Possibilities. They flitted past the Eye like a swarm of butterflies riding the breeze, paths mingling and diverging erratically. There were minor deviations, but ultimately, they shared the same destination. They were invisible to most, and even those that could see often failed to recognize the order, the pattern behind them. Among those who saw the pattern, fewer still would dare to alter the path. The Hand and the Eye were among those select few, and they were bold enough to call their destination the ideal path, to call themselves Masters of Fate.
The Eye watched possibilities with the sort of passing interest that a man might spare a field of grass, except that a man would not likely pass judgment on each blade he saw. This was the nature of the Eye's gaze: at once it was focused and unfocused, looking at each possibility individually and every possibility as a whole. The field was vast, and each blade so small. One caught its focus, however, as it drifted gently toward certainty.
It was a potential outlier, a deviation, an irregularity. In short, it might be a possibility incompatible with the ideal path. Like weeds, outliers had to be plucked from the field before their roots sunk too deep. When such an outlier was discovered, the Hand was called upon to do the weeding. However, the consequences of removing even a single possibility had the potential to affect every possibility. The Hand's methods were crude; to pull a single blade from the field was to raze hundreds of others. The Hand might end up doing more harm than the weed ever could have. But there was no precise way to cleanse the field, to clear obstacles from the path. As a result, the Hand was called to interfere only when absolutely necessary. The field was practically infinite, and there was no shortage of weeds.
The Eye assessed the possibility and the futures it might hold. There were a few constants: loss of valuable resources, personnel casualties, damage to a major research facility, a shift in command that could prove favorable, and progress that might not otherwise be made. In the end the ideal path was still visible. The Hand would not be called to action.
The weed already forgotten, the Eye turned its sight to another cluster of possibilities, flitting from one to the next in search of a true threat.
"Subject SR-0275, Dr. Preston presiding. Day three. Administering third dose of precipetine, five milliliters," said a stout man in white scrubs. He was careful to speak loud and clear so that the recording equipment would pick up his voice correctly. With one steady gloved hand he reached for his assistant. With the other he tugged at the restraints keeping the subject from injuring himself, ensuring that they were secure. The medical assistant, an outdated but dependable model, passed a syringe to the doctor with one of the wiry arms sprouting from its thin gray stalk of a body. Another arm held up a bright light, shining it on the back of the subject's shaved head, focused on a red welt where the spine met the skull. It glinted off of the syringe as the doctor made the injection. A gag ensured that the subject could not bite off his tongue or make too much noise.
"Expected activity detected throughout the limbic system," the doctor said, watching as a digital display set in one of his assistant's palms indicated the affected areas of the subject's brain with jumping red lines and changing numbers. "Administering second dose of valivitine, ten milliliters."
The assistant produced a second syringe, this one filled with a dark blue liquid, and handed it to the doctor. Steady hand, clean puncture, exactly where the other needle had been, down on the plunger, and out. It was a single smooth, practiced motion. The doctor and his assistant danced back and forth in a waltz of needles and chemicals to the steady beat of the heart monitor and the neural scanner.
"Towel." Doctor Preston was sweating visibly, his brow glimmering in the lamplight. He was excited. He was nervous. Two hundred and eighty-seven trials to replicate Tenne's treatment, and this subject had shown the most promise. If he'd rediscovered the process, he would be lauded for his achievement. The Masters' imprisoned enemies would become their army, and their waning hold on the battlefront would return to the crushing grip of its glory days. If he was wrong, though, he'd be back to pumping drugs into mice and running them through mazes for sure.
The next few seconds would decide his future.
"Administering first dose of sophrosyne."
Project Sophrosyne – Damage Assessment Page 130 of 137
…As such, we are forced to conclude that the solution synthesized by Dr. Preston's team did not match Prof. Tenne's solution. Archive recovery of any information on "sophrosyne" remains inconclusive. As discussed on page 58, the leading assumption is that Tenne's purge of the archives removed any trace of sophrosyne's composition. Research is ongoing. Significant portions of Dr. Preston's recording were lost due to damage sustained during subject's euthanization. In addition to damaged equipment, one portion of the recording seems to have been deliberately removed. Dr. Preston will be questioned as soon as he recovers. Until such time as Dr. Preston is lucid enough to provide answers, the missing segment will be investigated as an act of sabotage…
He finished reading the report and shut off his terminal. Sighing, he brought a pale, shaking hand to his face and removed his reading glasses. They tapped against his desk as he tried to set them down gently. The hand returned to his wrinkled face, rubbing at his tired eyes. He stared through his fingers, still looking at the blank screen, still pondering the report. Bad news. The only reports he received nowadays were bad news.
Restarting Project Sophrosyne from scratch was a fruitless effort, the cold fusion project had gone critical, and Project Lazarus was killing men faster than it could bring them back. He never read reports of good news anymore. And why not? He wasn't doing anything wrong. It was his lousy subordinates who couldn't so much as tie their own shoes without him looking over their shoulders. The incompetence was simply astounding. If only he could replace them all, but there just weren't enough people with the expertise to do the jobs he needed done. They were working in new frontiers, after all.
Despite his best efforts, his division was failing. At this rate his position as head of research and development would be lost to someone deemed more competent. Ha! There was no one more competent than him to administrate research and development. It was the backbone of their organization, and no spine was useful without a brain. Without him, the entire research program would be crippled. It would stagnate and die without his guidance, and it would take the whole organization with it.
He had to prove his worth to the Masters. He needed to provide them with one successful project, some weapon against their enemies, or he would face demotion at best. He shuddered to think what punishment he might face at worst.
Pushing such thoughts aside, he stood. Project Transcendence had to be his success. It was his last chance to prove himself useful. With the Eye's guidance, he had designed a device that would allow his masters a means of extending the hand of their influence to lands yet unheard of. They had already conquered their enemies for the most part. The small rebel cells that still existed were no major threat with their leaders dead or captured. With their authority established, the masters wanted to expand into new territory. The director's device would give them the means to that end. He had been assured by the Eye that it was possible and the Masters had approved of the plan with great interest, even though a few remained skeptical. It was an uncertainty.
The device had required many rare materials and an immense power source, but they had acquired everything they needed. It took weeks to work out the blueprints and months to assemble the machine, but now it was ready for testing. However, a problem still remained with personnel.
Professor Soomwa had been called in as a project leader. Although his expertise was in the field of biochemistry, not even remotely relevant to Project Transcendence, he was an essential member of the team. He was well-liked by his subordinates and commanded respect, but he served a purpose more important than any other member of the team. He was there to deal with complications of a human nature. Tret Xu, the business tycoon whose company had supplied several necessary components of the device, interfered with the machine's construction. Xu had a vast amount of money invested in the project, and he was rather possessive. At first he had been unwilling to leave the assembly to anyone but his men. Soomwa was called in to make certain that the project progressed smoothly and uninterrupted by Xu's insistence on personal involvement. He had managed to work out an agreement with the businessman. Xu's men would not so much as touch the machine, but Xu would direct the workers alongside Soomwa.
Xu and Soomwa disliked each other. They had different ideas, different investments in the project, and employed different methods of leading. Their dislike grew to a loathsome hatred in their time together on the project. It had seemed putting them together on the project had been a major error, but the Eye knew better. The two kept at each other's throats, kept each other in check, and the project was completed ahead of schedule. Things were looking up for the director.
He left his personal quarters to inspect the lab where the testing was about to begin. The Project had been designated priority one status, so it was assigned to Lab One. Lab One looked like most other laboratories in the facility: It was a large, square, well-lit room with white walls and gray tile floor. Wiring and ductwork snaked across the high ceiling, tying it to the rest of the facility. There was nothing special about it. The only reason importance was ascribed to Lab One was its location nearest the Director's office. As such it didn't take him long to get there.
When he arrived he was disappointed, but not surprised by the sight that greeted him. Soomwa and Xu were arguing noisily, as expected. Soomwa wouldn't have stood out in the room if not for his crooked eyewear and the fact that he was the only one talking. He looked perfectly in place among his colleagues: white coat, circles under the eyes, strained expression.
Beside him, the source of his misery, Xu was a sore thumb in a gray pinstripe suit. He was decidedly less calm than Soomwa; his tie and cap were as red as his face. He didn't belong here. Everyone knew it, but Soomwa was the only one willing to make it an issue. Scientists and engineers stood or sat at their stations expressing varying degrees of disinterest. They had all grown accustomed to the constant bickering of their superiors. When the director walked in, their attitudes changed. Within seconds of his arrival they were all on their feet, standing at attention, with the exception of the two men spitting venom in each other's ears. The director waited impatiently for them to stop.
"-receive the majority of the credit for this accomplishment you idiot! I was most essential in directing the-" Soomwa was the luckier of the two. His mouth closed abruptly upon noticing the director standing at the door. Xu, his back to the entrance, took the silence as an invitation to speak.
"My money, my parts, my machine, my credit! You ain't as important as you imagine. Without me this whole thing don't amount to more than a flea on a donkey's behind! Why, without me you'd be rubbing sticks together to light up this secondhand candle! I-"
The director had had enough. "I assure you Mister Xu, your part in this is expendable. We would have managed without you had you refused our terms."
Xu's face went from beet red to ghostly pale. He turned to face the director with his best used-car-salesman smile and tipped his hat. "Of course sir. Excuse my momentary lapse in professionalism. Professor Soomwa and I were simply… negotiating as to which of us is to receive recognition for th-"
"You needn't worry about such a thing Mister Xu. I will be receiving any and all credit for this great accomplishment. You and the professor will be given honorable mentions in my report to the masters. Regardless, is it ready to be tested?"
As Xu's face fluctuated between reddened fury and humbled paleness, Soomwa stepped up to speak. Straightening his glasses, which had been bent in a recent scuffle with Xu, he addressed the project staff. "Everyone to your stations. The director would like a demonstration of the-"
A hasty cough from Xu earned a glare from Soomwa.
He continued. "The Soomwa-Xu Device."
As the technicians went to work warming up the machine, Xu and Soomwa began yet another argument.
"Now hold up one second here! We agreed my name comes first. I have a fortune invested in this thing!"
"Yes, well, I decided to name it alphabetically. Besides, you may have the most money invested in Project Transcendence, but I have the most time and thought invested in it. Most of the work was my doing."
"Ha! Time and thought. Hogwash! We spent the same amount of time on it, and all that thought of yours is worthless without my money. Besides, Soomwa-Xu sounds like it's got a wazoo on the end. You want this here trans-doohickey's name to embarrass us? Xu-Soomwa Device I'll settle for. Hell, even Xumwa woulda' been better. Although, if it were up to me it'd be something catchy: the Xu Transporter. Now there's a name!"
"You pompous ingrate! My contribution-"
The director was losing patience with both the arguing, and the lengthy systems check routine the technicians were going through wasn't helping. Just as he was deciding which of his project heads to strangle first, a much needed interruption arrived. The director heard the door behind him open and beamed at his colleague. Finally, some order among the chaos.
"Ambassador! How good to see you. You've arrived just in time." The Ambassador had the sort of professional demeanor that Xu could only ever pretend to possess. He had no use for a cheap suit and a cheap smile. He was garbed in a flowing silky violet robe, and a matching turban adorned his head. His expression was sincere, no need to hide his contempt for the petty men before him. His position was clear, his status unquestionable. He was one of the few men that the director respected. "Project Transcendence is ready for testing. The-"
The Ambassador raised a hand to silence him and an eyebrow to question him. Both men frowned, one vexed and the other confused. No, not so much confused as uncertain. "Testing, Director Cinnamon? I was under the impression that it had already been tested. I hope you do not plan to have me as your test subject."
"No, of course not. The masters do not expect such risk on your part, despite the Eye's assurances. We have arranged for a test subject to precede your journey. She should be arriving soon."
As if on cue, a gray medical assistant rolled in the door toting a gurney behind it. The machine turned to face the director and extended a stylus to him. "Release forms for prisoner 3765ML. Sign here." A screen flashed into existence in one of the machine's six palms and the director signed his name as requested. It's cylindrical body rotated on its treads and it headed back the way it had come. As it passed the gurney it turned to face the figure lying there. "Enjoy your freedom Miss Lan."
"Thanks a lot," the dark-haired woman muttered as the robot rolled away without hearing her.
Xu had stopped shouting at Soomwa once the gurney arrived, and now he was walking over to the metal table with a big grin on his face. His voice was overly cheerful. "Well shoot. Is that Mar? I thought you were dead." His smile faltered. "How long have we had her in custody?"
Soomwa stepped up to answer him. "Mar Lan has been in our custody for several months now. Unfortunately, she is not easily broken. She's been conditioned to resist my methods. Poor foresight on my part. Without Tenne's implants there's no way to make her cooperate." Turning to the director he asked, "Are you sure this is wise? I thought we were going to use a remote probe."
"Absolutley," said the director. "A probe would not possess the same mobility and range as a live scout. We need someone both capable and expendable to scout ahead for our dear ambassador. Exploring the unknown, I'm sure you realize, carries a substantial risk."
The woman glared up at Xu, who had visibly paled once more. "Traitor."
"As I recall, you are the traitor here," said the Ambassador. "We gave you power and you turned on us. I can see no one more fitting to assure my safe travel aside from perhaps Professor Tenne, but he still eludes us."
"Yes, well, enough chat," the director cut in. "The machine is ready, correct Miss Hart?"
"Yes sir," replied one of the technicians. Every station was occupied except Soomwa's nearest the machine. He took his seat and the machine was ready to activate.
"Begin when ready," ordered the director. The scientists did not hesitate as they confirmed that the machine was fully operational. Soomwa flipped the switch at his station and brought the machine to life. The director gestured for the Ambassador to be seated as the process began. Xu stood behind them, nervously glancing over his shoulder at Mar Lan. His worries retreated to the back of his mind as his full attention went to the machine.
Power flowed through the machine, supplying blood to its metal veins. It was a black metal sphere twice as tall as he was, sitting on a rounded base. As power surged through it, the sphere split down its middle, its two halves sliding into each other. The two halves rotated toward each other until one covered the other. In the middle of the machine was a brightness, a light that was every color at once and yet no discernible color at all. Every shade and hue blended in a flash of overwhelming color that spread out from the heart to the sphere's edge. Then it retreated and there was another flash of indescribable light to take its place followed by another and another in quick succession.
One technician collapsed at his station, but nobody noticed. It seemed they could watch forever without seeing the same thing twice. They sat, and stood, transfixed by the colorful orb set against the dark backdrop of the device that had created it. It was magnificent, but the director had to fight to remind himself that they were not doing this for a spectacular light show.
"We will now introduce our test subject to the anomaly generated by the device," the director informed the Ambassador. His voice was barely above a whisper. He was awestruck. He could not quite find his voice. "We will send a camera with her as well. We have taken precautions so that the electromagnetic field will not interfere with the electronics." He turned toward the technicians. "Miss Hart, retrieve the subject."
Ms. Hart was reluctant to peel away from her station next to Professor Soomwa. The beautiful ball of light had her thinking romantic thoughts, although she had been thinking them before the machine had activated. They had been right next to each other, so close they could have touched. Then the lights had illuminated the room. While she enjoyed the wonderful sight, she knew he must have been trying to detect what wavelengths of light were being emitted by it. If only he would take his mind off of his work for one second and see…
Unfortunately for Ms. Hart, the light show had kept all eyes off the prisoner. No one had noticed as she gradually loosened her restraints. Ms. Hart was still thinking thoughts of love when a fist interrupted her train of thought. This did not alert anyone, but when Mar whirled Xu around, landed a kick between his legs, a knee to his face, and sent him stumbling back into the director's chair, any chance at stealth was gone.
The director shouted, Xu landed with an undignified squeak, and every head in the room, with the exceptions of Hart and Xu, turned from the glowing orb to the surprisingly free test subject attacking them. Soomwa, having anticipated some complication with the subject, was equipped with a strong sedative in a hypodermic needle. He had to be quick. He knew what sort of damage Mar could do.
While Mar flung the Ambassador out of his chair with inhuman ease, Soomwa approached from behind. She swung the protesting Ambassador at him and Soomwa barely avoided stabbing him with the needle. Luckily for Soomwa, Mar appeared to be attacking without much of a plan, simply incapacitating the people closest to her. She thought he was down and out. Although pinned beneath the Ambassador's girth, Soomwa was still able to reach her as she headed for the control terminals.
She felt a stabbing pain in her leg, but ignored it. Whatever it was, it couldn't be worse than any of the other chemicals she'd endured over the years. She might not make it out of here alive, but she could at least sabotage whatever they were trying to do. She had never been more than a test subject to them. When she'd worked with them and even later when she'd worked against them. These people had ruined her life and it was time for her to return the favor.
The sedative had been injected, but it took longer than Soomwa had hoped to take effect. She was strong and he hadn't been able to inject the needle's full contents. She incapacitated three others and was moving toward a fourth when she started to slow down. She reached for the terrified scientist and missed. He passed out anyways. She slumped over at one of the stations. It was over. Soomwa sighed in relief.
"Mr. Keghun," Soomwa called into his earpiece as he tried to push the Ambassador off of him. "Report to Lab One. Mar Lan's made a mess of things."
She couldn't feel her legs, and the rest of her body was starting to go numb too. She wouldn't let them win so easily. She reached for a lever on the terminal with the last of her strength and pushed it as high as it would go.
In all of the confusion, the director had dashed from the laboratory and up to his personal quarters. He needed to contact the masters immediately. If he informed them of the delay before his colleagues could, he would receive the least blame. He reached for the phone that connected to the secure line and dialed the only number it could dial. Immediately, someone on the other end answered.
"Professor Cinnamon, what is so important that it cannot wait until our next briefing?" inquired a deep voice. "If this is about Soomwa and Xu, handle it on your own. Do you hear me, Cinnamon? Hello?"
The director was not listening. In fact, he had dropped the phone. He was staring, mouth agape, at the security terminal in his office. It had been showing the turmoil in the laboratory. Now it showed nothing but static. Somewhere between the two images had been a great flash of light that slowly engulfed the room until it reached the camera. A priority one message came through on his communicator. He did not answer it, but a gruff voice spoke into his ear without permission. "Sir, Lab One is… gone."