Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Panacea (Miscorrection)

Panacea (Book 1 – Story 4) My name is Atrasti. I’m a scientist who has made a discovery that could change the human race as we know it. However, there are those who would rather not see this great change. I know that the right thing must be done, and no pressures or threats should stop the progress that can be made. As I contemplate these facts, I realize It is impossible for me to fight this alone. But who would be willing to help me see the finalization of this discovery? Only a man with courage—a man willing to sacrifice his reputation, career, and power can help me…  Approximately 17,000 words.


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Panacea (Miscorrection)


Book 1 - Story 4 Excerpt


© 2011 B.C. Young


The thick, hot air caused beads of sweat to drip down my forehead. The incline of the mountain caused exhaustion in my legs, and no doubt my companions also. But we needed to advance, and our guide, Guia, was not going to slow us down. Moving by foot was not easy. Unfortunately, it was the only way for us to progress, and we would find it to be the same way on the other two summits.


The beginning of our trek found us making our way through areas of colorful flowers and bushes with leaves the size of a human head. As we continued up Flowing Mount, the vegetation continued to vary, some bearing fruit that even look edible. It was a daunting task to reach the peak, but the consequences of not doing it were too great. The benefits far outweighed any personal discomfort I would have to go through.


Braving the physical exhaustion was one thing, but overcoming the fear of the unknown was another. Accompanying the beautiful vegetation was beautiful wildlife. The sound of singing birds was pleasant. But this peak was known to contain more than a few types of dangerous animals. Every jungle has its creatures, some harmless, some harmful. But we knew they were not our fear. The harm we found ourselves concerned about was not native to the jungle.


“How much further?” I asked the guide, wiping sweat from my forehead.


“Hike, not long. Two, four hour.” He did his best to speak our language so we could understand. He appeared to be in his early thirties. His hair was dark and trimmed short. Surprisingly, his skin tone was light, which you would not expect from this area. Of course, I assumed he was from the area; perhaps he wasn’t. After all, he was going to take us to the other two summits before this was all finished.


“Two to four hours? That’ll put us right near dusk,” Daniel said from behind me.


“Maybe it’ll get cooler by then,” I said.


“Where’d you find this guy anyway?”


“He was in town. I showed him a map of where we needed to go. He acknowledged he could take us there. Oddly enough, he saw the other two summit maps and he told me he was familiar with those, too.”


“He can barely speak our language and you got that from him?”


“It was nothing little hand gestures, map pointing, and intense listening couldn’t accomplish.”


We continued moving. Walking up the mountain became more difficult with each hour. Fortunately, endurance was all we needed to reach the peak. The other two summits may be more difficult. But we would worry about those when we got there.


We trudged through the muddy hills. At times, our feet would sink into the mud and we would have to use all our strength just to take the next step. More than once, the guide would pull back a branch to open a path, only to let go of it too soon, and it would hit one of us in the face.


At one point, we heard voices. They sounded like they came from further down the mountain. Daniel and I stopped. Turning around quickly, we looked to see if people were there. The guide paid no attention. He kept walking, and only stopped when he realized we were not following him.


“Did you hear that?” I said in a loud whisper.


“I heard something. Did the guide hear it?”


“Guia, did you hear people talking?” I asked, speaking slowly. It was hard to tell how much he understood.


“People? No. Sound travel far. People far. You, you hear people cross mountain way.”


“Guia?” Daniel asked. “Is that his name or a joke? Sounds like it’s probably the word ‘guide’ in his language.”


“I don’t know. I asked him if he could take us to the summit, told him my name, and he said ‘Me be Guia’. Maybe I should have said one thing at a time so I knew which was which. Maybe I need to speak slower. Does it matter though? He’s taking us where we need to go.”


“I guess not,” Daniel said.


Guia started moving again, so we were forced to follow.


“Do you think he’s right?” I asked. “Do you think we’re just hearing voices traveling across the mountain range, or do you think someone is following us?”


“Not a chance. They know what we’re up to, but they have no idea how we plan to accomplish it. I was very careful to cover our tracks. The fake passports, identification, and the holographic face manipulator should keep us hidden well.” Daniel’s tone backed up the words that he was confident no one was following us.


“Let’s hope you’re right,” I said.


“Even if they’re following us, we won’t let them win. We can’t.”


The sun began to set over the mountain, and darkness was creeping over the landscape. It would be night soon. We would reach the peak, do what we had to do, and then camp overnight. Hiking back down the mountain after sundown would be too risky.


“Hello,” I heard Daniel say. He was speaking into his phone. “Adalyn, please wait. I know I left abruptly. I didn’t mean to—”


I assumed she hung up on him. Just before we left for our journey, things were not good. I gathered enough to know they had an argument, but that was it. Since time was an important factor, Daniel left suddenly. This was much to the disagreement of Adalyn.


“Everything okay,” I asked.


“Fine, Doc. She’s still upset. Just gotta give it time. She’ll talk to me eventually. After all, she’s my wife.”


Not too far ahead, as night was approaching, I could hear the sound of a waterfall. Its source was the mountain peak. It provided a good portion of the drinking water for Cormos. Flowing Mount and the other two summits,HidroPeakandNeigeMountain, supplied a large amount of the planet’s water. It made Cormos unique from the other planets.


“Here.Summit,” Guia told us. He set down his backpack and equipment.


We followed his lead and did the same. He pushed away some of the brush and revealed the waterfall before us. It was quite beautiful, hidden up away from everyone. It could have been a wonderful tourist attraction, but concerns of eventual contamination of the water supply kept it from being such.


Guia walked closer to the waterfall, cupped his hand, and lapped up some of the water.


“Good. Drink.” He motioned for us to do the same. I was unsure if it was a religious custom or just a suggestion for refreshment.


We took a drink, and the water revitalized us after the long day, it felt good to taste it and feel its naturally cool temperature.


“Now what?” Daniel asked.


I reached into my jacket. There were many pockets in it; I had stored food and other necessities, in case I lost my backpack of supplies. I also had the vials. I pulled one of them out carefully, since there were only three and they would all need to be used. I couldn’t risk dropping any of them and breaking their contents out on the ground. Going through security checks and customs, we had been fortunate that no one discovered them. Ironically, they just looked like bottles of water. And eventually, they would be.


“It’s not much different than what we did with your grandfather. Just a higher concentration,” I said, feeling joy fill my body.


I made my way over to the waterfall and took the cap off the vial. Then, without much fanfare, I poured it into the water. Daniel and Guia watched me do this. Guia gave no expression of his approval or disapproval of what I did. Daniel just gave me a disappointed look.


“That’s it?”


“That’s it,” I said. “I know it took convincing, but it’s happening. And it’s time we finish what Votrelca started.”


“All that’ll do and you just had to pour that small amount into the water?” Daniel seemed to want a little more excitement behind my action.


“Sorry to disappoint you, Daniel. Like I said, it’s a higher concentration than what we gave your grandfather. Maybe the next two summits will be more exciting.”


“Come. Camp. Night here now,” Guia said.


We followed his lead and set up camp for the night.


***


When I walked up to the home, I was saddened to think a happy family used to live there. It wasn’t fair that a disease took away the happiness that once filled the home. The things a man will do when he loses those he loves are unpredictable. They verge on what is sane and insane. But while he does them, they seem perfectly clear. To think that this was once his home, and events forced him to abandon it, made me realize how dire his situation had become.


The home was beautiful but had clearly fallen apart. The landscaped walkway leading up to the door was lined with wilted flowers and overgrown grass. The exterior had fallen apart just the same. It was obvious that the man and his family had been distracted over the past few years, and tending to the home was not a priority for any of them.


A few police cars surrounded the home, their flashing lights off since there was no cause for alarm. A couple officers stood outside to make sure only those allowed into the home gained access to it. While there were others inside, investigating and finding clues.


“Good morning, sir. Can I help you?” the police officer on my left asked as I approached the door.


“Yes, I’m Dr. Atrasti. The university sent me here.”


“One moment.” The officer bent his head to the side and spoke into the communicator on his shoulder. “Dr. Atrasti fromMeningslostUniversityis here. Were you expecting him?”


“Yes. Send him in. Tell him to come down to the basement.” I heard a voice say over the officer’s communicator.


“Go in. The detective is in the basement. Just go straight back to the kitchen and there’s a door that leads down to it.”


“Thanks,” I said.


I walked into the house, and the inside decorum matched what I saw outside. The place was a mess. Piles of magazines, newspapers, and books were everywhere. One room had a number of weapons and ammunition lying on a table. Entering the kitchen, I saw dishes filled in a sink and a half-eaten sandwich sitting on top of it. Yes, happiness left that home a long time ago.


The door in the kitchen leading to the basement was open. I made my way down the steps slowly, taking note of some of the pictures that lined the hallway. It was the only sign that a happy family once lived there. Smiling portraits of a husband, wife, and child looked back at me. My heart began to feel sorry for all three of them.


Reaching the bottom of the stairs and entering the basement, I expected to see more of the same. But this was completely different. The room was clean, almost sterile. I venture to say that if I had tried to find a speck of dust anywhere, I wouldn’t have been able. The basement looked exactly like it should, a laboratory.


“Dr. Atrasti?” a man asked, walking towards me with his hand out to shake mine. “Hi, I’m Detective Resolva.”


“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.


The detective was the stereotype of those you see in movies and television. He was short and stocky. A thick mustache hid his top lip, and he walked around with a notepad and pencil. I found it quite odd that he did the latter. There were better ways of taking notes, but then I realized he had an assistant in the room with him. The assistant appeared to be keeping track of things in the traditional way.


“We didn’t tell the university why we needed you here, mainly to keep things as confidential as possible.” His voice was deep and rough to match his look.


“Yes, I was curious as to why I was called to a crime scene.”


“Well, the crime scene’s at the school,” the detective began, “what we have here is just some investigation into what took place. We need to make sure there isn’t anything we’re missing about this case.”


I began walking around the room, looking at the equipment. Most of it looked familiar, even if it was outdated. It was quite amazing that someone was able to build such a sophisticated lab with very little means.


“So why am I here?”


“You’re standing in the reason you’re here,” Detective Resolva said, chuckling—his whole body bounced slightly. “We came down here, found this lab, and have been very careful not to touch a thing. The moment we saw it, we knew what it was, and we didn’t wanna mess anything up. We thought someone at the university might want to take a look at it. You know, in case there’s any research tied up down here that may help the investigation. We wouldn’t be able to make anything of it. Actually, my assistant thought it would be a good idea to have the research studied by someone who would understand it.”


“Hi, I’mJackson,” the assistant said, taking himself away from whatever he was examining. I got the impression he didn’t realize I was in the room until that moment.


“Anyway, I’m gonna check on a few things upstairs, if you want to look around down here. If you have any questions, feel free to askJackson.” The detective made his way up the stairs and out of the room.


“Will I mess up any part of the investigation if I touch anything?”


“No, everything’s documented and saved holographically, my friend. We can recreate this room in a holochamber, if needed. The only thing that may be of interest is his computer. It doesn’t appear that he left any trace of what he was doing down here otherwise.”


FollowingJackson’s cue, I went over to the computer. After turning it on, I waited a moment for it to boot-up. As I expected, a password prompt appeared on the screen. Access to this thing would not be easy.


“Can I take this back to my lab? I could probably crack the password there.”


Jacksonwalked over to me. He pushed his slightly shaggy hair away from his forehead and looked at the computer screen with me. Immediately, he pulled out some sort of device. I’d never seen one before, but I figured that was just because I didn’t work on the police force. How would I know what equipment they use?


“No. You can’t take the computer with you. It’s technically evidence, so it will be taken for us to hold. We’re only letting you check for any information that the university may find helpful in the case; to give us an understanding of why he did what he did.”


“Well it doesn’t do me any good if I can’t access the computer’s contents.”


“There may be a way around that,” he said. He took the circular device in his hand and pulled on each side of it. When he pulled it open, it revealed a screen with information I didn’t understand. Then, he scanned it over the computer. After a few beeps and touches on the screen, he chuckled to himself and said, under his breath, “I should have known.” He then looked up at me. “Okay, try ‘Adalyn’ for the password. It was his daughter’s name.”


I typed in what he said and immediately the computer continued its boot-up process. After the five seconds that took, I began accessing the machine. It appeared to be like any other computer. There were games, pictures, videos, and more contained on it. But the one thing I was searching for was not there. I was in a laboratory, but I couldn’t find any evidence of research on the machine.


Maybe he hid the files within a standard folder to prevent anyone from finding what he was protecting.


Randomly, I began looking into folders on the computer. All the music files were music files. Photos were photos. Videos were videos. At first glance, there was nothing hidden in the folders.


Perhaps the files are right under my nose. Just because it looks like a specific file type, maybe he named it to appear that way.


I began looking intently at the file names. I went through all the same folders again. After reviewing the documents, I finally had an idea of how to pinpoint what I needed.


“What was the situation with the man’s daughter and wife again? Weren’t they sick or something like that?”


“Slepkava,”Jacksonsaid. “They died about three months ago, just before the attack on the school.”


That’s right! I recalled what I heard in the news. He had some sort of background in Experimental Science. The reports indicated that he actually attempted to find a cure for the disease that eats away at a person’s internal organs, but, of course, he failed.


At that moment, I realized the files were right in front of me the whole time, carefully hidden, but not as well as he had intended. Panacea. That was the keyword. I had seen it within the music, picture, and video files.


“What’d you find?”Jacksonasked inquisitively. No doubt, the expression on my face gave away that I was on to something.


“Panacea!” I said excited. “It’s the key for how he’s hidden the files.”


“Oh, yeah. I’ve heard that word before. Something to do with a ridding of disease or something like that.”


Rather than try to continue the conversation, I ignoredJackson’s statement and I dove back into the files. It was important to know if his training in Experimental Science meant that he kept all his research in the standard program. I had not seen it on his machine, but again, it could have been hidden. I copied the suspect files to a standard location and changed their extension to match the appropriate program. After that, I clicked to open the files.


That was it! Immediately, the computer began opening the files in the research program. Everything I needed was there. I copied the files to a LightDrive I had, and put it in my pocket.


In all, finding the information had taken me an hour.Jacksonsat in the corner, appearing to have lost interest in what I was doing. Just as I was finishing, I heard the footsteps of Detective Resolva on the stairs. His pace was slow as he took his time moving.


“Find anything useful?” he asked as he reached the bottom of the stairs.


“I believe so. I’ll have to study the information. I’ll let you know if there is anything you may need.”


“Here’s my information,” he held up his badge and I lifted my LightDrive to it to receive his contact information. “Please do not hesitate to call me with anything important. You have a portion of the case; I have it all up here.” He tapped his left index finger to his head. “I’ll be able to put it all together.”


“Sure thing,” I said. I shook his hand and left the home, eager to study the research.


***


We had a hard time. While the first peak was high, the journey was only one day. For summit two,HidroPeak, it wasn’t much different terrain, but the distance we needed to travel would take several days. Again, we found the weather hot, lush vegetation was all around us, and we frequently heard the sound of wild creatures.


As we continued up the mountain, I found myself getting paranoid. Would we really be able to do this? How could we be so certain that no one was following us? The potential consequences of what we were doing gave enough reason for someone to stop us. But the known benefits were much greater.


“You know, had I realized the work involved here, I may have just given you my blessing and wished you luck,” Daniel said then he drew in a full breath of air.


“We both know that wouldn’t have been enough,” I said.


We found ourselves following Guia up the mountain, just as we had done before. I could not deny the strong coincidence that I had found someone to help us not only with our trek up Flowing Mount but with the other two peaks, also.


We came to a section with lush flowers. There were a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. It was really a beautiful part of the jungle. Not only was it pretty, but since we had reached the higher elevation, the temperature had dropped significantly. The humidity had dissipated, but I couldn’t breathe any easier because of the thinner air.


“Flowers, many flowers. We close,” Guia said.


“My wife would love this place,” Daniel said, laughing slightly.


There was a sound. It wasn’t human voices but noises, static. Whatever it was, it was not the natural sounds of a jungle. It was not the sound of fallen limbs breaking under someone’s feet. It was not the sound of someone pushing bushes aside as they made their way up the mountain. Nor was it the sound of wildlife moving through the jungle. No, it was unnatural, foreign. And it immediately struck me with fear.


Daniel and Guia apparently heard it too. They stopped moving, just as I did, and turned in the direction of the sound. We all looked intently, trying to see if anyone was there. As we strained our eyes and ears, we saw nothing and heard nothing. It was there though. We all heard it.


“Do you think it’s them?” Daniel asked.


“Maybe. But if it is, why haven’t they shown themselves.”


Suddenly, Daniel’s phone rang. The sound of it startled us. Even Guia jumped a little.


“It’s Adalyn,” Daniel said. “I need to take this.”


“Talk. Keep going,” Guia urged. He obviously didn’t want to stop moving just so Daniel could talk.


We kept walking, and I tried my best not to eavesdrop on Daniel’s conversation with his wife. There were bits and pieces I heard by accident.


“Addy, no. I wasn’t ignoring you. It’s just…I made a promise, and I needed to stick by it. How’s he doing?”


There was silence as his wife said something to him.


“Good. Good. Then it may be okay. He’ll understand. I know it was a risk, but this has to be done.”


More silence. Then he said goodbye to her and that he loved her.


“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” I asked Daniel.


“Indirectly, maybe. But I can’t hold you at fault for it. I’m here because of you, but if it were someone else, I would be here anyway.”


“Here now,” Guia said, as if he were helping Daniel reach that goal.


The scene was similar to the first summit, only this time there was a large river pouring from the mouth of the peak, and the waterfall was absent. But that didn’t stop the scene from being beautiful.


“Alright,” Daniel said, “I’m ready for the non-climatic event again.”


He was right, without much display, we were changing the world. And at the end of the day, the thing we did to change it was very simple. There was no resistance.


I reached into my jacket pocket that contained the remaining two vials. I pulled one of the vials out of its slot and held it up to the light. I examined it. To the naked eye, it was water. But if held up to the sunlight properly, the fluid had a very slight blue tint.


After removing the cap off the vial, I walked over to the river and poured the contents into the water.


“Two down, one to go,” Daniel said excitedly.


All three of us were tired from the journey and we sat by the river. We listened to the stream in silence and relaxed. While I was uneasy with the thought of being followed, the moment allowed me to escape it.


Guia urged us to follow him to set up camp. He was insistent on not camping next to the riverbed. For some reason, he felt it would be best if we backtracked a short distance of the mountain and found a spot. Who was I to argue? He had proven himself a capable guide up to that point. Perhaps he knew something I didn’t. We did as he suggested. After finding a campsite and building a fire, we ate what food we had, and went to sleep for the night.


The second summit was complete. There was only one more; the one I dreaded the most. And after that, everything would change.


***


Deciphering the research was difficult. The training an Experimental Scientist received taught them to keep their research cryptic. This was done to prevent someone from stealing the research. The theft could come from a fellow scientist, another government trying to discover their enemy’s secrets, or someone else just trying to make a profit.


This research was no exception. While I had figured out how he saved his research, I quickly came to realize that the cipher went deeper within the files he saved. To most, these files would appear to reveal only a diary and be trivial. And the related events only seemed to detail what the man went through leading up to the deaths of his wife and daughter. How he let them rest, gave them plenty of water, and hoped to see a recovery. His wish to change their plight was throughout the diary. I read them over several times, but couldn’t find the key that let me know what he found in his research.


After spending several weeks attempting to crack the code, I decided I needed to meet with the man. This would be somewhat difficult to accomplish, since he was in prison. But if I was going to make any headway, I needed to speak to him.


As I walked into the prison, I couldn’t help but feel like a stranger. I had never been in one before and I felt uneasy. After going through the security checkpoint scanning, the guards granted me admittance to the front office of the prison. In my mind, I always pictured prison as gray, cold, and uninviting. As it turns out, I was mostly correct.


“Can I help you?” a woman, with dark flowing hair, asked as I approached the front desk.


“Yes. Dr. Atrasti. I have an appointment to see one of the inmates.”


She quickly looked down at her computer. These were not normal visiting hours, but since my visiting was a part of scientific research, I was able to gain access to prisoners, if needed.


“No problem,” the woman said. “Just fill out this paperwork. We’ll bring the prisoner to the visiting room.” She called someone on her phone, while I went to sit down and filled out the forms. “Please bring prisoner 4815 to the visiting room.”


After filling out the paper work, I returned it to the woman at the desk. She glanced over it and then told me a guard would escort me to the visiting room. The guard approached. He was tall and big. I should have expected it in this sort of place. His facial expression never changed, just stayed blank, as he motioned me to follow him to the visiting room.


The walk to the room was short, barren, and boring. Drab walls lined the hallway and the only forms of decoration were signs saying where each door led. If that was the area the public sees, I didn’t even want to imagine what life was like within a cell. It made me ponder the humanity of locking someone up, sometimes without a hope of ever getting out. True, most people deserved what they got. But it often seemed unimaginative that everyone received nearly the same punishment.


The guard opened the door to a room, which they had labeled “Visiting Room 6”. As I walked in, I saw that there were five tables setup in the room. Each table had two to four chairs. And everything looked uncomfortable. A window, so clear and clean it appeared invisible, separated the waiting area from the visiting area. No doubt, it was shatterproof to prevent anyone from trying to escape. A security door to match the window was in the middle of the glass wall. The color scheme remained unchanged from the hallway; a glow of dull gray blanketed the room.


“You can sit here,” the guard said, after allowing me access through the security door. “The prisoner will be here shortly.”


After waiting only a few minutes, I heard a loud buzz sound. It signaled that the entrance for prisoners opened. The prisoner walked into the room and looked as expected. Accompanied by a guard, he wore an orange jumpsuit. While walking towards me, his head remained down; something I assumed was uncommon for many in prison because they were “framed” or “innocent”. I concluded this was a sign of guilt; that he was ashamed of what he had done.


The guard made him sit down at the seat opposite me. I looked at the man. I saw only his short dark hair, speckled with gray. He kept his focus on the table, refusing to look up. This poor man, I thought to myself. But then quickly corrected my thinking, realizing what he had done that caused him to be in this place.


“You have ten minutes,” the guard told both of us.


The inmate still didn’t look up at me. Was he going to sit there in silence, not even asking who I was or why I wanted to see him?


“Dr. Votrelca?” I inquired. “I’m here to speak to you about something important.”


“Don’t call me a doctor. I may have the degree but I don’t deserve it,” Votrelca said coldly. “I’ve told you everything. I’ve given all the information you need to know. I’m guilty. There’s nothing to investigate.”


Finally, he responded to my presence. I looked into his dark eyes. They were alone, reserved, and sad.


“There must be some confusion. I’m not here to ask you about the crime you committed. My name is Dr. Atrasti. The police asked me to examine your lab, in case there was any information there that would pertain to what happened.”


After saying the latter, Votrelca’s eyes widened. I would dare say he looked to be getting angry. But he said nothing. Given his silence, I continued.


“I found the diary,” I told him. “I know it contains your research. And I know what you were trying to do.”


At this point, he was clearly upset, as he shifted in his seat and appeared to hold back from saying something. I allowed a moment to pass in silence, as I thought this might help him to say whatever it was he was feeling. In a very controlled manner, he finally spoke.


“Don’t look at it any further. Leave it alone. Let them be.” Tears began to well up in his eyes.


“Let them be?” I asked.


“My wife and daughter. They’re dead. It doesn’t matter what I was researching or doing. It was all for them. But they’re gone now. The research is done. Just let them be.” There was intensity to what he said. This research was more than just finding a cure; to Votrelca it related directly to his wife and daughter.


“I know you were trying to find a cure for Slepkava. That you wanted to heal your wife and daughter.”


“Yes, but I failed. And then I failed them even further in how I reacted to it.”


“But you must have made some sort of progress. There must be something in your research that can be built upon.”


He was quiet again. It was as if he was pondering the fate of their lives, even after their death. He chewed on the side of his lip. As he did so, I determined he needed more convincing.


“Listen, you can make up for what happened. They’re dead. And what you did afterwards is done. But you can prove yourself changed. You can save the lives of people now and in the future.”


This research was so close to him. Opening it up for someone else to understand was clearly like letting go of the last piece of his wife and daughter. But I had to help him see that a cure needed to be revealed. He had to let them go and not let their lost lives be in vain.


“All I need is the cipher key and I’ll leave. You’ll never see me again, I promise.”


Votrelca looked at me intensely. His mind clearly contemplating what he should do. But I knew if that boy at the school was able to convince him to change the error of his ways, then I could convince him here to correct his mistakes, too.


“This goes beyond Slepkava,” he said. “It goes beyond anything. I needed to save them and protect them. Not just then, but forever. But I failed. I failed miserably. I’ll never be certain, but— ”


There was hesitation. I saw a quiver in his lips. Maintaining control at that moment was becoming less of an option for him. But why delay his reply? What thought besides their death could cause him that emotional response that made it hard to speak? Perhaps I didn’t know the whole story.


“What will you never be certain about?” I asked.


“I can’t be certain if it wasn’t my fault.” Tears continued to fall down his face.


His fault, I thought. Clearly, his reasoning was off. They had Slepkava. He could do nothing to stop the progression of the disease. Its victims were powerless to the destruction it causes to the body’s internal organs. His attempt to find a cure was noble, heroic, and full of the love. How could he think this was his fault?


“Absurd,” I said. “It isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have prevented what happened.”


“That I know. But I believe I sped it up. Perhaps if I had remained focused, if I had not set my sights so high, maybe I would’ve found a cure. The treatments…I am almost certain they doubled the disease’s takeover of their bodies and ultimately their deaths. Nobody should experience what they did. So you see, I can’t give you the cipher key.”


“I feel your pain, and I understand blaming yourself,” I said, trying to show as much empathy as possible. “But you can’t hold your fault like this. Your information, when studied correctly and given the proper time for further research, could make a world of difference. Believe me, I could take what you already have and continue it. But the research would be done in a more controlled manner, and lives wouldn’t be risked. This doesn’t have to be handled the same way. And in the end, what you’ve done could add a legacy to the deaths of your wife and Adalyn.”


Votrelca looked at me. Hearing his daughter’s name affected him. She was no doubt near and dear to his heart—and his wife likewise. He remained silent, and I didn’t say another word. Several minutes went by, and I noticed our ten-minute meeting was about finished. But I continued to let him ponder what I said—to let him mull over what it could mean to let his research be continued.


Finally, the time was over. The guard came over to escort Votrelca back to his cell. Had I failed? Maybe it didn’t matter; after all, his research could have no validity anyway. But the only way to know was to be able to study it, and I couldn’t figure out how to study it without knowing the cipher key to the diary.


As he was walking away from me, I continued sitting in my seat. Then I noticed he stopped. The guard tried to push him to keep moving, but he didn’t budge. He turned around and faced me.


“You promise that no one will have to go through what I did?” he asked.


“I promise,” I said.


“Water. That’s your cipher key. Water.” He then turned around and the guard continued escorting him out of the room.


***


This one was the worst. I could feel it, and I was fairly certain Daniel and Guia could feel it too. The third and final summit ofNeigeMountainwas high. As we journeyed up the mountain, we would reach several different climates. The bottom was arid. A quarter of the way to the top would be almost like a rain forest. And then, after some distance, the area would cool down. The coolness would turn to cold and we would eventually be traversing a snow-covered peak.


The journey took three days. On the first day, we were in good spirits. Our guide, loyal to the end, led the way with determination. He never wavered in his movement; he was stoic. Part of me still wonders if we would have reached the peak without his perpetual forward movement. He allowed nothing to stop his path, forcing Daniel and I to do the same.


The first two summits, while somewhat difficult, prepared Daniel and I for this. This impossible journey to the top of the world led us along. Soon, it would all be over. We would see the benefits of a vision that one man had. It was a vision that drove him insane. But without the bad, the good will never come. And this good outweighed any bad he had done.


“What do you think, Doc?” Daniel asked


“About what?” I asked in return.


“It’s somewhat odd, don’t you think? I started thinking about it. For the first two summits, we didn’t really have any issues. We made it to the top, did our little thing and left. No one tried to stop us. No one followed us. Not to mention our guide here. He continues loyal, knowing every step of the way. Overall, while we’ve passed over some difficult terrain, this has been fairly easy.”


“True. You’d think we would’ve run into some sort of difficulty by now,” I said, agreeing with his assessment.


The rocky ground we were on at the time made it difficult for us to have any long conversations. Our minds and bodies had to focus on what was coming up next. Feel a rock, check its sturdiness, put our weight on it, and move to the next one. We moved at a sixty-degree incline; stability was important. If we unloaded our body weight onto an unstable rock, we could lose our balance and fall. The steepness had a good chance of lengthening that fall, as we would slide and roll our way down the mountain.


“Drink, thirsty,” Guia said. Keeping hydrated was important. Not only did he guide us in our path, he was guiding us to take proper care of ourselves on the journey.


We stopped and followed Guia’s order. After finding stable footing, we pulled out our water canisters to take a drink. The water was refreshing. On our mission, sometimes we would become so focused on our goal, we would forget to take care of the little things.


“I don’t see anyone or anything,” Daniel said, after taking a gulp of his water.


“What are you talking about? Look at that view. Forget our mission right now. This is beautiful.” I took in the entire landscape, breathed in the cool air, and felt younger than my forty-three years. Perhaps the hiking about mountains recently had helped me improve my physical health. “Besides, if we’re being followed, we’d have seen them. We have a clear view to the bottom of the mountain from here. Start worrying about someone following us once we get to where the bushes and trees start appearing.”


“We can never be too careful, Doc. I don’t want to risk my career only to have us fail, or worse, have someone kill us for what we are trying to do. Just being cautious.” Daniel reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He quickly dialed a number. After waiting about a minute, he began to speak. “Addy, how are you doing? I miss you. This will all be over soon. Just wait it out. I know we’ve had our disagreements in the past, and usually I’m the one to blame. I’ll make it up to you. I’m sorry. I love you.” He closed his phone and stuck it back in his pocket. “Voicemail,” he said, explaining why he had the one-way conversation.


“I’ve never met someone who told his voicemail he loved it,” I said humorously.


“Funny, Doc. I wish I hadn’t left so abruptly, and in the middle of an argument. It’s killing me that I can’t make it up to her now. Instead I’m halfway around the world trying to improve it.”


“All in good time, Dan. Don’t they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder?” I said trying to ease his emotional discomfort.


“Yes, but in this case, I would certainly hate for it to make the heart grow farther.”


“My friends. Must move, keep going,” Guia urged. He was a determined guide. He knew what he was doing and we obeyed every word he gave us.


We put away our canisters, hoisted our packs onto our backs, and continued following Guia up the mountain. We would be reaching the rain forest section of the mountain soon.


***


Water. That’s all Votrelca had told me. Water. That was the cipher key. As quick as a lightning strike, I made my way back to the lab. After opening the diary on my computer, I began searching for every reference to water.


Most of the references mentioned that he would want to help cool his wife and daughter’s fevers. Always, before giving them the cool water to prevent their dehydration, he would add what he called Onforma to the water. I thought this might be a fever reducer. After doing a quick check on the drug, or what I assumed was a drug, I found no mention of it anywhere. I broadened the search and found that Onforma was a name brand of jeans that was especially popular with teenagers. Perhaps he had created the drug and named it after the jeans. Maybe they were his daughter’s favorite brand before she died.


Looking deeper into his writings, I found more. The cave was dark, but the answers were there. It was just a matter of shining a flashlight in the correct spot. Branching off from giving them water mixed with Onforma, he would mention that he would help change their clothing. In the state that Slepkava would leave them, it would be hard for them to do this on their own. Each day of the diary brought different details on the changes. Some days, he would change all their clothes. On other days, only their socks or a shirt. I began to deduce that the changing of clothes, which always came after the drinking of water, signified the results of the treatment he gave them.


Beyond this I became stuck. Onforma, water, changing clothes. These four words appeared to be significant. And another became more significant. I began to notice that whenever he said he changed their jeans, there would be a note directly after about how he was feeling better about their plight. When changing a shirt or other clothing, his demeanor in the writing would be more somber. I quickly figured that here he was giving more detail of the results. Bad results meant a sadder tone to their condition. Good results always moved to a happier feel to the writing. Without exception, the happier notes came directly after his having to change their pants or jeans.


Onforma, water, changing, jeans.


That’s when it hit me. It hit me so hard I laughed a little. The pun was clever. The way he hid the information within his diary was unique even by the day’s standards of Experimental Science. Onforma was the treatment he used. Water was what had to be mixed with the treatment and administered to the patient. Changing referred to bringing their bodies out of a sick state. Jeans was the pun for genes. So through the Onforma and water mixture he was attempting to change their genes, or DNA. He was trying to make them immune to the virus, not through a vaccine that teaches the body, but through transforming their body’s make-up.


It was the breakthrough I needed. I understood what he was trying to do and how he was trying to do it. However, the uphill battle of a large mountain was just beginning. Over the next ten years, I continued the research. I understood the diary more clearly. The diary contained not only how he was treating them, and the results, but also how he was making the Onforma. Since it had never been done before, making the correct form of the DNA changer was trial and error. First, he would change the water. The Onforma actually changed the water’s composition. It still contained the two parts of hydrogen to one part of oxygen. But the Onforma created a new element when combined with the water. It maintained all the properties of water, but also carried with it the DNA changer that would affect the body. Once this entered the body’s system, it would rewrite the DNA structure. But Votrelca’s only drawback was finding the correct form the Onforma should take in order to rewrite the DNA properly. Using it on living beings may have actually quickened the pace of their deaths, as he expected. While his intent was noble, the process was flawed.


My solution to avoid putting a human subject at risk was to test the Onforma mixture on the deceased. This eliminated the risk and gave me the tools for trial and error. Despite the dead state of the body, injecting it with the treated water still altered the DNA, as long as the deceased hadn’t been dead for more than forty-eight hours.


It took ten years for me to completely decipher the diary and then attempt to create the proper Onforma solution. And I only devoted that time because I understood how important my discovery would be to humanity. However, my discoveries went beyond what I intended. Test after test of infecting the dead body showed me that my findings were working. But as with all great scientific discoveries, what I wanted to discover and what happened were profoundly different. Sometimes a scientist accidentally makes a discovery while looking for a different solution. And the one I found, while trying to find a cure for Slepkava, would change the world, and the six-planet system, forever.


***


We had reached the rain forest of the mountain. It was a stark contrast in landscape from the dry, arid, desert climb at the beginning. While the temperature remained the same, the humidity level had increased. Guia remained our confident guide. Despite our relationship, I wondered how he could travel this landscape so easily, why he was so confident in where to go, and if he could lead us the whole way without us getting lost or hurt. But I was glad that I found him. Daniel and I could never have done this alone.


“Ya’ know, Doc, I was thinking,” Daniel said as drips of sweat ran down his face. “We’ve hit the first two summits. Would news be getting out about something happening?”


“Possibly, but the changes aren’t that immediate. It’s been a little over two weeks. The changes are happening, but it will take a while for everyone to realize it. In another week, everyone should understand what they’re seeing isn’t a coincidence at all.”


“Careful. Hole ground,” Guia said. He pointed to a drop-off just ahead of us. Then he directed us to where our new path would be.


“Imagine that,” Daniel said, excited. “Look at what we’re going to do.”


“Yes, we’re already doing it. And this is just about the end of it. As good as it is, there may be a rough patch before it all levels out,” I said. What we were doing had great benefits, but some consequences would come from it. My career and Daniel’s was at stake and of course millions more. There would be a downturn, but after a few years, by my calculations, it would correct itself.


We came to a point in our path where several large trees had fallen over a ravine. The fall must have happened long ago, as green moss covered the majority of the trunk. Fortunately, the trees fell in a good spot; otherwise, we would have been at a loss on how to traverse the gap. Guia made his way over first, carefully clearing a path of the moss off the tree as he progressed.


“Safe. No slip,” he said.


The trees were easily four or five meters thick. I began making my way across, not walking, but crawling along my knees as I dragged my backpacks behind us. I glanced over the edge of the tree to see a ten-meter drop. Instinctively I held my left hand up to the pocket in my jacket that held the last vial, making sure it was secure. While wanting to put the contents into the river that flowed below was our goal, it needed to be done near the peak to ensure the quickest spreading and dispersing of its contents. Daniel followed behind me, also crawling and dragging his supplies.


“Doc, I have a question for you?”


“What’s that?” I asked back.


“How’d you know I would do it? Why’d you think I’d be willing to travel around the world, risking my life and career, to do what we’re doing?”


“Because I knew,” I said as we continued crawling along the tree trunks, “that you have a reputation, Daniel. You’ve made a name for yourself. In thirteen years, you’ve managed to work your way up through government in a way no one has done before. You’ve managed to run an honest campaign throughout your political career. You’ve never waivered from what you say you will do, and you always have erred on the side of what is right, instead of what lobbyists and the like throw at you. Usually, the good guy doesn’t make it in politics on a campaign like that.”


“I appreciate the compliments,” he said.


I reached the end of the tree trunk bridge where Guia waited. He helped me off the tree and onto solid ground. Daniel was close behind me. As he reached the edge of the trunk, he held out his hand for me to help him.


“But I knew I needed your backing. It may mean your career, but you were the voice that would make known that we did well against the odds. If I did it on my own, I feared someone would take my life. But, since you have so much notoriety, especially with your governmental proposal and election that is coming, those who are after me would be more reluctant to try anything. You’ll always do what’s right Daniel, over what you want.”


“I can’t take all the credit,” he said, flashing his winning smile and happy eyes. “My grandfather made me who I am today. His influence follows this path more than you realize.”


This was why I chose Daniel. He was a reasonable man. A good man. Most men like him never made it as far as he did. Most men like him never could have instituted, let alone suggest, what he had and succeeded. He was not only crucial to the success of our mission, but that of the future as well.


“Must move. Night soon,” Guia called.


Daniel and I looked at each other and smiled. Guia was persistent, tireless. I wondered again if we could even accomplish what we were doing without him.


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