NovelsSyne Mitchell Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

The Changeling Plague

Prologue

 

The biohazard suit’s bulky gloves made it hard for Dr. Lillith Watkins to program the car’s destination.  But the Racal suit, with its self-contained oxygen tanks, was necessary in this part of Boston.  Mahn’s disease had been detected in this, the industrial sector. 

Lillith, a junior researcher at the Center for Disease Control, was here to check the quarantine and disinfection of a computer assembly plant.  It had been shut down when ninety-six of its workers were diagnosed with the disease. 

Outbreaks of Mahn’s had taken the lives of thousands in Moscow, London, and Paris.  It was Lillith’s job to make sure the disease didn’t get a foothold in the United States. 

The van rounded the corner and the three-story plant loomed into view.  It was tented with blue-green plastic, like a house about to be fumigated.  Stenciled in white lettering was the name of the company: Davis Computers.

She pulled to a stop in front of the factory and popped open the van’s cargo doors. 

Drs. George Danvers and Isabetta Schneza, also in biohazard suits, climbed out of the back of the van and unloaded the wipes and the squat air sampler that would detect viral particles. 

If the virus was not detected, the owners could petition the CDC to lift the quarantine.

Danvers and Schneza were easy to distinguish, despite the suits, Danvers stood a head taller than the five-foot-two Schneza.  Their names were written in large block letters down their arms.

Lillith paused in the unloading and looked at the tented building.  How had Dr. Henreid Mahn felt knowing his name had become synonymous with death?  She’d read the CDC bulletins that proved the origin of pathogen was Mahn’s research on a cure for hemophilia.  With the best of intentions, Mahn had created a disease that swept across Europe and Asia.

“Come on,” Danvers said, “the sooner we start, the sooner we finish.”

Lillith kept her eyes on the factory.  “Did you see the morning news?”

Danvers hefted another box of sample wipes out of the van.  “About Mahn?  Yeah.  What I can’t believe is they let the shooter get that close.  I mean, Mahn was gunned down on the courthouse steps, you’d think there’d be better security at the Haig.”

Lillith shook her head.  “Such a waste.”  She helped Schneza attach filters to the air sampler.  They rolled it to the front door.  Lillith verified the door was locked, then she tapped in the alarm deactivation code.

Schneza pushed in the air sampler, and Danvers and Lillith carried in the boxes of wipes.  Once they were inside, Lillith checked the building’s alarm display.

She frowned.  A window was open.

Lillith waved Danvers over.  She pointed out the red icon on the display and shouted through the muffling layers of her helmet’s faceplate.  “There’s a window open on the second floor.  I’m going to investigate.”

Schneza looked up from the sniffer’s console.  “You want one of us to go with you?”

Lillith shook her head.  “It’s probably a malfunction, or someone forgot and left it open.  I’ll stay in radio contact.”  She pointed to the microphone built into her helmet.

Schneza nodded, and resumed programming the sniffer to sample the air.

Lillith lumbered up the stairs, not trusting the elevator.  Getting trapped in a level-four biohazard region was not something she wanted to do.

Navigating the stairs was challenging in her Racal biohazard armor.  It was built like a space suit, complete with its own air source.  It was kept at positive pressure so that, in the event of a leak, air flowed out instead of into the suit.  Safe, but the inflated arms and legs were cumbersome.

As she took another step, Lillith heard a high-pitched sound.  Lillith stopped, her foot resting on the next step, mouth open, her whole body listening.  There it was again.  A high keening, like a baby’s cry.

Impossible.  Unless...there was an open window.  But who would break into a factory quarantined with a deadly disease?  It must be the wind against the plastic sheeting.

The sound came again. 

The back of Lillith’s neck prickled.  She pressed the radio button on her chest.  “I’m hearing a strange sound, a wailing.  Going to investigate.”

“Wait, what’s your loc-”

Lillith cut off the radio.  Going on a wild goose chase was bad enough, taking someone along to witness your embarrassment would be worse.

Lillith emerged from the stairwell into a long hallway with doors on either side.  Light filtered in from a window set into the near end of the hall. 

She peeked through one of the glass doors and saw a large room.  Along the walls were counters strewn with partially constructed computer systems.  Boxes of memory, processors, and motherboards were organized on shelves above the workbenches.

Davis Computers specialized in custom machines and repair of antique computers.  Each machine was hand-built.  It was a niche market.  The company employed one hundred and twenty workers, most of them semi-skilled assemblers.

The sound came from further down the hall.  Lillith walked softly, ears pricked.  There was little natural light in this interior hallway, so she turned on her chest light.  The wide-angle beam lit up her path.

At the end of the hallway was a pair of bathrooms, male and female, separated by a water cooler.  She continued past.  There were several more workrooms on either side of the hallway, before it terminated in a door marked: “obsolete parts.” 

The sound came from the other side of the door.  This close she could hear it rise and fall as if forming words.

Lillith tried the door handle.  The noise abruptly stopped. 

Her breath caught in her throat.  Lillith’s hand hovered over the radio.  Caution warred with the desire not to look foolish.  It could still be the wind, stopping by coincidence at the moment she touched the door.

She tried the handle again and discovered it was locked.  Damn.

Sighing, Lillith tapped the radio button on her chest.  “I think I’ve found something.  I need to get through a locked interior door to be sure.”

“Be careful,” said Danvers, “one puncture and you’ll be quarantined in the slammer for a month...or worse”

There was a palm-pad mounted onto the wall next to the door.  Lillith typed the alarm deactivation code into the panel underneath, but the door stayed locked.  The palm-pad was useless, it wouldn’t recognize Lillith’s print and the point was moot because of her suit’s thick gloves.

Lillith knocked on the door and shouted, “Can you open this from the inside?  I’m here to help.”

Silence.

All of Lillith’s senses were alive.  She tasted the tang of sweat when she licked her lips.  The dim hallway seemed brighter and each sound made her jump.  Was there someone in there, or had she imagined it all?

Danvers radioed, “Where are you?”

Lillith gave him the directions.  She looked in one of the side workrooms for a crowbar or something to pry the door open with.  Her eyes fell on an empty server rack.  She pulled out one of the slats that held the servers in place.  Going back to the hallway, she slid it between the door and the jam.  For an agonizing moment she jostled it up and down without success, then the door’s weak interior lock gave way.

Lillith pushed the door open slowly.  “Anyone in here?”

The room beyond was dark, lit only by a clestory window high above.  When her eyes adjusted, she saw computer parts piled on the floor.  There were cases, motherboards, network cards, all in different heaps. 

A whimper from the far corner of the room was cut short.  Had a puppy gotten trapped in here?  Perhaps one of the workers had left it behind when the building was quarantined.  Lillith imagined the poor animal trapped in this dark room without food or water for the past week.  The thought twisted her stomach.

“Good boy,” she cooed.  “It’s going to be all right.”

She turned the corner around a pile of old CRT monitors.  Something flashed in her vision and bounced with a jolt off her helmet’s faceplate, scoring the plastic.  As it skittered under a shelf, Lillith saw the gray metal housing of a power supply.

Lillith blinked.  Her neck ached from snapping sideways with the blow.  Lillith checked her suit’s display.  It was intact.  She turned the beam of her light in the direction the power supply had come from.

Nothing she imagined had prepared her for this.  A boy and girl, so alike they could be twins, were manacled to the metal shelving lining the far wall. 

They were gaunt and dressed only in the tattered remains of T-shirts advertising motherboards and molecular memory.  Five feet away, the shell of an old CRT monitor had been used as a toilet. 

The girl lay glassy-eyed on the floor, her face was covered with the red boils symptomatic of Mahn’s disease.

The boy crouched over her, his face tight with anger and pain.  He grabbed another power supply from the shelf and drew back to throw.

Lillith held up her hands.  “Easy.  Easy now.  I’m here to help.”  She looked at the girl lying on the floor.  “How long has she been sick?”

“What’s going on?” Danvers asked over the radio, “I heard something fall.”

“Stay back,” Lillith answered.  “I’ve found two children.”

“Jeezus!”

“They’re scared and I think more people would only frighten them.  Call for a quarantine ambulance.  They’re both dehydrated and malnourished.  The girl exhibits symptoms of Mahn’s.”

“How did they--” Danvers began

“Later.  Right now I want to get them stabilized.”

She backtracked to the water cooler she had seen in the hallway.  Lillith filled two disposable cellulose cups and went back into the room.

When she returned, The boy eyed her warily, but licked his lips at the sight of the water.

Lillith knelt and held out one of the cups out to him. 

The boy took it as if the water were gold; all his being concentrated on not spilling a drop.

He surprised Lillith, instead of drinking himself, he dipped his finger in and dribbled water onto the lips of his sister.

After he repeated this; the girl’s cracked tongue licked the drops.  Only then did he sip.

Lillith handed him the second cup, and he looked at her with open-mouthed surprise.

Tears welled in Lillith’s eyes.  What had these children endured that a cup of water could generate such raw gratitude?

“I need the medical kit from the van,” Lillith radioed.  “Can one of you bring it?  Just leave it outside the door.  I don’t want to scare them.”

“Will do,” Danvers radioed back.

A minute later, the boy tensed.  He raised a power supply and glared at the door. 

Danvers waited outside the door, holding the medical kit.  “The ambulance should be here in thirty minutes, there’s an accident blocking I-93.  How bad are they?”

Lillith shook her head.  “Bad.  Their ankles are handcuffed to the shelving.  It looks like whoever did that, just left them here when the building was closed.”  She looked away from Danvers’s gaze.  “I hope the bastard’s dead.”

Lillith got another cup of water and hefted the medical bag.

While the boy drank, Lillith knelt and examined his sister.

The girl’s pupils did not contract when Lillith shone a penlight in either eye.  Unable to take a pulse through bulky gloves, Lillith turned the gain on the electronic stethoscope up and listened.  The girl’s pulse was rapid. 

She moaned and writhed when Lillith touched her.  The girl’s skin had a jaundiced cast and Lillith saw more of the characteristic boils on the girl’s calves.

It was the final stages of the disease, the virus, intended to cure hemophiliacs, caused excessive clotting.  The girl’s blood was sticking in her veins, piling up under her skin.  In the final stages, a clot would reach her brain and cause a stroke, or seize her heart. 

“Idy!” the girl called out.  “Idy!”

The boy pushed Lillith aside and put his forehead to the girl’s.  He cooed nonsense syllables until the girl hushed.  “Help,” he said, looking up at Lillith.  His bright blue eyes glittered with tears.  “Help her,” he sobbed.  To his sister, he wailed, “Don’t leave me.”

The boy’s voice was high and pure.  Like a tenor in a boy’s choir.  The contrast between the innocence of his eyes and the conditions he’d been subjected to were a knife in Lillith’s heart.

The girl began to seize: her body trembled and her head knocked against the ground.

The boy’s eyes widened and he backed away, his mouth working soundlessly.

Lillith pulled the girl’s head onto her lap so it wouldn’t pound against the floor.  With a clumsy glove she stroked the child’s hair.  It was pale and fine, like spun gold.

There were no anticonvulsants in the first-aid kit.  There was nothing she could do but comfort the girl and ride out the convulsion. 

Lillith murmured encouragements.  “It’ll be all right.  Easy now.  I’m here.”  All but the last were lies.  Tears flowed down Lillith’s face. 

The girl had once been beautiful; she shared the startling glacial-blue eyes of her brother, and her pale skin was porcelain fine.  High cheekbones in an oval face hinted at Norwegian ancestry for her and her brother.

The boy crept closer and put his cheek against the trembling girl’s stomach.

Lillith stroked his head as well.  The children looked eight years old, or perhaps ten if privation had stunted their growth.  So young to have lived through so much horror.

After long minutes, the seizure stopped.  Lillith checked the girl’s heartbeat.  Silence. 

The boy clutched his sister and cried.

Lillith considered CPR.  But how could she perform respiration through her suit?  The medical kit from the van was only a first-aid kit intended to patch up abrasions and dispense cold medication and aspirin. It didn’t include a defibrillator or a breathless resuscitator. 

They hadn’t brought medical equipment--this was supposed to be a routine check of an empty building.

Lillith considered taking her suit off to administer CPR.  But the girl was infected with Mahn’s, which had a ninety-eight--percent mortality rate.  Doing so would be suicide.

Feeling helpless and cowardly, Lillith decided not to try.  The girl had at most a few days to live.  Why pound her back into life just to have her suffer and die again in a hospital?

The boy touched his sister’s chest.  He looked up, stricken, into Lillith’s face.  “Help her!” he screamed.

Lillith shook her head.  “There’s nothing I can do.  She’s gone.”

The boy’s eyes widened.  He shook his sister, clutched her to his chest, and wailed.  His howl of anguish rose and fell, sending shivers down Lillith’s back.  The sound was inhuman.

His whole body shook with crying.  “No, no, no,” he repeated. 

Lillith pulled him into her bulky arms.  Through layers of plastic and Kevlar, she hugged him tightly until the quarantine ambulance came and took him away.

 

The boy, who gave his name as Idaho Davis, was found to be immune to Mahn’s disease.  He was sent to live in a foster home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Lillith checked on him from time-to-time through governmental channels.  His grades were deplorable, but there was a bright spot.  One teacher noted an aptitude for computer science.  The boy ran away from his foster home when he was fourteen.  There were no further records.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

... this agreement shall impose a renewable moratorium of five years on viral engineering, as this technology presents a clear and present health hazard.  The penalty for infraction shall be no less than twenty years imprisonment, and may be a capital offense in some nations.

--Beijing Treaty, 2013

 

Geoffrey Allen balanced the injector on his palm.  Inside it, the deadly AIDS virus had been tamed into a tool of medicine.  It contained a payload that would alter his DNA and undo the damage nature had wrought when his parent’s chromosomes meshed.

Around him, the mansion was silent.  Dawn was still hours away.  His parents and the house servants slept.  The curtains on the open window breathed with the wind off Puget Sound.  All was peaceful.  Geoffrey should have been dreaming himself, but he had lain awake all night contemplating his choice.

Geoffrey’s reflection was distorted on the glass ampoule of the injector.  It stretched his thin face, giving it the appearance of a skull--which is what he would be in a few months without this treatment.

The fingers holding the injector were thickened at the tips, an artifact of the genetic anomaly that was destroying his lungs and intestines.

This tiny vial violated the Beijing Treaty.  It had cost two hundred million dollars to bribe the lead researcher at Caduceus International to develop the treatment in secret. 

Geoffrey coughed to clear the fluid buildup in his lungs.  His face reddened with the effort and his eyes watered.  At last he hacked up green mucous into a disposable cup.  He threw it into the trash where it landed on top of others. 

The ampoule contained the classic choice, the lady or the tiger.  Without human trials, there was no way to tell if it would work.  It could as easily kill as cure.

But all the other treatments for his cystic fibrosis had failed.  Conventional gene therapies faded within months, and he was too weak for a heart-lung transplant.  Even with the best medical care, the doctors had given him two months to live, perhaps three. 

This uncertain cure was his last chance.

He breathed heavily.  What did he have to lose but two months of pain and dwindling life?

Geoffrey closed his eyes, pressed the injector against his chest, and pulled the trigger.

 

Lillith woke out of a cold sweat.  She’d been dreaming about the speech she was to give tomorrow.  In the dream, she’d forgotten her notes, and stood frozen behind the podium, her mouth gaping like a fish’s.

The bedside phone rang again. 

“Light,” Lillith mumbled.  “Phone onscreen.”

The ringing stopped and the room brightened.  Lillith pulled the covers up to shield her naked body from the camera mounted next to the wall screen.

“Who is it?”  The display was a uniform gray.  No picture.  Was it malfunctioning?

This is Idaho Blue.”  The voice was strange, a blending of male and female tones, low and masculine on ‘this’ and ‘Idaho,’ high and feminine on ‘is’ and ‘Blue.’  The name was not familiar, but there was something about the voice...  “Do I know you?  This is room 1229 at the Hilton.  Do you have the right number?”

“Dr. Watkins, it’s starting again.”

Lillith scrubbed sleep from her eyes and peered again at the screen.  It was still blank.  “Who are you?”

You have to stop them.”

Scared and a little angry, Lillith said, “I won’t do anything until I know who you are--show me your face.”

An image resolved onscreen.  Two pale Nordic faces merged into one, the left half male, the right half female.

Lillith gasped.  It had been ten years since she’d walked into the computer warehouse, six since he had run from foster care...but there was no forgetting those glacial-blue eyes.

“Idaho?”

The generated face did not respond to her question.  It repeated: “Stop them.”

“Stop who?”  Years before, Idaho’s intake evaluation had indicated an unstable personality.  How had he found her?  And why? 

To her alarm, Lillith’s laptop whirred to life.  She jumped out of bed, wrapping the sheet around her and flipped open the lid.  A file was downloading to the desktop.

“You can’t--” She looked up at the screen.  The protest died on her lips.  The caller had disconnected.

The file contained a log of DNA synthesis.  The date and tracking code fields were blank.  The description was equally unhelpful: “Sample four.”

The nucleotide components of the DNA were displayed as green, black, red and yellow dots.  She looked at its modification date.  The file had been created three months ago. 

Why was Idaho sending this to her?  She didn’t know anything about him other than he had a horrific childhood and a facility with computers.  He might still blame her for his sister’s death, for not saving the girl named Blue.

If so, this could be a trap.  Was a destructive program hidden in the file? 

Lillith didn’t need this distraction tonight.  Not the day before the biggest speech of her life.  Lillith pulled out her laptop’s wireless chip to disconnect it from the Net and shut it off.

Then, with determination, she turned off the lights and lay back down to sleep.

A warehouse filled with dying children haunted her dreams.

 

The next morning, Geoffrey woke to the trilling of thrushes.  He breathed in and felt a rush of energy.  Was it his imagination or was his breathing easier?  He took another breath.  Either this was one of his good days, or the viral treatment was working.  Hope bubbled in his chest like carbonation.

The plastic of the oxygen tent obscured his view, bathing the room in a hazy glow.  Geoffrey pulled it aside and stood.  Pleasure swept through him.  The sensation took a minute to pinpoint.  It was the release of pain he had lived with all his life, that hummed through his nerves like background noise, unnoticed until it was gone. 

Geoffrey took another deep breath, stretching his arms wide as if to embrace the world.

A light tap on the door.  “Seńor Allen?”  The voice belonged to June, one of the housemaids.  “Are you awake?”

“More awake than I’ve been in years,” Geoffrey said.  He grinned so hard his face hurt.  But he couldn’t stop.  Living felt so good this morning.

The door to his bedroom opened and June wheeled in a stainless steel cart.  She stopped when she saw he was out of bed.  She smiled warmly.  “It is one of your good days?”

He had never noticed how the reddish-brown of June’s full lips complemented her olive complexion.  Her figure was hidden beneath a starched uniform and apron, but its outline was fit and trim. 

Wisps of black hair escaped from her chignon and curled against her cheeks.  For an instant, he fantasized about removing her maid’s cap and letting the dark locks fall down around her naked body.

Geoffrey climbed back into bed before June could see the effect she was having on him.

Apparently he was too late.  June blushed and fumbled with the serving tray.  Her smile had become fixed. 

She lifted the tray’s cover revealing a breakfast of grapefruit, papaya, hot cereal, and coffee.  With practiced movements, she unfolded the legs of the tray and placed it across Geoffrey’s lap.

Geoffrey felt himself blushing, too.  But he couldn’t help himself.  The musky scent of her as she leaned over him was intoxicating.  He wanted to grab her right there.

June curtsied and scurried out of the room, throwing a last troubled glance over her shoulder.

He looked at the door after she had gone.  Life, indeed, had much to offer. 

Geoffrey savored the bite of the grapefruit, the warm taste of oatmeal, and the rich perfume of the papaya.  The food tasted sharper and richer now that his nose was not congested. 

After he’d swigged down the last of his coffee.  Geoffrey automatically picked up the enzyme pill from the white cup beside his plate.  He had it on his tongue before he realized it might not be necessary. 

Then again, his contact at Caduceus had warned him the treatment would take a couple of weeks for full effect.  He swallowed the pill. 

If he felt this good after one night, how would he feel after the virus had been in his system for a week? 

Is this how everyone felt all the time?  A pang of jealousy for all the years he had wasted being sick swept through him.  No longer. 

He climbed out of bed and pulled clothes out of his dresser.  There was a world out there he’d never had time or energy to experience.  Now he would.

 


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Return to top of page Content updated 4 March 2003