Giulia Sapienti Research Park, Central Plaza
0612 (Coordinated Illiyun-Sophian Time)
May 2nd, 2494 (Universal Civil Calendar)
Pale sunlight danced on the horizon, lending a glimmer of reflected warmth to an early morning in the Upper Cataracts that would have otherwise been overshadowed by towering, carbon-glass facades like dark silver monuments where massive corporate facilities lined the street. The wide thoroughfare was paved in smooth ferrocrete, studded with carefully groomed Terran vegetation tended by tiny automated drones that whirred quietly as they bustled through the otherwise still morning air, oblivious to the masses of humanity gathered in the structures around them. The trees were artificially stimulated to bloom year-round, so clusters of tiny white flowers adorning them emanated a light, honeyed smell that drifted pleasantly through the air. Cutting through the center of the plaza, a channel of deep waters flowing from distant mountains whispered and gurgled as it ran swiftly toward the nearby Cataract Facility.
A rare moment of peace – almost unheard of in a city of nearly 25 million sitting at the center of a massive interstellar web of commerce and travel. The handful of people huddled in small groups along the walkways spoke in hushed voices, as if hesitant to disturb the precious quiet.
They needn’t have bothered.
The keening wail of a security alarm descended furiously on the plaza. High above, angry red lights flashed in the sky hovering around the highest levels of the soaring tower at the far end of the thoroughfare. The Vesta Corporation’s automated security systems surged into action across the GSRP campus – securing entry and exit points, tracking and identifying the roughly three thousand people living and working in the complex, and dispatching numerous summons and reports to various security and administrative staff.
Doctor Emil Nemecek, esteemed researcher and pioneer of human knowledge and experience, was dead.
Those were the words on dozens of lips as research staff filtered into the offices and labs of the Purification Project. Team leads, lab techs, and support staff wandered aimlessly in the open space of the entrance hall, trading shocked looks and rumors about the events of the previous night.
No one would be getting any work done today anyway – whole sections of the upper floors had been sealed by security staff. Two Vesta officers in black uniforms with gold piping stood to the left of the wide corridor leading to the closed labs, trying (and failing…) to calm an animated scientist gesturing pointedly with long, narrow fingers and raving loudly about “agglutinative protein reversal” and “weeks of lost work” if he didn’t get into his lab within the next few minutes. A light-duty combat synthetic stood silent sentinel a few paces down the corridor, appearing oblivious to the argument though doubtlessly monitoring the man’s agitation closely from behind its placid mask of artificial professionalism.
The Purification Project was a high profile partnership between multiple corporations and academic institutions with the stated mission of finding treatments and ultimately cures for the terrible viral scourge known as Xenoviridae. Although, despite its admirable goals, it had been mired in some degree of public controversy of late, surrounding rumors of secretive human trials and heavily “incentivized” test subjects – all unfounded speculation of course, as Vesta’s press releases emphatically declared.
A few floors up, adjacent to the Project’s most secure offices, the on-campus living quarters where Dr. Nemecek spent his few resting hours were deceptively quiet, at odds with the chaos that was spreading below as news of the good Doctor’s death spread like wildfire.
The term “luxury suite” fell far short of describing the quarters that Vesta had supplied for Dr. Nemecek. Along with real hardwood floors the color of dark cherry, and wide windows that stretched from floor to ceiling and around the exterior, the apartment was divided into several rooms each larger than the homes of most of the city’s residents. Printed volumes smelling of dusty leather binding and rare historical artifacts recovered from Earth lined the shelves in the corners, and the view afforded from the windows stretched out over the sprawling city like that of some omniscient deity looking down upon multitudes of hapless mortals.
The coppery, sickening odor was immediately out of place – as ugly hanging in the air as a stain on delicate fabric, and it filled the entire apartment. It grew stronger proceeding through the otherwise immaculately clean surroundings, overpowering at the door to the doctor’s small private office.
Inside, what remained of Emil Nemecek lay sprawled on the floor in front of his desk.
His upper body was fairly undisturbed – arms cast out as if he had fallen forward while walking and tried to catch himself, head turned to the side at a slightly awkward angle. His lower body seemed to be… gone. Stretching from his left hip to just under his right arm, there was a smooth dissection as if his entire body had been sheared in half by something incredibly sharp. The floor and walls were sticky with an inordinate amount of unidentifiable gore that had somehow been liberally splashed wide across the room.
Back in the main living area of the suite, just around the corner and marginally removed from the sight and smell of murder, stood a man and a woman in measured, quiet conversation. Dr. Nura Sadik, having just found herself effectively promoted to the head of the Purification Project following the grisly death of her longtime friend and mentor, rubbed at her puffy, reddened eyes with a pale face that was cast down toward the floor. Opposite her, a stern-looking gentleman by the name of Francis Mahanya attempted – rather awkwardly – to be comforting, while glancing rapidly at a miniature holo-display embedded in his left arm and periodically hissing orders at security staff as they passed by.
“There’s nothing more we can do here, Dr. Sadik. Why don’t we wait outside? My people are already handling this investigation internally, and I’ve contacted the appropriate people to take care of our… outstanding needs. They should be arriving any time now…”
Alda walked briskly through the busy lobby, her eyes on the holographic display in her palm. Dressed casually, yet clean and trendy, Alda look very much the part of high-end tech support. She wore a sleek gray jacket over a form fitting black short-sleeved blouse, dark gray slacks and elegant, but function, low-heeled shoes. Without looking up or breaking stride, she wove her way in and out of the crowd of lab techs, scientist and other nondescript personnel to the lift in the center of the building. Ignoring the irate man gesturing to the officer, Alda flashed her palm outwards to the officers, holographic display instantly changing to her ID, barely pausing to allow examination, then closed the distance to the synthetic at the door. She took more care with the combat synthetic, but proceeded with no less confidence and, once her ID was accepted, passed through the doors and into the elevator, barked out her destination and leaned back in the corner to continue review the file in her palm display.
When the doors opened again Alda took a moment to assess the situation. Security officers and other personnel hustled here and there. A couple of techs appeared to be combing the late Dr. Nemecek’s home for any evidence they could find with the assistance of a handful of palm-sized drones that flitted this way and that. Spotting Sadik and Mahanya, Alda made her way over to the pair.
“Mr. Mahanya, Alda Vitrionne. Thank you for your call. I am at your disposal,” the agent said offering her hand. She then turned her attention to the obviously stressed and grieving doctor to her left. “Dr. Sadik, I presume,” she began, as awkwardly as Mahanya’s own attempts at comfort, “My . . . condolences for your loss. I understand the you and the late doctor were, um, well acquainted.” Alda winced inwardly, knowing this was not the right thing to say, but words had already left her lips.
Nura winced outwardly and fresh tears welled in her eyes, “Yes, Ms. Vitrionne. It is a great loss for us all. Pardon me, but what is the nature of your visit?”
Francis interjected quickly wishing to both ease the tension and divert Nura’s attention from Alda, “Alda is here to analyze Dr. Nemecek’s computer systems. We hope to find information that will lead to the killer’s identity or motive. If you will excuse us, actually, I’d like to get her started. Alda, please proceed.”
Grateful for a way out of the tense situation, Alda quickly moved to the computers and got to work. Alda took the small messenger bag from her shoulder, dug inside and withdrew three cables. She connected them to the computer then to directly to the inside of her right wrist.
Now, thought Alda, let’s see if I can find something valuable outside of this investigation.
Slipping into a sea of data in her mind’s eye, one thing was immediately apparent to Alda Vitrionne as she examined the doctor’s computers – they had been ravaged by a malicious software probe, and were at this point barely functional. Huge swathes of data and programs had been destroyed, erased forever. Interacting with it through a mental jack was less like swimming and more like slogging through thick mud, as most of its resources were being devoted to self-repair and attempting to isolate and destroy the malicious intruding program.
It was also clear to the agent that she had a limited amount of time to perform her investigation before the system would be overwhelmed entirely. Alda would want to have disconnected before that happened or the experience would be… unpleasant.
Carefully avoiding segments of corrupted data, she found something interesting in the system logs. A few hours ago, surely not long before or after the doctor’s death, petabytes of data had been downloaded from the Project’s networks. The download was relatively small compared to the entirety of Project’s data banks, but the content was inconclusive – the intruder might have escaped with the GSRP’s weekly staffing reports for the last decade, or with proprietary research data.
Things were starting to get dark, cramped, and chaotic as the system descended further into oblivion at the hands of the malicious infection, but buried in the record of the download was one more interesting tidbit. Something that had come not from the Project’s networks, but a small block of encrypted data stored locally. And the original files appeared to have miraculously survived the ravages of the intrusion probe thus far. With no time to decrypt it now, so Alda quickly made a copy and rapidly began the process of extricating her consciousness from the computer.
The snap of mental disconnection was immediately followed by the holoscreen going dark. The doctor’s computers were gone forever.
Tumbrel had made his way discreetly towards the office where he was supposed to meet the Vesta Corp official who had requested a “skilled and dependable” pilot, when all the alarms went off and security checkpoints began to close. Fortunately for Tumbrel, he had reached the section of offices and research stations where he was supposed to meet his contact.
Still Tumbrel stated internally, discretion is called for. Humans (in Tumbrel’s experience) had a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Most of the humans glanced at Tumbrel curiously, and then with bored business efficiency when he presented his credentials. His attempt to deceive the normal guards about his nature, combined with a valid pass, got him through the remaining checkpoints to the elevator leading to the office of his employer. As Tumbrel was interacting with a curiously primitive combat frame, he saw a human female figure enter the elevators ahead of him. It was the flying human from one of Tumbrel’s previous jobs. The little bird Tumbrel thought. I shall have to find her after accepting this job.
Entering the elevator himself after it came back down, Tumbrel spoke the address of his prospective employer, and looked around curiously when the elevator stopped and he stepped out.
Upon entering the upper floor’s of the GSRP tower, an oddity of human nature became apparent to Tumbrel. Having slipped past the security perimeter, most of the staff scurrying around on this level seemed to ignore him, perhaps on the assumption that anyone who had made it this far was supposed to be here. Unchallenged, he made his way through the initial hallways of the Purification Project, until finally he came to an open door displaying the name of a Dr. Emil Nemecek.
The grim security chief standing in the apartment was the first to notice the synthetic as he entered.
“Who the hell…” Francis Mahanya started toward Tumbrel, looking ready to throw him out personally, but slowed and looked back down at the display on his wrist for a moment. “Huh… guess that wasn’t a joke,” he muttered under his breath.
Not quite sure how to address the synthetic, Mahanya took a carefully neutral tone.
“You must be, ahem, Mr… Tumbrel. Thank you for you prompt arrival. If you don’t mind waiting for a few minutes, we’re waiting on one more.”
Nawahune arrived at the ground lobby of the Vesta Corporation’s building as soon as he could free himself from a previous engagement. Being too big to take a Terran taxi, he had dashed nearly three blocks from the magni-tram depot. Despite his impressive lung capacity, he was gasping for breath as he burst through the carbon-glass doors onto the scene.
“Barnacles to this thin air!” he swore, bent over and catching his breath while supporting himself on his knees. He quickly shot a hand into his side messenger bag slung around his neck and left shoulder, and rummaged around with his fingers for a minute or two. It was a very low key bag, nothing fancy or high tech, like you might find on a typical pedestrian in Illiyun. Nawahune didn’t care much for high tech apparel. In fact, the bag wasn’t even composed of synthetic fibers; it was made from the hide of some animal, tanned and sewn with the imperfect precision only an organic could achieve…at least he believed that to be true.
From the bag he pulled out a curious item. It was rigid and quinary with five cone-like arms in a radial fashion, much like a starfish. Holding it in one hand with each finger in one of the five crevices between the arms, the Shen put the strange object to his mouth. It latched on, and then delivered a puff into his lungs. The Shen pulled the item from his lips, whereupon it was noted that each arm had tiny suckers holding fast to his skin. Nawahune gently put the starfish-like item back into his rustic bag, and reattached the bag’s latch. He straightened himself, corrected his tie, and walked to the central lift dignified. He clearly looked more relaxed, and had regained his breath and composure.
Upon reaching the top floor, he exited the elevator to be suddenly impeded by a pesky security synthetic.
“Halt!” it barked apathetically. The Shen tried to pay it no attention. “Halt!” it repeated in the same exact person-less tone. “This is a restricted area. Only those authorized can advance beyond this point.”
Upon stating this, the synthetic remotely activated the yellow light emitting holo-tape surrounding the penthouse crime scene. It flashed three times to alert the Shen of its presence. Then it returned to its previous status of scrolling the words, “Caution: Crime Scene in Progress…Stay Back…Caution: Crime Scene in Progress…Stay Back…”
“Worthless Synthetic.” The Shen thought. He put his massive hand on the bot’s cephalic component, and proceeded to push it away at a distance, much like an older brother would do to a younger brother in teasing fashion. At first it seemed that it would work. The synthetic flailed its arms trying to reach for the Shen. The Shen chuckled in amusement at the scene, when suddenly a ominously sharp probe-like object unfolded from one of the security synthetic’s arms. Nawahune did not have time to react. A low hum emitted from the sharp object, followed by what sounded like a thousand whips cracking in succession. The Shen’s massive muscles convulsed violently. He all but fell to his knees trying to fight the high amounts of electric current flowing through his body. The sharp smell of ozone permeated through the air.
When the synthetic was finished issuing it initial shock, Nawahune was still on his feet…but only barely. The Shen despite his large frame was quivering uncontrollably.
“Now…PLEASE…back away from the scene. This area is for authorized personnel only. Do you continue to resist?” the synthetic added coldly.
A soft whimper emanated from Nawahune’s lips.
“Very well.” The synthetic responded, followed by a secondary shock to the Shen.
“AAAHYAHYHAOWWWYAH!” Shouted the Shen as he torn away from the electrical hold. “W-w-why I-I-I o-ought-t-ta p-p-pulvi-p-pulvi…r-rip you apart!”
Nawahune’s outrage clearly was making a scene. So much so that many did not see a tumbrel unit obviously dressed in a fairly mediocre disguise to pass among the crowd less noticed.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” called out a familiar female voice from within the authorized area. “The big guy’s with me.”
Agent Vitrionne waved her gloved hand at the synthetic, whereupon the security synthetic immediately changed its posture and said, “You are free to enter, Authorized Ass-s-s-ociate of Agent Vitrionne.”
Alda Vitrionne led Nawahune through the holo-tape.
“These synthetics have it out for me, V." Nawahune said to Alda as an aside as they continued away from the lift. A crowd was now forming around where the Shen vs. Synthetic incident took place. Several people were whispering discretely, but clearly talking about the Shen.
Noticing this, Alda turned around, raised her arms and said aloud to the crowd, “Okay, th-th-that’s all folks.” The majority chuckled and then began to disperse.
“What was that all about?” Nawahune asked cluelessly.
“Its…uh,” she knew he wouldn’t get the joke, and even if she tried, she’d have to spend at least an hour explaining and satisfying his curiosity. “I’ll tell you later. Dr. Sadik is expecting you.”
“How did you even know I was here?” Nawahune asked. “I only just arrived.”
“I was reviewing the security cameras as part of our investigation. I just happened to notice when you entered down in the lobby.”
“Thank you, for back there.”
“No prob, Hune” Alda replied. *"It’s what friends do. But why didn’t you just show your clearance badge?"
“I was going to, but I think I misplaced it somewhere.”
*"Ah! Mr. Bengwe. I am glad you arrived." interrupted a rich but sweet voice. The two turned to meet Dr. Sadik.
The Shen was caught completely off guard. He had rehearsed in his mind the words of condolence he was prepared to say, but for once in his life he was caught without words. “Doctor?” he said weakly.
Nura seemed to pull herself together as Nawahune walked in, perhaps simply calmed by a sympathetic face – alien though it was. She paused for a moment, smiled weakly, and said to him, “I know you feel the loss of Emil as deeply as I do; he was a treasure to both our peoples. I’d like to talk more later, when we have a moment.”
The security chief seized on the opportunity to interject, “Now, I believe we can begin. If you will all follow me, we will show you the reason why we called you here so early in the morning.
“Oh, Miss Vitrionne, if you are finished, would you please join us in the labs.”
The journey from Dr. Nemecek’s apartments to the adjacent labs took the small gathering through a wide hallway studded periodically with short flights of steps. The walls were a sterile, pure white and the lighting stark and clinical, all a jarring difference from the warm, old-world sophistication that had characterized the apartment. Out here the smell of gore was absent and instead replaced by a vaguely electrical scent created by ionized and ozonated air. The temperature was an even 20 degrees Celsius.
Small scrolling projections glowed from the windows of darkened labs as the five passed by, displaying names of authorized personnel and identifying the activities conducted within. Finally, they came to a lab located in the center of the floor, where the glowing projection read:
Core Sample Containment
Special Access: Doctors E. Nemecek and N. Sadik
All others A-4 designation required.
There was an airlock with thick double doors leading from the corridor into the lab proper, and before the second set of doors opened, jets of cool, gaseous sterilizing agent flowed into the chamber and surrounded the visitors before being whisked back out by powerful air filters.
Dr. Sadik stepped forward confidently, beckoning the rest to follow, and began speaking. She was hardly the same woman, who had clearly been weeping not long before – now she seemed authoritative, decisive… even passionate. Francis Mahanya’s face was twisted in displeasure, as if he’d rather his feet weren’t even touching the floor of this chamber, but he didn’t complain as Dr. Sadik took the lead.
“Some of you may be familiar with the Purification Project. We’re headed by the Vesta Corporation, but we’ve partnered with Cardinale Biotech, the MacKennon Corporation, NovaThought, and over a dozen other entities. Over the better part of the last decade we’ve made significant strides in understanding the alien mutagen we all know as Xenoviridae.
“The original strain we call “XV-1” was discovered on a planet called Neritus in the Piscium system. Highly destructive to organic tissue in its natural state – it wiped out an entire colony of several hundred thousand people in a matter of weeks. By the time the initial outbreak had been contained through widespread quarantine measures and the earliest treatments developed, the death toll had risen into the millions. Even today, with the symptoms suppressed by medicines like Exvexa, it is one of the deadliest and most virulent biological agents known to exist, and it has spread beyond the systems of the Protectorate… in this very city we have three thousand registered infected.
“The Purification Project aims to change all that, by developing radical therapies aimed at treating and eventually curing XV infection.”
The olive-skinned doctor strode over to a panel by the observation window and hit a large release button. Pale light flooded in slowly as the observation window opened and the main chamber of the lab came into view.
“Which is why this” she turned her head to the containment lab, “is…” She seemed to struggle for words for a moment before whispering, “calamity.”
The lab was filled with numerous transparent containment cells each fitted with high powered coolant systems. Glowing projections ranging from “XV-284” to “XV-327” flashed in red above the rows of cells, reminiscent of the security drones outside Dr. Nemecek’s apartment reacting to the discovery of the murder. However, each cell seemed to be entirely empty, the carbon glass cases shattered and coolant leaking out across the floor to create a layer of frost and fog that filled the majority of the room.
Nura looked pale again, and Francis seemed ready to crawl out of his skin.
“We’re safe here in this observation room, right, doctor?”
Nura turns to Francis and replied, “The sensor drones cleared the area of any traces of infectious material. But no one is safe, Francis. No one. No where. Not anymore.
“This is smallpox, and Black Death, and the Manhattan Project, and the Phobos Chemical Spill all wrapped into one nice little package… and someone stole it last night.”