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Prologue

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Redstone Military Laboratories, White Sands, New Mexico

 

 The girl's blood cells floated across the video screen like shimmering blobs of gel. No matter how much Richard Osden finessed the microscope's fine tuning, he could not bring the inner architecture of the cells into sharp clarity. 

He'd never before had trouble focusing the instrument. He frowned and blinked behind the hard plastic faceplate of his biohazard suit, wishing he could wipe the beads of sweat that itched his balding scalp. After another moment fussing with the controls, he slumped back in his chair feeling suddenly groggy. 

Fuzzy halos surrounded the ceiling lights. The gene sequencer, protein assembler, and other equipment at the workstation blurred as if he peered at them through an oil-smeared lens. Hell, it wasn't the microscope's video field that was out of focus, but his own eyesight.  

He felt a vicious hangover coming on; odd, because he rarely suffered hangovers. Sometimes too much red wine mule-kicked him in the skull the next morning, but never expensive Scotch, and he'd not had more than a couple glasses last night.  

He shook his head inside the helmet, sending sweat droplets trickling down. The faceplate fogged slightly. He'd gained weight over the holidays, and his double-layered biohazard suit-already the bulkiest in the lab to accommodate his bulges-squeezed his chest now like a sausage casing, making it hard to breathe. 

He checked the suit's air flow, supplied by a yellow hose dangling from the ceiling. Air pressure kept the suit stiffly inflated so that any accidental puncture would leak air outward, not suck outside air in. The air hose was functioning normally. Full pressure. But he was getting woozier by the minute. Gray spots swam in his vision. He began to pant. 

To hell with this, something's wrong with me. He stood and unplugged from the air hose at the workstation and shuffled in his blue spacesuit toward the inner air lock door. Three steps and the pain hit him like a sledgehammer, smashing through his left arm and shooting up his neck into his jaw.  

He clicked on his helmet mike with his chin, barely squeezed out the words through gritted teeth: "Security...emergency. Osden...exiting BL-4." He gasped for air. "I'm...having...a heart attack."  

"Ah, roger that, Dr. Osden," said a security guard over the helmet com. "I see you at Airlock One. I'll scramble a medical team to meet you in the staging room." 

Osden jabbed the switch on the wall beside the airlock door. With a noisy gush of wind, the door unfurled like the iris of a camera. He stumbled inside and slumped against a curved wall. The door's polished steel petals spiraled shut. Osden's knees wobbled during the minute-long wait while vents sucked out the interior air, whistling through sterilizing filters. Then the far door unfurled with a pop! of positive pressure and a hiss of clean air. 

He stumbled out of Airlock One into the decontamination suite. A wading trough filled with liquid disinfectant ran along the center of the floor leading to the shower room, where dozens of showerheads poked from the walls and ceiling. The edges of Osden's vision darkened and shrank inward, tunnel-like. He groaned and sagged to the floor, scrabbling on hands and knees, splashing through the green disinfectant fluid toward the second airlock. 

From the decon suite, Airlock Two opened into the Staging Room. Here, long-sleeved surgical scrubs and hoods, followed by the blue plastic spacesuits, were donned and removed under a bank of sterilizing ultraviolet lamps. Beyond the Staging Room, a third airlock opened directly to the main laboratory.  

A bright red trefoil-the international biohazard warning-emblazoned the door of Airlock Two. Before entering this airlock, biohazard protocol required taking a five-minute shower in a high-pressure blast of germ-killing phenolic toxins. 

Osden's tunnel vision turned reddish-black, like congealed blood. He crawled past the shower, heading straight for the keypad on Airlock Two. 

"Ozzie? What are you doing? You got a red light." The new voice belonged to Col. Jack Eberhard, project director. "You can't skip the shower." 

"No...time," Osden wheezed, struggling to his feet. "I need...help...fast." 

"I can't let you leave the decon suite until you proceed through the shower." 

"Eberhard, you bastard..." he puffed, "the pain...Let me out." 

"You cannot enter that airlock, mister. Return to the shower. That's a direct order." 

"I'm...not...one of your soldiers...I'm coming through."  

Osden reached toward the airlock keypad. His hand shook inside its thick rubber glove as he fumbled to tap keys. Tears of pain mixed with perspiration and ran into his straining mouth. His sweat stank of fear. 

"Warning," said a computer's calm feminine voice. "Protocol violation. Decontamination shower required before exiting this area." 

Shut up, bitch, Osden thought. I wrote your program, and I know the override code.  

"Warning," said the computer and repeated its message. In spite of pain bells clanging in his skull, he managed to complete the dozen digits of the override code. 

"Warning. Protocol vio-" 

The light on the panel changed to green. Airlock Two opened with a hissing blast of wind. He staggered inside. The door closed behind. 

The uprushing air sighed loudly and so did Richard Osden. The crushing pain was starting to lift; the three-hundred-pound boa constrictor was uncoiling from his chest. His head felt more clear. The dimmer switch on his vision was returning to full lighting.  

Christ on roller-skates, he thought, maybe I'm going to make it. Plenty of others have survived heart attacks. His own father had outlived one by some thirty years.  

He turned around in the airlock to face the door he'd just entered. Now that he could breathe again, he really should go back and take the shower. Hell, he'd help write the safety protocol himself. 

While Osden hesitated, trying to decide, Eberhard's voice boomed in his helmet. 

"Sorry, Ozzie," he said, "you leave me no choice." 

At the same instant the meaning of the words dawned in Osden's mind, a massive burst of x-radiation bombarded his body. He wanted to yell, "Wait!" but the word caught fire in his vocal cords as his cells began to cook. 

In the flash of his final seconds, he thought of the girl who lived inside the Biohazard Level Four Isolation Unit; the creature Project Second Nature had created. Not created intentionally, no; but she had been born as a result of Osden's tinkering with her mother's genes. He thought of the girl's extraordinary abilities and felt something akin to affection.  

Would she remember him, her creator? Was that what it meant to live on in one's children? Was this mysterious sentiment the "love" that others spoke of, the emotion that had eluded him always? So strange to have such thoughts in the last heartbeat of life. 

X-rays are invisible, so Osden was surprised to see a mandala of lightning bolts flaring through space, even with his eyes closed. The scientist in Osden raced to get a grip on this final wonder, as his eyes cooked hard like eggs, and the animal in him soundlessly screamed.

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