Weave of Life
"God..." groaned Sandra, collapsing on the bed in the bedroom of the safe house as her "clothing" vanished.
"You still look like a doll," said Thea.
She glared at her... and changed into a man. A naked man. With an erection.
"Now, what happened? It better be good, too. I was making serious progress."
"Could you at least cover yourself?!"
Sandra not only whipped the beadspread up and over, but shifted to her default form. Thea took a deep breath, and began a quick, concise and clear recital of the essentials. Not skimping on the embarrassing part. By the time she was finished, Sandra was sitting up, looking alarmed.
"Okay, we call this in now. I mean, I'll call it in. You take your contingency form, grab some clothes and money. I'll do the same as soon as I finish. I don't know for certain Sir Roger will want us to pull out, but that's a good bet."
* * *
As things developed, that was a good bet. The rest of the team was left in place, operating at a lower-key status, while the pair of shapechangers returned to the island. They traveled together as man and wife. Sandra threatened to make Theo take the "wife" role but that was a bluff; she didn't want him playing a part he might have trouble with.
"So that's it," said Sir Roger, after hearing Theo's report in person. "He's found someone who knows where an old stash of Crescendin is held by the United States government. This actually fits with some of his previous behaviors."
"Would it still be good?" said Theo.
"The molecule is fairly stable. Keep the stuff cool, sealed and away from light, it will last indefinitely."
"What would the street value of this be?" said Sandra.
"He is far more likely to use it on people of his choice than to sell it," said Sir Roger, frowning in thought. "Or perhaps simply destroy it, to prevent possible competition. Which wouldn't be a bad thing, if we were certain that was his intent."
"It's known on the street as Power Urge, Trigger and a few less common names," said Jules Bokker, who was the liaison with US law enforcement. "It is not common, by any definition, but it's been escaping into the wild, so to speak, almost since it was invented. The first documented use outside the lab or trials was in 1949."
Bob Stańczyk, representing US intelligence agencies, spoke up.
"We're checking the backgrounds and whereabouts of every known member of this ring and all their associates. Of course, that's unlikely to get anything close to most of those involved. Even someone who knows nothing about the conspiracy could have provided the information on where this Crescendin is. Someone could have even innocently provided info they didn't know was secure. It's amazing how often that happens, especially with politicians..."
"You also need to learn specifically which variant is being sought," said Sir Roger. "If this is an old version - especially Variant Four - he might be planning a terrorist-type attack."
"Oh, God," said Jules, paling. "I hadn't even thought of that."
"I'm sure he said Variant Eight," said Theo.
"That doesn't mean that's what it actually is. The person you heard is likely not an expert."
"I just wish I could have tapped whoever that was who had the powers," said Theo, sourly. "He probably knew where the stuff was."
"From your description, I suspect that was Fairfax, himself," said Sir Roger, scowling. "In which case, you might have bitten off more than you were prepared to handle. Between his powers and his insanity he has defeated trained telepaths in the past."
"It wasn't Fairfax," said Bob, with a curt negating gesture. "We were watching that place very carefully."
"Fairfax has a disturbing ability to slip in and out of places unnoticed," said Sir Roger, hotly. "You cannot underestimate this man! He is talented, experienced and ruthless."
"For all we know, he can change appearance, too," said Theo, as this suddenly occurred to him.
"Or teleport. Or flow in through the sewer," said Sir Roger. He shook his head abruptly. "Most likely, based on previous evidence, he simply has some way of masking his presence, even from cameras. Which is why there are no known photos of him since he Triggered."
Theo could tell there was a lot of history between Michael Fairfax and Sir Roger Landsworth.
"All right," said Bob, reluctantly. "If it was Fairfax, I can see how getting a batch of Crescendin could very well be important enough to bring him out in person. Question is, would he stay around after your man blew it?"
"He hardly 'blew it,'" said Sir Roger, a bit hotly. "He got the information, and then had a bit of bad luck, compounded by his inexperience. What's important is that he learned a significant fact about what Fairfax is after and got that to us."
"If only we knew more about what Fairfax's plan is," said Jules, wistfully. "We have a general idea about the goals of the ring - to supply funds and material to people who will use them against people they see as America's enemies - but what does Fairfax want?"
"Well, my report may help with that," said Sandra. "The guy I was working on was hiring mules. He specifically wanted attractive women, though that may simply have been because he's a sexist pig. He wasn't supposed to give any details but he couldn't help bragging. I managed to learn that they would be used to smuggle 'packages' from Virginia to New York. The impression I had was that they were small and hard. He joked that they were jewels, but I'm pretty sure he was lying. I also found out the mules would be needed in eleven days, from today."
"Hold on," said Bob, raising a hand and sitting up. "I need to check something."
He pulled what looked like an oversized smart phone out of a jacket pocket and hit a speed dial button. After a few seconds he identified himself and asked to speak to "the disbursements officer." After a quick, quiet exchange he nodded and hung up.
"Okay, there's an auction of old government office and laboratory equipment in Virginia in nine days," he said, looking smug after the cryptic exchange. "One of the identified ring members we haven't picked up yet works for the agency handling the auction, which is how I know about this. I can't get a list of the items; federal law says that's kept confidential without a warrant until it is handed out to the bidders the day of the auction. The warehouse where the stuff is being stored until then is likewise off limits. I'm pretty sure that getting a warrant - or even just showing up at the site - would tip off their man. However, I'm also pretty sure I can get access for some of us - the number to be determined later - to inspect the places where this stuff came from."
"If you can get even a list of the facilities the goods came from, I may be able to select the best ones to visit," said Sir Roger.
"That I can do."
Inside an hour they were poring over several copies of a three-page list. Theo quickly learned that he was no good for this task; all the names were pretty innocuous, and required someone familiar with spook work to recognize.
"Wasn't DalHill Pharmaceuticals a CIA cover?" said Sir Roger.
"I'm surprised you know that," said Bob, with a displeased look. "Yes, it was. It was sold to an international research consortium after Congress closed down some black projects back in the early Eighties; the new parent company went bankrupt a few years later, taking DalHill with it. I think the building was actually demolished for a shopping center, so there won't be a visit. However, all the secure stuff was supposed to have been destroyed except for one set of documents on microfilm."
"That sounds familiar," said Theo.
"Yes, but the inventory of what was transferred from secure storage to the auction warehouse says nothing about microfilm or paper documents," said Jules, tapping the paper.
"May I?" said Sir Roger, holding his hand out.
Jules passed over the printout. Sir Roger leafed through it, stopped briefly, continued to the end, then went back.
"Here," he said, putting the printout on the table and jabbing a finger at one line. "Morphine ampules."
"Could that be Crescendin, instead of morphine?"
"I'd bet a considerable sum on that being the case," said Sir Roger, nodding.
"So, we need to figure out a way to switch it for something else, and plant a bug in the case," said Jules, nodding.
"Legal access is probably out of the question," said Bob, frowning in thought. "Non-legal access would be very difficult."
He looked expectantly at Sir Roger.
"Let's take a moment to think this through," Sir Roger said. "Morphine is restricted and its trade very closely monitored. Who on the list of attendees would be qualified to purchase it?"
"Nearly half the list," said Bob, sourly. "They don't know ahead of time what will be offered, but the bid invitations are based on ability to properly and legally use or sell at least some of the materials being auctioned."
"Ah. Well, if you could arrange to acquire an appropriate case of morphine ampules, I do believe we might have the resources to make the switch."
Bob peered at the description in the paper. Then pulled out his satellite phone again.
* * *
Getting the case to the island took five days. Theo wasn't a witness to the actual operation, but he knew that Thad (Nightpool) Barstowe made the substitution. Theo specifically requested to be present when the case of Crescendin was opened; he'd never actually seen it, except briefly, in a syringe, right before his IV was injected.
"There's a command-activated bug in the case we substituted," said Bob, looking very satisfied with himself, as Sir Roger examined the pilfered case. "Thing's as close to undetectable as we can make it. That's just the backup, of course. With our people and your people watching who gets the package and where they take it, that probably won't even be turned on."
"I suggest anyone who hasn't already had a dose of this step back," Sir Roger announced. "The seal is intact, the case appears undamaged and I don't hear anything rattling, but there's no sense taking chances. The ampule form of Crescendin is so concentrated that a tiny splatter on the skin could cause a reaction."
Bob and Jules nervously took several long steps backwards, towards the door to the large room. Theo grinned as he realized he didn't need to. Sir Roger snipped the wire holding the seal and pried the stiff latches open. He looked inside for a moment, then carefully selected and pulled out an ampule. He examined it, and turned to the agents.
"Morphine," he said, holding the small glass container out towards his audience.
"Son of a bitch," said Bob, in quiet fury. "They switched the stuff out before we did."
"Assuming we were right. I think you need to contact the CIA and find out just what was removed from that laboratory for storage. I believe we can definitely make a need-to-know claim."
"I hope we can get the info quickly," said Jules. "We still don't even know if there was Crescendin involved, or if they want something else in the auction."
* * *
Three more long, anxious days passed before the CIA finally provided a heavily redacted list. Fortunately, since Bob had been specific in their request, the portion giving the drugs, chemicals and related materials was mostly intact. Theo was included in the group examining the list because he could mimic Sir Roger. The younger man's presence had been the older's idea; he had noted to Theo away from the feds that two super-geniuses would be better than one at analyzing the information.
"Here we go," said Sir Roger, after a few minutes of examination. "'Crescendin +T.' What the Hell is 'Crescendin +T'?!"
The fact that the man who was arguably the world expert on Crescendin had no idea didn't bode well for anyone else there knowing, and indeed they didn't. Bob pulled out his phone again. This time he needed over two hours before reaching someone who presumably could provide the information, only to be told flatly that the information was above his clearance level.
"It may be above mine, jerk," he muttered to himself, as he hit a speed dial button, "but I know some people in high places."
This time he was very formal and even deferential, explaining the situation and giving a name and number to whomever he was speaking to. Bob thanked his contact and cut the connection, again looking smug. Nine and a bit minutes later, his phone rang.
"Yes? Oh, hello. Yes, yes, no problem. No, wait; let me put our expert on."
He handed the phone to Sir Roger.
"I need all the information you have on this drug, including any research notes. Because it has been stolen by terrorists and we need to know what we're dealing with. Well, if it's on paper you'll just have to fax it. If you don't have an aide or secretary of high enough clearance, do it yourself. This is, indeed, urgent, and potentially very important. Yes, thank you."
He gave a fax number and handed the phone back.
"Yes, sir. Thank you for your cooperation. I'll be sure to mention to Mrs. Stearns how helpful you were."
He put his phone away and smiled at the others.
"Well, shall we go check the fax machine?"
Printing the documents on the machine in Sir Roger's office took over an hour and a half, and they had to top off the paper tray twice. The most frustrating part was that the documents were sent in chronological order, and included a vast amount of bureaucratic and clerical material before they got to the actual technical data. Still, they learned something important with the first page.
"So, the US did try to develop their own version of Crescendin," said Sir Roger. "Interesting."
They worked in shifts, always leaving at least two people to review each page as it dropped into the tray.
"I really hope there's no communications failure on either end," muttered Theo, forty-five minutes along.
Fortunately, he didn't jinx them.
"Their approach is interesting," said Sir Roger, after sixty-three minutes. "They obviously reviewed all previous work and decided to try a different tack. Can't say I blame them. I've actually done the same thing, and plan to do so again. However, I don't like what they're trying to do with this carboxyl group. We tried something like that back in Fifty-Two and discovered there was a very high chance of getting the wrong end product as a contaminant."
Pages continued to come out, far more slowly than Sir Roger or Theo were reading them. Sir Roger began watching the pages as they extruded from the printer, reading each page from the bottom up and reassembling it in his head.
"Worse and worse. Their version was very unsafe, even without the contaminant."
When the reports of the animal tests came out he whistled.
"Well, I can see why they abandoned the project. While there was a very high success rate - nearly thirty percent presented distinct physical changes - the mortality rate was over forty percent. Moreover, nearly all the survivors who displayed a change showed gross physical deformities."
"Oh, dear God..."
He sat, suddenly, looking ill.
"What?" several people demanded.
"They went ahead with human tests. On condemned military prisoners, yes, but... All of them died. All of them."
More sheets came out of the printer, presenting both more information and more cause for concern.
"Here's the reason for the mortality discrepancy," said Sir Roger, holding up a page from one of the last reports to come out of the fax machine. "Over half the test animals were female; all the human subjects were male."
"Testosterone was a factor?" said Theo.
"Yes. Hence the +T designation. Which was added later."
"How would this stuff affect, well, us?" said Theo.
"I have no idea. I will have some animal tests run to find out, now that we have the formula."
"So what do we do in the mean time?" said Theo.
"You have more training to take," said Sir Roger, pointedly. "You did well for your current level of expertise but there is definite room for improvement."
"Yeah," said Theo, with a reluctant sigh.
"You look tired," said Bob.
"I could really use a Budget Burger," said Theo, wistfully.
"I suggest we all take a break," said Sir Roger. "Get some food, contact those appropriate. Then, we must plan."
That's it. This was intended as a stand-alone story which would lead into a longer one. I even made a few notes on what came next. However, other projects came along and this was put aside.
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