Masks 18: Part 11

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I was under the weather Friday and rather sick Saturday. See the October 7 post at: https://stickmaker.dreamwidth.org/ for a brief account.

I'm feeling better today, and posting the next installment as scheduled.

Masks XVIII

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part Eleven

"If our new facility hadn't been ready," said Dr. Nief, "the referring hospital would have treated him. I've spoken with the chief surgeon there and he admits they would not have taken the precautions we did."

"If our people hadn't been at the top of their game, due to this being our first emergency patient," said Template, "if we hadn't had a world class surgeon and facilities, if..."

"Yes," said Lori Savage, not minimizing what Template was saying but not wanting to dwell on it. "Luck was very much with us this time. You can believe I am taking measures to make certain luck never plays such a big role again."

"My question is, what is our next step?" said Eve.

"We have to keep this quiet for as long as we can," said Lori. "Tell the CDC and a few others, but make sure they know it needs to be kept quiet."

"Agreed," said Eve.

She looked around, and all the others also agreed.

* * *

The school notified appropriate health monitoring agencies at both the US government and the UN. By consensus, there was no press release from any of the organizations involved. The agencies the hospital contacted unanimously agreed that there should be no public notice. This was partly to avoid a public panic, partly to avoid a hasty response from some organization due to pressure from non-medical personnel, and partly to keep whoever was behind this virus in the dark. Part of the reason for this measured response was that two different groups - one of them at the Academy's Amazonia Memorial Hospital, under the supervision of Dr. Dunning - had already developed potential vaccines. Those would be tested and at least one proven to work before the news was released.

However, a scoop of this type was very tempting, and some people yield easily to temptation. It took a good three days, but the news broke. Yet there was still no official announcement on the attack from the new US administration. Finally, at a previously scheduled press conference, reporters had an opportunity to bring the matter out into the open. Unfortunately, the new President was reluctant to take it seriously.

"Let me get this straight," said Gibbons, smiling nastily at the reporter who had asked the question, as he spoke in an exaggerated version of his usual mild drawl. "Some mad scientist on that island cooked up a killer bug, they barely got it under control before it killed everybody there and maybe on the mainland, and now they're saying 'Don't worry. Just take this shot and you'll be fine.' Right."

"Sir, the evidence says..."

"They don't have any evidence! If they do, where is it? Why haven't I seen it? Why haven't they given it to the police? No, this is just another mess the masks have caused which they're trying to cover up."

"Mr. President, the school reported this to the CDC..." one reporter began.

"This is like that whole Shilmek attack," said Gibbons, apparently not hearing. "If they hadn't aggravated them, they wouldn't have had any reason to come here! Leave diplomacy to the diplomats! Self-appointed ambassadors - even if they are supers - have no official standing!"

Several reporters were now on their feet, some of them trying to shout answers to Gibbons own questions, to contradict his claims. The President spoke loudly, and they quieted.

"No, this is just more evidence that that school needs to be erased from the surface of the Earth and the kids put under proper supervision. For all we know that virus was somebody's science project!"

"Getting back on topic," said a respected senior news commentator, quickly and loudly enough to head off the President's claims that this wasn't the actual top+-ic, "the revelations from Alice Clarke were already causing you to lose popular and party support. There's no evidence - despite loudly voiced suspicions - that you were yourself involved in the attempted biological warfare attack against the school. However, some of the evidence has been traced back to your Vice President, Carl Donner. For several months between you choosing him and the actual election, he was in contact with an old friend who at that time was in charge of several black programs. Exactly what those programs were working on is not available - all Freedom of Information Act requests have been ignored - but previously revealed programs have, indeed, worked on bioweapons, often in violation of international treaty."

"Carl Donner is a noble human being," said Gibbons, actually seeming insulted. "Alice Clarke is a liar who worked for me just long enough to acquire a patina of respectability. A patina which has now worn completely away."

There was a confusion of shouted questions. Satisfied he had blunted this attack on him and his office, Gibbons smiled and walked away, waving amiably.

* * *

The staff of the Pine Island Academy had good reason to pay attention to this press conference. Two days later they had a meeting to discus it, and matters related to it.

"In spite of the recommendations of the CDC and several other governmental and non-governmental health agencies, the new administration is not only not helping with the vaccinations, but actively working against them," said Template, not happy but not surprised, either.

"That's about the size of it," said Dr. Nief, nodding. "The CDC is spearheading a voluntary campaign but so far can't get any of the pharmaceutical companies to make the vaccine, because the President won't get behind it. However, several non-US governments are taking this threat very seriously - some of the enemies of the US because they claim this proves we plan to use biological weapons against them - and are looking into both manufacturing our vaccine and developing their own."

"I'd love to know where this stuff actually comes from," muttered Junker. "I know that with modern lab equipment a small but talented team could make this in a few months, but..."

"Not this," said Dr. Dunning, firmly. "This is more like a something from a poorly overseen black project. One with substantial funding. As was brought up in that news conference, and denied by Gibbons."

"I'll get my contacts on that," said Template.

"As will I," said Eve, her tone rather more sinister.

"I think part of the problem we're seeing with the new administration," said Junker, "is due to the giggle factor Gibbons and his people have for anything the least bit unconventional. 'A virus which could kill billions of humans in a few months. Suuuurrreee. Write it up for the next Skiffy Channel movie.' I am very glad the war came before they were in charge. They'd have been denying it was happening even as the Secret Service tried to evacuate Gibbons."

"You definitely have a point," said Template, nodding slowly. "That could also be why there's been no official response to the magic problem. Though I think that's a good thing."

"Part of what's going on with the magical creature incursion situation is that after that rash of events a couple of years ago things got very quiet," said Lori. "Magic just dropped off the radar for most folks. Again."

"Has there been any decision on what to call this bug?" said Junker.

"The Black Virus," said Dr. Dunning, quietly.

"How is the island vaccination program coming along?" said Eve, after the moment of silence following that.

"We only started this morning," said Dr. Dunning. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I hope you understand that we aren't used to working this quickly. If it weren't for the combination of need and the new tools we have available - in part due to Lunie and Shilmek contributions by way of our own gadgeteers - developing an effective vaccine would take at least months. However, we should have half the inhabitants vaccinated by this evening."

"How about people like Hazel, who can't be injected normally?" said Dr. Nief.

"We should have a nasal inhalation version by the end of the week. Though those with metabolisms as radically altered as hers don't actually have anything to worry about. They can't even be carriers, except by external contamination, where vaccination wouldn't help."

"What worries me," said Lori, "is whether whoever set this up was careful enough."

"A valid concern," said Dr. Dunning, nodding. "However, given the sophistication of the attack the odds are good they took proper precautions. If nothing else, we haven't seen a rash of mysterious super deaths."

* * *

Alvin Montgomery fumed at the lies. The virus would only affect supers, not normal people, like him! His contact had sworn this or he wouldn't have used it! Yet even President Gibbons was repeating what the supers were saying about that weapon, even as he refused to believe it came from outside the school!

Montgomery was particularly aggravated that this plot had failed. He'd started it well before the election, knowing he would need time to covertly maneuver those he'd chosen for the task into thinking the plan was their own idea. After admitting the virus ploy against the school had somehow failed, he'd attempted to get more from his contact. He wanted to try again before the supers could convince the government to develop a vaccine against it - them having already made their own was obviously a lie; they hadn't had the time. Unfortunately, he was told that there simply was none. That had been the only sample. Montgomery himself had never come near the virus, instead having it shipped to one of his agents in a roundabout manner. Even the doctor who had done the work had carefully maintained containment, then sterilized all his equipment as part of destroying the evidence of the operation.

The original black project which developed it had been shut down due to budget cuts and all the documents put in storage while the equipment had gone to other projects. That one sample had been made and put into a freezer, months before Montgomery became involved. His highest-placed government agent had worked for half a year on this for him, and this was the result! All wasted!

The supers had found who poisoned Justice Dagger and taken him to have the pouch implanted. They weren't surprised to learn the attackers were a group of his enemies, people who had teamed up against him before. They all denied any involvement, of course. Even if they cracked, they thought the pouch would poison their foe over several days; not spread an anti-super virus. Fortunately, due to to the Secret Keeper's precautions the trail ran cold past there. The lab where the villains had taken Justice Dagger for the procedure turned out to be an old candy floss factory, abandoned for years, with no sign of recent use. The doctor who provided the drug and the virus and performed the procedure had operated under a fake ID, and was nowhere to be found.

Well, he had other ways to attack that school! Though with so many projects already underway they might have to wait for a while. That was probably for the best. A hiatus would lull their suspicions.

* * *

Template was busy with the usual problems which came with school getting back in session. That included attending the daily briefing in her boss' office given by someone from security, just to help them keep on top of things. Today, as usual, the meeting was with Lori Savage, head of security.

"Did you hear that Alice Clarke is missing?" said Lori, as she sat in the chair across from the Principal's desk and beside Template's seat.

"Was she killed or is she in hiding?" said Eve, startled, leaning forward.

"No telling, yet. However, Homeland Security has a warrant for her arrest, for spreading lies about Gibbons and Donner."

"So is Gibbons honestly trying to find her to punish her," said Template, slowly, "or is this a bluff to cover up the fact that he's had her kidnapped or killed?"

"Again, there's just not enough information yet to tell which," said Lori.

* * *

Gibbons was coming to hate press conferences. People kept rudely shouting questions about things he wasn't there to discuss. They also kept coming back to topics he'd already made clear he wouldn't talk about, time after time. What did it take to satisfy some people?! Or, failing that, to quiet them?

At least this one was at the capital building, after a scheduled talk to that assembly. He'd had a good reception from the adults. Now to try the kiddies.

Almost immediately, it went sour. Not only were the idiots asking questions about things long settled, a few kept asking about Alice Clarke.

"I haven't heard from her since she quit," said Gibbons, flatly. "I've heard a bit about her, but nothing of substance. If she has disappeared, good riddance. Maybe she finally came to her senses and shut up. Or maybe her fifteen minutes of fame are just over!"

He was still fuming as he left the front portico and headed inside. In his preoccupation he walked past architectural marvels of polished marble and carved sandstone without noting them. With his entourage of aides and Secret Service he hurried on a path intended to deter reporters from following.

It worked. However, he soon discovered that had more to worry about this day than the Press. The President was walking towards the exit where his limo was waiting when Senator Wyler approached.

"We need to talk," said Wyler, giving Gibbons few options by taking his arm and guiding him into a narrow hallway, away from his intended path.

As they proceeded, Wyler looked at the Secret Service guards for the President - who had known him far longer than Gibbons.

"Boys, can you give us a moment, please?"

They nodded and divided into two groups; one at each end of the hallway. Wyler stopped in the middle and turned Gibbons to face him. However, the President spoke first, obviously trying to take the initiative.

"What's this about, anyway?" said Gibbons, irritated and not concerned about showing it.

"They found Alice Clarke two hours ago," said Wyler, just as unconcerned about showing how angry he was. "The news hasn't been released, yet."

"Good. I hope they throw the betraying bitch in jail and forget about her."

"She's dead, Harold. Murdered. Mutilated. They were only able to identify the body thanks to that new computerized facial reconstruction process the FBI just started using. A computer program you objected to as an unnecessary expense. DNA confirmation is underway, but it's pretty certain."

"I don't know anything about it," said Gibbons, flatly. Whether he meant the software or the murder of his former aide he didn't clarify. Likely both.

"Scott Michelson says it was on your orders!" said Wyler, hotly. "Not directly, of course, but he claims the orders came down through channels from you!"

"Michelson..." said the President, blankly. "Wait, you mean that guy from Homeland Security? If I ordered her killed, why would I use official channels?! Why would I use Homeland Security?!?!"

"I'm not saying you ordered her killed. I'm saying that because of things you have said and done and indisputably ordered, there are people who think an order apparently coming from you to murder someone would not only be appropriate, but legal! Michelson is under arrest and will be prosecuted, but later. Others have also been arrested and more are being sought. Right now we - you - have to prepare for the necessary damage control."

"You know what?" said Gibbons, testily. "I don't care. If someone goes off the reservation and performs an illegal act, that's their problem. Not mine."

"You're the President! You have a duty to present a responsible leadership! If you make statements which encourage illegal behavior, because you don't like someone or for some other spurious reason, what results is at least partly your fault, whether or not you actually gave the order to do something to them!"

"It's a free country," said Gibbons, with a smirk. "Besides, I'm President and there's nothing you can do to change that."

"What about impeachment?" said Wyler, tone dangerous.

"You wouldn't dare," said Gibbons, sneering harder. "Impeach a President in your own party? They'd eat you alive."

"I made you. Keep this up and I'll break you."

Wyler released Gibbons' sleeve, spun around and stormed away.

"You didn't make me! You just endorsed me!" Gibbons yelled at the man's back. "I had help from others, too! People whose advice I trust far more than I do yours!"

He stormed off in the opposite direction, fuming.

* * *

"We need something better than hoppers and the Subterran tunnels," said Template, at the school staff meeting later that week. "I've been talking to several different teams and they all say this, but none have workable suggestions for anything better. The apergy flyers show promise, but they're still experimental, with only a few in actual service. Even those are only slightly faster than a traditional hopper. Though they're a lot more convenient."

"I keep hearing that teleportation isn't an answer, but not why," said Lori Savage.

"Technological teleportation is notoriously unreliable," said Junker. "One-shot devices will usually work, if built by someone who knows what they're doing. Some of the greatest geniuses who ever lived have failed at making multi-use devices consistently reliable... or safe. Even biological teleportation - through powers - isn't all that safe. That guy who blasted Shilmek ships with nukes during the war only moves nonliving items, except in dire emergencies. That includes himself."

"Yeah," said Template, nodding. "That's what caused Zeep. Artificial teleportation, I mean."

"I did not know that!" said Lori, startled. "I thought he was just a regular super, only moreso!"

"That may be what allowed him to survive that teleporter malfunction," said Junker. "That he was a super, I mean."

They were quiet for several seconds. They were waiting for Eve to arrive, just free associating, the conversation starting with Junker mentioning an upgrade to the school's hoppers and how they still weren't fast enough.

"I just realized," said Template, "the teams with primarily federal funding - including those who are actually licensed federal agents - are the ones doing the loudest complaining about not having enough resources. The privately or mostly privately funded teams are actually doing pretty well as far as funding and access to other resources is concerned. Their sponsors saw how useful they were in the war and reconstruction and have actually increased their support."

"You'd think, with the economy doing better, that Congress would be easing off on the budget cuts," said Junker, sourly. "Taxes and income for some federal agencies from fees are up, and a few have had the cuts relaxed. Anything involving supers, though..."

"Too many people in power - whether elected or not - don't want supers growing more powerful," said Lori, sourly. "Including Gibbons. Even though he's also being pressured by powerful people to improve the use of supers."

"Yes, but there's more than supers having budget problems," said Template. "Though they do seem to be having more than most. Super teams are also being harassed in other ways."

"So there's lots of folks in the same boat, but supers have it worse," said Junker, nodding.

Template noticed Eve standing in the doorway. Before she could say anything, the Principal spoke up.

"I think a large part of the problem those in power are having with Gibbons is that several different groups covertly or even overtly supported him, thinking he would be a counter to their opponents in both parties. Now they are surprised he's going his own way. Which is exactly what he promised in the campaign and how he behaved in his prior political career.

"As interesting as this is, however, I think we should move on to school business. Agreed?"

"Yes, ma'am," they replied.



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