Into the Woods
Time to clean up after yet another rogue modder. Or is it?
I hadn’t been back from my latest trip – India this time, for yet more fun with some of Ancient Fire’s urban-legendary modded monkeys – for a whole month when GenoMod got a visitor from the Russian Federation’s embassy. He was direct and to the point about why he was there: Russia had a rogue modder, or so they thought, and since we had worked on that kind of modding case before they wanted us to come over to their official lab in Moscow to lend our expertise.
Or rather, they wanted me to come, since I was the only one who could. I’d be flying to Moscow while the guys stayed home and waited for me to call them with whatever I found. Pete had double-checked – cautiously, because we do try not to offend our clients – to make sure everything was legit and it had all checked out, so a week later I was back at the airport and looking forward to seeing what Aeroflot’s first class was like because that was where my ticket said my seat was.
I went through the security line like always, and like always I hit a certain point and saw the pointing and getting ready going on, and I scowled: I’d had enough. Still, though, I knew better than to antagonize one of them – that’s a good way to get escorted into a little room and told to strip – so I waited until the pat down and wanding were done, stamped back into my shoes and picked up my stuff…and then got out my phone and dialed. “Hey Rick, it’s Danny. Just got through the usual overly-familiar extra security check and I’m sick of it, sue the shit out of them for harassment – we’re all four still on the list, I know we are because we get singled out every damn time, and of course now everyone’s passport has a hold on it except mine. No, I’m on my way to Russia this time, some idiot made an owlbear and turned it loose. Yes, an owlbear…yes, it’s exactly what you think. They’re hoping I can help them make sense out of the guy’s notes, his creature got him on its way out and now it’s rampaging around in the woods somewhere. Yes, apparently – there’s a reason we don’t mod large mammals with birds of prey, Rick. Yeah…yeah, thanks, I’ll be careful. I know Russia’s…they have what? Okay, I’ll keep an eye out for that, thanks. Yeah, you too. Bye Rick.” The guard at the end of the security line was staring at me in horror, and I offered him a smile and a shrug, feeling a lot less stressed. “Listen, we know it’s not your fault. But I’m still sick of it. I stopped looking forward to having strangers fondle me in public places when I outgrew the club scene, really.”
That made him smile. “Owlbear?”
“Should never have existed, believe me. Modding large predators is asking for trouble anyway, but modding a black bear with a large, carnivorous bird was just insane.”
“I heard about the raptors in Arizona.”
I nodded. “Crocodile monitor modded with ostrich, yeah – those are some scary looking creatures, they really do look and act like the dinosaurs from that movie. They’re contained now, though. You can actually go see them when the sanctuary is open, they take donations instead of having an entrance fee.”
He laughed. “I’ll stick to watching videos online, thanks – it’s safer. Have a good flight, Dr. Darling.”
“Thanks,” I squinted at his nametag, “Greg. Hopefully your day will be boring as hell.”
“I hope so too. They usually are, though – and we like them that way.”
I agreed with him and headed off to my gate. I had about half an hour before boarding, but I really didn’t feel like coffee or snacks so I just picked a seat from the row closest to the gate and got comfortable. And tried not to worry about what I was going to find in Russia. DIY mods were the worst, and this guy had been working alone…there was no telling what kind of mess he’d actually made. But I was also starting to wonder when I’d become mod science’s answer to Geek Squad. Sure, I still did a lot of work in the lab, I had projects in the works and research that was going places…but I’d also become the expert to ask for an opinion when there was a mod problem thanks to the huge media blowup that resulted from the Project Chaney goons trying to kill me and the more subtle international whispers from Canada and Norway. Yeah, it was really good for business – I mean, I’d just casually called up our lawyer and told him to sue the government for me because I was annoyed – but I was starting to feel like I was a character in a movie. A bad movie about monstrous mutations or ancient legends coming to life and I was the scientist guy who gets called in because he supposedly has all the answers.
And the bad part about that was…part of me was kind of liking it. Not so much the notoriety, because I really didn’t enjoy that most of the time, but being That Guy was starting to feel kind of heady and exciting. And I wasn’t sure it was a good thing for me to be feeling that way.
I pulled out my phone again and called Joey. “Why do I feel like I’m the scientist guy in a movie all of a sudden?”
He snorted, and in my mind’s eye I could see him slouching back in his lab chair. “Because you’re logging like all the frequent flier miles running around putting out mod fires, Danny. Did you take your lab coat this time?”
Weird question – I never do. “No.”
“Then you’re not That Guy – because That Guy gets off the fucking plane wearing his lab coat. And he makes it with whatever hot chick is around, so you definitely aren’t him.”
I grinned. “I’d kiss you, but you might turn.”
“In your dreams, Danny – your better ones, of course. Text us when you get there, okay?”
“I will. If the signal’s good enough I’ll send you a picture.”
I tucked the phone away again, feeling better. If Joey didn’t think anything was wrong, everything must be okay.
I had no idea at the time that he’d been halfway to being a basket case about this trip when I’d called, because he’d actually had a worse feeling about the way things were going than than I did.
The flight was really long and mostly boring, although being in first class was nice – the Russians are known for going all out to impress invited guests, it’s a cultural thing, so I hadn’t been too surprised when the travel plans they’d made for me had been VIP all the way. I slept for part of the trip, ate some really good food, read some journals I’d been meaning to catch up on, and chatted with our flight attendant for a while about Hana – she was a fan, and she almost squealed when I gave her one of the little crocheted animals Hana had stuffed into my carry-on bag for just that purpose. Maybe I wasn’t That Guy the scientist, maybe I was actually That Guy bunnygirl519’s public relations assistant.
It was cold when I finally got off the plane in Moscow, but I’d expected that and brought a good coat so it was fine. There was a tall, dark and more than a little handsome guy in a nice suit and an overcoat waiting when I came down the ramp – no little name signs here, he came right to me and offered me his hand. “Dr. Darling,” he greeted me. “I am Dr. Markovic, head of the genetics lab here. Welcome to Moscow.”
His hand almost swallowed mine, but the handshake was polite and not competitive. “Thank you, Dr. Markovic, I’m happy to be here. I’ve always wanted to see your country.”
It was true – and I’d told them that when they’d asked me to come – but it made him happy anyway so we were good all the way around on that. “I am afraid we won’t be seeing much tonight – the fog is out,” he apologized. “Tomorrow, though, will be different. Our driver is picking up your luggage. Was it a good flight?”
“It was an excellent flight, thank you. Are we going straight to the site, or…”
“We are going to a hotel,” he said. “We will get a fresh start in the morning, because it will be a long drive. How are you with the jet lag?”
“Prepared,” I told him. “I started sleeping for your time zone three days ago, so I’ll be fine tomorrow. I figured time was probably going to be of the essence once I got here.”
“It is, yes – thank you for thinking of that. Many of our visitors do not, and they are, as you would say it, zombies on their first day in Russia.”
“I won’t be a zombie until I get back home,” I told him. “But we don’t have any mod emergencies going at the moment, so I’ll have time to sleep it off.”
“Sort of like the situation you asked me to come here for,” I explained. “Sorry, we’ve sort of started using our own slang around the lab for this stuff. We get a lot of calls lately from people who want our advice or our help because they’ve either run across a modded something or other they don’t know how to handle or they’ve done some modifications themselves that got away from them.” His eyebrows went all the way up, and I nodded. “Yeah, some of the people doing this are sloppy. A year and a half ago, we had a geneticist in Florida call about a sentient minotaur he and his lab partner had created accidentally on purpose.”
He looked properly horrified, which was what I’d hoped to see – it meant he actually knew what was what and had some ethics. “But would that not be…”
“A human-modded bull, yes. We tore those people a new one for doing that, and we got the big animal park down there to take the minotaur and the mate we insisted they make for him so they’d be safe and well taken care of. They were both still doing really well when I heard from the park’s zookeeper last month.”
He was still looking a little iffy about it. “And these scientists, they were punished?”
“No, because the zookeeper and I agreed that they did the right thing by calling for help once they realized what they’d done.” Not to mention, there are no regulations specific to genomodding in the States, so the worst we could have done to Tim and Ada was turn them in to the local regulatory agency for unethical lab practices. “He’s having them watched from down there, though, so they’ll color inside the lines from now on if they don’t want their lab shut down.”
“Reasonable,” he agreed. We had reached the baggage claim area, and the driver already had my luggage, so we went out to the very nice car they’d brought. I texted Joey and sent him a picture of the fog, and then I watched what I could of the fog-scenery on the way to the hotel. “We get fog in California, but it doesn’t look like this,” I told Dr. Markovic. “This looks like it’s solid enough to touch.”
He thought that was funny. “Some days it is. I have made a reservation for dinner, I thought we could discuss the matter at hand so we would both be ‘on the same page’ tomorrow, if that is all right with you.”
“I think that’s a great idea, actually. Do I need to change?”
He shrugged. “If you want to. It is the hotel restaurant, but many people there will be dressed for dinner.”
“I’ll change, then.” I didn’t want to embarrass my hosts, or my country, by ignoring appearances the way the guys and I sometimes do at home. We got to the hotel, which looked like a really nice one, and once we got inside I could see that it was actually a really really nice one. Dr. Markovic still came up with me to make sure my suite was okay, though, and he waited in the suite’s cozy little living room while I got changed and then we went down to dinner together. I wasn’t entirely sure if he was watching me for his benefit or mine, but I decided that the distinction wasn’t important. I was a foreign visitor with specialized knowledge they needed, one who had already had one attempt on his life – in Dr. Markovic’s place I’d be extra careful too.
Dinner was amazing, although I swore off the vodka after two polite sips because I knew better than to put my lightweightedness to the test in a country where they drink stuff you can run an engine on. And I explained that to him so he wouldn’t be offended; he actually seemed relieved, so my guess was that he’d seen quite a few visitors overdo it. We retired to the lounge after we ate, drinking really good coffee – honestly, it was the best I’d ever had and I told him so – and going over the information he had for me.
The guy who created the owlbear – if that’s all that it was – had been going by the name Yuri and that was literally all they knew about him – because they’d found some messages mixed in with the papers they’d found which were addressed to him using that name from someone called Volkov. We could infer that Yuri had been a scientist, or at least had some scientific training, because the papers had notes scribbled on them that a layman wouldn’t have made. Could someone at that level have made an owlbear? Much to Dr. Markovic’s dismay – they’ve never had to deal with DIY modders before in his neck of the woods – I assured him that with the right equipment and supplies, or with a pre-made mod kid, one could have. Once you have the basic elements assembled, all you have to do is inject the subject with the mod serum and then wait for things to start happening. After seeing pictures of the cabin they’d found the papers in, though, I’d known that the only way Yuri had mixed up any modding substances in there was if someone had come along and taken all of his equipment away after the owlbear killed him. Which considering how far out it was? No, that didn’t happen. Yuri might have pieced together the mod himself, but he’d brought the serum with him from someplace else and then stuck around with his client to make notes on what it did. They did find the tranq gun he’d used to get himself a bear, which from the pictures looked like a standard tranq gun to me – looking at it gave me a shiver, though, so I didn’t look at it for long. Never gonna forget the feeling of that dart sinking into my chest, never.
I didn’t explain that to Dr. Markovic, though – even though I was pretty sure he’d noticed the shiver.
We started early the next morning after a really generous if slightly weird breakfast – I would never in a million years have considered having caviar with scrambled eggs, but it worked and I’ll do it again next chance I get – and some more of the hotel’s amazing coffee, and Dr. Markovic took me out to the ATV he’d rented for us to go visit the site in and got behind the wheel. It was still really cold and the fog was still there but it was thinner now, more like regular fog and less like a solid blanket settled over everything. What I could see of the countryside was beautiful, greener than I’d expected because of the temperature, and unfortunately it started to look more and more like it was full of good places for an owlbear to hide the closer we got to the woods. Which took almost four hours of driving to reach, and then another half hour to make our way to the cabin on foot.
It was actually more of a hut, to be honest; calling it a cabin was flattering it a little too much. It was tiny, the door had been ripped off the hinges, and there were claw gouges on the broken table, one wall, and the doorframe. Bloodstains were all over the place but mostly concentrated in the spot where Yuri had died. Nowhere, and I looked hard, was there any sign that any kind of equipment had ever been installed, or a generator for running any since there wasn’t any electricity. A lamp was on the floor in one corner where it had apparently been thrown during the struggle, the battery-operated kind, and those batteries had long since died. So yeah, Yuri had definitely done whatever work he’d done someplace else.
I took a closer look at the claw gouges and yeah, they looked like bear…but maybe a little too much, something was off about the way they’d marked the wood. Owls have talons, and talons grip before they rip; these looked more like slashes, the way a full bear would swipe at something. Could he have messed with the mod to get divisional effects, the way Doc does? His notes, translated, didn’t say that he had, and what they did say was owl-modded bear. Around forty-six percent, too, so no way were those paws still completely bear – any mod over twenty-five percent is going to hit the extremities, and some under that will do it too. Hana had just been really lucky that thirty-five percent rabbit had only been enough to give her handpaws…
Hana. Her little handpaw coming through the cage bars, grabbing that dart, yanking it out…
I staggered back a step, hitting the wall as the realization hit me. The tranq gun in the picture…not just a ‘standard model’, it was one I’d seen before. More than once, but that one time way too up close and personal.
It was U.S. government-issue.
I swallowed hard and looked up at Dr. Markovic; he was nearly a foot taller than me. “Doctor…you know, fuck that. I’m Danny.”
“Ivor,” he allowed. “Danny, what is wrong? Is it the blood?”
“No, not at all. Ivor…did anyone actually see the owlbear?”
My heart sank into my shoes when he shook his head. “They heard it. Even I heard it, when I was here before. And tracks were found, but they disappeared, leading nowhere.”
Oh no. No. “I think that’s because they weren’t going anywhere, Ivor – those particular tracks, anyway.” I swallowed again. “The tranq gun in the picture…it’s the same model the agent who tried to kill me last year was carrying, the same model government agencies in our country use as standard issue. And these marks…” I grabbed his wrist and put his hand over the set of gouges on the doorframe. “If you make a claw shape with your fingers, you’ll see it. Those aren’t owl talons, owls pinch – all birds do, it’s just the way their feet work. These are slashes, and they aren’t all that deep. The black bear species Yuri used here would weigh how much?”
He’d gone a bit pale himself. “The largest are almost twice my weight, so between three and four hundred pounds.” He fingered the gouges. “This…no, I cannot believe I did not see it before. A swipe from a bear would have ripped this wood away from the wall, not merely carved these shallow marks.”
“A bear didn’t do this, Ivor; a man with claws did. And we know that wasn’t Yuri.” I looked around the room again. “So maybe Volkov…”
“Volk is wolf in our language – ‘son of the wolf’.”
“Yeah, that would fit – their project was named after an actor who played a werewolf in movies, his name was Lon Chaney Jr. – Project Chaney. Just from the pictures we know Yuri was completely human on the outside, and I’m sure your people would have found out if he wasn’t on the inside when they examined the body.” He nodded. “So he was out here in the middle of nowhere, with paperwork containing mod process details for making an owlbear out of a captured black bear. Maybe a commission job for Volkov?”
Ivor nodded again, slowly. “Here in Russia, it is illegal to make these modifications without government approval. The lab I am in charge of, it is the official lab and all requests must go through me. At first, when they found this, they thought we had been making creatures for the black market. But we had made nothing like this – bears are trouble enough on their own in this part of the country, I see no need to make them even more dangerous so I turn down all requests for modifications of bears.”
“We only take them when it’s bear mod on something smaller,” I agreed. I looked around again, snapped a few pictures of the claw marks with my phone and typed in a short explanation in the metadata. There was no signal this far out, of course, but the minute we got one those photos were going to upload to the lab’s cloud server and then Joey and Dave and Pete would know something was rotten in Denmark. Or rather, in Russia. “Okay, we need to get out of here and get back to civilization. I’m sure there’s an owlbear running around in these woods, but I don’t think it’s what killed Yuri.”
“I concur,” Ivor agreed…and then he froze, because a sound had started from somewhere farther off in the woods, carrying clearly through the cold air.
It wasn’t the sound of an owlbear, though. It was the sound of an ATV’s engine.
We both tore out of the cabin and ran for the place where we’d parked our vehicle, but we both knew it would be gone by the time we got there and once the sound had dwindled into nothingness again we stopped running. “Well,” I said, “Now we know it wasn’t an owlbear, because I’m pretty sure bears can’t drive.”
Ivor raised an eyebrow at me…and then he broke into a grin. “I do not think owls can either.”
I looked around. We were hours out of the city, in the middle of the woods. Possibly with a modded something or other in the woods with us, not to mention the native wildlife. And it was cold. “Walk back to town?”
He snorted. “We may have to try, but it will take days. I am a scientist, not an athlete.”
“Yeah, ditto. Do you have any ideas, or should we go back to the cabin and think there?”
“That was my idea.” We turned around and went back up the faint path, walking this time. We started to hear the hooting sound about halfway there, although luckily it didn’t sound like it was close. “Yes, that is it,” he confirmed before I could ask. “Territorial, do you think?”
I shrugged. “Bears are, owls too. Two hikers killed was what led you guys to the cabin where you found Yuri, right?”
“Correct. And they had also been mauled, but it was a much more vicious attack.”
“Which would be consistent with an animal, so that probably wasn’t Volkov. So Volkov arranges to meet Yuri out here to make the owlbear, do you think? He’s working the black market in a country that actually pays attention to that kind of thing, beggars can’t be choosers. He comes out here, he does his thing, and then Volkov makes sure he can’t tell anyone else who did what where before turning the owlbear loose.” A bit of bile rose in my throat, and I forced it back down. This was a nightmare. “Yuri was bait, and so is the owlbear.”
“And now so are we – bait for the owlbear.”
“Yeah, probably. I have no doubt we’re both supposed to die out here, or at least one of us is.” I stopped walking to look up at him, making sure I was looking him in the eye. “Which means we both have to survive, Ivor. That’s the only thing they won’t have planned for, so we have to walk back into that hotel together or not at all.”
He looked startled by that, and then the grin came back and he slapped me on the shoulder. “Ty mne nravish’sya,” he said, and whatever that was he obviously meant it. “I do not think the cabin will be a safe place to stay, do you?”
“No, but it will be a good place to start out from. We might be able to get the lantern back on. And our car thief had to have been sleeping somewhere out here, somewhere he’d be safe from the owlbear and everything else, so maybe we should try to find that and use it ourselves?”
“It is a plan,” Ivor agreed, and we started walking again.
Five days later we were back in the hotel drinking coffee, just in my suite instead of in the lounge. The owlbear was dead, because there had been no saving it – Yuri had half-assed the mod, and the creature he’d created hadn’t been able to eat. It had been ripping its prey apart so it could lap up the blood, because both halves of its messed-up brain had only known that it needed meat and blood was part of meat. Ivor and I had managed to survive for three whole days with it stalking us through the woods – we never did find Volkov’s hidey-hole – before someone finally found us and we were able to lure it out and kill it. And then we were driven back to town, treated for exposure at the nearest hospital, and questioned endlessly by officials and then by some surprisingly respectful Russian journalists – I’m used to dealing with the considerably more aggressive American ones, remember – about the whole ordeal.
We told the officials the whole story; we gave the media about half and then the officials corroborated it, so the story the public got was that a black-market modder had tried to make an owlbear for a client, the client had double-crossed him and then ended up stranded in the woods with a dead black market scientist and a live, hungry, messed up creature. Basically, that was all true. The part about them not having caught the client wasn’t, but that was because they’d caught Volkov before they’d found us and found out he’d actually been working for an American agent. The Russian intelligence guys said they were pretty sure the agent was rogue or black or super-double-secret or something, because they’d been hearing stuff about him and the semi-official American agents they knew had been hinting that something might be going on. Again, which is why he officially ‘hadn’t been caught yet’.
For my part, I wouldn’t have cared if they’d skinned him alive and dipped him in salt water – hell, I’d have added the salt for them. Ivor and I had barely made it through three nights in the freezing woods with a hungry predator stalking us, we were both teetering on the edge of coming down with pneumonia, and we both were kind of in that mentally-numb state you get to when you’ve be through an experience you really weren’t equipped to handle. The Russians were holding Ivor up as a hero and he was embarrassed by that, but I told him he deserved it – and I told him he should be glad his government had his back, because mine sure as hell didn’t have mine. No, I didn’t bad-mouth the U.S. to the Russians – I didn’t say anything about my government to the press over there, they already knew what had been going on and they were rather unsubtly using their news stories to rub my government’s nose in it. Ivor and I thought that was hilarious, because the Russian news guys were really clever with those headlines.
Finally, after an extra week at the hotel because I’d been too sick to be allowed on a plane, I went home. I had ten pounds of awesome coffee in my luggage – legally, of course – I had a whole book’s worth of news clippings and pictures, I’d given out the rest of Hana’s little crocheted animals, and I had Ivor’s contact information and a promise that went all the way up the Kremlin that our two labs would be allowed to collaborate freely and I was welcome to come back to Russia any time. Ivor wouldn’t be coming to visit me anytime soon, because it wasn’t safe – I’d told him that, and the intelligence guys had agreed with me. They did, however, promise that they’d keep us both updated on the situation, and that was good enough for the time being. We still had each other’s phone numbers, and email, and video chat.
And we had three nights of running around in the freezing cold woods with a creature hunting us to remember, during which we’d rather coincidentally discovered that we had more in common than just science. We didn’t share that with anyone else, but I’m pretty sure the intelligence guys knew and also pretty sure they didn’t care. Ivor confirmed that later, he said they were teasing him about getting lost in the woods with milo Amerikanskiy uchenyy – a ‘cute American scientist’ – all the way back from seeing me off at the airport.
Joey and Dave and Pete were all there waiting when I got off the plane and through Customs back home, and lovely people that they were, they’d brought security with them. Huge guys with no-nonsense expressions who stayed between us and the press and everyone else and then drove us all back to the lab in a Hummer I’m pretty sure was armored. I complimented them on the Hummer and they told me all about it, which was great because I really didn’t want to think right then. I was home, with my friends. Hana greeted me right inside the door with a squeal that possibly ended on a note only dogs and selkies could hear, and when I fished out the bundle of postcards and little souvenirs the hotel staff and the officials and the flight crew had given me for her she burst into tears and hugged me so tightly I almost couldn’t breathe. And then we all sat down and got comfortable and I shared some of my coffee and told the story of what had happened in Russia from the center of a warm nest of friends. Which, weirdly, sort of made me feel a whole lot better about my own government having tried to murder me and another scientist in the Russian woods.
I gave the U.S. reporters the exact same story Ivor and I had given the Russian ones, and although they tried to make more – and worse – out of it, the Russian story had broken a week previous so their efforts to create something scandalous or controversial pretty much just made them look stupid. And they hadn’t been able to get aggressive with me to try to make me slip and say something they could put to use, because the security guys were still there. Rotating shifts, even, and nobody left the lab unless a huge security guy went with them. I finally came out of it enough to realize that was odd – Ivor and I had had tighter security on us than this in Moscow after they’d found us, after all, so I’d kind of gotten used to that – and asked Joey about it, and he patted my shoulder. “Welcome back to the land of people who can think straight, Danny. We aren’t paying them, except for gas and food – they’re volunteers,” he explained, and shouted across the room, “Hey, Mike! He finally snapped out of it enough to wonder why you guys were still here!”
Mike was about middle of the road huge in the group of security guys, and he was usually with us during the day. He wandered over and patted my shoulder the same way Joey just had. “We volunteered when we heard what was going down,” he explained. “Not entirely altruistic on our part, though – you guys are great and all, but we’ve got personal issues with these people.”
And he rolled up his sleeve, and there on his shoulder was a military tattoo…with a snarling wolverine in the center of it. A newer tattoo underneath it had a row of five skulls and the date the project’s subjects had been ‘liquidated’. I couldn’t help it, I teared up, and he nodded, rolling his sleeve back down. “That’s why we’ve kept ‘em covered,” he told me. “You’ve been trying to fix the issue, Dr. Darling, and we like that. And we like how you told Hana’s boyfriend he couldn’t switch until you could switch him back and then ran his ass back into college, because young guys make dumbshit decisions sometimes and you kept him from making a whole bunch of them at once.” He grinned then. “You really told him that if he skimped on the foreplay she’d rip his junk off and eat it, really?”
I had to smile back. “He tried to tattle on me about that, and she told him not to skimp, then – it didn’t escape any of our notices that she didn’t deny she’d do it.”
Mike laughed. “She’s a little firecracker. I’m gonna go check the perimeter now, we can talk more later if you want.”
“Sure, thanks Mike.” He left – honestly, it amazes me every time I see one of them fit those shoulders through the doors, and I sniffed again to clear my nose; I still had a lingering cold, and it was at the annoying and drippy stage. Joey gave me a one-armed hug – he and Dave and Pete had been doing that a lot since I’d gotten back – and then moseyed back to work. So I did too, because I was more with-it now, and I had an issue I still needed to fix with one of my current projects. Not to mention I was still working on being able to reverse a mod without terminally messing up the subject…
And that was when it clicked, and I knew I was an idiot. We all had been.
The government guys showed up a few days later, two of them, and they were highly offended when Mike and Jo-Jo wouldn’t let them in without patting them down first and then wouldn’t stop watching them afterward. “Dr. Darling, we’re here to take you to our office for questioning,” the taller of the two told me stiffly. “We’d appreciate it if you came quietly and didn’t create a scene.”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Dave told them before I could even open my mouth. “You can talk to him here, with witnesses present. Rick!”
Our lawyer came out of the back room; he was practically sauntering, but he was just like that. “Oh hello, gentlemen, we’ve been expecting you.”
The other agent, just a bare inch shorter than his partner but otherwise they could have been cut out with a cookie cutter from the same pale dough, shook his head. “This is a matter of national security, Mr. Rikard. Dr. Darling has been in close communication with the Russian intelligence community – and he was already under watch for anti-American activities before that – so he’s lucky we didn’t arrest him when he got off the plane.”
“Why didn’t you?” Joey wanted to know. The agent gave him an odd look. “No, really, why didn’t you? Why weren’t you here his first day back? The media was there when he got off the plane. Why didn’t you meet us at the car, or the front door, or hide out in the bathroom waiting for him?”
“We didn’t want to add to the media speculation. This is a matter of national security, after all.”
“It actually is,” I finally added, and had the satisfaction of seeing both agents turn a funny color. “Oh yes, I finally figured it out – and I feel like a complete idiot for not figuring it out sooner. Why would you try to take me out in Russia? In fact, why try to take me out at all? The genomodding process is almost common now, I spend half my time flying all over the place cleaning up after other people’s mod messes, so taking me personally out of the picture doesn’t do you any good…if your goal is to stop genomodding or control it, that is. But that never was your goal, and I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.” I smiled. “You need me gone because I’m the only one making any progress on the reversal process for modded humans…and you knew that eventually I was going to figure out you’d had it all along.”
Mike and Jo-Jo both growled, and the agents jumped. They tried to come back from it, though. “You’ve got no proof of that,” Slightly Taller sneered, doing his best to look like he wasn’t scared shitless of the two huge, angry security guys who really were sounding like they’d been modded with somebody’s mean guard dog right at that moment. “And we won’t allow you to spread that story.”
“Russia already has it, I called them right after I figured it out,” I informed him sweetly. “Oh, FYI, they’re kind of pissed. Given this new information, our sister lab over there has already confirmed that the owlbear was so messed up because it had been partially de-modded, most likely when the black-market modder formerly known as Yuri tried to use your independent contractor Volkov’s own tranq set to de-mod him in order to save himself – or at least to give himself a fighting chance, although whether he’d have had one anyway was doubtful. Scientists not athletes, as Dr. Markov puts it, most of us don’t get to the gym as often as we should. But anyway, your guy Volkov out there had been modded, he had claws, he just didn’t have the upper-body strength to pull off a real bear attack. He had plenty to claw up Yuri, though, because humans are a pretty easy prey.”
This time Slightly Shorter sneered. “That’s all conjecture, Doctor.”
“No, he pretty much hit that nail right on the head,” a new voice chimed in, and Doc strolled out of the back the same way Rick had, just without the saunter; the two agents actually took a step back from him, and his grin bared too-sharp teeth. “Now boys, we were friends once. Why would you be afraid of me? Don’t like moles?”
Dave leaned around so he could look at me. “We did remember to send Doc his birthday hooker, right Danny?”
“It’s the thought that counts,” Doc told him, twinkling just a little. He’s a harmless-looking older guy, short and balding just a little, and yeah he’s pretty much nuts but that’s okay. He’s not nearly as evil as the project that created him – or as he seems to think he is, honestly – and he’s agreed to a truce with us for the time being, too, because right now we all want the same thing. “Pity the only thought the people from the original project have is causing chaos so they can step in to stop it.” He waggled a finger at them. “Naughty, naughty, boys. You can’t prearrange to be a hero, you know, that’s cheating and people don’t like it.” The grin again. “I, specifically, don’t like it.”
You know, he sort of scares me…but you gotta love Doc. “We’re not going to demand that you hand over the reversal, or even ask you for it,” I said, stepping back in before one of them made a mess on the floor because they were just that scared. “Once we knew what to look for it wasn’t that difficult to isolate, and we’ll have it perfected in no time – yours is kind of sloppy anyway. Dr. Tambor-Ellis at Central U is already talking to her old buddies in Washington about the regulations you guys have kept blocking – Russia has them, we should too because this can be some next-level dangerous shit when it’s mishandled.” I straightened, feeling it more than a little because I was still kind of achy and more than a little tired and stiff from spending the past few days glued to my microscope. “We’re going to be the official lab, the clearinghouse, and we’ll be working with Central U to make sure the information keeps flowing. We’re partnered with the official lab in Moscow, and they’re going to reach out to the EU and to China because those guys might talk to them but they for damn sure won’t talk to you – in fact, China seems to think you might have known about Ancient Fire before they did, because apparently that’s what Interpol thinks.” I gave them a grim smile of my own. “We are going to clean this mess up, boys, and you’re going to go sulk somewhere and maybe think about alternate career paths. Oh, did we mention you’re on camera? Maybe you should go now before you incriminate yourselves any further.”
Slightly Taller, bless him, really thought he still had one to pull out. “We still need a statement from you, Dr. Darling…” Rick cleared his throat and handed him a fat manila envelope. “What’s this?”
“The statement and debriefing from Russia,” Rick told him. “All of it. Translated, even, and with an unedited video recording of the interrogation they did with Dr. Darling and Dr. Markovic at the hospital in Moscow – Russian intelligence knew you would try this, and so did we.” He wiggled his fingers at them. “Bye now, if you ever set foot in here again your names are being added to the harassment lawsuit GenoMod currently has going against the government – if you’re not already on their list of scapegoats somewhere, since the relevant government officials and their lawyers are all claiming they didn’t have anything to do with you and they thought your project had been shut down years ago. Tell your friends.”
They left. We all waited until Jo-Jo confirmed that they were really gone, and then the back-slapping and congratulations started. They weren’t going to be back; little did they know, but their overlords in the Pentagon already had all the information we’d just given them, and Washington was about to shut them the hell down and make an example out of whoever they could. Because our lawsuit aside, the Russian president was gloating his heart out all over the place and the White House was embarrassed as fuck at the moment and stomping down on super-secret we-thought-that-was-canceled projects like they were roaches. So it was a good day, all the way around. For us, anyway.