Arcturus Syndrome Ch. 02-1

Author’s Note: All sexuality involves persons over the age of 18. This chapter is set in a real town, but I have never been there. Any resemblance to the actual location, or to persons living or dead is pure coincidence. If by some chance anyone knows this town, I hope you have a good laugh!

2:37 AM, EDT

“Just answer it! It’s driving me nuts.”

Emily McKinnon sighed and rolled her latest discovery off her. He was a handsome grad student named David (never Dave) with a lively interest in the physical sciences.

Dr. McKinnon already knew it was going to be Jane. The mid-atlantic team-lead was far too enthusiastic about her job, and had already called in her latest preposterous theory. She would either be calling to apologize, or to exchange it for some even more ridiculous hypothesis. McKinnon already regretted putting an alert in with the CDC.

“Yes, Jane?” she held the device up to her ear so David wouldn’t be privy to this nonsense.

There was silence on the other side of the call. For a moment McKinnon thought she had missed the call after thirty rings; but no — she could hear the spaciousness of the connection. It wasn’t a dead line, it was an eerie silence.

“Jane?”

* * *

2:54 AM, EDT

McKinnon had artfully arranged herself in her bathrobe. She had time to put on professional clothes, but she wanted to make sure they perceived her as rumpled and disturbed as they would be.

Even while engaging emergency protocols, she hustled David out of her apartment. He desperately wanted to be part of it, offering to make coffee, put earplugs in, whatever she demanded, but this was no place for a civilian. It would be her greatest moment, or her absolute worst, and either way, she didn’t want her boy toy part of it.

Given this was all derived from a late-night call from Dr. Jane Fitzpatrick, McKinnon was betting on a worst case outcome. But the cost of ignoring the situation was far too high. They might accuse her of grandstanding or put her in the same category of over-enthusiastic functionary as McKinnon put Jane, but this was what her small, forgotten, under-funded department was for, and, however unlikely the circumstances, this was exactly why she and her team of two administrative appointees and eight field agents were for. If she didn’t raise the flag tonight, they might as well disband the operation.

Before the conference call, she had those two admins awake.

“I want you to find, and call, every phone in Bumfuck PA. I want you to find someone on the ground who can check on our agents.”

“Phillipsburg, population 2800.”

“Find someone. Call the police if they have them, and then the diner, and then the gun range. Wake people up. Get the cell phone list from Homeland Security and go in order. I want someone on the phone in 20 minutes.”

The conference call:

Andrew Mueller was already on screen when McKinnon connected. Mueller was her supervisor, and reported directly to the Deputy Administrator. He looked surprisingly sharp, and very serious. He wore a crisp, white button-up shirt.

Next online was Ana Gonzales from the CDC. Then a grim grey-stubbled man identified only as being Homeland Security. And they all waited another minute before Maj. Gen. Brad Buckley came on from USSOCOM, in uniform of course.

Dr. McKinnon tabbed to her checklist.

“Sorry to wake everyone. I am obligated by command to read the following verbatim:

“This meeting is to enact protocol Wildfire, authorized by Congress in 1962, and renewed under joint supervision in 1992. This meeting is being recorded. We are under code black security clearance; anyone not holding that clearance is hereby granted clearance for this material only.

“The business at hand. At 9:35PM, Eastern time, a field team in central Pennsylvania notified me of possible organic material in a meteorite landing. I contacted Dr. Gonzales at the CDC as per protocol, and ordered the field team to hold position and wait for further instruction. It’s extremely difficult to positively identify organic material on-site. Contamination from terrestrial sources is 100% guaranteed, and we have had many disappointing false positives in the past. None have required this protocol.

“However, I received a call at 2:37 from my field team. I confess I didn’t answer it as promptly as I should have. When I did, it was dead air. My field team is not responsive, which is highly anomalous.

“Although this is an extremely low-probability event, it is within the realm of possibility that the team came in contact with an infectious agent unknown to terrestrial science.”

McKinnon paused to let it sink in.

Gonzales broke the silence. “I confirm Dr. McKinnon’s prior contact. We put out a general alert, and do have corroborating evidence. The CDC received a courtesy call from the coroner of Centre County PA indicating a non-identifiable cause of death, pending further investigation. We do get hundreds of such notifications each day, so this did not trigger any particular concerns, but it must be considered relevant data.”

Another pause.

“What’s this Wildfire protocol then?” the General asked. “Not familiar with it.”

The grey stubbled H.S. man answered. “Had to look it up myself. Basically obsolete cold-war stuff. Early space program holdover. On-call scientists prepared for first-contact. Real science-fiction stuff, but not as bad as some of the DARPA garbage. Budget of 11 person headcount, none appointed. Too small to register. Surprised NASA hasn’t cut it to fund a couple of solar panels on the ISS.”

My life in a nutshell, McKinnon thought.

“Correct me if I’m strong Dr. McKinnon, but my understanding is your team scavenges and sells meteors. Kind of a NASA bake sale?”

“Meteorites. And you are correct. We use the proceeds of private sale of extraterrestrial mineral objects to keep our equipment up-to-date.”

“How the mighty have fallen,” he said. McKinnon couldn’t tell if he was contemptuous, sympathetic, or philosophical.

“So: what does this ‘protocol’ say we are supposed to do?” the General asked.

“With joint supervision — that is this committee here in session — we have the option of engaging our team of civilian-scientists to put together a research team. Our organization no longer has dedicated facilities, so those would be secured as needed by the oversight committee. Additionally, if a regional quarantine is determined, the CDC and military are expected to lead that effort. Finally–I’m not advocating for this, but just so you know what the letter of the law is–this committee has authorization to direct the President to call a nuclear strike on domestic territory.”

The General laughed. “That’s 1962 alright. Well, thank you for performing your duty, Doctor.. MacOnion was it? I think we can all get back to bed now?”

McKinnon’s phone lit up. Her admin Gebre had something.

While McKinnon was catching up, the CDC official shook her head. “Not so fast, General. We need to take the possibility of infectious agent seriously. If the past few years have taught us anything, it is the importance of decisive early action. I move that we formalize this committee, dispatch an investigation team to arrive in the morning, and put the Pennsylvania National Guard on alert for possible physical quarantine.”

“You’re seriously talking about a space disease?”

“It doesn’t need to be extra-terrestrial. That could be coincidence. But we have two, possibly three warning signals, and history will not look kindly on us if we ignore them to disastrous consequence.”

“Pardon me,” Dr. McKinnon said. “We have someone from Phillipsburg on the phone. I’m going to put them into the call. She had Gebre on speaker so he could hear her directive. “Gebre, please add your contact to the conference.”

There was a moment or two as another panel established connection.

A young woman in pajamas was sitting in her kitchen, her face red and blotchy with tears.

“Hello, this is Dr. McKinnon. I am sorry to intrude on your grief, but this could be a matter of utmost importance. We don’t know what has happened. Could you please explain what you told my assistant?”

The girl gasped for breath. “I… I… I…”

“Take your time, girl,” McKinnon’s boss Andrew Mueller spoke for the first time.

She took a deep breath. “They’re dead, Sir.”

“I am sorry for your loss. Can you tell us who? And how?”

“My… my mother. My–” she suddenly spun off camera, to the sound of vomit.

Even the Homeland Security guy looked concerned.

The girl came back on. “Sorry… it’s… My mom and my brother, Sir.”

“And what happened?” Mueller asked.

“I heard sounds. It sounded like maybe my mom was in pain. Or… something. I didn’t know what to think. I got up and…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Slow down, lass,” the H.S. guy said. “Let’s take this carefully. What’s your name?”

“M… Melissa Becker, sir.”

“Ok, Melissa. And how old are you?”

“Eighteen, sir. I just graduated last month.”

“Ok, Melissa. And where do you live?”

“On Sheffield St., Sir. 403 Sheffield St.”

“And this is Phillipsburg, PA?”

“Yes Sir.”

“And who else is home right now?”

“Um… just me, Sir. My Mother and Brother are…”

“I understand. And your father?”

“Cancer, three years ago.”

“Ok, I’m sorry. Now, tell us slowly, what happened.”

“I heard noises, and I thought maybe something was wrong, maybe my mother was sick, or… having a dream.”

“So you got up to check on her.”

“Yes sir.”

“And what happened?”

“I… I really shouldn’t say, Sir.”

General Buckley started to cut in, but the H.S. man muted him.

“I understand, Melissa. This is a difficult thing. But I need you to understand that more lives may be at stake. Please just state the facts. We already have people on the way to help.”

Dr. McKinnon found herself surprised at the man’s steady manner, and almost found herself believing that help was on the way.

“Well, Sir. They were… they were in sin.”

“Just for the record, your mother and your brother were having sex?”

The young woman closed her eyes and nodded.

“And how old is your brother?”

“A year older than me, Sir. He just got home from his first year of college.”

“Ok, and what did you do?”

“I… nothing, Sir. I didn’t stop them.” She burst out crying again. “If I had… maybe God wouldn’t have…”

“Tell us about that, please. What happened?”

“They finished, Sir. And… God smote them.”

“Ok, I’m going to ask you to do something very, very hard. I know you don’t want to, but it’s of crucial importance. National importance, Melissa. Your country needs you to do this. Can you go to the room where this happened and show us how God smote your mother and brother?”

She almost hyperventilated, but managed to get control of herself. She nodded.

The scene jittered and waved around as she climbed some stairs. Then the scene stabilized.

The vague and general form of a woman kneeling astride a man. She was bountifully proportioned, her arms raised over her head, full breasts unnaturally raised as if frozen mid-bounce. A pale-grey crystalline substance encased everything, spiking out here and there in extended latices of strange geometry.

“Thank you, Melissa, that’s enough. Please get yourself away from this room, find a safe place. We will be in touch shortly with instructions.”

Dr. McKinnon cut Melissa out of the feed, and instructed Gebre to keep her on the line.

“Dr. McKinnon,” the H.S. officer said. “Consider WIldfire activated. Please assemble your team. See what more you can get from the girl, and any other survivors in town. Good work. General Buckley, we need three rings of enforced quarantine. Dr. Gonzales, you said there was a coroner report? Please ascertain where that coroner and all potentially infection samples are; we need to include that in the quarantine. I will have the president briefed. Maintain security classification at all costs. We will meet again at… let’s say 06:00.”

* * *

As soon as the conference call closed, Ana Gonzalez called back on McKinnon’s cell, but she didn’t take it.

She was back on the call with Melissa.

“This may be bigger than the problem in your family, Melissa, as distressing as that is. You are going to need to be our eyes and ears in Phillipsburg, and you are going to need to gather everyone else in town to a safe location. Maybe a high school gym?”

“Uh.. ok.. The High School is right around the corner. What do you mean everyone in town?”

“We have not been able to get through to the police. We have reason to believe your house is not the only one affected. You’re an adult now, Melissa, and you’re going to need to step up to the plate. If you find someone more able to take charge you call me back directly. I’m going to text you my personal number. But in the meantime, get everyone you can to the school. Break in if you have to. My assistant will keep in constant contact, ok?”

“Um. Ok. Got it.”

Melissa’s eyes were huge. The fear and shock plain across her face. McKinnon disconnected, but called Gebre back.

“Is Andrea working?”

“Yes, she’s still going down the list. We have contacted two other residents, both teens.”

“Anything like this what this Melissa described?”

“Almost exactly, I’m afraid. Unusual sexual activity resulting in crystallization over the corpses.”

“Can you put Melissa in contact with these others, please? And stay in close touch with her. She’s in shock, but we need every survivor. Needless to say, survivors are going to hold the key to survival. We have a military quarantine being put into effect, so there is unlikely to be any actual rescue or help available to the survivors until we understand what we’re dealing with. We need to support them as best we can, and gather data.”

Then the direct dialed Andrew.

“We need our scientists gathered. How do we do that?”

“Who are these scientists?”

“As per the directive, we keep a smattering of top experts in related fields on retainer. It’s been largely ceremonial except for one minor clusterfuck in, I think 1965? You actually approve the list every three years, most recently in January. Your staff should have it handy. The wildfire facilities were shut down after the aforementioned clusterfuck, and nobody regrets that, but we’re going to need a secure state-of-the-art facility. We should probably call it a public-private partnership. What we’re looking for is a full bio-chem facility, probably pharmaceutical, preferably within 50 miles of ground zero but not in a major population center. And we’re going to need our scientists on site by noon.”

“Emily, you know I can’t make any of that happen.”

“Andrew, this is your moment to not be a limp fuck-rag. We both have the authority under the WIldfire Protocol. I’m inviting you to take charge because I believe in chain of command. But if aren’t up to it, I will make it happen.”

Andrew breathed hard into the phone a few times.

“Do you really think this is some kind of interstellar infection? What’s the sex angle? What are we really dealing with Emily? If I’m going to put my career on the line, I need you tell me you’re not playing some kind of angle.”

“Andrew, you know me. I play the game just like all of us have to. But have you ever known me to play dirty?”

“Well, yeah, I worked with Jim too and what you did to him was–“

Jim was an absolute imbecile. I did him a fucking kindness. He teaches at a goddam community college now.”

“Well, I’m just saying it was–“

“Ok, ok, fair point. Granted. What do you think about this?”

“I very honestly don’t know what to think.”

“Well, I don’t know what is going on. If there’s a genuine situation, I don’t know whether it is extra-terrestrial or not. But what I do know is that some fucked up shit is happening, and it’s happening on our watch. If we give it everything we’ve got, the worst we can be accused of is taking our jobs seriously. If we don’t, and if things go to shit, then we are going to hang for it.”

Andrew took another long, slow breath. “Yeah, yeah I do see that. Ok, listen. Wildfire is your organizational command. I’m not going to take that from you. I fully authorize you to take charge of the program without interference from my office. I will alert the Administrative Director to confirm that and call you back.”

McKinnon acknowledged and hung up. “I always knew that guy had no bones,” she told herself with some gratification.

Her next call was directly to Major General Bradley. She had pulled his personal number off the conference call.

His uniform was looking a little less fresh, and his pale skin was looking a lot paler.

“General. I’m very sorry, but I am going to need to impose on the resources of the U.S. Military.”

“What do you need, Doctor McKinnon?”

Good. He knew her name. She began to list her demands.

“Woah, woah, woah there! I can’t do that.”

“I’ll admit that Congress has not specified jurisdictional authority when it comes to putting Wildfire into operation. The joint oversight agreement does not have any operational precedent. I can take this back to Homeland Security if you prefer. But my first thought was was that the military would be more efficient and more effective, even if HomeSec is more in need of good press.”

“Well, I can run this through my own chain of command, we should have our full chain of command briefed by 08:00, and if they approve–“

“Ok, I’ll work with HomeSec then. The fate of the nation, maybe the world, doesn’t have time for military bureaucracy.” She hung up and waited.

“Yes?” She answered.

“I appreciate your bias for action, Doctor. Let’s just walk through the details please.”

McKinnon walked him through what she needed. Better still, Gebre had woken up the Chicago unit, who had found the facilities at State College, which would be easier to lock down than a private lab, most of which were too close to Philly for comfort.

Dr. Emily McKinnon had just enough time to make coffee and toss back a shot of whiskey before her phone lit up with a never-seen-before blue bar across the top.

The screen said: “Secure Call, U.S. Government.”

Here we go, she thought.

“Dr. McKinnon.” The face on the screen was the grizzled HomeSec guy,

“You’re going to have to tell me your name,” she said. “I’m calling you the Homeland Security Guy in my head.”

“I’ve been called worse. My name is Glen Fenton. I’m second in charge at DEST, Domestic Emergencies. I need to let you know a few things. First, the President has been briefed. In the 1992 renewal, Wildfire was granted three levels of authority: scientific advisement, scientific control of military resources, and the nuclear option you named. The president has only authorized your department in an advisory capacity. I do understand you have already taken it upon yourself to requisition military resources, and HomeSec concurs with your directive, so we’ll keep that under our hats for now. But you’re out on a limb, doctor. You have exceeded your authority, and if this turns out to be a fool’s errand, you and only you are going to hang for it. Figuratively, of course, but I assure you, it will feel pretty God-damned literal if it comes to that.”

“Do you think it’s a fool’s errand, Glen.”

“No, I don’t. But we really don’t know what the hell’s happening do we? So it’s kind of lose-lose for you: either this is some weird localized phenomenon and you get hung out to dry and your department almost certainly loses it’s mission, which was up for renewal last year and is only in limbo due to Congressional incompetence. Or the recent pandemic is going to look like a bad sniffle, and the world is seriously fucked, and they are still going to find a way to hang it on you.”

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