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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Sat Oct 07, 2017 9:55 pm

Chapter five - Incursion

            Digital letter images swam before his eyes as he blinked and tried to refresh his vision. The email revealed a catastrophe in the making. He précised the email in his mind as he reread it; Paul had explained that the growing unrest amongst some staff in ‘the know’ at the research centre had been discovered, and, catastrophically, ‘someone’ had released the virus in the facility. Already most of the staff members were dead or dying.

            The angst in his writing as he described his situation as ‘hopeless’ and the minute by minute account of collapsing co-workers and shots heard, had a genuineness about them that gave him a morbid apprehension of what lay ahead.

 

Steve thought hard ...

‘Paul was trying to isolate himself and was writing instructions and trying to prepare information for Steve.

It appeared the ‘ringleaders’ wished to keep their development a secret and so felt it best to dispose of all those involved and engage those more committed to the cause.

Paul tried to explain that what he had believed was going to be a technological and economic boon to the world, had transformed into a despotic plan to attack world population centres and depopulate so called enemies. This would occur while the perpetrators were safe in a large lunar base originally designed to provide solutions for crowded communities and alleviate world hunger.

 

He reread an attached document (which was a letter to a colleague of Pauls) with disbelief:

            “I know it may seem far-fetched but there is a Lunar Base which has the facilities to house a medium size community. It was designed to trial sustainable extra-terrestrial living. If this works, Mars will be the next step! Part of the plan is to set up huge greenhouses to help maintain a biosphere. Hundreds of sealed hexagonal prisms have already been set up as part of the trial modular greenhouse domes. It’s been a secret for a number of reasons. I believe it was because of the highly sensitive new technologies being used, the desire not to consult internationally on what is basically the colonisation of the Moon, and the possible embarrassment of failure. I’m basically involved with the bio-atmospheric regeneration and, to some degree, with water reticulation.

The propulsion systems of the transports are amazing. Fusion based ion drives have become a reality and make this incredible venture possible.”

After some salutations reminding his friend of the need for confidentiality the letter concluded.

 

            Paul had also attached a personal profile of the general he believed was behind the betrayal—someone who had turned against good men and side-tracked the implementation of this secret, beneficial scheme for his own purposes. After a brief glance, Steve set it aside for later.

            He was deep in thought. Paul might already be dead if what he wrote had actually happened. He tried to picture the boyish face and the optimistic excitement that he had sensed at their meeting. Paul was the sort of person who could have been a friend, but was now just a fleeting acquaintance that he might never see alive again. Steve was thinking about Paul’s family and those who would miss him. How soon would they find out? Who would tell them and how would they explain it? Steve shook himself and took a deep breath before he addressed the email again.

 

            After more details were communicated, Paul finished with almost detachment regarding his fate and some warnings:

 ‘They have all the protective suits. I hear shooting. I don’t have long. Wait a few days before coming and don’t trust the government…’  The message tailed off enigmatically, with terse phrases. ‘I don’t feel too good - computer password ‘lunatic’...  blueprint of complex and some notes... files that may be useful ... open using  file password in God’s word.’  Was he afraid someone was monitoring his communications?

The final phrase was very brief and yet rich in meaning. “I’m in His hands.”

            Steve wrote down the cryptic password clue and the details regarding entry to the complex.

‘… take the service elevator to the basement. Use the office elevator Press the ‘2’ button three times, Press the ‘1’ button twice and then Press the ‘2’ button twice…’ Steve was overcome with a feeling of dread.

            It was at this stage that Steve knew he had to face the harsh reality of deciding what to do. He could go to the authorities with a half-baked story about a report of a virus and some emails he had received and bring copies of the emails, or he could check this story out. He was beleaguered with questions: Did this place really exist? What did Paul expect of him? What were the plans of those responsible for this calamity? He had to go himself. He knew it. Steve was scared witless, but he knew that he would have to look for himself and then the next step would be clearer.

 

            It took some time before he was absolutely resigned to what had to be done. Alternatives, however far-fetched, got some consideration. But, in the end, he had to find out. Before telling anyone, he had to substantiate what was now just a horror story. He got on the phone. “Eric? Hi this is Steve James…. Er well thanks. Listen would it be possible for me to borrow one of the lab’s isolation suits? ………. Ha, no we’re not breeding Triffids. Oh, just to minimise any transfer of contaminants.  … Oh very high customer standards... Yes we’re quite involved with cell cultures now... Oh excellent. But I’ll need to pick it up early, say 8:30… oh that’s great. Thanks a lot. I’ll be around in the morning to pick one up. Okay, see you then.” He was pleased with the slight misdirection implied by his comments without saying anything about his real purposes.  

            He rang Jimmy and said he had some other business to do tomorrow and asked him to handle things. It was quite late when he finally closed up and headed off home. The night passed slowly with Steve sleeping fitfully, his anxieties insinuating into his dreams. People he knew just collapsing before him. He saw Paul’s face as he remembered it from their meeting, “I don’t have long.” Was all he said in the email, but the image of Paul in the coffee shop repeated itself a number of times. “I don’t have long.” …“I don’t have long.”

            On Tuesday he awoke in a cold sweat and lay in bed trying to remember something of his dreams. His mind drifted to Paul’s clue. If it literally meant a password from the Bible then he could probably compile a list of likely words. The idea seemed too ‘hit and miss’ to attempt. However, if Paul’s clue was cryptic, one word jumped out at him. He sat up and, in the half light of dawn, with some difficulty found a pen and notepaper on the bedside table. As an afterthought he switched the lamp on. On the paper he wrote ‘God’s word’. When he did cryptic puzzles Steve recalled that the word ‘in’ often meant the answer was written inside the clue. So the choices consisted of: ‘God’, ‘Go’, ‘word’, sword’ and ‘or’ though the first and last seemed too short and ‘or’ had little logic or reason to commend it. In a second column he tried to list anagrams of ‘God’s Word’. This took a little longer and, though he had no reason to believe that Paul meant to look for anagrams, he wanted to cover the possibility.

            To Steve the selection was obvious. ‘Sword’ was in ‘God’s word’, and it was a term for God’s word. This was a prime reason for putting it on top of the list. Methodically he then wrote in the other words that he thought in some way fit the clue. Once the anagrams were listed he had another eight words counting plurals. He knew he didn’t want to be guessing passwords in a pressure situation, so if none of his listed words worked he’d forget about accessing the files.

            Although it was still quite early, Steve showered, dressed and breakfasted and then sat down and reviewed the information at his disposal. The phone rang. It was a reporter trying to do a story about local industry.

“No, no I’m sorry I don’t have time to talk about plant propagation.”

“Could I drop around the garden centre and get some details?” responded a girlish American voice.”

“Well, it’s not convenient at the moment, maybe sometime later.” He hung up.

He wasn’t usually that rude but his preoccupation with what was ahead meant he wasn’t feeling particularly courteous. Why was a reporter ringing that early? The phone rang again.

“Hello.” He spoke more sharply than he intended.

“Hey brother, are you okay?”

“John, sorry, I’m trying to get going and it’s not happening.”

            Steve spent ten minutes giving his brother a brief rundown on what he was about to do.

“It’s got to be some sort of hoax,” John suggested half hopefully. “Even so, I don’t think it’s a good idea, going on your own,” ...was John’s conclusion, though he was unable to dissuade him from carrying out his plan.

He ended the conversation with, “Be careful Steve, we’ll pray for you.” He hung up thoughtfully. Was he the victim of some lame joke? Who would go to such elaborate lengths and for what reason? Well he would soon find out.

            Finally, with no more interruptions, he was free to complete his preparations. It was about eight am when he grabbed some overalls to look more workmanlike and set off for the university lab. He parked around the back in the faculty car park and found the side entrance open. Professor Eric Liepstein was there. He was waiting at the entrance holding the door open and ushered Steve in. The professor led him along a corridor and into his office. He handed over a bag with the isolation suit. “Steven, so good to see you again.” he enthused thrusting out his hand. He had been his thesis supervisor. His bushy eyebrows and curly black hair were as awesome as ever, and his genial greeting spoke of the mutual respect between the two. A respect wrought through hours of painstaking lab work and record keeping.

After some mandatory pleasantries about health and family, Eric’s face became more serious.

“What’s going on Steven? This has nothing to do with plant cultures does it?” Steve looked long and hard at his favourite professor and then made a decision.

“I can tell you more after today. Let’s just say I’m checking out a rumour about a deadly virus strain and I don’t want to take any risks.”

“You say a rumour?”

“I don’t have any hard facts. I don’t want to panic people and I don’t want to make some crackpot report to police and lose all credibility.”

Eric was nodding his head, “Sounds like it could be dangerous. Be careful. If there’s anything I can do let me know.” He sounded quietly serious as he added, “Remember, viral immunology is my thing.”

“I’ll let you know,” Steve nodded, noting his concern. He took the suit and headed for the door.

“Make sure you sanitise it before returning it won’t you?” he added with a peculiar smile as he watched his former pupil depart. The humour on Steve’s face acknowledged the shared experience of Eric’s famous decontamination lecture. He remembered the hapless assistants who were selected each year to wander into his delineated sterile zone and promptly had a bucket of water dumped on them. One year it had been his lot to help demonstrate the paramount importance of bio exclusion in propagation labs. He had been drenched. He left with this mutual understanding and then raised an extended hand which was part wave, part sign of gratitude. 



            With heightened anticipation Steve drove his Toyota to the industrial park where he had followed Paul. At the street before his turn off he decided to walk to the Horizon Earth Science’s car park. Inside his car he scrambled into the overalls. Dressed as, what he hoped would pass as a maintenance man; he made his way to the factory. He tried the side entrance and found that it was locked. Immobile for a second, he rolled his eyes up and berated himself “Did you expect them to leave the door open?

            He quickly went back, retrieved a pinch bar from his ‘car tool box with everything’, and tried to casually saunter across the front of the building and back around the corner to the door. With his bundle under one arm and pinch bar in the other hand in broad daylight, surely he had to be a workman. No one would suspect such stupidity as a break in at this time of day—he hoped.

            After a furtive look around to ensure that he was unobserved, he put all his effort into one wrench on the lever and jemmied the door open. The door crackled and splintered accusingly, and far easier than he expected. He almost tumbled backward when it gave way. Quickly he brushed the debris inside and, carrying the rolled up suit, closed the door behind him, hoping its damaged appearance would remain unnoticed should someone go past.

            Leaving the pinch bar inside the door, he spent a moment examining the deserted building. After finally locating the security camera, he then skirted the storage racks, keeping out of the camera’s view. Steve jogged quietly to the elevator, slowing to a walk about two thirds of the way there as he suddenly recognised the need to act deliberately and do nothing in haste. Upon reaching the door he cast a guilty look back from where he’d come and then pushed the basement button. Even though he was expecting it, Steve jumped nervously. He was surprised by the clatter of the elevator doors as they opened. Stepping falteringly into what appeared to be a freight elevator, Steve became conscious of a slight ozone smell. The battered surroundings of the conveyance showed that at some time it had experienced considerable use.

            When the doors shut with a clunk and the lift shuddered into its descent, an irrational fear gripped him that he would be stuck in the lift. Drips of perspiration trickled from his armpits. He stood unmoving, staring at the level indicator. Wondering if anyone else had witnessed his intrusion, he examined his surrounds. Were there more cameras? Were those responsible for this threat waiting for him? He breathed a quiet prayer for some divine protection and thought ‘Sorry God, I only seem to talk to you when I’m in trouble.’  

            The lift enclosure shuddered to a halt and the doors again clattered disturbingly. He looked around the basement area. It seemed to be mainly an underground car park serving the office area, although it was deserted at the moment. It was walled with grey concrete block bricks on three sides. Dreary, cold and unremarkable, was his impression as he scanned the area. Access to the car park went beyond the locked chain linked gate via a sloping driveway and then turning left before proceeding onto the service road.

            Opposite where Steve stood was another elevator that looked far more appropriate for transferring human cargo. It would provide access from the car park to the offices above. And next to that was a set of stairs going up. His eyes focussed on the lift as he moved more purposefully to it, reaching inside his overalls for his notebook. His other hand pushed the button. He could probably recite the instructions written on the paper but wanted the certainty of referring directly to this strange entry process.

 

            He waited as the doors opened with a quiet hiss, in stark contrast to the noisy contraption he had just used. Steve read the words again as the doors smoothly reclaimed the enclosure: ‘… take the service elevator to the basement. Use the office elevator. Press the ‘2’ button three times, Press the ‘1’ button twice and then Press the ‘2’ button twice…’  And he then followed the directions.

            Inside was a very modern finish of stainless steel and wood panelling with light emanating from glass strips across the top and down the side walls. The elevator remained stationary and silent. Steve was just about to glance at the instructions again when, with a stomach churning lurch, the container plummeted down from the basement level. His small load fell to the floor as he staggered at the rapid motion. Availing himself of a handrail, using both hands, Steve steadied and braced himself, preparing for a comparable deceleration. Instead, the vehicle slowed almost imperceptibly to a stop. An incongruous chime sounded, and the doors opened.

            He was in a tennis court sized cavern. It had a flat walkway with an egg-shaped space above that had smooth grey walls. Strips of artificial lighting flush with the curved ceiling lit the space and two very big, shiny, metallic tubes ran the length on either side of the room. The tubes entered and exited at each end of the ovoid. Steve was still standing at the open doors of the lift at one end between the two tubes. A humming noise was the only other thing that he noticed. Devoid of any furniture, Steve began to speculate as to the purpose of the structure. It could be a mini underground tube station except that, paradoxically, there were tubes where you would expect to see tunnels.  

            Steve paled and thumped his forehead with his fist. His attention fixed on the rolled up suit in the elevator. “What are you doing Steve? Think, think, think!” he repeated as he thudded the heel of his hand on his head. It occurred to him that this remonstration of his was becoming a habit and might have adverse effects on his cranial physiology. Then he quickly wrestled the isolation suit on. ‘Better late than never,’ he thought and then opened the air valve on the cylinder and sealed the head piece. Wondering how long the air would last, he scanned the tubes and quickly located a green circular panel. He pressed it.

            There was a hushed whoosh and slight throb, before a section of the tube pivoted up like a large curved door revealing a smooth capsule nestled tightly in the tube. Steve pulled at a recessed handhold to slide open an access pane and climbed into one of the ten well-padded dark blue seats. The pane closed automatically and the station-like enclosure disappeared from view as the tube sealed itself.

            Inside the softly lit, large capsule he pressed another green button. With little delay the backrest enveloped around him in reaction to the acceleration and he was propelled forward with great speed. The motion was almost noiseless. Steve surmised that the cylinder was suspended by some sort of magnetic levitation or repulsion, and possibly impelled by polarising electromagnets. He later determined, while gaining technical data on the base, that this was an accurate guess, although the propulsive force was strongly augmented by compressed air behind and evacuated air preceding the sleek projectile. All context of speed was lost in the metallic pill hurtling through the tube. Except for the faint swishing sound and occasional slight centrifugal pressure as the course altered, there was little sensation of motion at all.

            After about twenty minutes of travelling at high speed the vehicle slowed evenly to a halt. Upon exiting, the air pressures equalised. Steve sensed a hush of air waft from the open tube as if it was sighing from the effort and, glancing about, he examined an almost identical conveyance point to the one he had left.

He passed through sliding doors feeling clumsy in the suit. His coordination and movements still hadn’t adapted to its confines.

            Immediately, Steve was confronted with dead bodies. His stomach almost rebelled at the contorted forms. Wooziness, mild churning and slight cramps all threatened to result in a gastric convulsion. ‘Don’t be sick in this suit’ he thought. He held his eyes closed and breathed slowly. Eventually some sort of equilibrium returned and he determined not to dwell on the death all about.

            Despite his resolution, as Steve opened his eyes he couldn’t avoid the tragic scene. Women and men, young and older; many in lab coats and a few in military uniform, all were struck down by this plague. Then Steve noticed that some lay in pools of dark red blood. Bullet wounds were visible, especially on some of the military who, it seemed, may have sought to present some resistance to those besetting the facility.

Once he had torn his attention away from the slaughter in front of him, Steve took in the proportions of the research centre. This entry was a small chamber with three corridors leading off it. Behind him was the access door to the ‘tube station’. The walls and ceilings were similar to the ‘station’ with lighting strips, but each hallway had a distinct pastel hue. The floor had large, light coloured rubberised like tiles that yielded comfortably to his footfall. Knowing he had to attend to the route and be mindful of his whereabouts, Steve took the left corridor and proceeded with some haste, feeling unsure about the capacity of his air supply. He left off counting bodies after twenty, seeing others scattered about doorways farther along.

            The first rooms were laboratories. Standard chemical laboratories to begin with and then larger engineering shops, and what looked like propulsion research facilities. He wanted to spend time examining each part carefully but knew this was just a quick reconnoitre. He couldn’t afford to indulge his curiosity until a general exploration was complete.

            Beyond the engineering rooms were huge storerooms with solar cells. There were also what appeared to be space suits and a variety of other equipment too extensive for Steve to examine thoroughly. His cursory glance took in some of the more prominent items: communication dishes, electrically powered buggies reminiscent of the Lunar Rover of Apollo Mission history, prefabricated spheres and tubes that had air tight connection devices and a myriad of containers and pieces of equipment, many of which he could only hazard a guess at a use.

            He came to the plant laboratory that had lengthy rows of containers with some different varieties of greenery, grow lamps and analysis instrumentation. At the end of the corridor, connected to the plant lab was another store that contained enough sterilized soil medium, containers, lights and irrigation tubing for several sizeable green houses. ‘Is this where his plant cultures were destined?’ he wondered.

 

Steve spent a little longer in this area than he had intended and then jogged back with an awkward gait along the way he had come. There were some side passages, but his consciousness of the need to locate Paul’s computer and retrieve the information it contained sent him returning to the central hub. Inside the sealed suit he was getting very warm. He wished that he’d dispensed with the overalls before, while he had the chance. Now he had to endure the sweaty confines of too many layers of clothing.

            Travelling from that original point down the middle way, he was again side-stepping numerous victims of the rapidly acting virus. As he passed, what he was sure was the main accommodation section; he noticed a greater concentration of victims. He fought the thought that these people had personalities, friends, families and lives just a short while ago. But it continued to insinuate into his mind as he moved past the prone bodies.

Steve located a well organised dining hall that clearly indicated provision for a considerable number of personnel. Opposite, on the right of the middle corridor was a recreation area with gymnasium, swimming pool, indoor courts and lounges, all exceptionally outfitted. He quickly ducked into the dining hall and surveyed victims slumped at tables. At the back of the dining area was a modern kitchen facility. Kitchen workers were strewn about in sad confirmation of the swift onset of the disease’s deadly effects.

            Back across the passageway he checked out the pool and gym. Again the pervasive presence of corpses nauseated him. Even though the mask of the suit was a sort of barrier to the brutality around him, he almost gagged inside his suit. A shower was running on a crumpled victim in the change rooms. A deceased couple reclined in each other’s arms on one of the couches. Swathes of fabric were wrapped over the mouths and noses of many of the dead in a vain effort to prevent infection. What sort of micro-organism could kill so suddenly, so totally! Well, he’d read the data but the evidence was still hard to come to terms with. If anything, it was more shocking knowing this was a deliberate act.
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