense, for Sauer was always deeply involved in whatever he did. His heart was in the work as if that was all that mattered.
Hall could see quite clearly after only several hours of study what was going on. Also he realized a few things about Morgenstern and Asgaard and Salinger. With the exception of Asgaard, they had all lied to him. Sauer's notes revealed a story quite unlike what he had heard before. This virus, which to his surprise was a variation on the self-same Yaounde virus that he and Sauer had so gruelingly exposed in their work for its metamorphic properties, had been engineered by this group of scientists; it was not a free floating object that had just begun to strike the teenagers of the United States, it was a deliberate attempt to modify the human form.
As he read deeper he began to notice a level of urgency in the way Sauer referred to his work. There was a sense of impending doom, some terrible consequence that would overtake him if he didn't get the virus to work. He saw many botched attempts in the notes; he read of the road to which they took; he read of something known as the testing grounds, though it was never clear what exactly this referred to. In that narrative, he found saw before him, a way for him to finally live out his own childhood fantasies. Those notes declared for him that shape shifting was not only possible, but it was real. It was a purely biochemical reaction that could be induced through the proper application of viral DNA, and the proper procedures to ensure that the virus itself did not get out of hand. He looked over his material, picking up his copy of Yarf that he had brought with him. Glancing at the cover, tracing his figure over the contour of the anthro on the cover, he felt the familiar sense of apathy - it always struck him, for he so wanted to be more like the animals, but always before it seemed like an impossible dream, despite his own research - then a sudden sense of hope. Here was the research, the steps needed to change the physical shape. It could be done, he could do it to himself if he needed to.
He nearly jumped from his seat to engineer the proper virus, when a sudden thought occurred to him. What if there were side effects? What if the transformation couldn't be stopped, forcing him to become that animal, instead of just a mix between the two? There had to be more information on that throughout the notes. Though he had translated it, he had not really been paying attention to the content of the material as he translated it. He had been up very late, and his mind had been functioning like a computer, read the code, spit out the proper words. Calming himself down, he continued reading through the notes. Now though, he knew that they could not only help him get paid and to understand his job here, they could help him fulfill his lifelong yearning.
As he continued reading, he found that his fears were indeed founded. Apparently, early reports back from the testing grounds indicated that the subjects after a time succumbed to the animal DNA, their human ancestry being completely forgotten. He saw that now Sauer's work was not made to rearrange his original formula, but to curb the excesses of it. He could see what was obviously the antibody to the Yaounde virus being subjected to transformation after transformation, being molded until it destroyed the virus that they had created to make the shift work. Reading Sauer's reactions to the reports returning from the testing grounds - which he didn't have - he gathered that each time there was only limited success. As Hall read, his mind worked on the problems that Sauer described, trying to solve for small details, trying to link the chains in his mind, to see if the connections would work. He made a few guesses, and he saw that Sauer made a few similar ones. It was on his tenth reaction that Hall noticed the first good feeling from Sauer ever. Apparently, the antivirus that Sauer had developed, with the help of Salinger, was actually having some effect. Apparently the subjects, though they couldn't talk, were able to understand complex concepts. Sauer then seemed satisfied with the work, suggesting that if the antivirus was used during the second stage of the development, it would sufficiently slow the advancing animalism enough that they'd be able to retain enough semblance of humanity to function reasonably in the new society.
Those were two things that bugged him. First, the repeated references to a new society. They made no sense, and Sauer offered no explanation of them. Obviously he was able to understand it. Sauer must have been given more information than Hall had. Secondly, the derogative manner in which Sauer approached the second stage. It only came near the end. Beforehand, he had never made any mention of specific stages of development. It was only towards the last thirty pages that he began to address that classification. Hall suspected it was the deadly nature of the virus at that stage - something that had in fact killed Sauer - but what he didn't expect was what came near the last page of the notes. Apparently, the deadliness of the virus was deliberate, and orchestrated by Dr. Salinger. She was the one who designed the virus to become deadly, not Sauer. The virus that Sauer designed was not lethal in any respect. With the extra chain that Salinger added to the DNA strand, it became virulent, and highly contagious. No wonder she got so broken up about it, she was responsible for his death!
Yet the question remained, why would she deliberately make the virus deadly? It made no sense. He continued reading the last few pages, eager to know more. So much was still left to be explained. The last few pages explained only one thing to him, why the kids in there had the virus. He had been wondering all the time he had been reading the material why it was only teenagers that had contracted the virus they had developed. Now he knew why. Dr. Sauer was attempting to sabotage a part of the research, Dr. Salinger's. He wanted to destroy what she had created, so he took all the viral samples they had created when he left to oversee the School Immunization Program. He hadn't really needed to be there himself, but he told Dr. Asgaard that it would look bad if he didn't make it to at least a few schools to help out. He had taken the serum, and all over the country, at random, injected teenagers with the virus, thereby eliminating all of the original formula. He pointed out that his next step would be to get Salinger distracted by an assignment, that way he could destroy her notes, but the journal stopped there. It simply ended. The last words written were, "I don't trust Morgenstern. Don't trust those two guys he has with him either."
Now he knew. Now he knew as much as he could from the notes of Dr. Lane Sauer, and it shocked him. Somebody, for some reason was trying to mix the human and animal forms. Specifically that of the bear. All the genetic codes pointed to a mixing of bear and human DNA. The testing grounds probably repopulated the species, if it didn't kill everybody unaffected around them off. What was he to do with this evidence? Should he go speak to Dr. Asgaard? Could he trust him? He had to talk to somebody, and it most certainly wasn't going to be Salinger, not now, or Morgenstern. He really couldn't even talk to the other two doctors, Harris and Simpson, as it appeared that Sauer didn't trust them either. There really was no choice, he was going to have to speak with Dr. Emmanuel Asgaard.
He usually slept quite soundly. Even when he was under pressure like this, he usually had no trouble getting sleep. It was only under unusual circumstances that he would wake up such as he did that night. The phone was ringing, whoever was on the other end better have a very good reason for waking him up. The last person who woke him up while he slept had died the next day.
"Yes?" Balakhna asked groggily into the phone.
"Left Hand, this is the Right." he heard back, and he immediately came to his full senses. If the Right Hand of Fate was calling him, then there would be a very good reason for it.
"What is it, Right?" he asked. He looked about his darkened room. The sun was already beginning to peak up from the sea to the southeast, and he could see the first rays of it coming in through his window. It was just enough light to see that there was a figure standing in the corner of the room, and it was not his guard. Whoever it was, had not yet made a move, though he smelled obsessively of whale blubber.
"You have company." Right replied. "This project on your end has been compromised. I have made the executive decision to have you replaced by the man who is with you in the room."
Balakhna immediately reached for his gun beneath his pillow, but it was missing. "Don't bother looking for your gun, or your knife, or any of your other weapons, I informed the man standing in this room with you about all your favorite hiding spots." Right told him casually.
"What have I done wrong?" Balakhna insisted. The longer he kept Right on the line, the longer he would live. Maybe even then he'd come up with a way to defeat this man in his room.
"You let them inspect the testing grounds. They managed to somehow find my number. I would suggest you check your line for taps, but that would be rather moot now wouldn't it?"
"Right, what are you doing?"
"Me, I am making sure that the loose holes you've created get sewn back up. Arensky must die, you've failed in that. You've let some local yokels who were former KGB actually find what we have so desperately tried to hide. What's the point of a secret if you let everybody figure it out? I'm replacing you, Left Hand, you have outlived your usefulness."
Balakhna saw the opportunity and went for it, "Just like Sauer did huh? Just like Hemley and Houck have? Of course no, Hemley had to get killed in an accident, couldn't give you the pleasure of organizing his death yourself, I'm sure you were getting around to it. What about Asgaard? I hear he tried to kill himself. And Salinger, her work is essentially complete, you going to have her killed too?"
"That is no longer your business." Right replied firmly.
"My business is survival, and that's what all this is about. FATE wants people to survive, you keep killing them off when they no longer suit you, or are manipulated by you. I'm going to survive, Right. I will not be killed, I can guarantee you that. I will do what I need to do to live. Even if it means revealing all."
"You wouldn't dare?" the voice seemed shocked.
"Would I, Samuel Morgenstern?" Balakhna asked, now convinced that he had won this round quite easily.
"Damn you!" he shouted, then the line went dead. Balakhna held the phone close to his ear, and continued to say derogatory things, hoping to fool the man in the corner that he was still on the phone. He looked over him quite carefully, thinking over everything that had happened since he had come to Anadyr. The spying and counterspying, there really could only be one person who was standing in the corner. Balakhna then called out, "C'mon out Swan, I know it's you."
Swan stepped forward, a small knife held in his right hand almost negligently. He smiled towards Balakhna a rather sickly smile. Balakhna noticed with distaste that he had a carbuncle developing on his lower lip, and a rivulet of puss was beginning to flow from it. Balakhna slowly set the phone down, looking over his enemy carefully, "So, how did you figure it out?"
Swan laughed shrilly, "I run this town, I have every line tapped. The Right Hand of Fate is too predictable, didn't even think that his phone message would be overheard, so didn't bother to bounce it just once. We had his number. I had a pleasant conversation with him. He wants me to kill you and take your place as the New Left Hand of Fate. While I must say the offer is tempting, I have to seriously consider it. Working with a guy who is just as likely to axe you as he is anybody else is nothing new to me. However, what's your offer?"
"Mstislav Kordei Raporov, we are in a time when it is necessary to take extreme action for survival. I assume you've killed my guards, I don't know how else you could have gotten in here."
"They were milquetoast." Raporov replied dryly.
"Anyway, you are on the verge of discovering something of immense proportions, something that will take a long time to explain."
"We have plenty of time." Raporov pointed out, fingering the dagger dangerously.
"Yes we do." Balakhna agreed. "Where shall I begin...."
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