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A scientific quest begins a paranoid and claustrophobic adventure for unsuspecting townspeople who become the victims of a medical fringe project gone bad.
The 5ifth Cycle is a gripping adventure/thriller about a breakthrough in the treatment of cancerous brain tumors. When the volatile creation mutates, it evolves into an infectious virus capable of deconstructing the human brain, resulting in bizarre psychotic behavior.
When it gets out of control of the military trying to contain it within a remote bioengineering complex in Death Valley, the nearby town of Arroyo Caliente is quarantined with no warning, no explanation, and a growing psychotic population. With their town effectively shut down and cut off, it is up to a select handful to escape the quarantine and, like rats in an experiment, venture back through the maze and infiltrate the source in order to save themselves.
ReCom Biotechnology Corporation
Death Valley, CA
They explained it in quasi-English and military techno-babble, but there was crystal clarity hidden in one of the few words that required no civilian translation: lockdown.
“Communication in and out of the complex has been disabled. Come to us with any emergencies, and contact will be arranged. You should also assume,” Lieutenant Colonel Martin Hass said, “that no one in the complex knows what you know. Do not discuss your work unless you are specifically directed to do so. Recent events, such as the death of Colonel Ashburg, and the current situation… this is subject verboten, people. This is a directive from your president.” He said it with a smile, but made sure the staff who remained after the bulk of them had been fired knew he was talking about the President of the United States, not the man formerly in the second floor executive office with the view who was now looking for another job out of state.
“Recombinant Biotech is now under military jurisdiction,” Hass continued. “We expect to have this situation resolved within a few weeks—a month at the most. In the meantime, consider yourselves the core group. Congratulations.” He made it sound like a promotion, that to refuse would be an insult to the mantle of trust being placed squarely upon their shoulders, but it was essentially an on-site, informal draft. Jessica Gray was one of the draftees.
She had a Ph.D. in biomedical research, but Jessica had foregone her existing research grants and a lucrative position at Stanford to work as a liaison between ReCom Biotechnology, the single largest facility in the immediate area, and the pharmaceutical corporation in Northern California, Griggs-Thompson. It wasn’t that she preferred the job (she didn’t) or even that the money at barely six figures was better (it wasn’t.) In fact, dealing with the day to day bureaucracy gave her the sickened feeling that she had betrayed humanity and needed a shower.
In truth, she was an unashamed idealist, and she wanted to change the system from within. In her dreams, she would singlehandedly solve the healthcare situation, pull that cushioned rug out from under the insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and restore the faith of the people.
Instead, she had been sucked into the healthcare system vortex and couldn’t get thrown clear.
She worked the system and stuck her nose into as much research as she could, but she was still a suit, representative of all the corporate evils she devoted her professional life to toppling. When Lieutenant Colonel Hass and his troops moved in and fired most of the on-site scientists, technicians, and staff, she threw up her hands and surrendered to the machine. This tidy little complement of twenty-two Marines was now firmly entrenched in the ReCom complex with the remaining staff—occupied like a little French village.
In fact, it was its own village. The commissary and dorms were in the original architectural plans before the facility had been built in 1995. Since the location was so remote—two and a half acres at an elevation of 4,000 feet in the southern portion of Death Valley—living facilities were a must. The downside—one of many downsides—was the inevitable friction between people forced to share accommodations.
Case in point: she turned and blinked at the man filling her doorway from shoulder to shoulder.
“What is it, Corporal?”
“Lieutenant Colonel Hass is looking forward to seeing you.” This was Corporal Donald Kirby’s way of informing someone that their presence was not only requested, but required with no excuses. The corporal thought it charming; it was old the first day.
“I’ll be right there.”
“Now, Dr. Gray.”
She sighed, but pushed away from her desk immediately. She stopped in front of the corporal’s bulk in her doorway and looked up at him. “Excuse me.”
“Mm hm,” he said and stepped back. She could feel his eyes on her ass as he followed her down the hallway past the second floor lobby to the stairs. She hated that in men in general, but there was something about the way it came from men who felt they were in authority, as if they had the right to not only look at her ass, but to throw her over a desk and fuck her if they wanted to. Kirby, however, was not one of those men. Despite his size and his unfortunate proclivity for inappropriate behavior, he acted more like a young kid trying on a sense of authority like a boy tries on his father’s dress shoes.
She ran her keycard through at the second floor landing and turned to him. He smiled as she caught him looking up to meet her eyes. “You can find Major Keaton and ask him to meet us down in the lieutenant colonel’s office.” He opened his mouth, but she continued before he could speak. “I know what this is about, Corporal, and I know that the lieutenant colonel wanted Major Keaton, too. You’ll be saving us some time if you just go get him now.”
“He didn’t tell me that.”
“I’m telling you. Go get him now, if you please.”
Kirby probed a molar with his tongue while he considered this. When she raised a brow at him, he turned and strode away. In truth, Jessica had no knowledge of why she was being summoned, and she was aware of Keaton’s involvement only because she had bumped into him earlier. She was simply exerting some rank-less authority over the corporal.
Jessica made her way through the hallways downstairs past the commissary and lower lobby and knocked once when she reached the office Lieutenant Colonel Hass was occupying.
“Yeah,” he said from within, and Jessica pushed through the door to find Hass behind his desk and Major Christopher Keaton leaning casually against the back wall. She nodded cordially at Keaton and took a seat in front of Hass’s desk when he absently gestured to the chair. Hass scribbled a final note, closed the manila folder in front of him, and looked up at her with a smile.
“How are you, Jessie?”
“I’m fine,” she said, faltering slightly. There was an uneasiness in the room, a secretiveness that made Jessica feel as if they’d been speaking confidentially, intimately about her before she walked in. It was a likely assumption and certainly in keeping with the status quo, particularly in her dealings with Hass. Though he was fair and kind, and she rather liked him, he often left her with a feeling of emptiness she could never quite put her finger on, likely a result of Hass always holding back or white-washing some portion of the truth.
Keaton, on the other hand, was not as adept as Hass at subterfuge and obfuscation, so his eyes tended to flicker away from her before his open face could divulge all his secrets. Jessica smiled at him. He returned it, caught his guard before it fell and shifted his glance to the top of Hass’s filing cabinet.
What Keaton lacked in his ability to deceive (a plus in Jessica’s book), he made up for with an abundance of charm. He was a movie star. He was possessed of an indefinable quality of magnetism that made you want to know what he was thinking, that made you want to stand next to him and bask in the sunshine that surely followed him around even in the darkest of times. And his allure was not limited to women—or presumably gay men. The ReCom complex was filled with semi-hard boiled men who seemed to whither with admiration every time Keaton was near. They wanted to shoot pool in the recreation room with him. They would slap him on the back and ask him to join them for lunch, their treat. And anytime there was a scheduled run out of the valley, usually consisting of a small convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles, he was fought over to ride shotgun like he was the last shrimp in the cocktail. He was also, of course, undeniably handsome.
What made Keaton unusually appealing was his sense of humility about his own powers of enchantment. He suggested more than once that he didn’t quite get it, but if it made other people happy, he would bear the burden. Then he would wink at his own line of bullshit and spike the charm ball over the net.
Jessica was not immune to his looks or his charm, and she assumed that one of these days, they would find a common denominator on which they could hang the beginning of a relationship, or at least a meaningless sexual encounter. She, frankly, didn’t care which.
“Major Keaton, we’re going to share with Dr. Gray, today. The time has come for her to be informed and involved—specifically with the third floor operations. I’m sure you agree.”
“I do,” he said.
Jessica mentally re-hinged her jaw and clamped down on her molars in an effort to prevent her mouth from gaping. “Really.”
Hass nodded and enumerated points on his fingers. “I have to talk in code in front of you, exclude you from decisions, have to count on you to do what I need you to do without your understanding why. And you’re prohibited from accessing the third floor. It’s ridiculous that I rely on you so much when you are absolutely clueless as to what’s going on around here.” He frowned, closed one eye and peered at her through the other. “You are clueless, aren’t you?”
Jessica chuckled. “Perpetually.”
“Okay, well, no more. We’re going to need to brief you; this is going to take some time.” He picked up a plastic key card and pushed it across his desk toward her. “This is for you. You’ll have to access your account on our intranet for the pass code.” Jessica peered at it. She placed a finger on one corner of the card and turned it 180 degrees to face her right side up. She was not quite ready to actually hold it in her hand. “And,” Hass continued, “I want to insure that you understand that your promotion here and what you learn today and afterwards is, as always, not to be a subject of discussion with anyone. You may speak with me or you may speak with Major Keaton. That’s all.”
“And this is under penalty of...” she said with a smile. He didn’t return it and Keaton glanced away again.
“This is not a joke,” he said. Jessica, swallowed, contrite, and she nodded. “I mean it, Jessie. This is serious as a heart attack and there is no room for being clever or glib. If you can’t get behind that now, I don’t want you around. Understand?”
“Right.” He cleared his throat and gazed at the top of his desk, obviously unsure where to begin. “The beginning,” he finally concluded. “That’s where we’ll start.” He paused only for a split second, but it felt like an eternity to Jessica. “There was an incident six months ago. Nothing has reached the press or the public, and that is the way it will stay. Even if there is partial reversal—unlikely at this point—without additional incident.”
Jessica shook her head and blinked. She didn’t believe it was possible to be that cryptic. She hoped there was more substance to the middle and the end. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“We have every hope that this situation can be arrested, but we need to proceed with a generous dose of skepticism and envision—well, the worst case scenario.”
Jessica nodded her head, and Hass continued.
He picked at a scab on the back of this thumb while he gathered his thoughts. “You are aware,” he began, “of course, of the two doctors who died here last November.”
“Yes,” Jessica said, nodding. She knew Colonel Ashburg only in passing, but in fact, she knew his technician, Randall, well enough that they’d taken a day hike down to Barker Ranch about a year ago with one or two others from Process Development. They were dying to see the place where Manson hid out. “Actually, Randall wasn’t a doctor,” she corrected. “And he was a civilian.”
“Yes, we know that,” Hass said. “They were working on something quite extraordinary when they died; it was quite a fringe project. Not very well documented, I’m afraid.”
“Randall was murdered,” Jessica corrected again. “Colonel Ashburg went nuts, killed Randall and then killed himself.” Jessica had heard all the stories, but the fact was that one sunny afternoon in November, Colonel Ashburg (Assbag to many) had inserted the business end of a geometry compass deep into his lab technician’s left ear. After swirling it around inside Randall’s head, insuring complete brain scramble-age, he took the stairs to the roof of the bioengineering floor and jumped off. “Doesn’t contribute much to the credibility of his research,” she finished.
“No,” agreed Hass. “It doesn’t. Although, their initial notes were quite valid. At any rate, we stepped in when it was discovered that their deaths were related to the work they were doing. And that,” he sighed, “human trials and testing had been done prior to their deaths.”
“What?” Jessica’s mouth had dropped open, not quite believing, but all the same, the light bulb flickered on and illumination crept into the dark corners of everything that had transpired over the last two months.
Her lips thinned and her face was hot with anger. “This is a scientific complex designed for research and the development of drugs to help people. Not kill them. Cancer research. Neurological disorders. What the hell were they thinking?”
“I don’t know,” Hass said. “We’re still trying to sort out what little documentation there is, but it’s never been suggested that it was their intention to create a harmful agent.”
“Oh, Martin, really. Assbag was military. It’s for biological warfare. Right?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Is that the gossip?”
Jessica shrugged, not willing to incriminate anyone. “You know there’s no gossip here,” she said. “That’s the directive.”
Hass sighed. “Well, even if it were true, I couldn’t confirm,” Hass said.
“You knew about this,” she said, turning to Keaton.
“I’m sorry,” Keaton said, not committing one way or the other.
She shook her head, staring down at her lap. “How could this have happened.” She looked up at them. “I’m so ashamed,” she said, but ashamed of who? Of them? Of her government? Of her own ignorance?
“You did nothing,” Hass said.
“You’re right. I did nothing.”
“You couldn’t have. Look, you’re feeling betrayed, and you’re angry,” Hass started, “but we’re going to need you to get past it and work with us to make this right.” She shook her head absently. Her eyes saw nothing. “Jessie. Are you with us?”
She finally chuckled lamely, sickened. “I don’t really have a choice anymore, do I? What has actually happened? Are you going to tell me that? Or is this just another layer of cover?”
“We’ll need to show you up on the third floor. With the scope of it, it’s just easier to explain it that way.”
She turned to Keaton and dissected him into little pieces with her eyes. “How many people?”
“Sorry?” Keaton asked.
“Jessie,” Hass interrupted. “We’ll get to it. Not. Now. And not down here. We’ll go up to the lab. Okay?” His tone indicated he was through apologizing and would not argue.
Jessica picked up her keycard and sighed. She turned it over and over between her fingers, edge to edge to edge and considered her day up until now. Without a doubt, it had all been crap.