17:45 John Henderson stops at the door of his modest eco-conscious condo.
John leans forward slightly to allow the biometric scanner access to the unique pattern of his retina's blood vessels. After that identification process concludes, he places his left hand into a designated blinking outline on the scanner. After all five fingerprints and his palm lines have been analyzed and confirmed to be his, a mechatronic voice requests a verbal recognition code to which John responds, "Alpha, Omega, Zeta, Mephistopheles."
The mechatronic voice accepts the code and then asks for John's key code on the ten-digit keypad which extends from a high-density thermoplastic cover. John keys in his sixteen-digit code and the mechatronic voice confirms, "Accepted."
A card reader automatically extends from the metal door so John can finally insert a magnetically coded key card into a designated reading slot. "Accepted," rings out in response as a virtual doorknob appears at an ergonomically efficient elevation specifically accommodating John's height. The four horizontal and two vertical bolt locks automatically retract. John grabs the virtual doorknob and the computer-assisted hydraulics engage as John pulls the security door open. He steps into the foyer and the door slowly shuts behind him to the tune of barely audible rhythmic beeps.
As the door locks are re-engaged, the mechatronic voice informs John that all temporary memory data has been scrambled, deleted, reconstructed as unintelligible numbers and symbols, deleted again, and then magnetically wiped from the system. Concluding the lengthy process, the voice announces, "Your security door is sealed, all readings have been irretrievably erased, and your information has been safeguarded. Welcome home."
"Yeah, right. And my identity theft protection cooperative's fees will never increase," John responds sarcastically.
"What's that? I didn't hear you, dear," John's designated life partner, Karsen, asks from their smart device controlled kitchen.
"Nothing," John replies. "I was just seeing if the piece-of-techno-crap door's AI program had a sense of humor. It doesn't."
"Honey, you know how the Sensitivity Board feels about negative modifiers."
"What? You think they'll censure me for insulting the door?" John retorts. "How are they going to find out? Security Doors are offline, at least for now. But who knows? Maybe next month's upgrade will include a 'rat-you-out' feature."
Karsen wheels around and says, "Look, I'm worried you're going to slip up when there's someone around who'll report you. You know what they say, 'Practice restraint, you'll avoid a complaint. Do it every time, you'll never get fined.'"
John smirks and says, "Yeah, what a stup…" Karsen glares at him so John revises, "I mean, stupendous saying that is." They both shake their heads. Karsen looks down at the handheld, electronic kitchen aid with the advanced Artificial Intelligence feature and begins conversing with it. John turns away slightly disgusted that even their daily dinner depends on a computer. He walks over to his favorite chair which, sensing his approach, has modified its contours to accommodate John's body in an effort to provide maximum ergonomic comfort. As soon as John is settled in, a three-dimensional media projector displays John's preprogrammed favorite, a personalized, life-sized, newsreader. This amalgamation of preselected human traits appears to stand in front of John's chair and begins to relate the day's news narrative.
John decides to disable the emotive feature. The 3D image begins imparting the news dispassionately like an old-school David Brinkley. John asseverates, "That's better. 'Classical Expressionlessness.' Hard to believe a programmer can string that many syllables together much less envision it as a setting."
Unfortunately, the next news item is actually a commercial break. The anchor states, "I'll be right back after these messages from the segment sponsor, HRC."
Images of smiling, willowy twenty-somethings suddenly fill the room. A lithely young woman walks toward the projected image of waves gently rolling onto a shore. A svelte but robustly built young man meets her at the water's edge. She offers him a thin strip of what looks like a grilled meat-like substance. He takes it from her and slowly raises it to his lips. He takes a bite and appears to savor it deeply. Still chewing, he turns toward John, proffers a satisfied smile, and tells him, "It tastes great but don't eat too much. Remember, thin is in."
"Geez," John quips. "You'd think they'd be satisfied as the sole supplier of government-approved food stuffs. But no, they need to sell it as sleek and sexy so we'll be happy eating that slop."
"Dinner's ready," Karsen announces.
"Speak of the Devil," John mumbles.
"What dear," Karsen asks?
"Dinner… brought to you by HRC, I presume," John responds. Karsen ignores the snarky remark and waves for him to come to the new virtual dining area which was redesigned recently to be more in accord with recent style trends. As walls, fixtures, and furnishings for any residence are programmed using a 3D Holographic Environment Simulator, Karsen regularly updates their domestic dwelling. John often complains that he can't leave for long because he wouldn't recognize anything when he got home.
Heeding Karsen's request, John stands up and walks toward the designated dining area. The multimedia area is automatically set to energy-saver-mode whenever John leaves it. This delights John to no end because he can once again perform his nightly ritual. As John reaches the simulated threshold, he steps partway out of and then back into the media area several times forcing the automation to turn the media center off, on, off and then on again. Blatantly wasting energy, John enjoys his joke at the expense of the Energy Cooperative's program. Karsen, however, is not amused. Noticing the frown greeting him, John shrugs his shoulders and sheepishly joins Karsen at the dinner table.
"I guess some green beans or possibly a potato is out of the question," John asks?
"John, you know you're not supposed to talk like that," Karsen responds.
"Look," John begins. "When we were growing up and they convinced everyone that eating dead animal flesh was morally repugnant, we all nodded our heads and went along with it. Then, it was birds. Can't eat such majestic flying creatures. Yeah right, like chickens eating their own feces is so majestic. But fine, we went along with it again. Then, it was fish because they had feelings, too. That left us with vegetables. I never cared much for veggie burgers but it was better than nothing.
Then, some geniuses decide there's scientific proof that plant life has a rudimentary will to survive. As enlightened people, we had to recognize their right to live out a natural life, whatever that means to a kudzu vine. So, vegetables are gone. Soon after, fruit... gone. Finally, nuts, roots, grains, and tubers… can't eat them either. I swear, my whole life, one by one, we've been talked out of eating just about everything except each other's worn-out synthetic shoes.
Then, low and behold, our benevolent ruling class has just the thing to meet all our nutritional needs. And Voila, HRC is born. We've been eating whatever this slimy, salty, pseudo-sausage is ever since."
"It's very easy to cook with and it never tastes that bad," Karsen interjects.
"No, you can grill it, fry it, bake it, and it still tastes the same," John sarcastically agrees. "A cross between the old ham in a can and some sort of avocado oatmeal!"
"John, stop yelling," Karsen implores him. "You don't know who might be passing by."
John harrumphs and then dejectedly slumps down in this virtual seat. Within seconds an alarm sounds in response to John's ergonomically unsuitable position. So he sits up and the klaxon relaxes.
Karsen slides five thick strips of HRC sustenance onto his plate and tells John, "I grilled them tonight. I… think it's better grilled."
John nods passively because he's really just too tired to argue anymore.
Encouraged by John's acquiescence, Karsen adds, "I checked the latest survey on my Kitchen Aide and it said that 54.14% prefer it grilled."
John grins sardonically and retorts, "Yeah, but 54.14% of what?
Karsen responds with a bewildered expression.
John explains, "There could be house cats playing with the 'like' button for all we know."
Karsen can't suppress a slight snicker at the mention of feline intervention even though compelled to interject, "You can't call them, 'house cats.' You know subjugating animals for domestic entertainment is illegal."
"Okay, okay," John submits. "They could be strong, independent, free-range felines occasionally frolicking about in their former homes finding the 'like' button irresistible for 'puddy cat' pawing practice. Is that better?"
Karsen smiles even though slightly troubled by the fact that eliciting humor from animal behavior is a form of species appropriation. Regardless, John quietly revels in his trivial victory over Karsen's control. The two eventually smile at each other and proceed with supper as all are, for the moment, alright with what's left of their private world.
1:30 John and Karsen abed at home.
Restless, Karsen stares at John as he continues to snore far too loudly. The smell of his evening quota of alcohol continues to fill the room with a sour, guttural smell. Karsen activates a nanite intervention protocol to assist John with continuous positive airway pressure. Something John forgot to do before he went to bed. Again. Regardless, the snoring soon subsides.
Karsen wonders silently, "Whatever did I see in this lumbering lout to make me think I could live my life with him? I mean, really. He's little more than a moron with nice biceps and a well-rounded bottom. Great sex aside, he was never anything that special. A week banging it out in my cruise ship quarters should've been enough. Anything beyond that was just tempting fate. Now, here I am playing nursemaid to a dead-from-the-neck-up pseudo-intellectual with more meaningless degrees than a Caribbean vacation. No offense, but he's a nincompoop who can't tell a bass fiddle from a bull's ass when it comes to anything important.
Every night, it's the same thing; I'm treated to a litany of complaints against the State. Who does he think he's married to? I have to get up tomorrow, go into work, and pretend my husband isn't a raving lunatic raging against the system I work for. I have to reassure everyone, 'No, he's not a crazed radical. When it comes to the new world order, he's an antidisestablishmentarian…'"
Karsen smiles and figures, "If nothing else, that many syllables will cause enough people pause to let me escape continued questioning."
Then Karsen's furrowed brow returns with the realization, "That really isn't the problem. Sooner or later, this idiot is going to slip up and say shite that would shunt the shoals off their shift. And that could certainly turn our lives upside down. If only I could get him to shy away from further outbursts, then we might live the remains of our days peaceably, without recriminations. Ah, wouldn't that be nice, at least a nice change.
Well, if I can somehow get to sleep tonight, maybe I can dream about a life like that. Who knows? Anything can happen in a dream. Anyway, I better try to get some shut-eye soon for tomorrow is heading toward me faster than colliding protons decaying into hadron jets and electrons."
Looking down at the unconscious hulk embedding a cyber impression into one half of their shared virtual mattress, Karsen bids, "Good night to you, too, you quarrelsome oaf. I hope your dreams offer you some relief as well."
7:35 Cooperative for Disease Containment, Center for Health Statistics, Hallway outside Deputy Director's Office
Karsen is walking briskly down the hall when Emma from Analysis and Epidemiology runs up from behind and says, "Keep walking, we need to get into your office. I've got some juicy gossip."
Karsen stops, turns, and rebukes the young protégé, "For a scientist, you're awfully interested in teenage intrigue."
"Do you wanna hear it, or not," Emma retorts?
After an obligatory eye-roll, Karsen begrudgingly relents. "Okay, what is it?"
Emma herds Karsen into the Deputy Director's office, orders the room simulator to enclose them behind a door which appears immediately, and creeps forward to whisper in Karsen's ear, "It's about Charlie's youngest, Marlon," Emma relays relishing a nitpick at the Chief Agency Executive's expense. "He's run away and joined up with The Wild."
"The Wild?" Karsen questions. "I thought that was just an urban myth about some social malcontents acting out."
"Well then, Marlon just joined the hoi polloi of unicorn university," Emma analogizes. "Because he ain't at Notre Dame and nobody has seen him for weeks. That is until yesterday when he pushed open a grate and crawled out of an old sewer access hole. A security camera caught him and a friend foraging for food. I saved the video. Watch it and see. He looks a bit bedraggled but it's definitely him."
Karsen watches the projected virtual screen output from Emma's brain-computer interface and is soon shocked at the implied masochism of Marlon's existence. "Human beings dressed in rags eating scraps fallen on the road, what inhumanity could've caused this?"
"You know Charlie better than any of us," Emma admits. "You don't think he would ever…"
"No," Karsen immediately interjects. "Charlie would never raise a hand in anger or lust toward that boy, no matter what the mores allow today."
"Sorry," Emma apologizes contritely. "But you know one of those is encouraged today, even though the young people will sometimes react so virulently against it. The other is railed against but you can't get through a day when it isn't blamed for all our societal woes. But look, I wasn't judging. I hope you appreciate that."
"I do," Karsen confirms. "I'm just absolutely sure that the reason Marlon made a decision to do whatever it is he's doing had nothing to do with that."
"Well, I hope he comes to his senses soon," Emma says. "He's a good guy. I hate to think of him out there living hard."
"Yeah, me too," Karsen concurs. "I'm going to try to catch Charlie before he gets too involved. I feel for him, too. He probably needs a friend, right now."
"Okay," Emma agrees. "I gotta go back over some anomalies in the data we've collected, anyway. So, I'll meet up with you later."
The two exchange goodbyes and then Emma makes her egress through the area where the simulated door manifested but now dissolves and the office returns to an open format floor plan. Karsen walks behind her workspace interactive desk and waves her hand over it. Large virtual screens envelop her. After confirming her security clearance protocols, she uses a stylus to connect to the data cloud and access yesterday's work.
8:05 Executive Director's Office
Karsen lingers just outside Charlie's office which has a default door for security purposes. He motions for Karsen to come in and a virtual-doorknob appears. Once Karsen is behind closed doors, Charlie warns, "We can only communicate face-to-face from now on. I'm glad you didn't try anything digital. That's probably being monitored, already."
"What's going on?" Karsen asks with a hint of desperation.
Charlie gathers himself and begins, "You know about my son's disappearance, but I haven't seen you since he resurfaced, literally."
"Yeah, Emma showed me some surveillance video. She said that he joined some crazy cult or something," Karsen adds.
"The Wild," Charlie confirms. "So much for interagency investigative reports. Turns out there really is some sort of local cadre of militant anarcho-primitivists promulgating the practice of achieving a feral state through a process of 'rewilding.' Ergo the name. Call them 'Antiestablishment,' 'Decivilizers,' or just 'fanatic Judeo-Christian preppers,' groups like this litter our history but we thought they were nothing more than a nightmare from a less enlightened age. Now, my own son is one."
"I'm so sorry, Charlie," Karsen offers earnestly trying to console him. "But he's at that age where they question everything. He'll eventually return to some sense of normalcy."
"I'd like to believe that but I honestly don't think so," Charlie decides. "Making matters worse, my wife is on the warpath. She's looking for answers and asking too many questions. It's bringing scrutiny down on me."
"Nobody can blame you for a crazy college kid and his overly concerned mum," Karsen declares.
"It's not just that," Charlie confides. "Remember, there was that breach here a few weeks ago and some information of a classified nature was leaked to civilians."
"That was contained," Karsen interjects.
"So we thought," Charlie responds. "But we were never able to fully figure out how it was done. With my son's reemergence and his known penchant for digital dido, the prevailing opinion points to him and, by association, me. There's already a move on to name Jenn, Acting Director, and to make me take a sabbatical. So, sooner or later, we won't be able to talk in the office anymore, either. You should really think about distancing yourself."
"No," Karsen insists. "There's got to be a way to get you out of this and you'll need my help to do it."
"Okay, if you're sure you want to do this, I think I might have a chance if we move quickly," Charlie confides. "Do you know the construction site just east of here?"
Karsen nods affirmatively so Charlie continues, "That site uses red tape streamers on the barricades to make sure people see the virtual barrier. But the frame and the streamers are real. On the last one closest to the Center, I'll tie an off-red streamer there amongst the others when we need to meet. The color will be just slightly different so it won't draw attention but it will be enough for you to know that we need to meet. Once you notice it, go to that same secure location at the same designated time we've been using. Nobody knows about it and we both know how to get there without being seen. Okay?"
Karsen nods and affirms, "I'll be there whenever you need me."
"Thank you, I will hold you to that," Charlie responds with an anxious smile. "You'd better get back to your office. Today isn't going to be pretty. But no matter what, wait for me to signal you."
Karsen agrees and dashes out to avoid any more exposure to inquiring eyes. Charlie acts like he's engaged in managerial meeting documentation and fights the urge to look up from his make-believe busy work. Karsen likewise stifles the impulse to look back at Charlie and continues down the hall.
11:55 Corner Table with a view of a waterfall
"Thanks for meeting me, here. I know you don't normally take a lunch break," Emma acknowledges.
"Well, 'Thin is in', and all that but you sounded like it was urgent so I figured I better find out what had you so upset. And if it's risqué, you're right, there's too much noise here for anyone to listen in. So, what's so important that we needed to be this discrete?" Karsen asks.
Emma looks around to make sure no one in their immediate vicinity is within earshot and then whispers, "I've sent you a password-protected file. I used the old AES-256 encryption as a beard so even if someone gets past that they'll run right into AES-512 encryption which nobody has cracked yet. I borrowed a pen and a scrap sheet of contract signature paper from Legal. I wrote down the password. It's under your napkin."
Karsen surreptitiously retrieves the outmoded disposable response to a recent spate of counterfeit electronic signatures. Without looking down, Karsen slips the note into a pocket. Emma heaves a slight sigh of relief as if a great burden had been lifted. She continues, "Now, it's on you and I don't have to worry about it anymore. The micro external drive with all the data files is in your lab coat's left pocket. I slipped it in there this morning." Upon hearing this, Karsen glares at Emma disapprovingly.
"What?" Emma asks feigning innocence. "You're right-handed and you almost never put anything in that pocket, so I knew it'd be safe there. Besides, I needed to confirm the data before I said anything to you."
"The anomalies," Karsen deduces.
"Yeah," Emma confirms but clarifies, "Only they're not anomalies. In fact, the data is clear evidence that there is a problem. I've double-checked confidence intervals, made sure the sampling wasn't skewed, everything. What we're calling, 'Subtype SpEnc197J,' is spreading. We missed it in part because the incubation period can be two to twelve years or perhaps even longer and it only manifested recently. It has the potential to become a pandemic even though I don't think it's a virus or even bacterial."
Karsen carefully studies the young protégé's face and asks, "What do you think it is?"
"A prion disease!" Emma blurts out. "I've run some projection rates and mortality models and compared it to known outbreaks in the past. The same answer keeps coming up, Kuru."
"Kuru?" Karsen questions. "Isn't that…"
"Yes, a prion disease afflicting the Fore people who lived in the Eastern highlands of Papua, New Guinea in the first half of the 20th century. It probably began with one individual suffering an extremely rare occurrence; a protein in their brain spontaneously folded abnormally and contorted itself into a 'beta-shaped sheet' instead of a normal helix-shaped structure. The misfolded protein incites any similar encountered proteins to adopt the sheet configuration. As the sheets accumulate, they clump together forming sticky deposits called, 'plaques,' which cause brain tissue shrinkage and deterioration into a sponge-like state."
"Yes, I'm well aware," Karsen declares with a hint of indignation. "My question was going to be rhetorical but thanks for jumping in there with a disease history 101 lesson."
"I didn't mean any offense," Emma insists. "I guess that sounded one part OCD and one part impudence but I've just been living with the implications of this research for so long. And it's been creeping me out. I didn't say anything because I didn't want to come off as an alarmist given the sensationalized reports in the media the last few weeks. So I've kept it to myself, until now."
"Well, I appreciate you bringing this to me, first," Karsen says graciously.
"Frankly, you're the only one I feel like I can trust," Emma asserts. "Any other bureaucratic big-wig would be dismissive or worse, particularly now that Charlie's been put in the grand pooh-bah portal."
"You've heard already," Karsen asks?
"Charlie's poop journal makes the hourly gossip rounds. His 'sabbatical' was a breaking news extra around here."
"Yeah, that's how it is," Karsen laments. "What a shame."
"Yeah, I think so, too," Emma agrees. "Well, I better get back to the monkey grinder before anybody realizes I'm gone."
Karsen smiles but then queries Emma, "Kuru was spread via contact with infected tissues, wasn't it?"
"You could put it that way," Emma consents but then elucidates. "The Fore practiced ritual cannibalism. But I think you know that, already."
Karsen nods and then Emma exits certain they both understand the grave nature of the situation.
17:45 Walkway outside Center
Against the setting sun, a silhouette strides briskly past the eastside of the Center and then its perimeter. A construction site lies just beyond. Even though it can't be seen, Karsen's composed countenance belies the concern and racing thoughts typical of a troubled mind. The method-acting classes have served well. At least so far, Karsen has been able to play the part of a calm, cool Agency Executive detached from the recent controversies swirling around everyone else. Emma's revelations threaten to change all that.
Karsen passes by a grouping of red streamers without looking down. After taking a few steps more, Karsen stops and looks out at the site pretending to assess the progress. Karsen drops a stylus, bends down to pick it up, glances quickly to the left, and then surveys the site once more. Karsen proceeds to walk back inside the perimeter of the Center grounds and reactivates an embedded communication device.
After pressing a preset, Karsen informs John, "I'm going to be stuck in a late meeting so you'll have to fend for yourself, tonight. I'm not sure when I'll get home but I'll try to call when I'm on my way if it isn't too late. "
19:35 An abandoned industrial site scheduled for future demolition and redevelopment.
"Marlon," Emma whispers.
"I'm here," Marlon responds as he saunters out from a shadow and into the light of the full moon.
Emma moves toward him but is immediately put off by the smell. "Sheesh, what is that?"
"I'm sorry. I came directly here from the project. I didn't want to be late," Marlon replies.
"Oh, that's alright," Emma tells him as she looks around cautiously.
Noticing her concern, Marlon assures her, "It's safe. The surveillance has been disabled for weeks."
"That's what you said about the sewer grate site and you see what happened there," Emma argues.
"Yeah, that was weird. It's not like repair drones hover there. It must've been some overzealous supervisor who fixed it in passing. Regardless, we're being more careful now, using remote energy detectors and such," Marlon explains. "Once the project is finished, we should be able to maneuver anywhere inside or outside of the megalopolis."
"If you say so," Emma tentatively agrees and cranes her neck to give him a kiss. He reciprocates and begins to hug her but she excitedly pulls away to say, "I've brought the entire dossier including my research."
"I'm glad but it will only confirm what we already suspected," Marlon laments.
"Yes, but this is actual proof that there is substance to your suspicions," Emma affirms.
Marlon shakes his head and says, "Sadly, I don't think that will matter. People believe what they want to believe and there's a lot of walking dead out there who don't want to know the Truth."
"But people are dying and there's a lot more of that to come," Emma passionately insists.
"Yes, because we lack guiding principles," Marlon asserts. "There is an order and when it's ignored or disrupted, bad things are bound to happen."
"Oh geez, not the herbivore conundrum, again," Emma pleads.
"Plants feed on energy from the sun," Marlon begins. "Herbivores are designed to derive nutrients including protein by digesting plant cells. That is the direct means to their sustained health. Feed them something else and you introduce a variable that disrupts the food chain."
"I know about the bovine spongiform encephalopathy breakouts of the late 20th Century but there was never conclusive evidence that it was spread by anything other than contaminated feed from infected cattle," Emma maintains. "I mean I get it: Plants feed on the sun, herbivores eat plants, carnivores are designed to eat herbivores, when carnivores eat carnivores they are once removed from digestive efficiency when they are forced to eat their own species, they are twice removed from efficiency and bound to become extinct. It makes for a nice soundbite but it's not very scientific."
"Technê," Marlon scoffs. "The least endeavor of the mind. One you rely on far too much. Remember Rabelais, 'Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.' Rationalized evil destroys from the inside and there is no cure."
"I love how eloquently you can insult my profession and life's work. You really do have a quote for every occasion. Thank you, Bartlett's," Emma chides.
"You're pretty quick with a comeback for a technocrat," Marlon says with an appreciative smirk on his face.
"I practiced that one in front of the mirror," Emma discloses.
Marlon snickers and nods affirmatively. He then remembers and tells Emma, "I know you're not going to like this but I need to show you something. It's crucial for you to see it for yourself. Come with me."
Emma nervously complies. They climb down a shaft to a subfloor. Marlon pulls up a rusted metal cover revealing a subterranean access way. Marlon navigates the narrow entrance and descends the long ladder to a series of electrical access shafts. Marlon grabs the torch implement from the stand where he left it. The two proceed on foot traversing a veritable underground superhighway. Finally, Marlon stops at an access point. He looks at Emma and says, "This is where we traced Subtype SpEnc197J to its source. It took us a while to gain access but we acquired incontrovertible proof that it's coming from here."
Marlon reaches into his pocket and pulls out a brain-computer interface he removed from its subcutaneous insert weeks ago. Upon seeing it, Emma asks, "How did you remove that?"
"Painfully," he responds as he connects it to a docking module recently installed behind a crevasse in the wall. Eventually, images begin to materialize. Marlon steps aside so Emma can see and manipulate the three-dimensional projections. Scenes of workstations, production locations, rates, and capacity reports, and even stockholder disclosures pop up, all bearing a well-known logo. Finally, a video report marked, "Confidential: Trade Secrets, no unauthorized access or dissemination under penalty of law subject to GI 10098A."
Emma watches a history of the research for a new product and reads some of the testing data. Then she watches as untold rows of obviously pregnant women are inclined to await some kind of gynecological examination. A simulation of a robotic procedure begins and within seconds Emma realizes, "HRC is harvesting fetuses?" she asks, already knowing the answer.
"Yes," Marlon responds evenly with just an intimation of sadness. "They have 'farms' around the world, mostly in poorer countries. They process the remains along with some cloned or grown simulation thereof rendering it as foodstuff."
"What about the women," Emma asks?
"From what I've been able to glean, they remain in an almost constant state of pregnancy. That is until the scar tissue builds up to a point where the womb is inhospitable," Marlon explains. "They also use artificial wombs but the higher grades come from human gestation. There's also something about maintaining a sustainable breeding population."
Emma's eyes dart back and forth as she assimilates the information and incorporates it with her data. She begins to deduce, "So the disease is essentially…"
"Mad cow," Marlon interjects tapping his right index finger against his temple. "At least, some mutated form of it. They tried to neutralize the effect with 'G127V,' which is a gene mutation that replaces a single amino acid in the DNA chains that make up the proteins that are vulnerable to prion diseases like Kuru. Researchers inserted this gene into the genome of transgenic mice in the lab. They found that 'G127V' conferred complete immunity to human prion diseases in the carriers of the mutation. So, they thought they had it all worked out. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
Given the political climate at the time and environmental pressure groups, HRC was able to get waivers and put the product out. They were even granted exclusive rights and government protection from prosecution. And that reference to GI 10098A is important, too. Best I can figure is it's some kind of initiative that gives the whole project 'Top Secret' status. Which means that what you did tonight could be construed as a breach of homeland security."
"Then going back to the Center...?" Emma entreats.
"You can't," Marlon asserts. "If you go there, home, or anywhere else, you won't stand a chance. You're only option is to disappear."
"What do you mean?" Emma asks.
"Welcome to The Wild," Marlon announces as shadowy figures who've been observing Emma and her responses now stealthily creep out of every nook and cranny to welcome her. Marlon tells her, "There are those above us who say that we're a throwback to the past but they'll soon learn that we are the future."
13:33 three solar days later, Executive Director's Office
"Good to have you back," Karsen tells Charlie.
"Jenn wasn't nearly as gracious," Charlie reports. "I'm pretty sure she got a little too used to sitting in my seat. Well, better to be Acting Director for a day than never at all."
"I understand your wife is recovering," Karsen comments.
"Yeah, going to be a long process after a breakdown like that and there are pending charges upon her recovery," Charlie explains. "I understand that you've been cleared of any culpability in that nasty business with your husband."
"Oh yeah, there was plenty of evidence to prove that he accessed Emma's office and then tried to disseminate disinformation so he could profit from a decline in the HRC stock price," Karsen notes. "I never even saw John as a day trader much less knew he was capable of market manipulation."
"What about how he manipulated my wife," Charlie asks?
"Oh yeah," Karsen remembers. "The affair thing. That was a nice touch."
"Emma's disappearance is a loose end," Charlie admits. "But then, so is my son."
"I don't think we have anything to worry about," Karsen confides. "You know as well as I do that there are way too many VIPs who have a vested interest in keeping this quiet."
Charlie nods and agrees, "I'm sure you're right. After all, GI 10098A is actually a Homeland Security, Executive Order. So, sedition charges should scare anyone away from getting too close to it." Charlie grants himself one unguarded moment for a sardonic cackle and then he looks back at Karsen to ask, "Hey, feel like getting dinner later?"
"Mmm, not so much," Karsen decides. "Besides, 'Thin is in.'"
The End, or maybe beginning.