Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 27

The jet touched down on a camouflage-painted runway near the heart of Saint Thomas and taxied into a hangar built into the side of a mountain. On the approach, Don hadn’t been able to see any signs of civilization, and on exiting the plane, he realized that the entire compound had been constructed out of view, with the disguised runway the only indication that there was anything out of the ordinary present. The muggy, tropical air rushing through the closing hangar doors seemed almost sweltering after the wintry chill of New York, and he joined the rest of his team in overseeing the removal of Connor’s body from the jet.

As Olivia led the group away from the plane, suited men accompanied by armed guards emerged from the closest exit and immediately started dividing the GSC personnel into groups. Don felt a nudge at his elbow and turned to see a powerfully built, fatigue-garbed man, holding a rifle, motion toward the far end of the runway. “Dr. Harris, I need you and Dr. Douglas to follow me immediately,” he stated.

Don shook his head. “We need to secure these… remains, first,” he replied, pointing at the body bag being carried down the stairway. Every so often, the plastic gave a twitch.

“Your people will be taken care of,” the man said. His steely gaze never wavered. “Now, sir.”

With a stiff jaw, Don whistled to Sarah and motioned for her to come with him as he trailed after the armed hulk into the compound. He led them to where Olivia stood in front of an open door, a broad table and circle of chairs visible behind her. She was deep in conversation with another muscular man wearing army fatigue trousers and a chiseled, humorless expression. Mike stood to one side, adjusting the bandage wrapped around his gouged leg.

Olivia paused when she caught sight of Don and Sarah. “Everyone follow me,” she ordered and turned into the room.

They entered a small, brightly lit conference room as one man with a military-style crewcut was exiting. “Director Woods,” he said, giving Olivia a nod as he passed. “Good to see you made it here safely.”

“Thank you, Captain McKay,” Olivia replied.

Another man awaited them in the conference room, offering a hand for Olivia to shake. His appearance was slightly unkempt, his black hair stringy around his shoulders with a few days’ growth of beard on his chin.

Olivia introduced Don, Sarah and Mike, then motioned to the two unfamiliar faces. “Walter Jones, head of Project Exodus’s security forces,” she said, pointing to the fatigued man. Don and Sarah both gave polite nods, while Mike shook Walter’s hand respectfully.

“And Jason Kavanaugh, the director of our technology division,” Olivia continued. The disheveled man raised a hand in greeting. “He is one of the lead designers of the Phoenix shuttles.”

Don caught the puzzled glance Sarah threw at him and Mike, but he didn’t have time to offer an explanation as Olivia continued.

“The officer who just left was Joseph McKay, one of the shuttle captains. All right, people. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and not much time to do it in.” Olivia took a seat at the conference table. “Let’s get started.”

Most of the others followed suit, but Sarah’s confused, worried expression kept Don on his feet. “Aren’t you going to let Dr. Douglas know what’s happening?” he questioned tightly. “Aren’t you going to tell the rest of the people we dragged here with us what the plan is?”

Olivia met his gaze flatly. “In due time, Dr. Harris,” she answered. “Right now, we need to figure out how to rescue as many of the uninfected as possible.” Her eyes flickered in Sarah’s direction, and she sighed and folded her hands on the conference table. “Very well. Dr. Douglas… the situation is this.”

Don kept watch over Sarah’s expression as Olivia outlined the purpose of the installation and the broad strokes of their course of action. Sarah reflected only a fraction of the shock that Don and Mike had experienced, swallowing a few times but keeping silent until Olivia had finished. She frowned and gave a slow nod. “I… I understand.” She sniffed once. “It makes sense, honestly. I mean… what more is really left here… for any of us?”

Don saw Mike reach over and give Sarah’s hand a squeeze and knew that they shared the same thought, that her acquiescence had more to do with her grief over losing her family than any desire to leave her home planet.

“Thank you, Dr. Douglas,” Olivia told her. “I’m glad you’re taking the practical view of our situation.” She looked around at the others at the table. “If we’re to save as many people as we can, then we need to act quickly.”

“We’ve already commissioned as many planes as we could conceal safely, ma’am,” Walter explained. “We’ll search rural and low-population areas, places that the virus likely hasn’t reached yet. Stealth technology should also keep our efforts concealed from Eden’s notice and buy us more time.”

“Does Eden know about Project Exodus?” Mike asked.

“No,” Olivia answered. “At least, not yet. Hopefully, we can gather enough people to fill the shuttles before he does.”

“That’s a bad hope to pin so much on, Director Woods,” Jason told her grimly. “We’re going to need protection. Weapons.”

And a better way of detecting… well, those like Connor,” Sarah put in with a wince. “Hastily assembled equipment aside, his infection didn’t show up in the tests we’ve been relying on until now.”

Mike nodded. “We can’t let a sleeper get anywhere near this base.”

“Sleeper?” Jason asked, and leaned forward intently as the agent detailed Connor’s attack on board the jet. His expression became equal parts revulsion and excitement. “The more I learn about these nanites, the more impressed I am with the sick genius it took to create them.”

“You know about the nanites?” Don asked with surprise.

“Been studying them ever since you made your initial discovery, Doctor,” Jason replied with a focused gaze. “The director sent us a sample, and I’ve had my whole team working on unlocking their mysteries without rest.”

“Dr. Harris, Dr. Douglas, I want you to work with Jason and his division for now,” Olivia said. “You understand the nanites from a biological perspective. Jason and his team can provide technical expertise to better our overall understanding of this threat. Pool your knowledge and see what you can come up with to protect us. The rest of your team will create more vaccine on site. We’ll need as much as we can get to inoculate everyone before they’re brought back here.”

Don nodded.

“Michael, you and your team will assist Walter in his rescue efforts,” Olivia continued.

“Follow me, Agent Charles,” Walter ordered, getting to his feet. “I’ll show you to the command center.”

Mike stood quickly, an ardent look awakening in his expression, but he hesitated before the door and drew the sword from his belt and laid it on the table before Sarah. It had been scrubbed clean of blood once Connor was subdued, and the lion head on the pommel gleamed under the harsh lights. “Turned out to be pretty useful, after all,” he said, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze.

Sarah didn’t look at him, but Don saw her smile. “You’re welcome to it anytime.”

As Mike followed Walter out, Jason stood and motioned for Don and Sarah to join him. They left the conference room and took an elevator down several floors to a hangar-sized, concrete room filled with computer stations and work benches crammed with power tools. Men and women in greasy coveralls scarcely paid them any notice.

“We’ve only just cracked the programming language Eden uses,” Jason explained, leading the way to a computer desk with several monitors. With a few keystrokes, he brought up a number of wireframe images of an individual nanite with rows of unfamiliar code characters filling the screens’ margins. The technical lead flopped into a rolling office chair and faced the two doctors. “It’s incredibly advanced, as befitting a mad-scientist-AI, but my guys and I think we can do some scratch reprogramming. Scrub the existing commands out and put a new one back in.”

“Like what?” Sarah asked.

Jason shrugged. “Just the basics so far. Like I said, the language is highly advanced. We’re still trying to decode more of the prompts that Eden utilizes.”

Don had seen and experienced many of the various commands that Eden had designed in action. He cast his thoughts back, searching for something they could use or modify. “The first infected patient we brought back to the lab died very suddenly,” he mused. “Almost like… the nanites had some sort of kill switch.”

Arching an eyebrow, Jason turned to his computer and typed in a few commands, then browsed the screen’s contents. “There is a self-destruct program. It disrupts the electric impulses of the host, then fries the CPU and disables the nanite’s stabilization functions, allowing it to break down.”

“Disrupting the electric impulses in the body would lead to paralyzing the heart and lungs, which would be lethal by themselves, absent any electric damage to the brain…” Sarah trailed off with a wince. “That would track with what we saw.”

“So, maybe there’s a way to weaponize that self-destruct command,” Don suggested. “Broadcast it, somehow. Create a defense field that would stop any infected from approaching the compound?”

Jason shook his head. “We still don’t have a clue what kind of power source Eden uses to send and receive the programming prompts to the nanites. Basically, we can’t hack into his signaling network. In order to send our own commands, we’d have to create our own hive.”

“Hive?” Don asked.

The tech lead frowned and drummed his fingertips against his lips thoughtfully. “Think of a queen bee, building a hive around herself, passing on commands to the drones. A single nanite with the new programming prompt could propagate itself, as long as there’s adequate materials with which to replicate. Once at a critical mass, the nanite cluster could deliver a kill signal through local contact, effectively overpowering Eden’s networked commands. We’d have to program them to function as a weapon, however, meaning it would need to be something simple. We couldn’t make a nanite gun, for example.”

“Materials…” Don thought back to their own research on the nanites. “You mean metal. They build additional copies from the iron and other trace elements in our bloodstream.”

“So, we need something that is already a simple weapon, and is constructed of metal,” Sarah added. She lifted the sword up, her forehead pursing thoughtfully. “Maybe something like this?”