Lone Star – Chapter 12

The procedure room Jonas stood in was a buzz of activity. There were two surgeons in the room, along with 5 support staff and 3 researchers.  Directing all this was Dr Laura Culler, who reminded Jonas of the conductor of the orchestra his mother had played for back home in Iron Heart.  She circled the operating table, watching the movements of the surgeons like a hawk and giving orders at even intervals as the others worked.  Occasionally she would turn to the support staff, anticipating the surgeons and their requests for tools.  Her personal computer was out, too, keeping track of every suction hose and sponge and clamp.  Her voice was sharp, even, and coldly controlled, and her eyes missed nothing.  When one of the support staff knelt to retrieve a dropped clamp, she stepped on it, motioning with her head for a fresh clamp without saying a word to draw attention.

Unlike most of the time he was on duty, Jonas was the one in the room who was doing the least.  It was a little un-nerving to be the person in the room who knew the least about what was going on, especially since a) the thing on the operating table was obviously dangerous enough to kill every scientist in the room, and b) if it awoke and decided to try something along those lines, it would be Jonas’ job to keep it from succeeding.  So far, the procedure had gone completely as planned, but that was the way these procedures always were- everything was hunky-dory right up until the moment that it wasn’t anymore.

At that point Jonas noticed his thoughts drifting again.  He was also the one in the room who could be most forgiven for losing focus like that.  If the subject began to awaken, he’d get several spoken warnings from the docs first.  His weapon remained at ease, right where it had been for the past 2 hours.  The vitals monitor continued beeping at regular intervals, its pace changing just enough to be noticeable.

One of the surgeons raised both hands, handing off the clamp he’d been gently removing.  “All right, primary procedure is complete, ready for the chemicals.”  He looked over at Dr Culler, who nodded.

She then turned her gaze toward the small crowd watching from the foot of the bed.  “Dr Weather, start the first dose while they close up.”

One of the researchers stepped forward, inspecting one of the two steel stands that held plastic pouches of fluid above the table.  Each pouch had a tube running down into a computerized device that monitored the chemical mix precisely, allowing all those multi-colored cocktails to mix before travelling down another tube and into an intravenous entrance in the subject’s elbows.  Again, Jonas let his eyes wander along the lines of those tubes, then down toward the subject’s arms.

The elbow joints were uncovered, as was the chest- much of which was opened at the present time- but the face and shoulders were covered by an opaque white sheet, and the bed sheets were pulled up above the waistline.  Jonas was still unable to tell what kind of creature they were all working on.  He guessed that it was nearly 3 meters tall, and could tell it was mostly covered with short, auburn fur.  The oxygen mask under the head-sheet gave no clues to the facial structure.

Dr Weather had added two fluid bags to the tree he was inspecting, connecting their tubes to the mixing computer, then opening the plastic valves to allow the fluids to flow.  Most of the other liquids in the mix looked harmless, but one of the new ones almost seemed to glow, a weak blue-green radiance.  The other new liquid was jet black.

“Chemical process is starting.  Radiation additive will need three minutes to permeate the system, then the bacterial can go in.  After that, we can start the retrovirus.”  He looked over to Dr Culler, who locked eyes with him for a moment before continuing her patrol of the room.

Jonas met Dr Weather’s eyes in the next moment, and noticed something strange.  He’d become rather good at reading people, but the emotion he found in the researcher’s gaze wasn’t easy to classify.  The doctor turned back to the IV tree and the mix monitor, watching carefully even though the machines had clear instructions and would not fail to follow them.  Jonas’s mind filed the emotive gaze away as ‘stress’, and his eyes wandered back to the subject.

Then he noticed something else.  The researcher moved sideward, a little clumsily, nearly bumping one of the surgeons before stopping himself.  For just a moment, Jonas could see a stray IV tube running from the mix controller… to Dr Weaver’s pocket.  A red fluid was rushing through it, into the system and into the subject’s blood stream.  Jonas looked up to Dr Culler, but she had her eyes locked on the hands of the two surgeons as they closed the surgical wound they had been working on.  She had perhaps noticed the researcher’s stumble, but her focus was elsewhere.  When Jonas looked back to Dr Weaver, he had turned away from the IV tree and the table, and was working his way around to the other side of the subject, toward the other IV tree.  The rogue tube from his pocket was nowhere in sight.  Their eyes met, again, and the same look was in the researcher’s eyes.  This time, Jonas recognized it for what it was- resolve mixed with fear.

Jonas averted his gaze, looking back to the surgeons as they worked.  If he had just spotted something, he didn’t want to betray his knowledge just yet.  He might interrupt the procedure, and then if something had gone wrong, it would be his fault.  What he’d seen might have been nothing, some ordinary piece of the puzzle, something so common that the scientists didn’t bother to mention it… but from the way Dr Culler was orchestrating the procedure, he guessed that it was not.

The surgeons were both experts.  Jonas had only seen a few procedures such as these, and none had been executed with such precision.  The incisions were small, the stitches and laser-seams were tightly controlled, and when it was all over, the subject would have a scar so thin that it wouldn’t appear to have been from an open-chest procedure at all.  It would look more like a painful training accident- provided it would be visible once the hair had grown back.  They had nearly finished their work when Dr Culler called out the time.  Another of the researchers stepped up to the first IV tree, while Dr Weather stood at the second.

Dr Culler took a deep breath, then let it out sharply.  “How precise is the timing, by your estimate?”

Dr Weather looked up at her, then back to the mix controller.  “I estimate the bacterial will need 90 seconds to saturate the system- but after that we’ll only have 30 seconds to get the retrovirus in there.  His body will react to the added bacterial component, and resist the payload of the RV after that.”  He looked across the bed to the researcher hovering over the other mix controller.  “So we’ll start the RV 75 seconds after the bacterial.  We’ll lose some of the initial payload, but his system should be saturated at just the right times.”  He looked to the foot of the bed, where the third researcher stood next to another computer, mounted on a rolling stand and connected to a series of hoses.  These carried a precise mix of gases to the mask that the subject wore.  “Dr Gunerson, how’s his response to the anesthetics?”

She looked up from her monitor, then typed in a short series of commands.  Jonas could see over her shoulder, but couldn’t make any sense out of what she was looking at.  “Brain patterns are normal.  His dreams have been inactive for the past 15 minutes or so, otherwise there is no change.”

“Very well,” Dr Culler said, and she took a deep breath.  Jonas noticed excitement creeping into her eyes.  There was a disquieting fire inside her, and it was finally penetrating the ice-cold demeanor.  “Start the bacterial.”

Dr Weather looked across the table to his counterpart, who had just relayed Dr Culler’s command to the mix controller.  At first, there was no reaction, no change, but within 20 seconds the subject’s skin darkened slightly beneath his fur.  His breath pattern sped up slightly, but remained strong.  The vitals-monitor mounted to the wall above his head began to beat more rapidly, signaling a quickened pulse.

The surgeons looked up from their work, to Dr Culler.  The concern in their eyes was easy to read.  Dr Culler’s face remained steady.  “Reaction to the bacterial entering the system.  His body is deciding whether or not it needs to be fought off.”  The two surgeons returned to their work.

Dr Weather had been counting in his head.  His count had agreed with Dr Culler’s computer; his finger paused over the command button on the mix monitor for only a moment.  At the three beeps from Dr Culler’s handheld unit, he started the next part of the procedure.  He looked to Dr Culler for confirmation afterwards, and recieved a short nod before everyone turned their attentions back to the vitals monitor.

At that, the entire room went silent.  The surgeons stopped their work, not because they were finished, but because within a minute or two they would know whether or not their two hours of hard work were in vain.  All hands were still, all tools moved away from the subject, and all eyes were directed at the vitals monitor.

Another small beep sounded from Dr Culler’s computer.  She didn’t need to glance at it.  “Second monitor to cardiac tissue microscopic view,” she breathed.  One of the support staff took her eyes off of the vitals monitor, typing commands into the computer terminal nearest the door.  Beside the vitals monitor, another computer screen came to life, showing an alien landscape of blue, purple and green.  Jonas glanced around the room, knowing that everyone else was understanding precisely what they were looking at.

“This is it,” Dr Weather whispered, barely loud enough for Jonas to hear.  Dr Culler had heard it, and cast him a strange glance that Jonas couldn’t fathom. Jonas looked back to the subject, on the table, watching the creature’s chest rising and falling.

Then he noticed some movement below the sheets.  The subject’s hand was moving, twitching just slightly under the covers.  Jonas watched it for just a moment, then double-checked the settings on his rifle.  Many of the creatures these scientists played with would give little more warning than a twitching finger before springing into deadly action.

The click of his rifle’s switch snapped the scientists out of their trance.  Dr Culler’s glare was icy, but then her eyes followed Jonas’ to the table.  She looked confused for just a moment, then turned to the anesthesia controller.  “I’m seeing muscle spasms in the hands.  Anasthesia status?”

“Normal mix, but brain activity is changing.  Nothing unexpected, but rising rapidly.”

Dr Culler next looked to Dr Weather.  His eyes were locked on the monitors over the subject’s head.  “RV is entering cardiac tissue.”

The vitals monitor sounded an alarm.  Jonas tried to make sense of it, but no one in the room felt the need to say out loud what they were seeing on the screen.  He got no explanation until Dr Culler turned to the support staff at the foot of the bed and shouted.  Her ice-cold control was gone, replaced by fury.  “Why has his blood-acidity dropped so sharply?”

More alarms sounded from the vitals monitors.  Breathing had slowed to a dangerous level, and the heart rate was slowing, skipping beats every so often.  The creature’s hands were trembling violently now, rising off the table completely.

All the scientists in the room stood still.  The surgeons had done their part already; what was happening now was on a cellular level, beyond their skill with laser scalpels.  The support staff was mostly there to help monitor the subject.  The researchers there had pumped any number of chemicals into the subject’s blood, and they hadn’t come prepared to draw them all back out.  Jonas could see in their faces an expression very familiar to him.  There was nothing that any of them could do.  The procedure had failed, and the subject was about to die, and they couldn’t stop it from happening.

Dr Culler was the only one in the room who moved.  She gently pressed one of the surgeons aside, looking down at the subject and drawing his hand from beneath the sheets.  The violent twitching had subsided, and she gripped its hand tightly.  Her eyes had lost their fire momentarily, and Jonas caught himself wondering if she would begin to weep.

The vitals monitor reported heart failure.  The anesthesia operator hung her head, reading a fatal report of brain activity in her own monitor.  For a long moment, no one moved.  Then Dr Culler took a long, deep breath, and returned to her earlier, ice-cold state.  “Time of death,” she said, not asking the question, but signaling the rest of the room to continue with their procedures.  She set the subject’s hand back down on the table, and backed away.

The others set into motion again.  The researchers began rattling off bits of data, making a verbal record of the event.  The surgeons had moved toward the door, heading out to clean up again.  The support staff were collecting tools and supplies, placing them in jars of sanitizers and setting the jars on wheeled carts.  Jonas, near the door, was tapped on the shoulder.  A red-uniformed specialist was waiting for him to make way, and two more waited in the small entry area outside.  Between them was a large rolling cart, most of which was a composite box.

Dr Weather appeared behind Jonas after the cleaners had passed.  “Sergeant, I think your task is finished.”  Jonas nodded, and the two left the procedure room.  Jonas removed his helmet as they entered the hallway proper, but the air didn’t taste any better outside.  He was almost out of the lab block before he noticed Dr Weather was keeping pace beside him.

“How many of your procedures end up like that one did?” Jonas asked.  He knew it wasn’t his place to ask such direct questions of the science staff, but it seemed the only realistic way to break the ice.  The man obviously wanted to talk, to vent some of the stress of failure.

“More than you’d think, actually.”  Dr Weather shrugged.  “This is the cutting edge of genetic and chemical science, and while we test our theories in culture dishes and sealed environments, we still don’t know if they’ll work in a living body until we try.  We can’t look at this, or any experiment, as a complete failure, Sergeant.  Every time something goes wrong, it leads us closer to a success.”

“You learn more from a failure than a success,” Jonas replied.

“We’ve got a pile of data on what happened in there.  Once we go through it all, pinpoint the problem and solve it, then maybe… maybe next time.”  The researcher sighed.  “But I must say, this line of research doesn’t seem as fruitful as other things we could be doing.  Dr Culler wants us to find a way to make this work, but-“  He caught himself, looking over at Jonas.

“It’s all right, doc.  I know you can’t tell me much.  I don’t think I’d understand what you were doing if you spent all week laying it out.”
Dr Weather shook his head.  “No, its not that.  And yes, it is a complicated thing to explain.  No, what I was going to say is that we’re exhausting possibilities, one at a time, and I’m wondering how many more we’ll have to try before Dr Culler realizes that what she’s trying to do just…”  Here, the researcher stopped walking.  They were half-way back to the security checkpoint.
Jonas turned around.  He’d encountered Dr Weather many times, but he saw him differently now.  Before, he was just one of the docs that came down here to practice their wizardry, just a face.  He looked tired now, worn down, and older than Jonas knew him to be.  His hair had always had grey in it, but the color seemed to have faded even since they’d left the procedure room.
“I saw what you had in your pocket in there, doc.”
Dr Weather’s eyes didn’t falter.  There was no fear of discovery there, no regret or shame.  He merely nodded.  “Yes.  Well, there are several lines of research being examined in this building, and on this floor, that will cause us far more harm than good, Sergeant.  Dr Culler doesn’t always see these hazards clearly.  Neither does her boss.  But we’re working for the good of the Coalition.”  He turned, and began walking back toward his own lab block.

Jonas turned, putting his helmet back on, and rounded the corner to the main corridor.  When the security checkpoint was in sight, he used his helmet’s communication link to send a text-message to Dr Culler’s personal computer.  He knew she’d still have it in her hands.

Within 5 minutes, Dr Culler had arrived at the checkpoint.  “What is it, Sergeant?”  Her tone was friendly and patient, but made it clear he should come to the point.  She’d crossed half the complex at his request to meet.

Again, Jonas removed his helmet, then set it on the checkpoint counter.  He looked over at Baker, and the two exchanged nods.  As Jonas walked out into the corridor, Dr Culler fell into step beside him.  She was quite a bit shorter than him, but projected a strength and assertiveness that intimidated most people she met.  Her long, black hair had been let down since the procedure, falling down her back in waves.  She’d be an attractive woman in a photograph, Jonas thought… but her disposition in real-life dispelled whatever gift of beauty she’d been born with.

Jonas was uncomfortable talking to someone with so much authority, so he decided to get right to the point.  “Doctor, I saw Dr Weather add something to the chemicals in that procedure.”

She stopped in her tracks for just a moment, but then caught back up to him.  “Go on.”

“It was right at the end, when he was starting the chemicals.  You were both talking about the radiation and bacteria parts.  I don’t remember exactly what you called them.  Around that time, there was another tube running from his pockets to the machine he was working with.  The stuff inside it was red, but I didn’t see what it connected to.  I only got a glimpse of it.”  He paused for a moment, then turned to look at her.  “That’s all, doctor.”  They had walked a short circle around the Alpha laboratories, and were nearly back at the checkpoint.

She nodded.  “Sergeant, would you accompany me to the Gamma block, please?  You may need to pick up your helmet.”

“Certainly, doctor.”  And hearing that one command from her, Jonas knew how the rest of his shift was going to play out.  As they passed the checkpoint, he plucked up his helmet without slowing down.  Dr Culler was walking faster now, her eyes locked on the corridor before her and her hands tightening into fists.

Once his helmet was back on, Jonas re-entered the stream of communications traffic.  Baker had just instructed the security team to check in, and Jonas heard most of them calling out their location and status.  All was quiet on that floor.

As they entered the outer office area of Gamma block, Dr Culler didn’t slow down.  Jonas found himself trailing her, marching past the workstations of other scientists.  All eyes in the room were on Dr Culler, and every expression was terrified.  They’d seen her in this mood before, and they were all hoping she was angry with someone else.  Instead of shouting at an entire research team, she was focused upon one person alone.

Dr Weather was at his workstation, typing a personal note about the failed procedure.  Dr Culler called to him from 10 meters away, her voice loud enough both to carry across the room, and to get the attention of everyone in it.

“How many of them, Dr Weather?”

He paused in his typing, and turned in his chair as Dr Culler and Jonas approached.  He didn’t seem surprised in the least, not by either of them.  “Pardon?”

“What was it that you added to the IV mix in there?”

Dr Weather blinked, slowly.  Then he looked down at his lab coat, hanging behind him on the chair, drawing it around to his side and putting a hand into its pocket.  He drew out a small plexiglass vial with a built-in pump on its capped end.  Some of the red fluid was still inside.  He handed it to her, calmly.  His demeanor was beginning to rub off on Dr Culler- she was regaining her calm, but was becoming more cold with every heartbeat.

She looked at the vial for a moment, then returned her eyes to him.  “I wonder if I shouldn’t let Dr Paulder cut you apart for this,” she said, slowly and evenly.  “It took him 2 hours on the knife to prepare that subject for you.  You could have saved us all a lot of trouble, not to mention the life of the subject.”

“The life of the subject?” Dr Weather repeated.  “Since when has that been a concern, doctor?  If I had crippled the experiment sooner- which I had ample chance to do- you would have repeated the procedure again later.”

“It had to appear to fail on its own,” Dr Culler said, finishing his thought for him.  “So tell me.  How many of them?”

Dr Weaver didn’t answer.  He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.  His eyes were locked with Dr Culler’s- it was the first time Jonas had seen anyone meet her gaze when she was angry.

“How many of my experiments have you fouled?” She shouted.  “I’ll have to go back and repeat every one of them!”

“Perhaps the size of that task will convince you to abandon this line of experimentation, where my warnings have failed.”  Dr Weaver stood, slowly.  His voice was calm, and under complete control.  He, too, was making sure that everyone in the room could hear him clearly.  “Or perhaps one of them should succeed, so you can see the end effect that you have so desperately sought.  Presuming it doesn’t kill you when it gets off the table, you might learn your lesson from that.”

Dr Culler was quiet for only a moment, but then decided the conversation had gone on long enough.  “Sergeant, place Dr Weather under arrest on my authority.  The charge is high treason.  I’ll discuss this with Administrator Bradford, and see what his thoughts are on this matter.”

Jonas stepped forward to take Dr Weather’s arm, but the researcher surprised him by meeting him half-way.  He led Jonas out of the lab block, turning in the corridor toward the elevator lobby at the other end of the floor.  Jonas began issuing commands via his comlink, making a log of Dr Culler’s order and of the subsequent arrest.  Baker confirmed the orders, and a moment later another confirmation arrived from the incarceration block on Level 4.

“Baker, I’ll have to escort Dr Weather all the way there,” he said.  “The shift will be nearly over by the time I get back.”

“Roger, sarge.  I’ll keep your seat warm.  You didn’t have any drills planned for us tonight, did you?”

“No, but if you’re bored, you can make something up.  It’ll look good in your performance review.”

Baker chuckled.  “Roger.”

Dr Weather seemed to know when the digital conversation was over.  “I want you to know, Sergeant, that I don’t hold any ill will toward you.”

Jonas turned to look at him.  He knew the doctor couldn’t see his eyes through the face-plate of his helmet, but he seemed to be looking right into them anyway.

“You did what you thought was right, which is as much as anyone can ask.”

Jonas didn’t speak for a few more steps.  “Doctor, I don’t have the authority to do much about whatever you’re going to say, but you sound like you’ve got something to get off your chest.”

“I do indeed.”  The scientist sighed.  “I only wish that more people around here would do what you did, and do what they know to be the right thing.  Then perhaps the lunatics, like Dr Culler, wouldn’t be able to get away with such dangerous experiments.  I’ve been keeping her insanity in check for a long time now, and who knows what she’ll successfully create after I’m gone?  What if I were to tell you that what she has been working on, what you saw in that procedure room, goes against at least six of the regulations of the Coalition scientific code?”

Jonas shrugged.  “I’m not in a position to say anything about that, doc.  It’s above my pay grade.”

Dr Weather stopped suddenly, turning to face Jonas fully.  “Doing the right thing is never above your pay grade, Sergeant.  Not yours or anyone else’s.”  He turned again, continuing toward the elevator bank.  “If she and Bradford didn’t have everyone so cowed, so beaten down and intimidated, they’d never let things go this far.  They certainly wouldn’t allow it to go unreported.  But everyone here is in fear for their life.  They can’t even ask to get transferred out of here without drawing attention.  And what they saw in my office will only reinforce that.”

“So why get yourself caught, doc?” Jonas asked.  “I mean, you don’t have any regret at all, no remorse or guilt or anything.  You’re a smart man, and you pay attention to details.  Seems like you’re giving up.”

“I’m just tired, I guess.”  Dr Weather sighed again.  “I’ve been living in fear ever since I started working against these experiments of theirs, and it’s worn me down.  I’m just ready.”  He looked up at the ceiling, noting the color change as they approached the elevator lobby.

It happened so fast, Jonas barely had time to react.  By the time he was aware of the situation, Dr Weather had un-holstered the energy pistol on Jonas’s belt, dialed the weapon up to full power, and fired a single burst of energy into his own head.  The effect was catastrophic- the direct impact made most of his head simply disappear, and the residual heat had crisped all of his skin and tissue above the base of the neck.  Most of the arteries had been burned and cauterized shut, so there was little blood spilt.  And the doctor had stopped just under the leading edge of the blast-absorptive ceiling, which explained why he’d glanced upward a moment before.  He had wanted to make sure his suicide didn’t damage the building or hurt anyone else.  Aside from the shock of seeing it happen, Jonas couldn’t help thinking that it had been a relatively clean death.

The weapon fire had set off a handful of alarms, however clean it had been.  Jonas looked up and down the hallway, spotting three surveillance cameras all with a clear line of sight to his location.  Baker, back at the checkpoint, had probably known what was happening before his own Sergeant had.  Communication traffic intensified for a moment before Jonas started talking- other security points throughout the complex were going on alert, just in case.

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