I slowly woke up in a hospital ward--again.
I'd lost count how many times I'd been knocked out for tests. I was just glad that I woke up again. Being in the military I could easily see someone making a decision to cut their losses, have the doc make a mistake with the anaesthetic and burn the evidence.
We were nine guys that survived the operation. They stuck us in the deepest, darkest isolation lab that the Navy had to offer. We were all infectious. Umm, not really infectious. Anything within about a thousand yards of us--died. The docs didn't know why, how or whodunit. We, among several others, had been ordered to crew a small cutter that was to observe what the hell came down from space and smacked an island near Tai pan. They would have ignored it but after a couple of days the island had gone from a lush tropical overgrowth to nothing but dead, dry vegetation. The damned fools. When things start mysteriously dying you DON'T go sticking your goddamned nose into it.
What happened? Hell if I know. I never could remember what happened on that island. All I remember was floating in the lagoon on my back before I got picked up.
I got up and stretched. I didn't feel bad, just normal. I dropped my robe and stood in front of the mirror. When I twisted around they were still there--tiny silvery green scales that covered my spine, shoulders and upper back. Whoa! They'd crawled up my neck and over the back of my skull. My hand automatically reached up to gently rub the new covering. It felt like rubbing a black snake I used to have as a kid. I shook my head. Wild. On me it didn't look like much, but on Jim and Benny it looked cool--they were black, and the silvery scales made 'em look like some sort of comic book characters.
As usual, the docs didn't tell me jack about what they found. I pulled on a pair of sweat pants and sandals, then left the recovery room slash airlock to join the guys in the rec room. "Hey, cookie's back!" I'm Tony, the cook for our bunch of rejects. I grinned and waved as I wandered out to the galley. I checked the day's menu and started pulling stock from the walk-in fridge and freezer. I had to admit, they kept us in good rats. The menu for the night was Cobb salad, blackened salmon with piped mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli with a dill and lemon butter sauce and orange frosted carrot sheet cake. After dinner I ran the dishes through the washer, power-washed the galley, squeegeed everything down and pulled a ham from the freezer to defrost for the next day's ham sandwiches. I didn't mind my job at all. All I had to cook for was six guys instead of cooking for shifts of sixty. Now that got tiresome.
The next morning after PT and cleaning we got the word that we were being moved. They'd taken samples of our blood to work with. They chose Plum Island--some sort of infectious disease lab--to analyze it. Whatever had infected us tore through that island like a wildfire, killing everything above the shoreline, including the staff and the sailors on three delivery ships that were tied up in their harbor. Whatever had killed everything on the island was still active--nobody could go in to get the bodies without risking their asses in level 3 containment suits. We all looked at each other and nodded. It beat the hell out of living in an underground bunker, despite the chance of falling over dead when we hit the island and popped our suit seals.
I made a good meal that night--fresh melon salad, lobster tails and shrimp with sweet warmed butter, steak fries and a cherry cobbler with ice cream for dessert. What the hell, it might be out last meal, right? We were awakened at about two in the morning. We all hit the toilets then donned the isolation suits in the air lock. Somebody popped the release remotely. We walked out of that lab for the first time in over four months. Charley, our radio operator, was left a backpack and an arm-mounted two way satellite terminal. It came to life as soon as we hit the open air. A small shipping container equipped with bench seats was waiting for us just outside the door. We were supposed to board, secure the hatch and strap in for a seventy minute flight to just off the New York coast.
Sam, our medic said, "Guys, you know where we're goin', don'tcha? It's called Anthrax Island!" Arnie always had a smart come-back. "Hell, who cares? Whatever we've got is bound to eat the anthrax and look for dessert!" That put us in a good mood. That and the fact that we were going someplace that saw sunlight.
When we landed and un-assed from our luxurious accommodations, Navy style we stood around for a minute looking at each other. Finally, I said "fuck it. Die now, die later. We all die." and unsealed my helmet. When I pulled it off and took a deep breath my lungs got tight for a second, then everything was fine. I smiled and exhaled. A shrill singing just at the limits of my hearing went away. We were no doubt under observation, but I gestured to Charley. "Tell 'em we've broken containment on one of us with no problems. Who's next?" The rest of the guys started popping their seals too. Soon we were all walking bare-assed naked with our suits over our arms for the big two-story building at the end of the parking lot.
A big sign stood outside the building bragging that it was the Plumb Island Infectious Disease Research Center. As we approached the double doors we heard a powerful relay buzz and the doors opened. Jim, our intelligence dude, carefully looked over the inner and outer doors. "Hard core. I'd be hard put to get through this with C4." Once we were inside We tailed Jim. He was following some sort of floor plan in his mind. He came to a heavy steel door with a keypad next to it. "This is it. This is the security control center. Will they let us in? Are we prisoners or sailors?"
Someone was listening to the two-way near the keypad. The door buzzed and clicked. Jim pushed it open. An eight foot hallway led to another heavy door. It buzzed and opened to a push as well. We entered a room filled with three long lines of desks, each one viewing sixteen screens. Rows of paddle switches were mounted to the desks in black and red. A pair of headphones with a mike sat at each one. Plastered across one wall was a huge pair of flat screens that repeated every screen in the room. There were four guys on the floor, dead. One had a captain's tabs on his shoulders. Charley, our medic, examined the bodies. He said, "Notice, there's no swelling, no gasses from decomposition, no smell. The bodies aren't decomposing. Whatever killed these people sterilized the bodies inside and out."
Jim searched his body to find a heavy ring of keys on a heavy flat brass chain. He unthreaded it from the body's belt then walked over to a large cabinet with a security sticker on it. He unlocked the panel to reveal a row of eight big relays. Rather than touch them, Jim put two keys in nearly hidden locks near the door hinges and gave them a quick quarter-turn to the left. We heard the snapping of several big relays and all the green lamps went out on the desks. "That's it. The place is out of lock-down and all the doors are free."
I asked him, "What's with the breaker handles then?"
He grinned. "Bait for the ignorant. Throw those and enough current would go through every door relay in the installation to melt them in place. You'd never get out of here without a cutting torch and a lot of time. Oh, and the system would call home."
I gave that panel the eye. "Would you lock the cabinet, please? No sense leaving a sabotage charge out in the open like that." He nodded, kind of thoughtful, and locked it back up. That was the last time I remember seeing the inside of that room.
We went exploring. There was a wing of labs with a biohazard warning on the outer set of doors. There was a sheet posted on the wall stating that level three containment protocols were enforced. We gave that whole area a wide berth. The apartments were a welcome sight. There were two hallways, one above the other with sixteen apartments hanging off of them, leading to a big two-story entertainment room with a library, tables & chairs, pool tables, televisions and a closet full of movies. Oh, and the obligatory Foosball table. The mess was nearby, and that led to the galley.
Damn, but those civilians were willing to live with more filth than I was. There was crap built up in the corners, the sides of the fryers were filthy and the walls were covered with a heavy layer of polymerized grease built up over time. The kitchen was big enough to feed a battleship but it needed a good steam cleaning with a hard core cleanser like TSP. I could see that my isolation suit would come in handy as I treated the place to boiling hot bleach. I didn't care if all the bugs were dead. It looked nasty and I wasn't going to put up with it. I had my job cut out for me.
I got burgers and fries made up by dinner time in the corner of the galley that I'd managed to get clean enough for my satisfaction. I still had the fume hoods to clean so it didn't smell clean, but I was getting there. Then we really needed to empty out the walk-ins and steam-bleach them. I'd need help for that.
Lunch and dinner times became our de-facto group meetings where we kept each other informed and made decisions. Terry, our diesel mechanic, said that he'd found the HVAC plant and had shut off all air supply and return to the lab wing, which from the duct sizes was deceptively large with at least one underground level. He cut all the breakers powering that wing as well. Our electricity came from an underwater cable leading off to the mainland. A cut-over panel was fed by cables going out to near the harbor. We had a huge LNG plant with four storage towers near the docks that supplied our heating fuel, and from the size of the water heaters it would be a cold day in hell when our hot water taps ran cold. You could see the towers from a ways away. I put my money on the backup generators being there. Benny and Jim went into the admin wing and located the server farm. It was fairly robust and had some sort of encrypted up and down link to a satellite, as well as being hooked into a fiber leading off to New York somewhere. Any way you looked at it, we had unfiltered Internet and cable TV with local New York channels.
Sam poked around outside the lab wing to find the medical bay. He said it had a surgical bay, a pathology lab, an X-ray facility and an eight bed critical care unit, which was better than what most destroyers boasted even though it had a lower bed count. The pharmacy was suspiciously heavy on hard-core antibiotics. He said that there was probably an infectious disease isolation ward inside the lab wing. That made sense as it would add concentric layers of protection in both directions.
As our radio operator, Charley started a regular communications schedule with the brass. Of course, we weren't supposed to leave the island which only made sense. The plan was for us to get air-dropped shipping containers of supplies like food and clothing. If we bought anything over the web we were to have it shipped to an address they supplied to get it included in our air drops. We got a small budget to work with as well as our pay checks, augmented by hazardous duty pay. First things first, we were to gather up all the bodies and load them into a shipping container down at the docks, then help shackle it to a sky crane for disposal elsewhere.
We took care of the bodies then pulled a comprehensive inventory. I cleaned all the personal stuff out of the apartment I took over then continued working on the galley. It promised at least a week's worth of work for me--maybe more.
I found myself drawn to sit out-of-doors on sunny mornings, without a jacket or shirt. It felt wonderful even when the temperature was getting down to freezing. The guys joined me in my post-dawn sun bath. We ended up incorporating our PT into that time.
I thought about the damned climate. The northern New York seacoast could be brutal. I talked the guys into pooling our bucks to buy good cable-knit wool sweaters, knee-length black wool duffle coats, Surplus European military wool winter uniform pants and decent commercial maritime foul weather gear. After all, we were on an island on the Atlantic coast.
We followed the news in the evenings. Whatever infected us got loose. people were dying like flies out there, but we were fine. We got a bulk propane shipment and a bulk galley stores shipment before Christmas, then our radio went dead. Tom got to talking to all of us that evening after supper. "You guys notice yet? We're covered with the scales. I tried to horse a nut off a one inch rusted bolt today and sheared off the bolt. That ain't natural. Whatever infected all of us is screwing with us. Sam, could it be genetic?"
"Could be, but there's no real way I could tell. I don't know how to use an electron microscope, even though I suspect that there's more than one downstairs in the lower labs. Besides, what could mess with the genes of a grown body? That's one hell of a lot of cells to change in lots of places."
I had a nasty feeling. "Guys, I've been reading Science Fiction since I gave up comic books. There's at least one way on the books that could do it. It's called nanites."
Jim's eyes opened wide while Sam looked at me curiously. "What the hell's a nanite?"
Jim took over. "It's been theorized that at the horizon between organic chemistry and mechanical construction we might someday be able to make sub-microscopic robots that would be small enough to do surgery inside of cells. If you allow a further level of micro-manipulation, I suppose nanites might manipulate protein chains, create or change genes, build muscles, repair nerves and create entirely new organs like eyes. If nanites could interface with a mind then things would really open up, such as organic cyborgs.
But think about this. Say you wanted to populate another planet. The existing biosphere would kill you in a heartbeat because your bacteria wouldn't match the planet's bacteria. Your very guts would kill you. If nothing else you'd die of allergic reactions--anaphylaxis. Instead send programmed nanite packages out, at much less cost per shot, by the way. They land and start reproducing, killing anything and everything that doesn't match their bacteria model. Once they find a life form with a nervous system complicated enough, they infect and incorporate it. Sound familiar?"
Arnie said, "We have met the enemy and they is us." I said, "We're under a global attack and have no way of countering it." It sure colored our conversations for a while.
I suppose I should introduce my buds. Charley was from an Italian family. His dad had been a gulf shrimper. He was our radio operator. Tom was a skinny blonde Swede. He'd grown up on a dairy farm. The Navy turned him into a boat operator. Pete was a big Irish/English redhead. His da was a state trooper. He was our .50 gunner. His partner, Arnie, was a strong Black German. His dad was a fireman. The guy was big enough to carry ammo boxes all day long, and he did. Now Sam was different. He was Lipan Apache. His pop was a farmer, while he was our medic. Me, I'm Tony. I'm a Heinz-57 Italian/Gypsy. My dad was a machinist for Cat and taught me a lot. I was the crew cook. Benny was a skinny black guy out of New York that nobody turned their back on until the chips were down. He was our network hacker. He worked with smart switches and stuff. He did the Fuckin' Magic stuff. Jim was a black man. Strong? Goddamn! He's started out as an MP and chose a second MOS in security. He had the smarts to pull it off, too. Well read. Terry was a Korean weightlifter. I'd seen him pick up the business end of a jeep and shift it over. He was our diesel mechanic.
All together we had enough guys that knew diesel, welding and building trades to get done what needed doing. We worked together well, knowing that we were really screwed if we didn't. We knew that we'd want off that island eventually so we dry-docked the ships in the harbor to keep the hulls from corroding away and worked on the drive trains to prepare them for storage. We had to siphon out all the fuel and clean the tanks, then rig aerators in each tank to blow dry air through them. We didn't want any corrosion.
Our meat got kind of slim that winter. Charley decided to do something about it. He pulled us together and put a twin-beam crane on one of the ships down at the docks. Then we pieced together a four meter dip net and went shrimping with the slime from the galley that I would have buried. I had to limit how much they brought in to avoid waste! We continued chumming the shrimp by running the shrimp heads and shells through a blender with a little flour, then freezing the blocks. It made for wonderful bait.
Come spring the island started to green up. Shoots were coming up everywhere. Whatever had gotten the nanites pissed off were pacified because the plant life was returning. That gave us a hope of feeding ourselves. We knew there were truck gardens in New Jersey. We took our boat up the Delaware river until we spotted vegetable fields. (smaller strip fields versus big grain or hay fields) If we didn't spot anyone we took buckets of soil from the surface of the fields, figuring that the seeds from uncollected fruit and vegetables would be there. We lucked into a few hundred pounds of seed potatoes too. We had a tractor that had been used on the island for mowing but we didn't have a cultivator, plow or rake. Tom and Sam agreed--all we needed was a cultivator with a PTO driven aerator. That would dig up and pulverize the soil like a roto-tiller. That was all we needed. We picked up a cultivator, a watering cart with a wand and a couple of utility trailers.
We didn't have much in the way of fertilizer so our fishermen provided it for us. What we didn't eat got mixed up with the soil and left for a week before we planted. It was 'name the mystery shoots' there for a while. We ended up with celery, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, yellow onions, beets and cabbage. The potato hills were a lot of work because we dug 'em by hand with shovels. Still, with nine guys putting out the effort we didn't work all that hard.
I was running low on staples--you know, canned veggies, flour, salt, sugar. We decided to make a list and make a shopping run. There was only one problem--what would we use for money? Terry piped up. "Y'know, we're still on the books as Naval personnel. Why not draw down from Naval stores?" "Where?" piped up Charley. Jim said, "We're not far from the biggest U. S. Naval stores depot in the world--Naval Station Norfolk." Tom asked, "Can we make it there?" "If we take it low and slow I can get one of those tin cans to Florida if I have to." said Terry. That was it. We had our mission. Instead of using our shrimper we re-commissioned one of the other boats. We didn't want to take a chance at losing our fishing boat. After looking over the engine and filling all the fuel tanks we set sail. Pete stayed behind to harvest the garden.
Well, we made it to Norfolk Naval Station. What a maze. There were ships stacked at every available mooring point. I said, "Well, now what the hell do we do?" Jim said, "If all else fails, ask for instructions. Boats? you got a frequency listed for the harbor master?" Tom looked surprised, then hauled out a manual. He pointed to a line in the book and Charley tuned a radio and set about trying to contact someone. There was an automated message going out on the harbormaster's frequency. It didn't tell us much that we already didn't know. We cruised around until we found the fleet docks and tied up. As soon as I hit the shore I got a severe headache that dropped me to my knees and my chest got tight, then it went away. Sam was at my side in a flash, checking me out. "You okay?" "Yeah, now I am. Did you hear a high whine there for a minute?" Sam said, "No, no sounds, no pains, nothing." Come to think of it, I got the same results when I cracked the seal of my helmet back on the island, only this time it was stronger. Somehow I got the idea that my bugs had authenticated with the land-born colony.
It looked like everyone died where they stood. It was spooky as hell--like some scene out of the Twilight Zone.
Tom, our boat operator said, "This is giving me the creeps. Let's get our provisions and get the hell out of here."
I was craning my neck, looking at all the floating hardware. "Why not trade up?"
Jim asked me, "Whaddaya mean, trade up?"