My dearest comrades, commenters, lurkers and benefactors-
I am overwhelmed and overjoyed to report that our recent Mothers Day fundraiser brought in an astonishing, record amount:
Mothers Day has utterly confounded me as far back as I can remember. During my childhood years, spent unhappily suffocating in lily-white, middle-class, conservative suburbia, I was continually struck by the jarring disparities between mothers I met in public, at school, at friends’ homes and, especially, those that dominated TV screens and supermarket magazines in the 1970s and ’80s, and the woman I knew as “Mom.” For better and for worse, Mom shared next to nothing with mothers. The contrast was so striking in fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion that I might be born from another species altogether.
This is part 3 of Natural Selection, FtB’s Darwintine Festival story chain.
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Patricia stood perfectly still just inside her cabin, ear pressed against the door, listening. The chaotic yelling rose to a crescendo, then slipped into a more structured cadence; it sounded as if someone had taken charge and was now rapidly firing commands to others, who in turn barked at their underlings, and so on until it seemed some order had been brought to all the chaos. Human voices were soon drowned out by the sounds of heavy machinery and equipment being dragged or driven toward the eastern fenceline. A helicopter landed briefly, then took off.
Patricia unlocked the cabin door, and stepped outside for a look. Colleagues on the science team, whose cabins were clustered nearby, had done the same. One by one they drew together and proceeded eastward. No one spoke a word as the group moved steadily toward the locus of all that clamor, until what they saw stopped them dead in their tracks.
An all-encompassing spectacle splayed out before them, the likes of which no one on earth had ever seen. The backdrop consisted of several large swaths of torn cyclone fencing and strings of barbed wire strewn haphazardly over the rocky hill just beyond the encampment. Security teams carrying automatic weapons and heavier artillery had taken up positions on the slope, while a phalanx of armed guards had begun spreading out along the camp’s north and west borders.
The southern border of the site provided natural protection of a sort, in the form of a wide outcropping of rock leading to a sheer dropoff of several hundred meters. The rocky canyon below housed a winding feeder stream, leading to the Yukon river somewhere in the distance. The fencing along the cliff’s edge, rather than keeping anything out, had been erected mainly to keep people in, lest anyone be inclined to take a rambling stroll after dark.
It occurred to Patricia that this was the only thing all that fencing was good for now: keeping everyone nicely kettled up together, in the remote Alaskan wilderness, with strange and powerful predators for whom barbed wire and steel mesh were mere playthings lurking outside. Gosh, what could possibly go wrong with this whole fish-in-a-barrel scenario? Patricia chuckled to herself, then snorted. A morbid sense of humor had always helped her keep her wits about her in life-threatening situations, and there sure had been quite a few of those in recent years.
Someone shot her a sharp elbow to the ribs. Seems not everyone could see the hilarity in anticipating their own imminent deaths.
Really, though, it was the astonishing tableau before them that held the science team utterly transfixed. An enormous, soaring tent structure had been erected next to the fence breach. The back and sides were gray and opaque, but the entire front-facing wall was comprised of clear plastic sheeting. A large and bulky metal slab stood solidly in the center of the space, and on it, lashed down tightly with heavy steel cables, an enormous creature struck out wildly at its surroundings with its few partially unsecured tentacles. A tech crew in head-to-toe hazmat suits were busy making notations on tablets and setting up equipment against the far wall, careful to give those lashing tentacles a wide buffer.
And as if this scene were not intense enough to burn itself permanently into the minds of those on site, it was all blazingly lit up by telescoping towers of blindingly bright lights.
“Over here!” shouted a voice from the direction of a smaller structure pitched against the larger chamber. It was Dr. Emily Kimura, gesturing toward the huddle of stunned scientists to come join her.
Inside the smaller space, several techs were just finishing the setup of two large screens: one displayed a high-resolution livestream of the captive creature thrashing violently against its restraints, and the other an array of outputs from various monitoring devices as they came online. But the most unsettling element in the room was the sound. Captured by a microphone hung just above its head, the creature’s vocalizations were routed directly to a pair of speakers that hung near the screens. At first it sounded like any large animal might under extreme duress, although no recognizable species came to mind in a room full of animal experts.
As the group shuffled behind a long table and settled into seats, the sound suddenly shifted into a distinctly human voice and began to repeat, “Lo siento, pero el no es apto para la nieve. No puedo seleccionarse.”
“Oh okay, it’s Spanish now, is it? Well that’s new, but not exactly helpful!” snapped Dr. Robert Stavinsky, a limnologist who did his fieldwork in the freshwater lakes of Mexico and Central America.
“What’s it mean?” asked Dr. Sheila Brach, an astrobiologist out of Yale.
“It means, ‘I’m sorry, but he is not suited for the snow. I cannot select him.’” It was Dr. Emily Kimura, projecting her voice over the moderate speaker volume and the buzzing among the group. “I have some new information to share–”
She was cut off by an abrupt break in the repeating Spanish loop and the start of long, overlapping low- and high-pitched tones that seemed to bend and stretch, on and on, and echo with cavernous reverberation.
Stavinsky flipped his pen in the air and let it land on the table with a loud pop. He crossed his arms, rolled his eyes and said, “What the hell could even make a sound like that?”
“That’s easy,” Will Stokes, the cephalopod guru, replied to the question Stavinsky had thought to be rhetorical. “It’s whale song.”
“What?! Whale song?!” Stavinsky was becoming more and more exasperated–and exasperating–by the second, demanding constant attention while contributing nothing of use. “Well, what’s it saying?”
“I don’t know, Bob. I don’t speak whale,” Will quipped right back at him. That broke the tension in the room, as a bevy of world class scientists, exhausted from a grueling day of travel, challenged beyond anything they had ever encountered before and terrified of the ramifications of what they had seen, broke out in raucous laughter. Even Stavinsky cracked a smile and shook his head. He had walked right into that one.
As the laughter died down, the creature again altered its vocal emanations and began huffing, interspersed with low growls and throaty moans. The camera feed showed it struggling and twisting against the steel cables, seemingly in an effort to project these low-frequency vocalizations in multiple, distinct directions.
“Jesus Christ,” Patricia said, stunned. “Those are bear sounds.”
“Are you sure?” asked Will, sizing up Patricia over the rims of his glasses. He knew her only casually, and thought bird migration was more her thing.
“I’m positive,” she replied, sensing the creeping doubt among her colleagues. “I did an internship for BT studying polar bears, not too far from here actually, over the Canadian border. I had to learn to distinguish polar bear sounds from black and brown bears, because their habitats overlap and any misidentification would muddy the data.”
Will nodded, and the others seemed less unnerved if not overly impressed. Regardless, it was now established that Dr. Patricia Gorman knew more about bear sounds than anybody else there.
“Well, what are they saying?” joked Sheila Brach. “Do you speak bear, Dr. Gorman?” The room was roiled again with laughter.
“Ooh, I know!” Stavinsky shot back, “It means ‘listen bear, you can’t take the snow? Then I cannot select you!’” More laughter.
Patricia stood up as the snickering finally died down. “I know this will sound highly implausible, but…I guess I do speak a little bear.” She expected more howls of laughter, but instead she had their full attention. “Those sounds are like warning signals. Warnings to other bears, to stay back, to go away.”
Dr. Emily Kimura now stood and cleared her voice to speak. Despite her bubbly personality and disarming grin, she could exude a calm, serious and authoritative stature that was downright magnetic. The room quieted, and all eyes were on her. Patricia had not seen this side of Emily in their brief time together: the natural leader, who effortlessly commanded the attention and respect of a room filled with extremely accomplished scientists, most of them many years her senior.
“For all of us,” she began, “Every thing we thought we knew about the history of life on earth, from biology to geology to evolution to genetics to… to… we don’t even know what else we’ve yet to consider, has been turned upside down, in a single day. It’s a lot to take in.” Emily paused for a moment to let the enormity of the new reality begin to sink in.
Patricia leaned forward on her seat, mesmerized. My god, she’s magnificent, Patricia thought. She’s up there flying without a net. There’s no handbook for this, no S.O.P. you can simply follow when you’re in charge of dealing with a walking, talking, deadly cephalopod.
Emily still held the room rapt. “We don’t have time to waste, so let me get right to it. Questioning alternative explanations, demanding robust evidence, subjecting our work to peer review – this kind of rigorous skepticism is the cornerstone of good science, right?”
Heads nodded and mouths mumbled agreement.
“Skepticism is absolutely critical to what I’m going to ask of you, though not in the way you might think.” Emily paused, scanned the faces around the room, then pressed on. “I must ask you to turn that skepticism inward, on your own area of expertise. I need you to question all of the foundational principles and assumptions you have been working under, and doubt them. Doubt them hard. Look for any chink in the structure that holds all of our knowledge about life on earth together. Because something we are absolutely sure of, something we all truly believe we know without a doubt, turns out to be very, very wrong. And we need to find what that is, or we’ll never get ahead of this thing.”
Just then, Brandon’s face appeared in a box on the data monitoring screen. “Sorry to interrupt, Dr. Kimura. I’d like to give everyone a download on new information we’ve acquired.” Emily gestured for him to continue.
“First, I am sorry to report that during the engagement with the creature tonight at the east perimeter, we lost a guard, S2 Salvador Alonzo. Two others were seriously injured, but they are expected to survive the encounter. What we’ve learned is that this creature kills with a single tentacle by directly piercing soft tissue, like just below the ribcage, then makes its way back and upward along the spinal column and under the skull until it makes contact with the cerebral cortex. Then it quickly retracts. The body cam streams, autopsy footage and other data are being downloaded via secure satellite link to your location as we speak. We were able to obtain DNA samples from the creature and they’re processing now. As soon as this or any other information becomes available, it will be directed straight to you. If there’s anything else we can provide, please let Dr. Kimura know. I know the task in front of you is monumental. We are all counting on you to figure this thing out. And unfortunately there isn’t a lot of time.”
BT’s signal went to static, then flickered out. Emily picked right up where he left off.
“Time,” she said, “might be our biggest problem. We don’t even know how much or how little time we have, to come up with meaningful answers to the questions we’re facing here.” Emily lowered her voice in volume and pitch, sounding almost conspiratorial. “And it is only a matter of time until the U.S. government is on to exactly what we’re doing here. Once that happens, our ability to operate here will be severely curtailed.” Or worse, she thought, but didn’t say. “BT has very good relationships with the feds of course. But once they start asking the right questions, it will mean they’ve already got surveillance up and running, or we’ve got a mole leaking our intel. At that point, even BT won’t be able to hold them off.”
Emily paused and took a deep breath, just to let the likely consequences of US government involvement sink in. She didn’t need to expound on that point. These were smart people; they would figure it out.
“Any questions before we get to work?”
“Yeah,” said Stavinsky, “What’s this about a mole? You mean right here, in this room?”
“With any operation of this size and importance, there’s always a leak,” Emily said matter-of-factly. Patricia’s scrunched up forehead signaled her puzzlement and disbelief. Emily locked eyes with hers and repeated, “Always.”
A guard entered and made a beeline for Dr. Kimura, who had taken a little longer to linger over Patricia’s eyes than was strictly necessary. “What is it?”
“Dr. Kimura, there’s a snowstorm headed our way. The first squalls are predicted to hit at 0 six hundred hours, with high winds and blizzard conditions expected. Our generators should still run, but the satellite link will likely be severed until after it clears out.”
“Thank you,” said Emily, and turned to face the group. “Any more questions? No? Let’s do this.”
Again, if you appreciate and enjoy our work, please consider a donation to our legal fund. Any amount is appreciated, and every dollar helps. All proceeds go toward paying off the legal debt incurred in defending (and winning!) the SLAPP suit brought by Richard Carrier against our blog network and others, including PZ Myers personally. (You can read all about the suit here.)
Free speech isn’t really free. Sometimes defending it requires a serious commitment of time and money, and it especially requires people like PZ Myers and his co-defendants who are willing to make those sacrifices to fight for it. Too often, voices are simply silenced when the targets of suits cannot marshal the considerable resources needed to defend against them – even when, as in this case, the defendants are virtually certain to prevail as a matter of law. It is no small thing: both the SLAPP suits themselves and the fear of being targeted by one imperil First Amendment rights for all of us.
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Today the Fun is Fantastical and Free at FreethoughtBlogs! We’ve got a deliciously diverse lineup of offerings for you to explore and enjoy. What’s your pleasure?
PZ interviews briefly some Rock Star FtB bloggers! You can put a face (and a voice!) to the names of your fav writers here, and maybe discover new faces and places you will really enjoy.
Our new story chain, “A Martian Odyssey” – the adventure has begun!
Part 1 by PZ Myers at Pharyngula transports us to the wild world of our future, where an isolated, conservative Earth has for centuries turned her back on her weird and wonderful offspring now populating the solar system… until now. How weird are we talking? Well, why take 10 million years to terraform a planet into an environment fit for humans when you can quickly whip up a little radical genetic modification to planetform the human to the environment instead?
Part 2 by Yours Truly here at Death to Squirrels picks up with three of PZ’s strange characters – a Marsborn and two Spaceborn – facing a profoundly consequential decision: what to do about Earth. Iris Vander Pluym, having ZERO experience writing fiction except for that one chapter in last month’s story chain, naturally decides to kill one of them off straightaway.
View our Winter Photo Gallery at Affinity! This collection comprises submissions from FtB bloggers and readers in our community – including YOU if you send a photo or ten to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the Affinity collective likes your work!
Creativity for Skeptics — a conversation about secular creativity with TD Walker of Freethinking Ahead. This is the event I’ve been looking forward to most this month. I’ve long loved exploring the topic of creativity, but I find the writing of so-called experts and thought leaders tends to be chock full of flaming woo. As an anti-supernaturalist this is off-putting and disappointing to say the least. I can assure readers that whatever my own process(es) may be, supernatural forces play no part in them, and I would like to learn more about what’s really going on within myself and other artists.
I’m definitely watching this just as soon as I finish…painting a dress for a 6-year old. What? Hardly a big deal since I painted my sofa.
And finally, I’ll let PZ take it away:
“Did you know this will be the one-year anniversary of our legal victory over the Pissant of Evil? Several of the defendants will be gathering to celebrate that happy event!”
Aww, man! Pissant of Evil was totally gonna be the name of my new fake socially-distanced band! But there goes PZ ruining everything again AS USUAL… 🙄
I kid! I kid! Our illustrious Dr. Myers bore the burden of the infuriating SLAPP suit(s) with the same wit and brilliance he does everything else. And for readers who may not be aware, that includes an enormous amount of work behind the scenes at FtB, from tech support to his laissez faire approach to management issues (which I am 100% convinced would be MUCH easier if he simply ran things like a typical tyrant) to herding the proverbial cats – in this case a large litter of curious, opinionated, godless, passionate, lefty bloggers – better than any human I have ever seen. It takes a lot of (mostly thankless) work to make this place a reality, and by far the brunt of it falls on PZ Myers. I’m sure I speak for FtB comrades and readers when I say: THANK YOU. We are very grateful for this place. And all of your arduous work, even through difficult times, is genuinely appreciated.
PZ especially deserves our congratulations for taking on the fight for freedom of speech, and triumphing for himself, his co-defendants, and all of us.
If you can spare some coin to help with the legal costs incurred when you need to fight “Pissants of Evil,” please give what you can via our PayPal.
Part 1 of our story by PZ is here.
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A Martian Odyssey, part 2
Nothing prepared Key for this moment. Neither their formal education nor diplomatic experience qualified Key for the operation the Spaceborn were now proposing. They felt unprepared in other ways, too. Jimin’s sudden disappearance added more weight to an already weighty mission, but that wasn’t all. Key, like every Marsborn, knew next to nothing about Earth.
The children of Mars were abandoned by Mother Earth so long ago, the primal wound had healed over, even if the scar ran deep. Marsborn schoolchildren learned only that the once-strong bond of interdependence between the two planets had been severed cleanly by Earth’s own hand. She had cut the cord with such ferocity and finality there was nothing for her burgeoning progeny to do but erase all but a diaphanous vision of her. Except for her occasional looming into range of its ground-based scopes and solar eclipses, Earth had become utterly inconsequential to the Marsborn.
Not so for the Spaceborn. The distance from Martian gravity required by the Spaceborn had provided another kind of distance as well: a perspective quite literally above it all.
When Earth withdrew itself from the colonizers, she did not go quietly. Instead, every station, satellite, probe and craft within her impressive firing range was blasted into spacedust. Collectively, these were host to legions of unsuspecting Spaceborn. And the Spaceborn, for all of their disparate lifeforms and cultures spanning the solar system, still held one thing in common: a long memory.
Spaceborn schoolchildren learned early and often of Earth’s unprovoked massacre of their peaceful and productive ancestors. Spaceborn casualties of that horrific event were honored on day 500 of the Martian year, the number representing the approximate number of vessels lost. And the first such event marked the official, permanent system-wide sync to the Martian calendar and the end of Earth time. Ancient Copernicus exonerated one more time, the world no longer revolved around Earth.
Unsurprisingly, keeping the memory of Earth’s violent treachery alive among generations of Spaceborn had some repercussions. For one thing, whereas the Marsborn viewed Earth as a non-entity, if they even gave the blue dot any thought at all, the Spaceborn viewed Earth quite differently: as an enemy. The disparity caused no small amount of friction between Marsborn and Spaceborn, as every so often it gave rise to conspiracy theories that had to be quickly quashed, lest someone act to destroy the enduring relationship between them. However, it was not lost on the Spaceborn that Earth could easily have done considerable damage to critical installations on Mars, perhaps even put an end to the colonization project for good. Yet Mars survived unscathed, while the Spaceborn nursed their wounds and mourned their dead for centuries. Whenever sparks began to fly, cooler and wiser heads had historically prevailed. For the most part, all that remained between them was a healthy, mild suspicion right alongside an abiding respect, driven in part by amity and in part by mutual benefit. It was an arrangement that kept everyone on their best behavior.
But the most significant consequence of the Spaceborn worldview was the overarching priority to never again be attacked – unaware and undefended – by Earth or by anyone else. This would mean, among other things, that the Spaceborn would oversee the development of advanced defensive technologies as well as some slick artillery of their own. But after a thorough analysis following a deep dive into Earth’s history, the Spaceborn had come to a conclusion as unexpected as it was unavoidable: wielded properly, there was one weapon superior to all others, in all places and all times. That weapon was information.
With the Spaceborn maintaining all of the routes and communication channels connecting the farthest inhabited moons to the inhabitants of Mars, there were ample opportunities to develop and deploy information collection technologies along the way. Over the centuries, the Spaceborn inevitably became the keepers of inconceivably vast troves of information obtained via a virtually undetectable surveillance network. Sharply honed bots and algorithms continually trolled through endless seas of data, and when called upon, would instantly deliver a state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute dossier on anything in the solar system that moved. Including, of course, anything that moved on Earth. Or Mars.
In a small meeting room in Wei station, Key began to methodically absorb and analyze what facts he could from the scene in front of them. Here were two struggling Spaceborn who said they had just attempted a rescue and recon mission at the Martian pole, the site of an Earth vessel landing. This was a fool’s errand, doomed from the start, as any Spaceborn or Marsborn could tell you after one look at these hastily slapped together prosthetics. Key knew, from many long, late-night conversations with Jimin, that the same Spaceborn technology that enabled the successful colonization of distant moons could easily enable two non-adapted Spaceborn to travel the Martian surface for a brief mission, or even a long one, should this be deemed a high enough priority.
And what, Key mused in his mind, could possibly be a higher priority than an Earth vessel landing at the Martian pole, the station going dark, their own diplomat sent on a stealth recon mission and having not been heard from since?
And what about these two Spaceborn? Key studied them carefully. When their ridiculous mission failed – if there even were any mission – why seek out Key? Matters such as these would most certainly be of interest to those at much higher levels of the collective than a career Marsborn diplomat and these two apparently expendable Spaceborn. They were underequipped for a pit stop on the planet, much less a rendezvous with a brutal Martian winter, and terrain populated with bandits and giant bugs. Not to mention a potentially hostile Earthborn landing party.
But the most troubling question to Key was why the Spaceborn had kept all news of an Earth vessel landing on Mars a secret – for a week. Two months, if one counted from the nanosecond its launch trajectory was picked up by Spaceborn surveillance systems. That would instantly render a report to the highest circles of Spaceborn governance. Who else knew?
Ditya made a gentle, barely perceptible motion with her head. The message, though, conveyed without words, came through unmistakably: yes, we know what we are asking of you, and we are deeply sorry, but you are the only Marsborn we trust with this.
“I have…concerns,” Key said cooly. “And questions.”
Afia locked eyes with them, and said, “We understand. You don’t know us. We don’t know you. But here we are. And unfortunately, we don’t have much time.“
Ditya began to wheeze a bit now, the weight of the Martian atmosphere crushing the fragile membranes that supported breathing just fine at zero G.
“What you need to know about me is this,” said Key. “I would fight my way through the planet’s core for Jimin.”
For a moment, Afia and Ditya seemed more at ease. Key clarified, “Not for the Marsborn, not for the Spaceborn. For Jimin.” They continued, “What I need to know from you is everything that has happened from the time Spaceborn systems fired up the alert on the Earth vessel’s launch trajectory, to this very minute. And I mean everything.”
Afia spoke gravely, “Yes, we agree. There is no time to waste. We have fitted our transport with an encrypted channel to Ditya and myself only. We can begin to brief you as soon as you are underway.”
“One more concern,” Key said as all three moved toward the exit. “We are all at a complete loss when it comes to the Earthborn, after centuries of isolation.”
Ditya’s voice found its strength again, and let go with a wry chuckle. “Key,” she said, “I can brief you on anything you want to know about the Earthborn.”
“Now how would you know anything about that?”
Ditya seemed to grow smaller and more shrunken by the minute, yet she had now taken on an air of gravitas, speaking to Key as if he were her student.
“My dear,” she said softly. “I am old, and I have played many roles in my lifetime, official and unofficial. And what I know about the Earthborn could fill a gas giant.”
Key was stunned. The door slid open and transport guides swiftly slid the Spaceborn into waiting gel couches. They would finally have some relief from the Martian gravity, and soon enough they would feel at perfect ease in orbit. Afia and Ditya were sure of that, but of little else. This trip to the Martian surface had been an enormous risk, and nothing had gone to plan. What awaited them once that airlock opened in orbit was anyone’s guess.
Key made their way to the transport without being noticed by anyone who knew them – they hoped. Once strapped inside and cleared for departure, they heard Afia’s voice, crisp and clear. “Key, are you ready? We can begin the briefing shortly.”
“Yes,” they replied. They were eager to get started.
“But first, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Ditya has…died, Key. She’s dead.”
“I – I don’t know what to say,” Key replied.
“It’s just that she gave everything. She risked everything…” Afia’s voice trailed off.
“How did it happen?” Key inquired.
“That’s just it, I don’t understand,” Afia’s tone was strained with anxiety now. “Ditya was fine when we locked in for the jump to orbit. All her vital signs had stabilized, and the gel sensory web indicated the all clear. But when we arrived at the station and the airlock opened, she was… lifeless.”
“I am so sorry,” Key responded. “We can put the briefing off for a bit if you need some time.”
“No,” came the answer. “This mission was the culmination of Ditya’s life’s work. It is imperative that we continue.”
“Very good, then,” said Key. “I am standing by.”
This is Part 4 of a story chain that some FtB comrades are writing by turns.
If you have not read the first three parts of our story:
This collaborative story is a project for our Freethought Blogs Halloween Fundraiser. If you enjoy and appreciate the work we do here, please consider making a donation to our legal fund. Every single dollar helps, and is greatly appreciated.
A Dark Web
From the second Kyle broke through the door of Lucy’s, Connie would be operating on autopilot. Adrenaline, training and experience in dozens of these missions would coalesce in blood and brain to transform her into a singularly focused machine. And Connie’s unique “gifts” would provide a covert advantage no ordinary human could match.
But in that instant before the switch flipped, the events that led her to this precise point in space and time flashed before her in an instant. Images, sharp and vibrant, paraded by, bringing back with them the heavy emotional weight of her journey like an unexpected gut-punch. Connie Herbert remained one of few people alive who had a front row seat for all of it: a witness to the whole world transforming, fundamentally and forever, over the course of a single day twenty years ago.
One could only marvel that over two decades–two decades!–very few people knew anything of it at all. Fewer still knew the full story in all of its grotesque spendor. A 20-year, globe-spanning, total information blackout stood as a towering testament to the Company’s power and reach. An ongoing joke among insiders turned on the unfortunate fact that the most successful Op in company history could never be leaked to Sales & Marketing.
But there had been leaks, of course. A leak sparked the whole mess in the first place. The critical breach occurred one morning when nearly every subject in the study – H. sapiens, Latrodectus or “other” – manifested a stunning variety of transmutations, all at once. The researchers were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task of quantifying every one of these strange new phenomena. They called for emergency reinforcements right away.
Connie had awakened that morning feeling oddly out-of-sorts. Once she took in the view of the lab, she puzzled at the sight of Dr. Myers and a half dozen lab techs systematically peering into the dozens of small glass enclosures arrayed against the far wall. Another tech disabled the locks on the lab door and propped it open so the extra staffers could come right on in and get to work immediately–well, immediately after they picked their jaws up off the floor, and remembered how to breathe.
Billy was ranting and pacing in his pod, agitated as ever. Not for the first time, Connie was grateful the glass walls between them provided excellent soundproofing.
Just then, three men in well-tailored suits strode through the open door and made a beeline for Dr. Myers.
“Poor guy,” Connie smirked wryly to herself. “He hates dealing with the suits.” And if the suits were here, it could only mean one of two things: either phase III had just been deemed a smashing success, or something had gone very, very wrong. At the moment she couldn’t tell which. It looked like nobody else was sure, either.
Staffers in crisp white lab coats came streaming in continuously, some of whom she hadn’t seen since phase I or II. Those studies had gone exceedingly well. Phase I investigated human reactions to various Latrodectus venom extracts, as well as Latrodectus reactions to various H. sapiens blood extracts. Phase I yielded very little new information, but it did provide a vast trove of baseline data.
Phase II was similar, except the extracts derived from both species underwent molecular modifications before infusion. Results revealed, among other things, potential applications for modified venom extracts, including non-lethal bioweapons, a broad range of medicinal properties and “neurocognitive effects.” Or, as some of the H. sapiens subjects put it, “Wow, I am really high!” At the time Connie wondered whether the Latrodectus subjects experienced similar effects, and how anyone would know if they did.
In the present day, standing at the back door of Lucy’s Bar and Grill, Connie would wonder whether the “Venom” presently drawing in the Halloween party goers traced directly back to that fateful morning in phase III, or if it was indeed just a marketing gimmick. The cartels and dealers were always branding retail heroin packets with names of exactly this sort.
Phase III had been a much more ambitious undertaking. For one thing, all subjects had undergone cross-species genetic modifications prior to the infusions. Early results in Latrodectus took an interesting turn when the females bore spiderlings that inherited their respective new gene sequences intact. Most of these clusters died off before or shortly after hatching; only two continued to thrive. As these clusters began hatching and maturing, it became apparent that the novel genes had expressed in mutations so profound, these creatures could hardly be classed in the Latrodectus genus at all. They were something entirely new. So was the venom.
Human life cycle constraints naturally prohibited any investigation into Latrodectus gene expression in the offspring of H. sapiens, to say nothing of the Geneva Conventions. The Company was already treading dangerously close to those limits, perhaps even exceeding them.
And those Latrodectus genes roiling around inside ten human subjects were not exactly lying dormant.
Connie was struck with the sense that something was off about Billy today (more so than usual, that is). She turned back for another look. Billy took heaving breaths, wildly contorting his upper body as if he were trying to glimpse the back of his own neck. Strange. But what was all that…that…stuff? Thick, glossy strands and strings clung to his arms and torso, wobbling like jello with every twitch.
No one seemed the least bit concerned about Billy: all attention was focused on the dozens of small glass enclosures lining the back wall. Some of them were moving, in short pulses. A metal cover from one of the higher enclosures came spinning down.
Dr. Myers and the techs descended from their ladders and took slow steps backward.
The enclosures were jumping and jerking more violently now. Metal lids came down. Whole enclosures crashed to the floor, and shattered. The Latrodectus were out.
Billy and a few other subjects were pounding on the glass walls, some throwing furniture and other heavy items. It was all for naught. All eyes were transfixed by the chaos exploding outward from the far wall. In less than a minute hundreds of spiders were trailing sticky silk to every nook and corner in the lab.
Billy swung at the glass with a piece of dismantled bed frame. The wall first cracked, then shattered under the blows. He was now swinging at the other pods, freeing the frenzied subjects inside.
“Get back!” he yelled at Connie. She could barely hear him, until Billy smashed down the wall between them.
The suits were the first to make a run for it. The swarm of techs followed behind them, moving like a single organism and sweeping Dr. Myers right out with them.
Someone had set off the fire alarm: sprinklers showered the room, a siren a strobe light flashed, sirens shrieked, silk webbing criss-crossed the ceiling. The effect was surreal.
Connie knew there were risks when she volunteered to be a subject. But she never imagined anything like this. No one did. The consequences were as yet unforeseen, but they would come, hard and fast, in the form of shockwaves around the globe. Connie or any of a hundred tactical officers like her would be there when they did, mitigating all of the damage, destroying all evidence and ensuring that any narrative taking hold would never lead back to the Company.
Kyle would be first through the door tonight. The others would follow in a practiced and precise routine. Just then, in that breathless last second, Connie wondered what the world might look like if only the last tech to make it out that day had stopped to shut, lock and bolt the lab door behind him.
“On my mark,” she said coolly. “Three. Two. One. Go.”
Read Part 5 at Oceanoxia!
It’s a weird year, to put it mildly. Many Halloween traditions you might have enjoyed in the past may not be possible this year, at least not if you prefer to avoid catching and spreading a deadly virus and you have the terrible misfortune of living among conservatives in the US. So please, if you are celebrating this weekend, have your fun safely. And if you’re looking for something to do, hang out with us here on Halloween!
I am auctioning off an interview at Death to Squirrels. Bidding starts at ONE DOLLAR, closes in less than three hours (6pm EDT), and nobody wants to talk to me! *sniff* Waaaaah!
You can bid either in the auction thread comments or via email if you prefer: send your bid to irisvpluym [at] gmail [dot] com, with “Iris Interview” in the subject line, and I will post a corresponding comment on the thread that reads “Anonymous bid for $____” along with the timestamp on your email. You know: in case there’s a last minute bidding war! 😂
C’mon, I promise you have nothing to fear from talking to me. Unless you’re a squirrel.
What are you doing this weekend? THAT WAS RHETORICAL OF COURSE because I already know you’ll be hanging out at FtB’s Carnival of Curiosity, already underway! So many fun, funny and fabulous events are planned for you by my beloved FtB comrades, and they’re all FREE! Though we will gratefully accept any tokens of your appreciation (in the form of US dollars plz). Because it turns out that free speech isn’t free, even when you win the lawsuit.
I know you will be so delighted, amused and wildly entertained you will magnanimously contribute a few bucks to our legal fund (here).
WTF are you even doing here?! Grab some virtual refreshments and GTFOver there already!
Catering courtesy of our sponsors:
Vander Pluym Vineyards
UPDATE: Okay fine. If you’re just here
for the free booze and snacks killing time before another Carnival of Curiosity event, please go grab some popcorn and enjoy my (first, last, only and very very short) debut film: Boss Bitch Fight Challenge II – The Reckoning.
That’s right: you can interview me, or I will interview YOU for #deathtosquirrels – winner’s choice.
NO SUBJECT OFF LIMITS!
Promote yourself or your business! Make me embarrass myself – forever! On the goddamn internet! Either way I will post our interview here, and you can post it wherever you desire.
But before we get to that, I want to tell you a quick story about what “free” speech really costs.