Issue #61 – Higher Education

This entry is part 1 of 16 in the series The Descendants Vol 6: Returns and Departures
Part 5
Laurel inhaled the sweet steam rising from her mug as she made her way out to the patio. For once, she wasn’t fueling up on coffee to push through another late night. Instead, she had designs on relaxing with some blackberry tea by the pool after finishing off the last few bits of paperwork required for the Institute’s opening for a second school year.
The long day was over and even the summer sun had set, leaving the overhead lights to illuminate the patio and pool.
Just a few steps outside and she found that she wasn’t alone. Ian and Alexis were sharing a deck chair, the later sitting between the former’s knees with her back resting on his chest and his arms wrapped around her. Their swimsuits were wet, but now they were both pouring over Alexis’s tablet computer.
“Well look at your two, all cozy. Finally getting around to wedding planning?” She strolled past them and sat at the patio table, beneath the sun umbrella.
“Planning a trip, actually.” Alexis neatly dodged her question about their engagement like she always did. “Professor Demetrius invited us to the maiden voyage of one of his colleague’s inventions.”
Ian looked like a kid with the keys to a candy store. “It’s called the Storm Cage; a NOAA grant project that—get this—is supposed to be a functional weather machine.”
Laurel almost dropped her tea. “You have to be kidding me. Someone actually paid money for them to build that thing?”
“You’ve heard of it?” Alexis asked.
“Kluge approached my father about it about a year before we came here. I looked over his theories and…”
“It wouldn’t work?” Ian was already sounding disappointed.
“Oh, it would work. His science is sound, but he wanted seventeen billion dollars and this Storm Cage sounds like something you would launch out of a hidden volcano base. It isn’t so much a weather machine, but a method of steering storm systems. His proof of concept could redirect a rainstorm a few miles; his full scale plan was to more or less drive a hurricane like it was a bumper car.
“I literally could not be more excited to go to this thing now.” Ian nuzzled his face in Alexis’s shoulder. “Thank you so much for being a huge brown-noser in college.”
Laurel rolled her eyes. Far be it for me to keep you away from irresponsible and impractical applications of science.”
“Not just a crime against God and man,” Alexis pointed out, “But a free three day cruise to London.”
“Ooo, romantic.” Laurel grinned and took a sip of tea. “Don’t worry about missing classes, I can cover for you, Assuming there’s a weekend in there, you’ll be missing what, five days?”
“Just two.” said Alexis. “I thought we can spend a day in London and then use the mirror gate to come home.”
“It’s economic and Eco-concious.” Ian laughed. “Besides, I’ve got something I need to do when we get back too.”
“What’s that?” Laurel asked.
Ian shifted around on the deck chair to make himself more comfortable and pulled Alexis closer to him, resting his chin on her shoulder.
“We were talking the other day about how the institute’s incoming freshman class is smaller than last years.”
“Because we don’t have Tome’s hit list this year.” Alexis added and Ian nodded.
“Right. But I was thinking that just because Tome didn’t have a leak this year doesn’t mean they’re not hunting. Braddock Island gave them a fresh infusion of manpower they can use to get shit done with and I don’t believe they’ll be shy about using it. In fact, how quiet they’ve been makes me nervous.”
“It makes us all nervous.” Laurel agreed.
“No new information from your boyfriend?” Alexis asked teasingly.
Laurel made a face at them. “Voice isn’t my boyfriend. We’ve only met in person once and it was strictly business.”
“Ask her how many times she chats with him online.” Ian said in sotto voice. Alexis snorted.
“Believe me, nothing’s going on. And as for your question, he hasn’t come up with anything new. Whatever leak he was exploiting, Tome plugged it. What did you have in mind?”
Ian’s tone became serious. “It’s been two years since Noah Giles and his friends turned us down. I know you’ve been keeping tabs on them, helping them out with cash and paperwork, but it never sat right with me that we let them fend for themselves like that. We should have at least found their parents—“
“Ian.” Laurel interrupted. “That… was never in the cards. The ROCIC recovered files on them and Tome pulled all of them out of foster homes across the country.”
“You mean they didn’t—don’t have anyone?” He asked, visibly troubled.
“They have each other.” Laurel said. “And us for whatever they can’t get on their own.”
The look Ian gave her was one she’d never seen from him before. “L, for someone so smart, I don’t get how you’re not freaking out over this.”
“It’s no better or worse than when we let them go in the first place.” Alexis argued on Laurel’s behalf.
Laurel nodded. “And what were we going to do? Combined, their powers can let them escape anything as long as they can act. Forcing them to do as we say would have resulted in them dropping off the grid entirely.”
“I disagree.” said Ian, “but I’ll admit that maybe I would have been wrong, but the game’s just changed. Tome has manpower and probably thinks they can make up for lost time. They wanted these kids again and they’ll want them back. I think we should at least extend a hand. In person.”
“A hand, not a leash.” Alexis cautioned. “But I think that makes a lot of sense. The only thing is, I’m pretty sure Noah at least is eighteen by now. We need to treat him like an adult who’s concerned about his family.”
Ian calmed down, though he was still fidgety. Alexis tried to sooth that by leaning into him closer. “Yeah.” He finally said, “Him and I have some common ground there.”
Simon Talbot stood before the thick, armored windows that looked down into the Deep Nine facility’s inugami training room. It was a large, concrete bunker with hatches in the floor that different pieces of training equipment could be raised and lowered depending on the strain being dealt with, and sliding metal doors on the far wall to admit the creatures themselves.
Decades upon decades of use left the room marked with layered areas where the concrete had been patched over and over and pinkish brown blotches of bleached out blood. There were some fresh claw marks on the wall, including five thin gouges on the glass of the armored windows themselves.
Beside Talbot was Brandy Dillinger, the administrator of Deep Nine. She held a tablet and looked deeply pleased with herself in contrast, or perhaps because of the scowl Talbot was wearing.
“Flint.” he muttered. “He’s the one that ordered this new strain.”
Across the room, one of the sets of metal doors slid smoothly open. In the alcove behind stood a German Shepard with an unusual chocolate brown coat and broad chest. It sniffed the air disinterestedly and padded out into the main room, pausing only to look back at the doors closing behind it.
“No word on who ordered it. We just got the order to begin work on the barghest strain six months after Wright caused that snafu in Mayfield.”
“He’s had his own agenda simmering for more than a year.” Talbot realized. Then he frowned at the dog in the room in front of him. “They don’t look like much. They should have been outfitted as puppies so they could get used to the gear.”
“They don’t have gear.” said Brandy, “The barghest strain are sleeper agents of a sort. Their armor is a sub-dermal silicate interwoven with orihalcite mesh and their imaging and auditory systems are internal. Until their heads up display drops down and triggers their conditioning, they even act like normal, friendly dogs.”
“The project’s been breeding them to be super powered hunter-killers for seventy years and suddenly we’re making them cute puppies?”
Brandy’s face showed no emotion. “That’s part of the sleeper agent aspect. Instead of overwhelming power, they can blend in anywhere you would normally expect a dog without raising suspicion until it’s too late.” She tapped her tablet screen and the windows rearranged themselves.
Down in the training room, the dog twitched and put its head down, the muscles in its shoulders bunching violently.
Talbot leaned forward with interest. “What’s going on in there? Something interesting, I hope.”
“From birth, they have orihalcite woven into their musculature and their muscles and skeletal systems are conditioned to reconfigure into a secondary form.”
With a savage cracking sound that they could hear all the way up at their vantage point, the dog’s shoulders and hips dislocated, followed by the toes on all of its paws. A look of agony came to the animal’s face, but it didn’t whimper or whine.
“So… they’re self crippling?” Talbot asked.
“Just wait a moment.” said Brandy.
Red tinted lenses slid down over its eyes from housing inside its skull. The moment they were in place, the pain on its face vanished and it picked itself up on legs that were arranged more like a simian’s than a canine’s. Moving on splayed and cruel claws, the creature scuttled across the floor like a spider, moving toward the wall.
“Now that’s disturbing.” said Talbot. “You’ve got my interest now.”
“That’s the barghest form.” Brandy explained. “A lower profile is less visible while moving. It’s claws are now articulated enough to manipulate simple objects as well. Properly equipped, it can plant bugs or bombs, provide reconnaissance, or even disable security systems.”
Talbot nodded slowly. “Just because they can doesn’t mean they’re smart enough to, does it?”
“Actually, it is. Its brain is wired with artificial synapses and connected to our Virtual Intelligence Relay system. The computers do all the heavy lifting for them and send them orders while taking advantage of the existing brain’s instincts and abilities.”
The barghest reached the wall, and after another look around, began to climb it.
“Is that from strain M759?” Talbot asked.
“Yes, it is.”
Brandy continued to monitor various readouts on her tablet. “Under normal conditions, no one will notice them. This is for climbing internal walls, not the sides of skyscrapers and the like.”
“There’s still a possibility for intimidation there.” Talbot said thoughtfully. “Especially with more of them. Do they come in other colors than brown? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Sheppard that color.”
“Fur color isn’t important to function. We can color them however you like.”
“Great.” Talbot said, breaking his vigil as the barghest reached and hid in the rafters. “How many have you bred?”
“Six litters of four each.”
“What were the specifics of the order you got?”
Brandy looked up to where the barghest was hiding, refusing to look at Talbot. “It wasn’t an order in that sense. The barghests are intended to be a new line moving forward, parallel to inugami breeding.”
Talbot set his jaw. “Flint is definitely up to something here putting his hand in this deep on my projects. Pull all the research data on this new line, all the tech schematics, especially the VIR system and send it to my secure account.”
A sly smile crept onto his face. “In the meantime, we’ve got some potential here. Take the four best females from the initial litters for breeding stock, plus a male. By the time you get that done, I’ll have delivery teams ready to insure these dogs all get picked up in some key target cities. It can’t hurt placing some of these sleepers under the noses of our targets.”
When Brandy nodded, he continued, “But I didn’t come all the way out here to Deep Nine for these things. Tell me about Cadmus Phase II.”
Brandy flinched unconsciously. Talbot knew she didn’t like anything to do with the process or related projects, and was secretly amused at her disgust.
“Now, now, Ms. Dillinger, the human subjects for these will be willing.”
“The non-human material subjects aren’t.” She noted.
Talbot scoffed. “They’re cryptids and fairy-book monsters at best. So they can talk? It’s not a language we can understand. And it isn’t as if we’re killing them—they’re far too valuable for that. Now give me some good news.”
Her own jaw set now, Brandy changed over the windows on her tablet. “Thirty percent of the species show the same highly adaptive genetic code as the…the…”
You can say it.” Talbot teased. “’Dragon’. It’s a dragon.”
Brandy refused, merely nodding. “There was no common link physically or mentally to predict which species would possess that trait and which wouldn’t. In fact, genetic testing has shown that there are two distinct evolutionary paths here; two kingdoms of fauna with two different progenitor species. It’s possible that they’re not from the same world.”
“But that has nothing to do with Cadmus Phase II.” Talbot interrupted.
“Right.” Brandy exhaled roughly, forcing down her frustration. “The lab tech have taken to calling the two taxonomies ‘Hansel’ and ‘Gretel’. Kingdom Gretel has the adaptive genome that can be readily spliced via retrovirus for immediate results. It can also assist in splicing other genomes.
“Tests on rats and rabbits all proved positive after some transcription errors were corrected in the retroviral. We moved on to chimpanzees using what we learned from Beowulf and Maleficent and were able to create a cocktail combining the traits of five separate xenofauna.”
She showed him some noes on her computer to back up what she was saying, but he wasn’t paying any attention to them. “You asked for regenerative capabilities, which is causing complications.”
That seemed worth his attention. “What kind of complications?”
“The regeneration works perfectly, requiring far less calories than any of our biologists think would be possible without psionic powers. However, the regeneration seems to prevent reversion once it becomes active.”
“Once the subject is injured and regenerates even once, that’s it. They can never resume their normal form again.”
Talbot stared at her for along moment, then a laugh rolled up from his belly. “Really? That’s the side effect? Because if that’s the ‘down side’, I could kiss you right now.”
“It’s a very big side effect.” Brandy argued. “We’ll never get volunteers for this if the process leaves them transformed into monsters.”
Still laughing, Talbot started to walk away toward his offices in the facility. “Ms. Dillinger, that’s because you don’t know the right guys.”
End Issue #61
Series NavigationIssue #62 – Poor Relations >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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