Masks 18: Part 10

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Rodford Edmiston

Part Ten

Randy led his family on a leisurely walk to the volcano, on a path which took them through the dormitory section of the school. He and Karen waved casually at the few adults and students they saw. One in particular caught Roy's attention.

"Who's that girl and why is she gray?" he asked, making no attempt to keep his voice down.

"That's Hazel," said Randy, quietly. "Her body is largely iron. She's one of our rescues. She finished high school here and is now one of our physical trainers."

"I remember you telling me about her," said Karen, softly. "Also how much she was upset by her friend's death in the war."

"Allessandra," said Randy, nodding. "That may have been the only noble thing she did in her whole life. It wasn't even completely selfless, since Hazel was her friend and being endangered by the attackers."

"Well, I consider that selfless," said Karen, firmly.

"Anyway, she's a lot better after so much time here, among other supers and people used to dealing with and caring for them. It helped that she had other friends - most of them on the island - and a couple of boyfriends. Now, we need to take that next left..."

* * *

At the new hospital, a surgical procedure was taking place under the baleful green glow of a neutralizer.

"I hate working in these suits," muttered Dr. Harvest, absently, as he carefully worked to expose the cyst. "Normal gloves are okay - can even amplify the apparent size of things and improve grip under the right situations - but..."

After examining two sets of ultrasounds and a CAT scan, Dr. Harvest had decided that instead of performing a biopsy he wanted to try and excise the grape-sized, fluid-filled pocket entire, along with what appeared to be some sort of short tail. He was worried that it might be a contained tumor and that rupturing it would spread some disease throughout the patient's body.

"They're for the patient's protection as much as yours," said Dr. Nief, over the PA of the contagious ward's operating theater, as he faded away. She wondered at his sudden quiet; he normally talked during surgery to ease his tension. He had been invited to join this hospital - and had very eagerly accepted - because he was arguably the world's leading expert on alternate biology and - most importantly in this case - physiology in superhumans.

They had confirmed that Justice Dagger had been poisoned with a neurotoxin, a synthetic version of a tetrodotoxin found in puffer fish. They now knew he had also been moved from wherever he had been originally drugged, then placed in the alley where he was found. Investigators in New York were still trying to determine if he had been taken anywhere else between those locations.

"This... looks artificial," said Dr. Harvest, quietly. "Also very fragile."

Well, that explained why he had stopped talking.

Dr. Nief immediately became more alert, and leaned forward as she tried to think if there was anything else they should do, given this revelation. However, the whole ward was already sealed and everyone in it except the patient in protective suits. She opened her mouth to ask a question, then thought better about disturbing the surgeon.

"It looks like it was implanted empty laparoscopically, then filled from an external reservoir. All that showed externally was an insertion point, barely more noticeable than a vaccination. It's firm, probably stretched taut. I'm not sure it can be removed intact."

He spent several minutes looking all around the object. Then reexamined the MRI and CT images. Then he looked back at the actual item.

"We should be safe in these suits, but the patient is at risk. I think I can remove this intact if I excise the tissue around it. That will support the object and hold it together. The patient will have a longer, more difficult recovery, but since we don't know what's in this thing I believe that is the right decision."

"It's your call, doctor," said Dr. Nief.

"I'll remove it. Though first I'll spray a fixative on the object and the tissues around it."

That took time, since a container of the appropriate substance had to be sterilized and introduced through an airlock. Soon, though, the reinforcing spray had set and Dr. Harvest set very carefully to work.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nief realized this might be part of a larger assault against the island, and hurriedly called Security.

* * *

All of Pine Island was a geologic shambles. The main substance of the island had been raised from the deep seafloor by Pine's graviplanor. The surface had originally been a mass - and mess - of seafloor silt with occasional bits of rock showing through, supported above the waves by the pressure of the magma plume Pine had pulled up under it. It had even continued growing - though slowly - for more than a decade after he shut his device down. How he had kept the whole thing from simply falling apart from the actions of wind and wave and gravity had been carefully detailed in his notes, but half the geologists who read them claimed they were pure fiction.

Biologically the island was also rather strange. Pine had covered the more public sections with topsoil and seeded and planted to create an idyllic scene. For the rest he used chemical methods to draw out and sequester the salt so it would wash away easily in the rain, then seeded what remained with a plant mix mostly made of salt-tolerant species. The animals came later. He'd had plans for a staged development of the growth on the island through several decades. However, his exposure as a dangerous criminal mastermind and the subsequent seizure of his assets had put that on hold. Instead, the island's biology had developed on its own, with only occasional help or hindrance by humans. The result was pleasantly wild.

The hill the Devons currently walked on was largely consolidated sediment, but decades of weathering and plant growth had resulted in a robust soil which produced reasonably solid ground. On this had been placed a high-traction pathway of some substance the gadgeteers had literally cooked up, supplemented with steps and handrails in the steepest portions.

Randy marveled at his family as they walked the steep path up the flank of the hill overlooking the volcano. Roy - already seven and a half years old - no longer aped Randy's powers... or Template's. In fact, he didn't seem to remember doing so, or that he had spent some time as a girl. He accepted his parents' powers - and those of some of their friends - as a matter of routine, and was surprisingly good at keeping the double lives involved secret.

Finally, they reached the lookout. This was a raised platform at a - presumably - safe distance from the artificial volcano. Even so, there was an occasional whiff of hot, sulfurous air when the wind was right. The peak of the volcano had originally stood higher, but simple erosion - augmented by a few super fights - had broken it down until it was now only the second highest point on the island.

"There," said Randy, pointing. "You can see the divot in the crater rim where Energex hit, then down there where the side was patched after the lava got the demons. The lava lake has cooled so much over the years that it's not even glowing, now. Though sometimes you get a crack with still-molten lava oozing out."

"Deeee-maaaaans!" shouted Sarah, bouncing in the baby carrier strapped to Randy's chest. At nearly a year and a half old, she was a bit precocious in some areas, and a bit behind in others. Some of which may have been due to her being slightly premature, though the doctors doubted that. According to them, kids her age rarely matched the average in all things. Neither did kids of any age, for that matter.

Like her brother, she had mimicked her mother's powers when in close contact. In her case, though, her mother was Karen/Colossa. That ability had fortunately faded quickly. A giant baby desperately needing a change was almost as much of a panic inducer as a shrunken one the parents worried about losing in the couch.

"Cool!" said Roy, beaming as he leaned forward, looking through the fencing which ran between the adult-chest-high safety rail and the platform.

"Not cool," said Karen. "A lot of people got hurt - many of them badly - before that."

"Also, lava?" said Randy. "Very hot. Even when it's crusted over like that is."

"Not funny," said Karen, rolling her eyes.

Randy - and Karen, to a lesser extent - talked about the history of the island and how the volcano was slowly dying because the pool of magma pulled to just under the surface by Pine was cooling.

"Another thirty or forty years and there won't be anything molten left, at least above sea level," said Randy. "The magma deep underground should stay liquid for several more decades, but it will also eventually solidify, since it's a pretty small amount as such things go and not being replenished. Though the solidified mass would still be very, very hot for a lot longer."

"Are you gadgeteer channeling, again?" said Karen, teasing.

"Nah. I just pay attention when people talk about this thing. In large part because of our thermoelectric plant. We'll eventually have to shut it down, once the magma cools enough."

They walked back down the steep path. Since they were already heading that way, Randy took them past the old Project Standby base. The jungle had been cleared for a good distance around it and a fence erected well inside the clearing.

"The UN took it over as their base on the island," Randy explained. "I could arrange a tour, but, really, there's not much of interest to see since the last of the Myrmidons was removed and scrapped."

"Miiiiir-meeeee-donnnnsss!" shouted Sarah.

"I hope she learns soon that she doesn't have to yell when she's practicing new words," said Karen, wincing. "I'm starting to wonder if she'll have sonic powers."

"Hey, I'm the one with her strapped to his chest!"

"Speaking of which, that carrier is too small for her, now."

"She doesn't seem to mind. Though, yeah, if we weren't going over so much rough terrain I would have let her walk."

"You mean run," said Karen, grinning. "You just didn't want to have to keep catching her."

"Maybe we should get one of those harnesses with the leash."

Randy waved to one of the armed UN security guards as they walked past and on to the coast.

"There's the rock which got hit by that missile which was chasing me."

All of them had seen the actual school before, and the oldest three had been in the long repurposed Pine base. Randy therefore simply walked them around the island, showing them the natural sights and a few non-natural highlights. Finally, with lunch nearing, they took a path from a secluded beach and headed back to the bungalow cluster.

"What is it?" said Karen, as noticed Randy looked thoughtful.

"Just realizing how small this island really is. It seems bigger, partly due to the variety of terrain and partly because some of it is so heavily overgrown, but it's only a few hectares. C'mon; it's getting near lunch. Let's get back to the bungalow."

However, as they approached the cluster of low buildings they were intercepted by the head of island security.

"Just letting you know there's a medical emergency at the hospital," said Lori Savage. "We are under a quarantine alert."

"Already?!" said Randy. He sighed in exasperation. Then became very alert. "Wait, this won't endanger our kids, will it?"

"Not according to the medical experts. The hospital called a lockdown about half an hour ago due to a contagious patient, but he arrived in a sealed transfer unit and wasn't taken out until he was in the special containment section of the hospital. This is just a precaution. As part of this we are also locking down the entire island, just to be safe."

Randy and Karen thanked her and continued on to the bungalow

"I think I better get changed and go check on this."

"Go on, honey," said Karen, giving him an affection peck on the cheek.

Randy left, walking quickly to a small clearing he knew of, a place near a beach with heavy brush all around. There he shifted to Template. Though access to the island was strictly monitored, some means of egress still had a few gaps. These weren't as many or as easy to use as some students thought, but there were places where a single person could leave without being noticed. Of course, Template would later have to work out some subterfuge with those who knew she was also Randy to balance the books, so to speak, in order for him to rejoin his family. Sometimes she hated this double life nonsense. She hurried into the sea and flew under water along a narrow crevice out a few klicks before surfacing to fly back in.

Template called island traffic control, letting them know who she was and where she was going. She started for the hospital, then realized that though her flight had dried her she was definitely a bit fishy. A quick trip to the teachers' showers, an exit through the full-body blow dryers - in full costume the whole time; it could take it - followed by a quick brush of her hair and she was presentable. Template then went to the main entrance of the medical center and checked with security to make certain she could safely come in. Soon she was in Dr. Nief's office. The physician briefed the super on the patient and the "cyst".

"It was safely removed and placed in our level 4 biohazard containment lab," she finished.

"That's good news," said Template, relaxing and finally sitting. "I just hope it stays good."

"Well, we didn't discover anything else which shouldn't have been in his body and he's responding to treatment. We even went over the transport capsule very thoroughly, just to make sure."

"You spoke with the hospital which sent him?"

"Yes. They're checking in multiple ways - including taking cultures from his costume and bedding and even in the alley where he was found - and so far have found nothing alarming. Of course, we're still identifying what was in that synthetic cyst. It could be harmless; I wouldn't bet on that."

"When will the quarantine be lifted?" said Template.

"Another hour or two. We want to be completely certain, since we're dealing with an unknown."

The costumed woman sighed and shook her head.

"This... How could someone do this? There's several hundred people on this island, including some children!"

"It takes a special kind of mind," said Dr. Nief, angrily. "A type which needs chemical correction."

"It's like Alice Clarke told the press," said Template, still astounded at the method of this attack. "She said Gibbons was planning to destroy the school, through the hospital, though she didn't know how. I thought she meant either finding a way to cut our funding or shutting it down on a pretense... that it wasn't up to code, or something. This, though! This!"

* * *

The next day arrived with no further scares. Karen and Randy packed their belongings and children and took the underground shuttle to the terminus on the mainland where they had left their car.

"It's hard to believe this is ours," said Randy, as he closed the rear door of their minivan on the last of the luggage. "I still don't understand why we bought it in white!"

"Cream, dear," said Karen. She laughed, and took a quick look around before moving a bit closer and speaking quietly. "Have you noticed that both your color discrimination and color vocabulary are better when you're Template?"

"Voooooh-cab-ary!" shouted Sarah.

"No, I hadn't," said her father - well, technically mother - startled. "I'll have to check that."

"Later. Right now, you're driving."

* * *

Despite wanting to relax after returning to their home, Randy had responsibilities on the island. These were especially pressing after the attempted biological attack, meaning that instead of another couple of days off he - as Template - needed to return today. After a minimum of time back home helping to unpack and then to decompress a bit, he changed to Template and flew off.

Once at the school she joined with Eve for a meeting with Dr. Nief and some of the hospital staff. In the meeting they learned that a surprising amount had been uncovered about both what had happened to their patient, and the boobytrap embedded in his body. Much of this new information was dire, indeed.

"The virus in that pouch is incredibly dangerous," said microbiology specialist Dr. Carl Dunning. Thanks in large part to gadgeteer equipment provided to his lab here, he had completed both an initial RNA scan and run multiple computer models on the virus. "It targets a gene sequence known to be in nearly all active supers. Unfortunately, it is also in a significant portion of the dormant super population, as well as many, many more who do not have enough super genes to ever develop powers. Which would be at least a hundred million people on the planet as a whole. It also shows a disturbing characteristic of mutating through generations, changing which gene complex it affects. Our models show that before it evolved into being simply another contagious virus it could have killed at least a billion. Even once it so mutated, it would still cause serious illness, and more casualties.

"I have to believe that whoever sent it against us didn't know just what they were using," he finished.

"It could have killed a substantial fraction of the human population," said Dr. Nief, quietly. "It was that virulent and that unconstrained."

"Wow..." said Template, stunned speechless.

"How are you coming with a defense against this contagion?" said Eve, getting right to the most important point.

"It's very virulence is making treatment easy, once we figured out what affected it," said Nief. "We've only worked with lab animals so far, but the response was consistent. Dose the patient with the appropriate antiviritics and the infection is effectively over in a few hours. Of course, in those few hours it can very easily destroy enough of the target's cells to kill someone. Without those - still uncommon, unfortunately - medications even supers with boosted immune systems have little chance.

"In addition to those working on finding what existing treatments work, we have three teams here and several others around the world working on both vaccines and specifics. We need to immunize as many people as possible as quickly as possible. We particularly need something which acts more quickly than the available antiviritics and with fewer side effects. As it is, there is so little time between infection and permanent damage that we have to flood the patient with three different medications. Any one of these can cause problems at these doses, and together... Well, the patient might survive and make a full recovery from the virus but they'll be sick for weeks just from the treatment!"

Template stood and began pacing. She was obviously furious. The others present said nothing, not sure how to react. Finally, she stopped, turning towards them.

"This school is my life's work. Even leaving aside this... incompetent attempt which could literally have killed billions, it is under threat from multiple sources. What? Do? We? Do?"

"For now, gather all the information we can," said Eve, with deliberate patience and calmness. "Not just about this attempt, but about anything which might be connected to this and other attempts. I know it's frustrating to wait for more information, but premature, rash action could make things worse."

Template sighed, visibly relaxed and nodded. Eve gave her a cold smile.

"Don't worry. The time will come for action. Given the fanaticism of some of those arrayed against us, that will likely include some very cathartic violence."

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