A World Full of Monsters

Table of Contents

Chapter 40
Island of the Snark, Part 2

With Danny still on the island, Joey is having to deal with an increasingly complicated situation.


Joey

The soldiers were relieved that we’d found Dr. Sing, of course, but they were more than a little taken aback when we took them up to see him; he was still sitting on the stool, swinging his furry little clawed feet and talking animatedly with his friend at the Ministry on his phone. He greeted them with a little wave, then passed over the phone and let them talk to whoever it was while he greeted the even more shocked Jin and apparently offered him a job. He switched to English again when Jin asked what sounded like a pointed question. “It did not occur to me that there are those who will not listen to a man who does not look like a man,” he said. “It would be best to have someone here who is fully human, just in case. And when Dr. Darling and Dr. Cristal told me you had been protecting my animals as well as myself, it became obvious that you were a man I could trust to assist me.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Wu’s career used to be as much about politics as it was science – I’m sure that’s going to be even easier for a lot of people to forget going forward, since now he looks like the offspring of a teddy bear and a raccoon. Jin, of course, puffed right up and immediately accepted his offer with much bowing and what I assumed, going by his scent and his inflection, were declarations of everlasting loyalty.

We puttered around up there for a little bit longer, getting data and pictures the task force would use in its report and cross-checking some things with Dave back home, and then we left – but not before Wu and Danny had shared the world’s cutest hug, which luckily the soldiers weren’t in the lab to see.

Very luckily, as it turned out. Erik’s phone buzzed with a message when we were almost down to the abandoned village, and the minute he read it his scent spiked with a sharp burst of alarm. His face didn’t give away what he was feeling, though, and after a moment of what smelled like he was thinking hard and fast he stopped walking and looked around. “Dr. Darling, I do not think you should walk all the way back to the dock with us,” he said, “because then you would have to walk all the way back to Dr. Sing’s lab unaccompanied, and we have no way of knowing if any of the island’s creatures may be a danger to your species. If you find anything which may have bearing on this situation before we return, contact me and have Dr. Sing report it on the forum.”

Oh shit. Danny nodded; his tail had puffed up a little. “You’re right, that one bird is almost as big as I am. I’ll see you guys when you get back, don’t get into trouble without me.”

I made a show of rolling my eyes. “The only thing we won’t get without you is covered with loose fur. Hopefully Jin has a lint brush, he’s going to need it.”

He rolled his eyes back, and Larry laughed. “Watch out for boojums, Dr. Darling,” he said, tone joking, scent serious. “Want us to bring you back some roast duck?”

“You know I would, thanks.” And then Danny gave everyone a little wave, turned and trotted back to the path. One of the soldiers had smelled just a little suspicious, but the ‘casual’ banter had taken care of that – this isn’t our first rodeo, you know. I heard Danny break into a jog once he was out of sight, stopped myself from frowning. Something was going on, and it had to be a higher-up kind of something. Because that little message notification buzz from Erik’s phone? It was the specific one he has assigned to Agent Ben.

Erik waited until we were back on the boat, and well away from the island, before he said anything else. “The authorities have put a ‘detain and question’ order out for Dr. Darling,” he told us quietly once the soldiers were otherwise occupied, most likely with telling the one who’d stayed with the boat all about how furry and cute Dr. Sing was now. “Someone will no doubt meet us at the dock expecting to apprehend him; we will find out who the order comes from and go speak with them ourselves. This game-playing idiocy has to stop, it is wasting everyone’s time.”

That kind of startled me. “The first time, in Botswana, they separated him from the group at Customs and asked him all kinds of questions about where he’d been and if he’d left the group or not while we were there,” Larry explained. “He’s been coming in for increased scrutiny of his passport and other paperwork, too, and last time they insisted on checking his phone. Specifically his text messages and his call log.” His scent was expressing a sort of frustrated disgust. “All we’ve been able to get out of anyone is that ‘someone’ keeps tipping the authorities off that Danny might have been somewhere other than where he was supposed to be. And every time, they end up apologizing to him and saying it was an anonymous tip.” He leaned around me to look at Erik. “It wouldn’t make sense for China to be behind it.”

“No, it would not. And I do not think they are – I think they are being used, the same way the others have been.”

“Seems like overkill just for harassment,” I observed.

“It is not just harassment,” Erik said. “The questions are always the same: Where have you been? Did you leave the group at any time? Can anyone else verify that you were where you said you were? Someone either believes he is involved in something, or they want others to think he is involved in something.” He frowned, scent picking up the deeper notes it usually does when he’s making an important decision, and then he waved over the soldier who had wandered back down to our end of the boat. “We may need your help,” he said without preamble. “I was informed by a colleague just before we left the island that an official order has been put out to detain and question Dr. Darling. Something similar has been happening each time we travel with him lately, and each time after asking pointed questions about where he has been the authorities involved apologize and let him go, saying they were acting on an anonymous tip which was obviously in error. I believe these ‘tips’ have all been coming from the same place, and your authorities are simply their next victim. When we reach the dock, can you help me explain this to whoever is waiting and then escort us to the office of the official the order originated from? This must stop, it is a waste of everyone’s time – and with what we do, there is often no time to waste.”

The soldier nodded, face serious and scent proud with a whiff of self-importance, probably because Erik thought he was important enough to do all of that. “I will radio ahead,” he said. “We were not notified of this. They do not say why he is to be detained?”

“No, only that he is suspected of having been somewhere other than where the rest of us were. Which makes no sense, as it is obviously impossible for him to travel without being noticed.” He snorted, waving a casual hand as though trying to brush the annoying situation away, and if I hadn’t been able to smell him I never would have known he was faking it. “I almost asked the last one if they thought Dr. Darling could fly, or perhaps make himself invisible.”

The soldier managed not to snicker. “Or maybe they think he is a wizard, like the ones in the movies who travel by waving a stick in the air,” he said. “I will call ahead and find out what is going on, Agent Sorenson. We will get to the bottom of this.”

“Thank you.”

 

To my surprise, fifteen minutes later he was back and he actually had gotten at least halfway to the bottom of it. “The authorities are not amused,” he told us. “They communicated with their superiors, and word came back that you should speak with Minister Xu. We will take you to him as soon as we have docked.” He made a face. “I was told that it was a matter of national security, and not to ask questions.”

I sat up a little straighter. “National security?”

Erik waved that off. “They are talking about the situation with Dr. Lee. Do not worry,” he half-lied to the soldier. “It is nothing very serious – mismanagement of his lab, which caused Dr. Sing and two assistants to leave without warning. Although I am certain they are also wanting to know how Dr. Lee was not aware of Dr. Sing obtaining a research grant for the island and conducting at least a year’s worth of research there on his own, not to mention making arrangements to modify himself genetically.”

Just a whiff of skepticism. “Did Dr. Darling assist him with that?”

I’d expected that one. “No, he wouldn’t have. Dr. Darling was modified against his will, and it hasn’t been easy for him to adjust to living as he is now. He would have tried to talk Dr. Sing out of doing it.”

Curiosity spiked, and just a touch of concern. “He has difficulties?”

“Many,” Erik said. “Those that involve being harassed when he travels are the least of them.”

A moment of thoughtful consideration, and then the soldier bowed. “I am sorry to hear that. You will let us know, when we return to the island, if there is anything we may do to better accommodate his needs while he is here.”

“Of course, thank you,” Erik agreed. The soldier went away again, and he sighed and shook his head. “Well, now we possibly know part of the reason they wanted to question him, they think he had something to do with Dr. Sing’s transformation. But that does not make as much sense as it might seem to. Someone had to know Dr. Sing owned property on the island, and someone had to have signed off on his research grant and supply requisitions.”

“Just like someone had told Dr. Lee to pursue an avenue of research he shouldn’t have been, and that he wasn’t able to handle. But those probably weren’t the same person.” Larry leaned against the rail, frowning. “Dr. Sing used to be one of the higher-ups in the science ministry, I’d be willing to bet it was one of his buddies there who signed off on everything for him. Although it is possible they might have done that because he told them what was going on with Dr. Lee and they just weren’t high enough up the food chain to do anything else about it – could be why they didn’t reveal his location when he was reported as missing, too.”

“My thoughts exactly. So now the question is, which one of those men is Minister Xu? He is not with the Ministry of Security, he is part of the Ministry of Science and Technology.”

Uh oh. “But aren’t they working with us to try to find out what’s going on?”

“Some of them – it is a very large department of the government.” Erik already had his phone out, no doubt texting Agent Ben. I looked over the rail at the water. We were getting closer to the mainland now, so it was cloudy with pollution and stirred-up silt. Ideal for bottom-feeders, not so great for some other kinds of fish. Could be a great place to hide modded fish-creatures, though, and I made a mental note to suggest to someone that they needed to keep an eye out for unusual fish. Another fishie-type situation we do not need, especially not in an area as densely populated as Shanghai.

 

There were policemen waiting for us when we docked, but they already knew Danny wasn’t with us and their orders might impinge on matters of ‘national security’, so all they did was put us in a cab to go see Minister Xu. One of them even rode along, although he didn’t go into the building with us; he just walked us to the door and sort of handed us off to the security guards there, and then after a brief exchange he left and we were very politely escorted to the elevator and directed to the eighth floor. A youngish man greeted us with a short bow when the doors opened, announcing himself only as Minister Xu’s assistant and asking us to please follow him. He took us into an office and through a small reception area, knocking on the door at the back before opening it and ushering us in.

Minister Xu was standing behind his desk, wearing the standard bureaucrat’s uniform of black suit, white shirt, and red tie. He was middle-aged and looked annoyed, and he gave us only the most perfunctory of bows before getting right to it. “It appears we have multiple situations which must be dealt with. I received word that you have had Dr. Lee’s lab sealed, Agent Sorenson?”

Erik nodded. “I left two members of the task force at the lab to check the files and continue interviewing Dr. Lee’s remaining assistants. After speaking with Dr. Sing, we began to suspect that the research Dr. Lee had been focusing on might have been related to viral genetics. Agent Berg and Agent Stigsson were instructed to look for evidence of this, and when it was found I told them to seal the lab until someone with knowledge of that area could evaluate it. Dr. Sing had already confirmed that he does not deal with viral genetics; he said that was for young men with strong nerves.”

“Did he explain the substance which was found at his home?”

“Yes, it is a biological compound he has been refining with an eye toward creating a mild sedative which would have few to no side effects and be safe for use on children. He showed Dr. Darling and Dr. Cristal the documentation of his research, and they confirmed with their own lab that it is what Dr. Sing says it is.”

“We believe him setting it up to splatter someone entering his home uninvited was supposed to be a sort of practical joke on Dr. Lee,” I put in. “Dr. Sing was surprised and somewhat angry that his former student immediately jumped to the conclusion that he would be trying to poison him.”

“Dr. Lee is not a man with strong nerves,” Minister Xu said. He smelled somewhere between disgusted and pitying. “Your suspicions were correct, Agent Sorenson; we have questioned Dr. Lee, and he had been ordered to pursue viral research along very specific lines. These orders were not sanctioned by the Ministry, and an investigation has been initiated. Who will be evaluating the research itself?”

“GenoMod wouldn’t be able to, Dr. Darling doesn’t work with viruses either,” I told him. “The best person would be Dr. Akker from Verandering Laboratorium in Holland.”

“Dr. Akker is on-call for the task force for just such situations,” Erik confirmed. “We should be able to have him here within twenty-four hours. Will Dr. Lee cooperate with him?”

Minister Xu didn’t snort, but his scent said he wanted to. “Dr. Lee has been ordered to stay  away from his lab until our investigation is complete. I can agree to having Dr. Akker brought in, and if he wishes to speak with Dr. Lee it will be arranged.” He cleared his throat. “I understand that Dr. Sing is now a modified human?” Erik’s answer was to pull up a picture on his phone and hold it out; Minister Xu was…surprised, to put it mildly. “He did this on purpose?”

“According to him, yes. He told us he had been working on preserving the red panda species in his spare time…” The man’s eyebrows went up, and Erik nodded. “That was also my reaction, and when I requested clarification he said Dr. Lee had been preventing him from pursuing any research which did not fall in line with the lab’s new objectives. Dr. Sing’s research had given him great familiarity with red pandas both genetically and physiologically, and he decided that they were an ideal animal to use for modifying a human.”

“What was Dr. Darling’s opinion of this?”

His scent was spiking with suspicion. “Dr. Darling yelled at him for it,” I said. “And we pointed out that there were issues involved with being a modded human which Dr. Sing may not have taken into consideration before choosing to mod himself – for example, the problem of having people refuse to listen to someone who looks more animal than human. We left our guide on the island with he and Dr. Darling for just that reason.”

A small spike of concern. “That man, he is trustworthy?”

Ooh, someone’s heard about the pelt bounty. “He had volunteered to be our guide in an attempt to prevent us from harming Dr. Sing or destroying his research animals,” Erik said. “Dr. Sing had apparently spoken with him on the island before – and before his change – and had asked him to keep the tourists away from the modified animals lest Dr. Lee find out about them and order them all to be destroyed.” A spike of shocked anger. “I assured Mr. Won Jin that we do not destroy animals which are not harmful, and the soldiers escorting us verified that they had been ordered not to kill anything unless they had no choice.”

“I passed down that order myself,” Minister Xu confirmed. “The situation was to be fully evaluated before any action was taken. And why did Dr. Darling remain on the island instead of returning to the mainland with you?”

Erik looked him right in the eye. “I received a message from Agent Bennijnckinck as we were leaving, he said yet another order had been put in place to detain and question Dr. Darling. Taking the circumstances into consideration, it was my decision that Dr. Darling would be of more use going over Dr. Sing’s research than he would sitting in a detention area while people asked him over and over again where he had been and if he had left the rest of our group at any point.” He made a slight bow that wasn’t entirely polite. “As I explained to the soldiers, this has been happening frequently over the last few months. We do not believe China is involved; we believe China, like the others, is being used to further someone else’s agenda. And as we do not know what that agenda entails, we are disposed to take every precaution to ensure Dr. Darling’s safety.”

“Understandable. And I do not know what that agenda entails either, although I do know who holds it. They contacted me to express suspicion that Dr. Darling may have been connected to Dr. Sing’s transformation, and I myself expressed suspicion about how they had known of the incident so quickly. I was speaking with them when you arrived, and I placed the call on hold so they could speak to you directly – I am a neutral party in this situation.”

And apparently they hadn’t wanted him to be, and that had annoyed him – that, and he suspected they were spying on his department somehow. He waved his assistant over, getting something done to the laptop on his desk, and the framed photograph of a gigantic stone Buddha carved into the side of a cliff flickered, replacing Buddha with a sour-looking man who had thinning hair and had chosen a blue tie to go with his bureaucrat suit. I didn’t recognize him, but I was familiar with the nervous younger man in the background and so were Erik and Larry – Dr. Lytkin is Ivor’s second-in-command at Russia’s official lab. Erik also apparently knew who the man in the blue tie was, because his scent became a complicated mix of suspicion, anger, and worry. “Mr. Popov,” he said coolly. “You had an accusation to make about a member of the task force?”

The man called Popov sniffed. “I had called to warn our allies in China that the member in question is under suspicion of certain international crimes,” he replied. “We had already alerted the authorities in Shanghai of this fact.”

“Yes, the way you ‘alerted’ them in Botswana, Cape Town, Santiago and Guam.” Erik wasn’t backing down. “Do you have proof of these accusations, or should I report this as harassment of my team due to the personal preferences of one member?”

“If he had kept those preferences to himself instead of pushing them onto others, we would not be having this conversation,” Popov snapped, and I saw Dr. Lytkin wince. I almost felt bad for him. Ivor’s teammates had encouraged his relationship with Danny – or at least they had before Doc’s bullshit had happened.

And it was Ivor’s security team that had pushed the issue about letting Ivor know about that, not us. “Mr. Popov, Dr. Darling wasn’t the one who insisted that Dr. Markov needed to be told about what had happened,” I said. “That was the security team in Moscow. We knew why Dr. Markov’s team was on communications lockdown in Siberia, because we’re the ones who’d helped them quietly get in contact with some researchers in Alaska to make sure the problem hadn’t spread that far. And when Dr. Markov texted Dr. Darling to let him know that he knew…well, I’ve seen those text messages, it was a very basic conversation and no more details were requested or offered.”

“That is not what I am talking about and you know it, Dr. Cristal.” He seemed to be legitimately pissed off, and Erik was smelling as confused as I felt now – and even more worried. “It is Dr. Darling’s actions after that contact was made which caused us to realize that he was not the ethical scientist he presents himself to be.” That startled all of us, and he sneered. “You expect me to believe he does not want to make more of his own kind? So he will not be alone? I am surprised he allowed Dr. Sing to choose an animal so different from himself.”

If I’d had ears like Danny, they would have gone flat back against my skull – and my fangs would have been showing. I kept a hold on my temper, though, because I knew I had to. “As we were just explaining to Minister Xu, Dr. Sing says he modded himself with a red panda because he’d been doing private research into conserving their species and had come to the conclusion that the species would be ideal for modding a human,” I ground out. “And as for your other accusation…Dr. Darling’s mod can’t be duplicated. His DNA is fused, we can’t even fully analyze it, so it would be impossible for him to create another member of his species even if he wanted to.” He still looked like he didn’t want to believe me. “The only person who would be able to do that would be the rogue scientist known as ‘Doc’, Mr. Popov, the one who kidnapped and modded Dr. Darling in the first place – we know you’ve heard of him. He’s the only person who knows what the exact formulation is for the mod serum to create a villeluvu…and even then he’d have to have direct access to the subject to do it, because part of that serum – also the part that made the mod irreversible – is the subject’s own unaltered DNA.”

By now Dr. Lytkin was looking like he wanted to be sick, and he must have made some noise the mic didn’t pick up because Popov turned and snapped out a question in Russian which he answered more than a little reluctantly. The next question wasn’t quite so aggressive, and the answer was longer. Popov turned back to the camera, frowning. “I am sorry,” he said. “I had not been made aware that our team was kept so completely out of the loop while this was going on due to the situation on the tundra. Which is still not resolved, so none of them had been able to look deeper into what had happened.” Dr. Lytkin said something else in Russian, and damned if the man didn’t almost wince. “Apparently even Dr. Markovic had only the barest details. I had thought…he was reportedly quite angry after he was told, we assumed he had been given more information.”

I shook my head. “His security team told us that they’d had someone tell him the bare facts about what had happened,” I said. “Dr. Darling and Miss Kim were kidnapped by the rogue scientist who calls himself ‘Doc’, and Doc maneuvered Dr. Darling into a position where, for Miss Kim’s sake, he had to agree to allow himself to be modded. I don’t know if they showed Dr. Markovic the video that exists of the incident or not, but they didn’t ask us for any technical data so I doubt they had any of that information to give him.”

“No, most likely not.” He looked somewhat upset himself now. “And Dr. Sing?”

I shrugged. “We have no idea what’s going on there other than the reason he chose that particular animal, you’d have to ask him. He did say something that made us think he might have modded himself to reverse some problems he was having due to his age, though.” His eyebrows went up. “If it was arthritis or something like that, then just from what I observed while we were with him I’d say it worked.” I decided to take a chance. “That is a use for the mod process which GenoMod has been quietly working on as well, Mr. Popov – you may have heard about the work we’ve been doing with injured animals. Done correctly, and with the input of a medical doctor, we believe it can also be equally safe and effective to use to repair some medically unfixable injuries in humans. The only issue we’re seeing so far is that a human who has been repair-modded in that way might not be able to have children unless their partner was willing to be modded with the same serum.”

He was nodding. “To make them the same species, yes, I understand.” The look he was giving me turned strangely intense all of a sudden. “You are recently married, are you not?”

I nodded back, trying not to tense up. “Yes, earlier this year to Dr. Angela Marshall. She’s a marine biologist who specializes in pinnipeds.”

“Yes, I have heard of Dr. Marshall. Congratulations, Doctor.” He’d pretty obviously connected the dots, given the way he was looking at me. Or rather, looking me over. Not that there was anything to see, of course, but it was still an uncomfortable sensation. “If you run into…difficulties of the bureaucratic sort with this new direction of Dr. Darling’s research, please contact Dr. Lytkin through the network and our lab will be pleased to collaborate with you. I can personally guarantee that there would not be difficulties on our end.” He checked his watch. “I am sorry, I have another appointment. Minister Xu, my apologies for involving your office in this misunderstanding; I will be speaking to those responsible for providing me with such incomplete information, it will not happen again. Agent Sorenson, Dr. Cristal, thank you for speaking with me…and please convey our deepest apologies to Dr. Darling.”

And then the connection cut off. Erik was now smelling even more worried, for some reason, but the only thing he did was raise an eyebrow at Minister Xu. “So?”

Xu shook his head. “Yes, I see that it was a misunderstanding – one which could have been avoided had the other party bothered to ask questions rather than jumping to conclusions.” He said something to his assistant, who immediately left the office. “The relevant authorities here will be notified of the situation and its outcome at once. What do you suggest be done about Dr. Lee?”

“Your current decisions regarding him are what I would have suggested as well,” Erik told him. “Dr. Akker will be able to determine what it was they were trying to get him to do if anyone can. I will report that the research Dr. Lee was being ordered to pursue was not officially sanctioned and that you are already investigating. If the research is found to have promise, however, it would be my recommendation that your lab work with Verandering Laboratorium to continue it, as we all seem to be in agreement that Dr. Lee is not prepared to deal with the sort of pressure viral research entails.” He didn’t quite smile. “I will warn you, however, that Dr. Akker’s response to that pressure is to be quite rude.”

Xu waved it off. “If he can stop this from becoming yet another blemish on our nation’s honor, I do not care how rude he is. But I will warn those who will work with him, thank you.”

We had a round of bows, and then he sat back down at the desk while we headed for the door. Before we could leave the room, though, I smelled a sudden burst of anger from him, a sort of pre-attack warning; I jumped and looked around. He was still just sitting there, he wasn’t smiling or frowning, he hadn’t even moved. But he met my eyes and nodded slowly. “I second Russia’s offer, Dr. Cristal. Have Dr. Sing and Dr. Darling send me a report on the parameters of this ‘new direction’ as quickly as is feasible. If it is as promising as it seems, I can sever any red tapes which could hold it back, and see that resources are made available.” A burst of emotion flashed through his scent, and I think he saw my nose twitch in response because he nodded again. “There was a bombing in London last winter,” he said. “My sister and her son were there. Science cannot raise the dead…but perhaps it could give my nephew back his eyesight.”

I swallowed, and bowed again. “I’ll speak to Dr. Sing and Dr. Darling as soon as we return to the island, Minister.”

“Thank you.”

This time nothing stopped us from leaving, and I waited until we were all the way out of the building and back in a cab to really let my reaction to being outed that way – twice! – hit me. Larry put his hand on my shoulder, radiating reassurance. “Joey, it’s okay. Neither one of them are going to say anything.”

“That is true, they will not.” Erik leaned forward so he could catch my eye. “And even if they did, would it matter?” That startled me. “Seriously, would it? They have both stated that they will officially support this research. And as for a reaction by your own country, I know for a fact that preparations have already been made, should it be necessary, to explain the reversal of your wife’s injury as a surprising side-effect of the minor modification she had requested, and the involvement of the two Drs. Montoya as emergency consultations after the damage was done – or rather, undone.”

That was true, Danny even has ‘records’ to back his big fat lie up, just in case he ever has to tell it – meaning nobody can prove he was sort-of kind-of practicing medicine without a license, or that Dave’s dad and sister had helped him do it. That wasn’t the problem, though. I swallowed, forcing myself to get more of a grip. “It’s not just that. At first we hid the fact that the guys and I were modded because it could have given certain people another way to attack and discredit us, but also because we needed that edge to protect ourselves from those same people. We can smell if someone is lying, we can hear what they’re saying when they think they’re far enough away that a whisper won’t carry, we can even see in the dark. I’ve gotten used to…well, to being sort of a secret superhero, you know?”

“I do know,” Larry said. “And it’s a heady feeling, Joey. But you knew that eventually people were going to find out.” His grip on my shoulder tightened. “I think the problem is, you were thinking you’d get to let that cat out of the bag on your own, choose a time and place you were comfortable with, or at least where you knew it was necessary. But instead you got outed by Mr. Popov and then Director Xu used your ‘superpower’ against you to get you to give yourself away to confirm it.”

“Yeah.” I looked up at him. “You didn’t fall for it.”

He shrugged. “I’ve been trained not to fall for it. You guys do all right under normal conditions. Pete’s got a great poker face, you’re good unless someone really surprises you…but seriously, anyone who hasn’t figured out Dave has a little something extra going on just isn’t paying attention. Or they’re so busy paying attention to Danny that they just overlook it.”

That was also true. Danny draws attention away from the rest of us on purpose a lot of the time these days, so people don’t get suspicious.

So we wouldn’t get outed, like I just had.

 

It was already getting to be evening, so we went back to the hotel. Erik called Danny from the cab and told him everything was fine, the order to detain him for questioning had just been a misunderstanding and it was all resolved now. Luckily Danny couldn’t smell how close to not being the truth Erik thought that might be, but he did ask if it was the same ‘misunderstanding’ they’d been having lately. Erik told him yes but he’d been personally assured that it wouldn’t happen again, and said they could discuss it further tomorrow when we came back out to the island. And he told Danny to enjoy having a day off, because he needed one. His scent when he tacked on that last part said a whole lot more than that, but he didn’t say anything to Larry and I about it so I decided just to wait until he was ready to tell us.

Not like I didn’t have plenty on my mind already. We went back to the lab and picked up Gill and Sylvi, double-checking the security; Erik even spoke with the head of security for the building. They all went to dinner once we got back to the hotel, but I wasn’t feeling very hungry so I just went up to my room instead and puttered around with my luggage before calling Angela. I knew she could tell something was wrong – I mean, I’d just called her at 3am San Francisco time – but she knew better than to ask on the phone if I didn’t bring it up first. I was able to tell her about Dr. Sing turning himself into the world’s most adorable modded human, though, and how he’d ‘organized his research’ using a poem from Alice Through the Looking Glass. She immediately asked if he’d made a jabberwock, and I started wondering if maybe I should have paid more attention in those mandatory lit classes in college because holy shit apparently that really is stuff you need to know in everyday life. And then she asked if he’d made a snark, which was apparently from a related poem, but when I told her not that I knew of and mentioned Larry telling Danny to watch out for boojums the line went quiet for a second and then she changed the subject and started telling me what had gone on at the research station that day. When we were saying goodbye, though, she told me, “You’d better watch out for boojums too, Joey. Love you.”

“Love you too. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“You’d better – no matter what time it is.”

I laid in bed for a long time after that, just staring at the ceiling.

 

The next morning at breakfast, I asked Larry what a boojum was. “Nobody knows exactly,” he said. “But they make people quietly disappear. The way I understood it – and there’s a lot of interpretations, so don’t take this as gospel – anything can be a boojum, and there’s no way to tell unless one catches you. I knew if I told Danny that he’d ask Dr. Sing what it was, and then Dr. Sing would know what kind of problem we had on our hands.”

First Maria sending secret messages to Danny, now Larry using Danny to send coded warnings to Wu. “Are we sure this isn’t all just a movie?”

He grinned. “Some days I’m not sure myself.”

Erik sat down at the table with his well-filled tray – the hotel has a really lavish buffet. “Not sure about what?”

“Joey asked me if this was all just a movie.”

“Possibly. Some days it seems like one.” He dug in to his breakfast. “Dr. Akker is already on his way, he caught the last flight out of Amsterdam last night so he will be here this afternoon. I already called Danny to let him know we might not be back out until tomorrow; they were in the middle of trying to cook a breakfast which would be equally palatable to a human, a villeluvu and a panda, and the only question they had was whether we would call before returning in case they needed more eggs. And Agent Ben says he knows what has been going on with Russia and he is glad they finally pulled their heads out.” I almost coughed eggs up through my nose, and he laughed. It died pretty quickly, though. “However, he is concerned – and so am I – that we were told our contact with the official lab in Moscow is to be Dr. Lytkin and not Dr. Markovic.”

A chill ran down my spine; I’d been so upset about the rest of that conversation that I hadn’t even registered the implications of that. Larry pointed at me with his fork. “Do not borrow trouble,” he ordered. “We’ve got enough to go around right now. If anything else comes up, we’ll add it to the roster then.”

He was right, so I nodded and did my best to go back to eating my breakfast. “Angela told me to watch out for boojums too.”

He laughed. “It’s a really weird poem, Joey, you aren’t missing anything. Jabberwocky, though, that one you should read – it is where Dr. Sing got most of his animal names from.”

Hmm. “You know, he did mention he’d made a tree to go with his animals. Maybe we should introduce him to the lichen problem and see if he can find a creative solution for it.”

That made Erik snort around his porridge. Fish porridge, which he’d been so delighted to find on the buffet our first morning here that he’d almost hugged the server. “Dr. Sing may be a little too creative for that area, I think. We do not need glittery lichen and flying bioluminescent reindeer in the far North.”

Need, no. Want? Oh hell yes – note to self, share this idea with Pete and Dave the next time I call the lab. When Erik isn’t around to hear me, of course. “True.”

Sylvi and Gill joined us about ten minutes later, and after a leisurely breakfast we all took a cab over to the lab so we could have another look at the files and work on our official report. Much to everyone’s surprise, Dr. Lee was there. He stopped pacing back and forth when we came in, throwing his hands in the air in exasperation. “It took you long enough, do you think you are on vacation? And what are you going to do about Dr. Lee making himself into a panda? I attempted to tell everyone, no one would listen – he is old and going crazy!”

“How are you even here?” Erik wanted to know. “You are not supposed to be anywhere near this lab until our expert arrives to evaluate the project you were working on. Security was even told of this restriction.”

Dr. Lee folded his arms across his chest. “This is my lab, they cannot keep me out. I needed to be sure my research was not tampered with.”

“And everyone else needed to be sure you did not tamper with it,” Erik shot right back. “You have already been told that the orders you were being given were unsanctioned. The research must be evaluated before it can be allowed to continue.”

He wasn’t budging. “And who is evaluating Dr. Sing’s ‘research’? He had no approval to do such things.”

“He didn’t need your approval,” I reminded him. “He’s one of the founding scientists of your discipline, and he has a grant to use that island for his research.”

“Not to mention, Dr. Darling is currently on the island to observe the results of the research for himself.” I smelled the sneer even though Dr. Lee didn’t actually let it out, but Erik seemed to know it was there anyway. “Your prejudice has already been noted, Dr. Lee; please do not make me note it again.”

Oh ouch. “I will not work with you.”

“We are not working with you now,” Erik told him. “We are waiting until our expert arrives, to make sure whoever was giving you orders was not working against the interests of humanity as a whole.”

Yeah, that is actually what Task Force 27 does, according to the U.N.: We exist to stop people who are trying to destroy humanity. Which is a pretty impressive job description…unless you’re Dr. Lee, apparently, because he just rolled his eyes. According to his scent, though, he was worried all the way to scared. And he almost jumped when Gill came back into the lab. “Security says they did not see him come in, or they would have stopped him,” he told Erik. “They asked if you wanted him detained, and I told them you were still deciding whether that would be necessary or not.”

“Thank you, Agent Stigsson.” They were both managing not to smirk, I’m not sure how. “Dr. Lee, you really should go home until we call you. I believe that is where the officials at the Ministry of Science ordered you to remain while both their and our investigations were being conducted, is it not?”

Dr. Lee’s fear spiked. “Who is it that will be ‘evaluating’ my research?”

“That is none of your business, Dr. Lee. If our expert wishes to speak with you about his findings, we have already been told that an interview will be arranged – by the Ministry, not by you or by us.” He gestured to the door. “Go now, or I will have you escorted out. Oh, and you have been temporarily barred from the network’s forum until our investigation is complete.”

“You do not want me to tell the others what is going on here!”

Erik shook his head. “No, we do not want to risk having whoever has been manipulating you gain access to other scientists in the network.” He raised an eyebrow. “Dr. Lee, this situation is much larger than just you, surely you understand that. Or perhaps do you not feel safe staying at your home? Because if that is the case I would be willing to allow you to remain here for the time being, under the guard of a member of the task force. You may take a moment to consider before giving me an answer.”

That was my cue, and Larry’s; like I said earlier, this isn’t our first rodeo, not by a long shot. Erik turned away from Dr. Lee and started talking to me about one of Dr. Sing’s animals, and I pretended to be giving him my full attention while Larry pretended to be checking his phone. Dr. Lee’s scent was scrambling all over the place, but fear was a common note under all of it. Pride started swelling up after a minute or so, but fear was stronger. Larry turned his phone around so Erik could see the screen, supposedly to show him a picture of the animal we were discussing: it said HE SHOULD STAY, and I nodded agreement. Erik nodded too and thanked Larry, then turned back to Dr. Lee. “Well? Will you compromise, or do I have you taken back to your place of residence and left there, alone?”

Did I ever mention how good at this Erik is, and how much he’s learned from Agent Ben? Dr. Lee actually shivered. “I…would prefer to remain here, please.”

“Very well. Agent Stigsson, please arrange a seat for Dr. Lee, well away from the door, and he may work on whatever he chooses which does not involve our investigation. He should go nowhere unaccompanied.” Dr. Lee’s spike of relief was so sharp – and so visible on his face – that Erik frowned and immediately left the lab. Ten minutes later he was back and we had a guard on the door, and not half an hour after that our two soldiers from the boat showed up. They had a long conversation in Mandarin with Dr. Lee and then settled in to watch the door and talk to Larry while the rest of us went to work on the report. One of them took Larry and I to go meet Flip’s plane a few hours later, and we also warned him in advance that Flip tends to be rude and it shouldn’t be taken personally. Yes, Flip really is that bad. And that much of a genius at what he does that everyone is willing to keep apologizing for him in advance, too.

Flip came down the ramp rubbing sleep out of his eyes, knapsack over his shoulder, and he frowned when he saw us. “It’s so bad we need the army to guard us?”

“Possibly.” I accepted and returned the back-slapping hug – hey, he may be rude, but he’s only really an asshole if he doesn’t know you – and then we headed back out to the SUV the soldiers had come with because apparently taking a cab was now out of the question too. “The Ministry of Science is still trying to find out exactly who gave the orders for viral research,” I told him as soon as we were on our way back to the lab. “Dr. Lee is scared half out of his mind, so Agent Sorenson let him stay in a corner of the main lab where everyone can keep an eye on him. He was already in the lab when we got there this morning, but the tape on the door to his private lab was still intact so we’re pretty sure he didn’t go in. Although he originally claimed he was there to protect his research.”

Flip snorted, which coming from him is a sound kind of like a bull would make. “To try to cover his own ass, most likely. Is he a basket case?”

I nodded. “Nearly. Everyone agreed – including the official we talked to at the Ministry – that the guy just isn’t cut out for your type of research. He got so bad he drove off his two capable, intelligent assistants and Wu, and that left him with two less-capable ones who were pretty much just waiting for him to finish cracking up so they could try for his job. Or at least that was my take on it, anyway.”

That got a nod and a shrug. “You’re probably right. What did Wu have to say?”

“Wu said virus research was for young men with nerves of steel – he’s staying on his island. You did see…”

“Hugo was still snickering when he dropped me off at the airport.” He smirked. “I am going to greatly enjoy the next conference – I’ll buy Wu’s ticket myself if I have to, but the reactions of all those timid little half-scientists to seeing what a real one does just because he’s bored will be a beautiful thing to see.”

Did I mention that Flip likes Wu? He does, a lot – he respects him, he’ll even defer to him, which is a level most people don’t get to advance to with Flip. “We can make him share a room with Danny, keep all the fur confined to one area.”

“That goes without saying.”

We kept the conversation light all the way back to the lab, but the minute Flip walked in that door he was all business. He greeted Erik politely, minutely questioned Sylvi and Gill about what they’d seen in the lab the previous day, what they’d touched, every little detail they could remember, and then he put on gloves and shoe covers and his mask and his lab coat – which is long and waterproof and seals down the sides with scuba-gear velcro – and removed the caution tape so he could go in. A twinge of alarm spiked in his scent when the door – just a regular interior door – opened right up. But he went in, shutting the door behind him, and I pretended to go over the report while I listened to him walking around and taking pictures, scent wafting through the door saying he was considering things. Then I heard him start moving things around…and damned if five minutes later his scent didn’t spike again, and this time it didn’t go back down. He moved around a little more. More pictures were taken, I heard papers, probably a notepad, being looked through. And then he came out, closed the door, removed his gear just as methodically as he’d put it on and draped it over the back of a chair he’d indicated he wanted us to push over to him.

It wasn’t until the shoe covers were off that his scent blossomed with an absolutely astounding amount of sheer rage, directed solely at Dr. Lee. “You moron,” he growled. “You absolute imbecilic excuse for a scientist, WHAT MADE YOU THINK YOU SHOULD DO THIS?!?”

I thought for a minute Dr. Lee was going to have a heart attack and drop dead right there. “I was ordered…”

“YOU ARE AN IDIOT! You should be washing dishes for a real scientist, not wearing his coat and pretending you know what you’re doing!” He let fly with something in Dutch that nobody but Sylvi and Erik understood – their reaction told me it was graphic and probably crude but neither one of them smelled like they disagreed with it – and then he turned to Erik. “Get hold of whoever is in charge of the investigation, tell them they must be extremely careful. Whoever was providing this idiot with his ‘orders’ is either more of an idiot than he is, or they are trying to use his stupidity as a means to an end.” He took a deep breath, calming himself back down. A little, anyway. “This ‘laboratory’ of his doesn’t have a seal on the door, or even filters on the vents. I saw no protective gear inside or even a place to put it, just a hook where he hangs his coat. In short, no precautions have been taken to prevent an accident from spreading through this entire laboratory, or even throughout the building.”

“I was told there was no need,” Dr. Lee protested. “And there was no funding – even with everything I had managed to squeeze out of the lab’s budget, there was still not enough.”

The hell?! “Wait, you’re saying you were ordered to take on virulogical research but you knew you didn’t have the resources to do it safely…and you did it anyway?”

He huffed at me. “This is a government lab, not a private one such as yours. I was ordered to do it, and told my lab here would be sufficient as it was. Since I had no choice but to proceed with the new direction our research had been ordered to take, I simply had to be very careful.”

Erik was frowning at him. “But you never thought to check to see if those orders were legitimate?”

Another huff. “When someone from the Ministry of State Security comes to you and says ‘Do this,’ you do it and do not ask questions – of anyone.”

So that’s why he was so scared – those guys are China’s version of the C.I.A. “But why didn’t you at least talk to Dr. Sing about it?”

“They told me not to, because he would cause problems by telling his friends in the Science Ministry, and they would interfere with what needed to be done.” This time we got a snort instead of a huff. “Old men with old ideas, all of them. I could agree with that. Dr. Sing rests on the achievements he made in his youth, all he wants to do now is play with animals.”

Aw, so that’s how they got him to go along with it. “I’ll be sure to share that sentiment with him, it would make a great intro to his next paper – which I read part of last night, he’s been working on some really important advances in ecosystem restoration.”

Flip raised an eyebrow. “What was his angle of approach?”

“That it could be done faster and possibly even better by use of carefully thought-out modding. He’s using the web of life model. Among other things.”

“I want to read that. Before he presents it at the next conference.”

“You can read it tonight,” I told him. “It’s in my hotel room, you can have Danny’s bed since he’s still on the island.”

Dr. Lee, of course, did not appreciate this divergence in the conversation, because he’d apparently already forgotten that having Flip yell at him had almost made him die. “They will not let him into the conference like that.”

I rolled my eyes. “They let Dr. Darling in. Something you’d know if you’d been to one recently. The only problem we’ve ever run into is some guy at a hotel reception desk asking to see his proof of rabies vaccination.” Dr. Lee opened his mouth. “He carries his official tags on his keychain, just in case. Speaking of which, I need to check with Wu about that. He’s going to need a custom rabies vaccination keyed to his species, Dave can do that for him if he hasn’t already done it himself.”

“I can do it, since I’m already here,” Flip said. “I’ve done a lot of work with that virus, it wouldn’t be difficult. There is even a sample in the next room that I could use, if they don’t need it as evidence.”

I did not expect Erik to react the way he did to that. “What?!”

“He has a pack of samples in his refrigerator,” Flip elaborated, “with three vials out of five remaining. I also saw two types of influenza, unopened, and there are empty boxes which had contained vials of Tobamovirus in the trash; the other boxes in the back of the refrigerator may have been that as well. My initial supposition would be that he was attempting to modify mammalian viruses with those which are plant-specific.” He shrugged. “If so, that will definitely be a charge against him at the international level, no matter who ordered him to do it, since the creation of zoonotic viruses is banned unless you have prior approval. Which is not easy to get, even if you’re someone like me.”

“What would such a combination be used for?”

Flip shrugged again. “For the rabies, one of two possible reasons I can think of off the top of my head. Either the intent was to create a plant which could counteract the virus, or it was to create a plant which could infect humans and animals with the virus. Possibly both.”

“A plant,” Erik said slowly, “which could infect humans with rabies. This is possible?”

“Only for this idiot if he got lucky. Possible for someone who knew what they were doing? Yes, but only if they were a madman.”

Even his scent said he was completely certain about that. Erik opened up his phone and used speed-dial to call someone, and when they answered he spoke to them in Norwegian, was apparently transferred to someone else, and then had a very grim, urgent-sounding conversation in the same language. At one point he pulled the phone away from his ear and asked Flip if he had any other ‘suppositions’ about uses for the viruses he’d seen in the lab, specifically when combined with a mosaic virus. “That would depend on which way you did the modification,” Flip told him. “I would have to run the permutations myself to be sure, but…plant virus modded with mammal virus, probably the same as with the rabies. Mammal modded with plant would be much more dangerous; as a worst-case scenario, it could have caused one of the flu symptoms to be lesions or sub-dermal bleeding or even necrosis – basically created a new form of leprosy.”

“Thank you.” Erik got back on the phone, finished his conversation, and then texted something to someone – probably Agent Ben. And then he set the phone down and looked Dr. Lee in the eye. “When you were questioned about what has been going on in your lab, did you tell the investigators of any successes you have had with this research?”

I’d have never thought that I’d ever be so relieved to smell someone’s complete and utter shame. Dr. Lee hadn’t gotten lucky yet, apparently.

 

We didn’t get to go back to the island again, for obvious reasons. This time I called Danny – video-called, even, so he could see Flip – and he was not at all upset to be staying another night. “This ecosystem is amazing,” he told us. “I went down to collect cathedral moth eggs today with Wu, and we did some population sampling. Oh, and we had some fun with an illegal tour group – no pictures, don’t worry – and the guide knew Jin so we were able to arrange with him to have some things delivered from the mainland. Did you find anything interesting in the lab, Flip?”

Flip shrugged. “Interesting, but luckily not overly interesting,” he said. “Ask Wu if he has already arranged for his shots; if not, I will make the vaccines for him while I’m here.”

Wu stuck his head into view. “I have the formula, but I would not mind having you make my next dose,” he said. “Danny has already compared it to his, they are very similar. But as you are the expert, perhaps you could make them better.”

“I will take a look. What about the five-way vaccine, do you have that?”

“I do, L.A. County insisted on it,” Danny told him. “I’ve already got Dave working out the formulation for Wu for that one; he’s been making custom inoculations for all the over-thirty mods we know.”

He means over thirty percent, of course – people with a mini-mod don’t have enough animal in them to need special shots. Although Dave had also been making special inoculations for us, and for the regular members of Task Force 27, to protect us from canine diseases that Danny might be able to carry and share. Two papers and three patents in the first six months after the kidnapping, it put him on the map as a biochemist. That’s actually why Dave almost never comes out with the task force or even if we just get a mod call, if you were wondering; he’s hella busy in the lab most of the time, and if we need his expertise for something he’s only a phone call away. Ditto for Pete, who also has his own business to run. My job, on the other hand, is a lot easier to do in the field. And I get a lot of networking in, too.

Not to mention, field work is also how I met Angela…

Erik entered the conversation then. “While Dr. Akker looks at the inoculation data, you have had a request from Minister Xu at the Ministry of Science,” he said. “He would like a brief rundown, from both yourself and Dr. Sing, of the…other human applications GenoMod has been looking into for the modding process. He is offering full support and resources on behalf of his government.”

Well, I guess we really did need to tell him. “Russia made a similar offer,” I added, making a face but nodding when Danny’s eyes widened with realization. “It’s my fault. I was trying to get them to stop trying to blame you for Wu’s mod, and they put two and two together. The Russian official we were talking to knew who Angela was.”

“Well, crap.” Danny’s ears drooped. “I’m sorry, Joey. I should have been there…”

“If you had been, you probably wouldn’t have been there anyway,” Larry told him. “A boojum would have gotten you the minute you stepped off the boat, Danny.”

“True.” He sighed and his ears twitched partway back up. “Did they say anything else?”

“The Russian official asked us to pass along their deepest apologies,” Erik told him. “He appeared quite upset about the misinformation he had received, whoever had been reporting to him most likely had a very bad day.”

“If they were the ones making me have more fun times at airports, I don’t feel sorry for them,” Danny said. He’d gotten a funny look on his face, though, and his scent must have been saying something too because Wu’s whiskers bristled a little bit. “China’s offer doesn’t include having to work with Dr. Lee, does it? Because I seriously doubt he’d be willing to work with Wu and I.”

“Dr. Lee is in protective custody at present,” Erik said. “Waiting for him to be picked up is what delayed us until it was too late to return to the island. His unsanctioned orders were supposedly coming from…a different department than the one he was working for. He was and still is afraid of them, but they appear to have gained his cooperation by appealing to his ego.”

“He seems to have convinced himself that you’re senile, Wu,” Flip said. “You only want to rest on your laurels and play with animals, apparently.” That made Wu’s little sharp-toothed mouth open in shock and his huge furry ears stand straight up, and Flip chuckled. “He told us that when I was talking to Joey about you coming to the next conference. He seemed to think they would not let you in.”

That made Danny snort. “I’m pretty sure they’d let in a blow-up doll in a lab coat if it paid the entry fee. Speaking of which, Flip, we may need to up our contributions to the student fund again.”

“They raised the price?”

“They decided to hold the next one in Zurich.”

Flip sighed, smelling annoyed. “I guess someone wanted to research genetics on the ski slopes. I’ll tell Hugo.”

“I had Pete pass it along to our accountant, she’s going to figure out how much is feasible for us to do. She did suggest that if we bait the hook just right, some of the universities might dig a little deeper to have their students there. Kaito’s university would probably pay for that if they knew about Wu’s paper.”

“We can hit up the network,” Flip said. “Maybe Hugo can speak to the university in Zurich, they might be willing to sponsor accommodations for the students if we give them something. Maybe a short seminar while we are there?”

“Would more than cover them giving up some dorm space or something,” Danny agreed. ‘More than’ being less of an exaggeration than you might think; the cost to a university to have someone like Danny or Flip or Wu give a talk on their campus is…well, it’s pretty high. Like the cost of buying a nice car high. The university is probably going to fall all over themselves accepting that offer. “So between us and them, we should be able to cover the extra cost of the conference sponsors’ ski trip. Because we’ll want as many students as we can get at this one.”

That sat me up a little straighter, and Flip’s scent sharpened with interest. “You are going to present it?”

Danny shrugged. “No reason not to, now. The conference isn’t until next January, so I’ve got plenty of time to get things ready. Would Hugo want in? The more co-authors we can get on this thing the better.”

“He’ll want in,” Flip said. His scent was pleased, but in an odd way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “Maria?”

“Of course. And Kaito, and Sanele. Wu?”

Wu huffed. “I am already in, thank you very much. You will all come here to run the trials, and so we can finalize the paper.” He cocked his head. “Wait, this official who spoke to you…it was Minister Xu?” Erik and I both nodded, and Wu smiled. “I will call him. I knew of that situation, but I had not been able to think of a way to help. You are all coming back to the island tomorrow, correct?”

“As soon as we have checked in with the investigators, yes,” Erik said. “We will be bringing you samples, I take it?”

“If I can get in touch with him, and he has time to get them. In the meantime, Danny and I will discuss the best avenue of approach. For a child, it will be different.”

“Pete can help us fine-tune that part,” Danny said. He gave me a look. “You’re sure you’re okay, Joey? That gut-punched feeling takes a while to go away.”

“I’m fine,” I told him. “Should we still bring you duck?”

“Jin’s friend brought us some,” he said. “He actually brought me one all for myself, so I’m good until I get back to the mainland.” He made a face. “Of course, then I’ll have to share my duck with the rest of you, that’s going to suck.”

Flip laughed. “We’ll order multiple ducks,” he said. “I can also eat a whole one by myself, but the waiters give me funny looks – now, they won’t.”

“Deal.”

“I will call tomorrow before we leave for the island,” Erik said. “Be very careful, they still do not know exactly who was giving Dr. Lee his orders.” He made a face. “We only know they were either idiots or madmen looking to use one.”

“We will be careful,” Wu told him. “Really, Agent Sorenson, we are quite safe here. Trust me when I say that if someone came looking who did not have the advantage Joey does…they would never find us.”

Erik smiled. “I trust your assessment…but we do not know what they might have. Good night, gentlemen.”

Everyone else said goodnight too, and then the phone call was over and we were all just sitting there looking at each other. “So Flip,” I finally said. “Exactly how many ducks do you think we’re going to need to order?”

 

 

The next morning, everything went smoothly. Breakfast, over to the lab to meet with the ministry’s investigators, from there to the Science Ministry offices to talk to our main contact and give them a preliminary report. Minister Xu’s assistant showed up as we were leaving and handed me a sample case, so that was taken care of. We had a late lunch, and then Flip went back to the investigation with Gill and one of our soldiers while the rest of us headed down to the docks with the other soldier to go back out to the island. By then it was about two o’clock in the afternoon, give or take, and we were just getting on the boat when Erik got a call from Agent Ben that for some reason made him turn dead white, his scent flooding with dismay and horror. “Erik, what…”

That was when my phone rang, and pulling it out I saw it was Pete. Calling me at ten o’clock the previous night, his time – Danny’s not kidding when he says traveling around the world is like time travel. And when I answered, Pete didn’t even say hello. “Tell me you’re on the island.”

The hair stood up on the back of my neck. “No, we’re just pulling away from the dock to go over there. What’s going on?”

“The Moscow news service released an official government statement an hour ago, Joey: The remains of Dr. Ivor Markovic were apparently found yesterday. They said he’d been missing and the authorities had kept it quiet because they suspected foul play, possibly a kidnapping…but now they believe he’d just gotten lost while he was out in the field collecting samples. They’ve gone on record saying the official cause of death was exposure, but…well, the wolves found his body before the searchers did.”

I swallowed hard and sat down. I felt like I’d just been doused with ice water. “Does…”

“Dave called him at the same time I called you. We didn’t want him to…the story already hit the forum, people were offering the Moscow team their condolences. Dr. Lytkin is the official head of the lab now.”

He apparently had been two days ago, too. If not before that. “Is that where you guys found out?”

I could hear him shake his head, because the headset he uses clicks when he does that. “Agent Ben called us, he got the news first. He told us to stay off the forum, to not make any statements to anyone, and to not do anything stupid.” He took a deep breath. “He said this is, quote, ‘a more delicate situation than you realize’ and he needed time to sort some things out before any of us said or did anything. He’s pissed, Joey. I’m not sure why – honestly, I don’t want to think about why – but he’s pissed.”

Of course he is. He’d already told Erik that he knew more about the situation with Russia than we did, but I don’t think he expected it to go in this direction. He would have warned us. He would have warned Danny, quietly, to be prepared for something like this, even if he hadn’t told the rest of us. “Does he think…”

“I don’t know what he thinks, he just said not to talk about it. Not even over the phone.”

Okay, that one isn’t a surprise; we’ve always had problems with our phones and things being bugged. “Thanks for calling to let me know,” I told him. “We’ll be at the island soon, maybe twenty more minutes. And Wu is there with him.”

“Yeah.” He said something, not to me, and then he was back. “Dave says that Danny says…he sort of expected something like this might happen. Something about an apology?”

Shit. “It’s a long story, Pete. I’ll tell you later.”

“Got it.” Now he knows it’s part of what we’re apparently not allowed to talk about, so that’s good. Whatever’s going on, we don’t want to make it worse – it’s bad enough now. “Check in tonight, let us know how everything’s going, okay?”

“Will do.” I disconnected and just stared at my phone for a minute before looking over at Erik. “Don’t tell me: Stay off the forum, don’t make any statements, don’t do anything stupid?”

“In a nutshell, yes. Pete received the same message?”

“Yeah. He said Agent Ben is pissed.”

“Quite.” He checked his phone one more time and then tucked it inside his coat. “Moscow just announced that Dr. Markovic is dead,” he announced quietly, for Larry and Sylvi’s benefit. “He became lost while collecting samples in the field and died from exposure.” Larry turned a funny color, but Erik raised a hand for silence. “I was told to keep in mind that the task force is still on-duty, and on assignment,” he said. “And as this is an incident with potential international ramifications, we are not to speak of it until we have been fully briefed…which will happen sometime after the situation here has been resolved. Agent Ben is quite concerned that…speculation could further destabilize the situation.”

Our soldier came over before anyone could respond to that, looking and smelling concerned. “Something has gone wrong?”

Erik nodded. “We just received word that a scientist we have all worked with has died,” he said. “It was…unexpected.”

The soldier’s response was to bow. “I am sorry,” he said. “We will be at the island in fifteen minutes, give or take.”

“Thank you.” He went away again, and Erik slumped against the side of the boat, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I knew something was not right,” he said, very quietly. “I knew it. It was too much of an apology.”

“Now you’re borrowing trouble,” Larry said, just as quietly, and shook his head when Erik frowned at him. He held up his own phone. “I got a message from the home office. Mike says Agent Ben had already talked to him about the situation, before this happened, and that we need to keep out of things as much as possible because it’s being taken care of at a higher level.”

“Does that mean the U.N. is looking into it?”

He shrugged. “No idea. Right now, though, I’m concerned about how GenoMod’s lack of response might be taken. How many people knew that Danny and Ivor were a couple?”

Everyone looked at me. “Pretty much everyone, before the change.” I shrugged. “After? They all seemed to assume it was over, no one ever mentioned it again. Well, except Maria, of course.”

His response was to text something, probably to Mike, and a minute later a return text dinged in. “Okay, someone is going to coach Pete and Dave through making appropriately sad noises on the forum, just so everything looks normal, but then it will have to be back to business as usual.” Even his scent was frowning. “Apparently keeping everything looking normal is a priority right now.” He abruptly looked back up at me. “Which means you’re still going straight home to your wife once this assignment is over, Joey.”

“But…!”

“Mike says so.” His phone dinged. He looked down, his scent spiked with surprise, and then much to my surprise he almost smiled. “And so does Danny.”

 

Danny met us in the little half-moon yard, and to my surprise he smelled calm. Really sad, but calm. Also worried – about me, apparently, because I immediately got pulled into a short, furry hug, and then he dragged me around the corner of the house and climbed up on top of a bench, putting the two of us closer to eye-level. “It wasn’t your fault they figured it out,” he said. “They had to have already been getting suspicious, Joey. It was only a matter of time.” He squeezed my arm, and I could feel his claws through my shirt, and the leathery pads on his handpaws. Not that I can’t always feel that, but for some reason I was just noticing it more right now. “I know you weren’t ready, it’s okay – no one is ever ready to be outed, believe me. But Erik is right, Russia and China aren’t going to say anything.” A little smile that had just the tiniest bit of a snarl in it. “They don’t dare, because they need us to be willing to work with them if they’re going to get their piece of this pie. You and Angela are actually safer now than you were yesterday, if you think about it.”

I hadn’t thought that, actually. “So you don’t think they’d try to use that as leverage?”

He actually laughed. “Against who, me? They need me, Joey – they don’t dare piss me off that way, especially not now.”

Something in his scent, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. It was sort of fruity, and it smelled…like sleep? Something. It was weird. “Interpol already knew and didn’t care, I get that. But our government…”

“Screwed themselves.” A twist of anger spiked up through the soft new scent, sharp and almost acrid, then faded again. His tail lashed. “They shouldn’t have played games with me. I’ll do Minister Xu’s nephew’s mod myself – before we leave, if possible. Wu and I are trying to come up with a combination that won’t give him minor superpowers or a really bad attitude once puberty hits.”

“So another primate is definitely out, got it.”

“Yeah, we wrote off the idea of using ape or monkey right off the bat.” He hopped back down off the bench. “We also don’t want to go with a wolf or a fox if at all possible, because there are some cultural stigmas associated with those here in China.”

“There are?” He was already going back around the side of the house; I spared a second to look at the view, which was amazing and probably the reason the bench was there, and then followed him. “So a feline, maybe?”

“Could work, but there are a lot to pick from.” He waved his tail at me. “We were waiting for you to get here before we called the lab, Wu and I just spitballing animal names back and forth isn’t an efficient way to make this decision.”

“True. It’s a pity we can’t just mod the kid back to normal with his own DNA.” His ears went up. “What? We can’t, it would mess him up.”

“If it was his DNA it would,” Danny agreed. “But maybe…” He went running into the rabbit-labeled house, clattering up the stairs, and by the time I got up to Wu’s lab the two of them were already bent over the scratch pad – Wu sitting on the stool with his furry little clawed feet dangling, Danny standing on the stepstool. Which was when I noticed that he didn’t have on shoes either, and now they were both wearing cargo shorts. Oh, and the Dr. Lee Jabberwock picture had been pinned to the wall over the desk. “Why is it that every time I come here, it seems a little more surreal?”

Larry smiled. “If you think this is surreal, maybe you should read The Hunting of the Snark after all.”

“Or at least watch a cathedral moth’s mating flight,” Danny threw over his shoulder. “It’s no wonder those fishermen thought they were drunk. No, see, if we do that, we’re going to have a problem here. But maybe if we topped it off…”

Wu took the pencil away from him; they were apparently sharing it. “Right there, yes. And done that way, we may be able to avoid the breeding issue when the boy grows old enough to care about such things. Five percent, possibly six…”

“Eight percent on top was enough to give a ginkgo-human the lifespan of a mayfly.”

Wu wrinkled up his nose, which upped his cuteness by a factor of ten. His fluffy ringed tail twitched. “We can start the simulations at four, then, and go down or up as needed until the effects strike the balance we want.” He waved me over. “Do not just stand there, come help us work. This is a good idea, I think. If we top off the mod with the uncle’s DNA, or some other man’s, in theory it should repair the damage but prevent him from needing to worry about making accommodations later in his life.”

“Doing it this way won’t give him enhanced senses,” Danny explained further. “Or if he does, it will be by a barely noticeable amount – well within the range of normal human variation, if we do it right.” He wrinkled up his nose at Wu, which upped his cuteness factor quite a bit too. “You realize that if we do this, and it works…we’re opening a can of worms we won’t be able to put the lid back on again.”

To my surprise, Wu covered Danny’s handpaw with his own, patting reassuringly. “It is a can that will be opened whether we do it or not. But if we open it, they must come to us to get worms, correct? And we will be able to decide which worms are given away, and to who. Eventually others will catch up with us, but it will not be soon.”

“True. And we are going to be sharing the process with other labs in the network, so it can be ethically used on as wide a scale as possible.” He and Wu shared a look, scents saying they were on the same page. I wasn’t quite there yet, and Danny flicked his ear at me, arching a nearly non-existent eyebrow. “Joey, this is about more than just a new mod process, if we can do this right it could be the beginning of a whole new world. What I said outside…these people really shouldn’t have played games with me, because now there are going to be consequences. Not because of what we’re going to do, but because of what they wouldn’t do.”

I thought I got that, mostly anyway, and my scent must have said that I did because they went back to work on Minister Xu’s nephew’s mod. We called up the lab and had Pete and Dave run theoretical sims until we had about the right mix going, and by the time we were done it was starting to get dark. Danny said he was going to stay on the island again so he could keep working on the mod and to let Flip keep his half of the hotel room, and at first I didn’t think too much about that and neither did anyone else…until the boat was pulling away from the island and the howling started echoing out across the rocks and the water, the mournful, lonely cry of the world’s only villeluvu pouring his heart out to the rising moon. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, it was heartbreaking and wild and angry…

…And the lightbulb came on – what they wouldn’t do. Not about working with him, not about acknowledging the lab, they’d actually refused to do something much worse.

They’d refused to let Ivor come to visit. And if they had let him, he might still be alive.

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4 Comments

  1. Toby

    A lovely part, curious subtlety and such heartbreaking news. I admit a part of me hoped that the death was a ruse for him leaving a bad situation via a mod a run….

    Now to wait a long 3 week’s for the next part 🙁

    • Oh no no no no – after a chapter like this, I wouldn’t do that to you! Part of the delay on Part 2 was because I was making sure there wouldn’t be an equivalent delay on Part 3, which I can now safely guarantee WILL be up next Friday. So, only a week to wait!

      • Toby

        Blink ooooh wow oh wow and a huge hurray. I am so happy to hear that. Thank you!

        Looking at some of Wu’s actions I have to wonder if he is feeling a bit paternal to Danny or just some simple comfort actions…

      • Welcome!

        RE Wu: I wouldn’t necessarily say paternal. Wu is one of the founders of the discipline, and he’s got thirty years, give or take, on most of these ‘kids’ who are now pushing the boundaries of his science. He’s also on a first-name basis with quite a few of them. So he’s a mentor-figure as well as a friend, and I’m sure he sees it as his place to offer reassurance and share his wisdom when necessary.

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