Arcturus Syndrome Ch. 04-1

Author’s Note: All sexually active characters are over the age of 18. Similarity to persons living or dead is pure coincidence. Philipsburg and State College PA are real places, but this is a purely fictional imagining of them, very loosely supplemented by Google Maps research. Don’t take it too seriously!

>>> 08:03, Arlington VA

General Brad Buckley clicked the file closed and shut his laptop.

“Amy, can you get Dickinson back on the horn?”

“Yes, Sir.”

A minute later his laptop was back open. Dickinson was at his desk, his wall of books behind him, a lab-coat, almost certainly for show, draped over a blue button-down.

“Did you read it?”

“Yeah, I read it.”

“In your professional opinion, are these people for real?”

“To be honest, I would need to see the source data. As reports go, this is pretty flimsy. There’s no actionable data here, and the facts are subject to variant interpretations.”

“And what do you make of this ‘Wildfire’ business in general?”

“It’s hard to believe we’re still spending money on it; the actual statistical chances of living organic material on a meteorite landing in the United States during our lifetimes, or even the life-span of humanity is vanishingly small. Back in the sixties, when everyone had all the budget for these escapades, it might have seemed like a good idea, but I can hardly think of a less productive way to spend taxpayer money.”

There was a ‘but’ in Dickinson’s expression. Buckley coaxed it out of him.

“But, the scientists on their panel are legit. Given the long-shot premise, they are the people I would want on such a team. And, statistics aside, it is certainly possible that something is going on, extraterrestrial or otherwise. Assuming Dr. McKinnon’s report is not fabricated, I would definitely support the steps that we are taking.”

The General leaned back in his chair and sighed.

“I was afraid you were going to say that. The HomeSec people are taking her seriously, and I was really hoping the military could be a voice of restraint here. When this gets out, and everything gets out, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on our choices.”

Dickinson nodded his agreement. “By way of political risk-mitigation, we could engage the World Health Organization. Get some international eyes on this, and let them take the heat for it if anything goes off the rails.”

Buckley sighed again. “I can propose it, but the security on this is way too tight. If it turns out to be something they can weaponize, they don’t want the world in on it.”

The naval Head of Research made his “Ah Ha” face. “Then the best you can do is make sure the Joint Chiefs are thoroughly briefed. And… can you get me on the research team? There are a couple of scientists on there we might call wild cards. No question about their bona fides, but I wouldn’t totally trust all of them with state secrets.”

“Good idea, I can get you on a plane in thirty minutes.”

>>> 08:11, Philipsburg PA

Carl Newman pulled off to the shoulder when he saw the flashing blue around the bend on 322.

Roadblock. Would they seal off all the roads? He checked his phone for signal, but without much hope. He took another swig of powerade grape.

There were some rough tracks out the west side of town. He’d done some hiking in the game lands out that way, and thought there might be some dirt roads they weren’t watching. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Philipsburg was an increasingly dangerous place to be. Even assuming he had some kind of immunity to whatever this infection was, the shutdown of emergency services and roadblocks told him that the bug was not the only danger here.

And he wasn’t counting chickens on immunity either. He felt a low grade fever, and some dizziness if he didn’t keep himself pumped to the gills with energy drinks and salty chips.

He turned around and made his way back across town, aiming for the rough country out towards Knox.

>>> 08:44, Philipsburg PA

Katherine met Nancy at the motel. The “Best Travel Inn” which was the best in Philipsburg by virtue of being the only. Nancy was sitting behind the desk at the motel, filing her nails.

“Oh, hey, Kath, what brings you in here?”

“Um… the end of the world?”

Nancy looked up from her nails. “You always were a weird kid. I remember when you were a freshman, and you were in that band? Christ, that was hilarious. You all were sooo bad.”

“Yeah, thanks, but what are you doing here? Didn’t you get the call?”

“What call? Actually, something’s fucked with my phone.”

“They called everyone? Texted on the emergency channel?”

“Ah, I never answer my phone if I don’t know the person. And who cares about some damned amber alert. I have never once seen the silver impala, or whatever. Why, what’s going on?”

“And you didn’t… experience anything? Last night?”

“What the hell are you on about?”

“Well, the whole town is either dead, or gathered at the gym, or… trying to help out.”

Nancy frowned. “That’s not funny Kath.”

“I’m serious. You didn’t feel… sick… last night?”

Nancy seemed to finally be taking her seriously. “No, I did not feel sick. Jack and I went down to see a band in happy valley. Some band Jack likes, but I couldn’t tell you why. Not awful tho. We got back late, didn’t see anything strange. There were some helicopters in the night tho, I think?”

“Holy hell, you are in for a surprise then. Why don’t you come with me; I’m supposed to check on some people who were staying here last night. What room did someone named Fitzpatrick stay in.”

“Lemmy check… 112.”

“Why don’t you come with me, Nancy?”

Nancy carefully put the “Back in 10 Minutes” sign up, and joined her.

“Hey, Kath, you looking pretty fine these days. You mind me asking, did you get implants? I been thinking about it. Jack’s kind of obsessed, you know.”

“Just come with me.”

They walked down the length of the parking lot to the furthest unit.

Katherine knocked on the door, then pounded on it, and it was silence.

Thunder ripped the sky apart as two fighter jets blasted across town and a breath later the thump of a helicopter sounded.

“You know,” Nancy said, “this is kind of freaking me out now.”

“Open the door,” Katherine said.

Nancy looked unsure. “Do it!”

She fumbled with her keys and opened the door.

Nancy screamed.

The room was a jumble of beakers and tubes on every surface. There was a microscope set up on a bedside table. But more than that, there was a man encased in pale gray and blue crystals, with a somewhat monstrous crystal growing from what was a pretty large cock. His back was arched, and crystals attached him to the bed. A woman was kneeling by the other bed, with jagged crystals around her as well.

“Yep, same story. You have any other guests here tonight?”

“Uh, yeah, three other rooms actually…”

Katherine took out her phone, took some photos of the scene, and wrote down some details. She couldn’t send the photos anywhere, but figured it was the best she could do.

“Not supposed to touch anything. I’m headed back to the High School to report.”

“What should I do?”

“Well, you can come with me if you want. They won’t let us in, but apparently there are a couple of others. They are keeping the kids separate because I guess this only affects adults. Can’t even drink legally, but I guess I’m an adult now.”

“To be honest, drinking isn’t that great. Jack gets drunk and… well… never mind.”

Nancy hadn’t pulled her gaze away from the scene.

“That guy was big,” seh added.

“Maybe. The virus does something to you.”

“Like… oh… shit… you have it? Why the fuck aren’t you quarantining? Did you just give it to me?”

“That’s the point, Nanse, they are quarantining Philipsburg. We all have it. Trust me. You just haven’t found out yet.”

Nancy had more questions, and Katherine tried to answer them as they went back to the office. While they were walking, a white SUV packed with boxes drove by at speed, engine roaring, the first car Katherine had seen all day. Figuring she was spreading the news, she waved at the driver, but he didn’t slow down.

“I need to find Jack,” Nancy decided. “You want a ride to the high school?”

“You might not want to find Jack,” Kath said.

>>> 09:01, State College PA

McKinnon flipped her laptop open and joined the Con Call. She was the last on.

“Sorry everyone, I just got to our mobile research station in PA, it’s still being set up, but it looks like most of the equipment we need is on premises. We’ve had a few feisty administrators to deal with. Summer semester and all.”

HomeSec: “We have some vectors connecting Philipsburg to your location, McKinnon. There have been several cars that have passed back and forth between the two towns within the window of concern. I’ve instructed General Buckley to expand the second ring to include State College. There’s no good demarcation for the third ring. We’re doing contact tracing on eight vehicles that represent marginal risks outside the second ring.”

McKinnon: “Thanks, Glen. We will lock down our facilities here and use airdrops for resupply.”

HomeSec: “We also found that coroner, or his van. It’s parked at a place called RJ’s Pub & Grill. We are operating on the assumption he stopped off for some dinner before heading out of town, and never got out, which is good news for us. Thanks for the info, Dr. Gonzales.”

Gonzales: “No problem. We have issued several advisory bulletins, keeping it quiet. But we have not received any indications that contagion has reached beyond Philipsburg. Also, good news.”

Buckley: “I’ve updated the command docs with a map of our quarantine rings. Glen, did you see that SUV on satellite that turned back before reaching the roadblock?”

HomeSec: “Not personally, I’m sure our team is on it.”

Buckley: “I have a feeling about that one. We’re tracking it, but you may want to also.”

HomeSec: “Check. There has been some other vehicular activity. It looks like not everyone got the message, but we’re just going to let things play out in Philipsburg itself. How are folks at the Gym?”

McKinnon: “It’s a bunch of traumatized kids. It’s not great. The older ones are stepping up. I’m a little worried about Melissa. She seems to be very on edge. I don’t think her religious interpretation is helping things. There’s another fellow there who’s a bit more steady, so I’m talking to him when I can. Thanks for getting the sat phones in there, General.”

Buckley: “No worries. We have the outside shelter dropping now, it basically sets itself up, and there’s another sat phone for any of the older survivors.”

McKinnon: “Perfect. There’s two other things. You recall I had a team in Philipsburg. How we got the first alert. I’ve sent one of those older survivors out to check on them, but aren’t expecting to find our team alive. It’s possible they may have some data, however, that we don’t have access to. I’d like to send in a hazmat team to recover anything of value.”

Buckley: “That’s going to add risk, Dr. McKinnon. To prevent them from tracking out the bug, we’re going to need to review our protocols.”

Gonzales: “CDC has a guideline for this. We would use disposable robots for that. We can take that offline.”

McKinnon: “Finally, we did get some data the team uploaded before going dark. We’ve added it to our provisional report, available for your review. The long and short of it, the impact site had none of the usual markers of a meteorite, but it showed anomalous values of exotic acid compounds. Machine Learning models and our Seattle team have a high-probability projection. Summary: The meteor was not the usual rock, but a crystal structure extremely dense in exotic mineral salts. It fragmented at no more than five hundred feet, with a dense spread in the mostly rural area, but with some possibility of prior shedding that could affect a larger area in trace quantities. We believe the infection manifests as a rapid formation of salt crystals, so we must conclude that airborne contagion is possible. The raw data is available to your teams.”

Buckley: “I would take that as more good news: data is good. Speaking of which, I’d like our Naval head of research on site, Dr. McKinnon.”

“That’s up to the Wildfire team itself, General. I’ll pass it on. Once they are in place, my job is purely to support them.”

The general offered a hard, thin-lipped smile. “Thank you.”

>>> 09:22, Philipsburg, PA

They pulled up by the senior high in time to see a twin-rotor helicopter lowering a large container.

“Shit is real,” Nancy said.

“That it is. Look, I know you want to see your boyfriend. Let me just tell you again, it’s dangerous. But do what you gotta do. This is basically the hub. If you want to reconnect, we’re around here.”

“Shit, is that another body on the football field?” Nancy pointed.

Katherine had been avoiding that spot. A large fibrous growth of crystal, glittering in the sunlight, had formed around Carl’s body.

“Like I said, Nancy. It’s dangerous out there. Almost everyone over the age of twenty or so is dead, just like that. LIke those two in the room. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m not. I hope Jack’s ok.”

Katherine got out and trotted back to the gym door, gave it a few raps. The helicopter had released it’s load, and was already spinning off.

>>> 9:22 Philipsburg, PA – H.S. Gymnasium

Melissa had to make frequent trips to the bathroom to swab herself off. The gym was oppressive: hot, humid, the noise of children, the incessant crying. She was constantly sweating, and constantly thirsty, and she… ached. She felt a heat in her lower belly that would not subside. Her mind kept flashing immoral and even shocking images.

She found herself avoiding Thorvald.

His calm, steady presence made everything going on in her body even worse. If she was the woman she wanted to be, she would be working alongside him to keep everything orderly and safe, to navigate these strange times together.

But as soon as she got near him, she felt like there were bees in her head. She didn’t think straight. The sweat came more profusely. It felt like someone turned up the heat.

Her sat phone lit up.

“Yes? Oh, hi Doctor McKinnon. Yes; the helicopter just came. What do you want us to do next?”

Thorvald stepped up and touched her elbow to let her know he was interested in the conversation.

That brush of his fingertips jolted through her like a live electrical current. She stifled a gasp, and gave him a sharp look, as if he had simply startled her.

“Ok, Doctor. We will… no, everything is ok. That woman Katherine on the outside was searching the town for babies, and found three, and now she’s checking on the motel for you. We’ve turned away a total of seven other people, and they haven’t come back. Six were just a little older, and one woman was older… no, more like thirties or forties I guess… Ok, thank you.”

She hung up. The satphone was like something out of history, practically a brick. She was pretty sure they didn’t need to be that stupid looking.

“What did she tell us to do?” Thorvald asked.

“Just to give Kath the other sat phone, she’ll get instructions for the new package.”

“Makes sense, have one inside, have one outside. But, Melissa, can I ask, how are you? You’ve been carrying all the responsibility here, and I worry it’s stressing you out.”

Melissa felt a sharp reply rising in her, and she tamped it down. A motion caught her eye, and then again. Horror flooded her. He had an erection! It twitched in his pants!! She had to get him out of the gym. He was a danger to everyone!

She thought carefully about her next words, even as she felt a terrible warmth spreading through her own belly. A slipperiness that she abhorred.

A sudden image overtook her mind: she had been standing at the door of her mother’s room. Just hours ago, but seemingly in another world. The door had been open, just a little, just enough. Her mother – her own mother! – had been kneeling in front of her big brother. Her very big brother. Her mother had his thing in her hands, she was kneeling and kissing it. She had it in her mouth. Melissa had felt something horrible, a sickening desire, a powerful lust. A real demon of lust had possessed her for that moment, and she had – the memory of it assaulted her – she had touched herself. The very hand that wore the purity ring her father had given her slipped down into her PJs and started touching herself. She couldn’t stop. She felt that same demon in her now.

Melissa took a deep breath.

“Thorvald, I don’t know how to say it. Dr. McKinnon asked me to have you take the other sat phone to Kath. She doesn’t want any more contact with the outside. Do you see what I’m saying?”

Thorvald looked at her with his gentle gaze, unblinking.

“Sure, Melissa. But I want you to tell me to leave.”

“Umm.” For some reason this made her even more uncomfortable, not least because something in her was screaming for the opposite. “Ok, Thorvald, please take the other sat phone, and go join Katherine, outside.”

“You got it, Melissa. It’s been good working with you in here. Take care of the kids.”

And he walked away.

Melissa sat down. She wanted to call him back, she wanted to cry. She felt that longing inside her, and she gritted her teeth against the demonic thoughts.

She watched him, the easy way he walked, the way his tight, athletic butt moved, the surety with which he went to the crate of supplies and plucked out the other satellite phone. He stopped by to say something to Robby and Janet before he left. They had been dealing with some kind of squabble that had broken out amongst the younger kids.

And then he left. He just walked to the doors, opened them. There was a brief flash of sunlight, bright summer flooding the dim gymnasium for an instant… and he was gone.

>>> 10:17, State College PA

They had transformed the science buildings. The descent of national guard, military, supplies, equipment, and quarantine structures had overwhelmed the town. Helicopters hovered, some waiting to deliver equipment, some to deliver her experts, and some just monitoring the growing crowds, gathered to watch the spectacle.

“This was a mistake,” McKinnon told Gebre. “I was imagining this was some sleepy college town on summer break.”

Gebre shrugged. He had a dolorous expression. In Gebre’s world, everything was a mistake. Getting up in the morning was a mistake. This was only a minor deterioration of the usual catastrophic status quo.

“And they tell me the facilities here are crap. This is undergrad stuff. They have research facilities on another campus!”

“We made a spot decision, Emily. It wasn’t the best decision, but we’re committed now.”

“So we are basically setting up camp in the middle of a town. We might as well have picked a cornfield.”

Andrea jumped in. “It’s not that bad. We have good roads and some heavy equipment coming by truck. We do have ample supplies of basics, and we have basically taken over all the science buildings, there will be plenty of room, top notch internet connectivity, and we can easily construct layers of access. Moreover, we have some great locations in the basement that we are converting to clean rooms for isolating samples and survivors, if we want to bring them in.”

McKinnon scowled. “Ok, ok. Note for future reference, if we still exist next month, lets add facilities partnerships to our mission. They’re going to tell us we should have done that, and they’re right.”

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