Short Story Series 3: SciFi Thriller – Part 2

[…continued from Part 1]

Suzanne was  excited by the possibility of a new discovery, but more than nervous she was suspicious.. She had an extra hour to think about it because traffic was just horrid. She stopped along the route at a rest stop to call her friend, Marcus, and explain everything. He shared both her excitement and concern, but felt an absolute obligation to help her identify these objects and learn of their origin and purpose. As he needed a break from his own work, he wanted to take some vacation time and decided to meet her on Orcas Island in the evening.

The drive from Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes lasted over two hours; nevertheless she embraced the moment and enjoyed the ferry ride back home.

Suzanne’s clock chimed 10pm just before Marcus walked in. They embraced for a moment before she rushed to show him the images on her laptop. Marcus did have a college buddy, David, who worked in some capacity for the Department of Defense (DoD) and Marcus wasted no time getting him on the phone. David asked him to email images to him on his personal email address so as, if not to ensure privacy, to minimize exposure of their discovery.

Immediately after David received the emails, he phoned Marcus back.

“Hey, Marcus. David.”

“Hi, David. Did you…”

“Where on earth did you get these,” David asked.

“A friend of mine who is trying to identify them made their discovery, but she hasn’t specified from where.”

“It’s Suzanne, isn’t it? Hello, Suz!” David figured she’d be with Marcus on speakerphone.

“Hello, David,” Suzanne shouted.

“Do you know what they are,” Marcus asked?

“Yes, actually. In fact, it was a top secret project that, by coincidence, I was working on. They are artificial viruses or virions.”

“What is their purpose?”

“Well, I can only tell you what I was told,,,which isn’t much. They were intended essentially to be vehicles for not merely delivering biological agents, but for reproducing and manufacturing the agents themselves with the help of the host’s DNA and supplemental reagents added to the target system, such as the water supply or any other means of intake for the host. My task was to work with geneticists in making the nanoscale replication process possible given the availability of certain raw materials.”

“Shit, David. That is just crazy and a serious danger to society in the wrong hands. I mean it has fantastic medical potential, I suppose. But, clearly it is intended as a militarized bioweapon.”

“I didn’t have the whole picture when I was involved at the research and development phase. In hindsight, it was a horribly dangerous idea. How these came to be accessible to the public so soon, I wouldn’t know.”

“Is there a way you can trace the project and figure out what these samples in particular do, how they are distributed? Suz says there’s DNA inside a protected chamber.”

“It will take some time, a few days at least. I do not have the clearance to access the complete project to determine their exact program and where they were made. I have a few hacker friends that can most assuredly help though.”

“That’s crazy. You have to go outside the DoD to get further inside the DoD!”

“Yeah, compartmentalization is a bitch, but it is what keeps the complex machine whirring in its diabolical plans. Ignorance has been bliss thus far, but it’s time I find my conscience. Can you get me a sample?”

“I’ll overnight it.”

Suzanne was listening to the entire conversation, of course.  She looked alarmed. “Let’s get some sleep,” she said, “and I’ll buy you breakfast in the morning.” She went to the hall closet to grab a pillow and blanket and handed it to Marcus. “Here. The couch is super comfortable! You should be warm enough.” She smiled. Marcus smiled. There was amusement in both of their eyes.

“It’s good to see you again, Suz.”

She looked back at him from the hallway. “Thanks for coming, Marcus. Good night.”

Upon rising, Suzanne and Marcus took a quick ride into the village for a quiet breakfast at the Copper Kettle, the only place in town that served traditional breakfast food all day long. Walking in, she looked at the waiter and asked for a table for two. His name was Douglas.  Suzanne had known him for years. He had worked at the diner as long as she had lived on the island and she had been going there about three times a week.

“Coffee,” asked Douglas?

“What, no “Good Morning’, Douglas? …just a curt ‘coffee’?”

Suzanne was attempting to be playful, but Douglas just stood there looking at her. She was perplexed at his somber mood. Finally, she said, “Yes, please.” With that affirmation, Douglas poured coffee into both cups on the table and then walked away.

“Geeze, I wonder what’s up with Douglas today? He’s usually quite a humorous fellow, more social at least.”

“Off day, I suppose,” Marcus guessed.

“His day is just starting.”

They took the menus from the center of the table, gave them a perusal, and formulated what they desired to eat before talking about the artificial virions – ‘virion’ is the term David used on the phone in describing the potentially infective particles that were created by the DoD program.

It seemed like a long time passed and Douglas never came over to take their order. After pouring some coffee refills at one table and taking payment at another, he just stood next to the register staring rather blankly. Both Suzanne and Marcus thought that was odd.

Suzanne raised her hand and waved, “Douglas,” she called. And he came over.

“May we order breakfast,” she asked?

“What would you like?”

“For me, oatmeal, fruit salad, and orange juice,” Suzanne stated, still surprised about the mood Douglas was in.

“I’ll have two eggs, over easy, has browns, and a side of bacon. Oh, and I’ll have orange juice as well,” Marcus said.

“Thank you, Douglas,” Suzanne added.

Douglas nodded and went into the kitchen to place an order. At this point, Suzanne stood up to look into the kitchen which was normally a frenzy of bubbling conversation. Today, however, everyone was quiet speaking only when necessary. In fact, the whole restaurant was rather somber. Looking around, people were eating, but barely talking. It was becoming a little eerie. Of course, Marcus and Suzanne were already a little on edge and mystified by the virion particles. So, they both agreed to leave after they finished their meals.

“I’d like another glass of water. Are you going to drink yours,” David asked?

“Not at all. I never drink water in the village. It’s processed – desalinated and chlorinated – just doesn’t taste good. You can have it,” she pushed the glass forward. “I only drink well water or imported spring water.”

“If you are finished, I’d like to take you up to Mt. Constitution. The view from there is gorgeous. We must go earlier than later because there are no clouds at the moment. Once they roll in, they spoil the view.  You will see distant islands, mountain ranges, Mt. Baker and more. Although…to be honest the trip up is worthwhile for the fresh air alone. Better yet, let’s make it a short hike and a picnic. I’ll stop by the market on the way out of town and we’ll pick up a few things to take with us.”

He swallowed the last of the water in the glass and then said, “Let’s go!”

They headed over to the market and Suzanne picked up some cheese, nuts, smoked salmon and bottled water. As usual she saw a few friends and familiar faces, although her friends seemed quite distant, not approaching her as usual for a hug and a quick check in. She spotted Katie, a mid-twenties-something young lady who worked at the store stocking shelves.

“Good morning, Suzanne,” said Katie. “Where are you off to on this fine day?”

“Good morning, Katie. I’m taking my friend, Marcus, to Mt. Constitution for a little hike and picnic later.”

“Sounds awesome! I have to work all day or I’d otherwise do the same. But, no one else seems interested in doing anything with me this week. There’s such a somber attitude about town.”

“Tell me about it! The people at the Copper Kettle – Douglas, who’s usually funny, although not as vibrant as you – they were just blah. The cooks were just cooking because it’s what they do. Even the customers were eating because they had to eat…lots of blank stares. It was just too weird.”

“Charlie was like that at the gas station last night. I hope there isn’t another bug going around. I can’t afford to get sick again.”

“I hear you. We better pay and get up to the mountain before clouds decide to rain on our parade.”

“Have a good one!”

“You, too.”

As they began their twenty minute drive up to the mountain summit, Marcus received a call from David’s cell phone.

“David! What news?”

“Marcus, listen. Let me talk fast. The virions are truly sinister. I don’t know specifically who, where, or why…that much which I could probably surmise…but, I have found out their purpose. Someone is planning to distribute the virions by aerosol, more specifically over cities using chemtrails. The ‘DNA package’ is a program to continually manufacture what this document calls ‘the pacification agent’ developed by a private biotech company for the client which is called here, ‘a UN subgroup’. We need a geneticist to determine what the program does specifically – the damn compartmentalization methodology is working against us here – but what is absolutely clear in these documents is that the target is the general population of Earth, beginning with Seattle and New York simultaneously in the first phase, followed by other major US cities, and then eventually the whole world. Phase one is scheduled to start on October 1st – that’s one week, Marcus. I’m emailing scans of these documents to you as I speak.”

“I don’t believe that, David. Are you serious?”

David hastened his speech as rapid typing could be heard in the background. “Marcus, I’ve never been more serious. There’s potentially worse news for you and Suzanne. There was a preliminary testing program in small remote and/or rural areas across the country which is about to come to completion. One of those remote areas…is Orcas Island!”

“Shit,” Marcus uttered.

They do multiply like a natural virus with the help of reagents added to…[static]…Whatever you do, don’t…[static]…[silence].”

“Crap, I lost him,” Marcus said.

“Cellular phones don’t work on the mountain above a certain point. Do you want me to turn around,” Suzanne asked?

“Yes, let’s try.”

They turned around and drove down the mountain until Marcus had at least one steady bar of signal strength on his cell phone. He attempted to call David back, but there was no answer. He was able to reach David’s home answering machine and left him a message.

After repeating everything David said to Suzanne, they both agreed to abandon the trek to Mt. Constitution in favor of regrouping at Suzanne’s house to contact Emily and her geneticist friend, and to make plans to expose this undertaking as swiftly and as cautiously as possible. It was no longer merely a mystery, but a public health threat and, perhaps as David was testifying to them on the phone, a conspiracy of global domination.

On the drive home Suzanne and Marcus discussed the weirdness of the people in town that day. Everyone on the island was a stranger to Marcus, but he still felt like he had walked into the twilight zone. Now that David mentioned something called “the pacification agent,” Marcus was beginning to see a correlation. And Suzanne was now beginning to wonder if the suspect artificial virions designed to affect humans could indeed be the very culprit diminishing the population of sea stars.

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia

Short Story Series 3: SciFi Thriller – Part 1

It was an overcast day in the Pacific Northwest when Suzanne Delaney went to a local coffee shop for her morning coffee – a 20oz, quad shot, mocha. Tourist season had just ended after Labor Day and Suzanne was glad to be able to return to her daily constitutional without having to stand in a queue as if she were at a state licensing bureau. Having ordered her drink and moved to the pick-up counter, she ran into an acquaintance who accosted her for a hug and conversation while she waited for her mocha. After about ten minutes of updating her inquisitive friend on her research and whether or not she had a current love interest, she couldn’t help noticing that other people who ordered after her were collecting their beverages and hers had not been called.

“Did you not call me drink? A 20oz, quad shot, mocha,” she asked the barista?

“I’m sorry. I completely forgot to make it, “said the friendly and animated Barista. “I can be such a dork sometimes. Coming right up.”

“That is the third time this week they’ve forgotten to make my drink,” Suzanne exclaimed.

“She’s new,” her friend added.

“It’s not just her. Other baristas have forgotten, too. It’s not like they have a lot to remember now that the summer is over. PTSD – post-tourist stress disorder, I suppose.”

After a chuckle and a few more minutes of rapping up gossip, she was on her way.

Suzanne was employed as a research scientist by a non-profit organization that monitors the health of marine life and the ecosystem in the San Juan Island archipelago which lies northwest of the coast of Seattle, Washington. A marine biologist specializing in invertebrates, she had immersed herself in her investigation of the cause of sea star wasting disease. There was a plague of diseased sea stars before her time on the East Coast in 1972, but as recent as the summer of 2013 another major die-off occurred on the East Coast. This time in addition, the ochre sea star species nearly disappeared on the West Coast before a recovery period followed and an increase in their population was observed.

A suspected culprit of sea star wasting disease was termed the ‘sea star associated densovirus’ (SSaDV), a member of the genus Ambidensovirus, which are in the family of parvoviruses that affect vertebrate and invertebrate hosts. The densovirus is a single-strand of DNA protected by a protein shell on the order of 20-30 nanometers. Suzanne had been studying samples of cells from wasted sea stars found on Orcas Island in the past several years to see if there was evidence of a virus present.

Not equipped like the research labs of a university, she was however fortunate to have received enough funds for a six-figure, laser confocal microscope thanks to a recent large donation to the organization from an anonymous donor. Better than an optical microscope like those used at the local high school, yet not nearly as powerful as a scanning electron microscope from a well-endowed institution, it would allow her to look for evidence of smaller particulates than she had been limited to previously.

As she strolled into her office with her 20oz mocha nearly gone, she was whistling a happy tune because it was the first day she would use the new microscope to examine the slides she had been preparing in anticipation of its delivery. She got right to work, first booting her laptop to play her favorite music station of impressionist classical piano, and then turning on all other equipment she needed. That included the small heater she kept under her table “to warm her tootsies” – as she would always say.

For the first hour there were no extraordinary observations. She had made annotations in her journal merely to document the slides she was viewing from various sea stars samples. When she started her first slide from her third sea star sample, she did notice something. There were small specs, nearly round in shape, dots, around the cell walls. They were a lot smaller than what she expected and hadn’t been looking at the earlier samples with such scrutiny. She hadn’t remembered to sharpen her mental acuity and increase expectations to match the high resolution capability of the laser confocal microscope. With that in mind, she pulled out one of the first slides she looked at and closely examined the cell walls. Now she saw things differently. It seemed that all cellular samples had these spheres attached in quantity. But, they were so small, on the order of ten to a hundred nanometers, so their exact shape could not be determined.  They were specks. Their material composition was likely unknown because she didn’t believe that anyone had seen these particulates before and probably never studied them. She had no recollection of their being mentioned in any academic papers. With all she hoped for with this new microscope, she still needed far better resolution. To help her further with this, she turned to her friend Emily who works with a scanning electron microscope at the University of Washington.

Perplexed and excited for an awaiting discovery, Suzanne first emailed Emily some preliminary digital images from her microscope. Then she spoke with Emily on the telephone and scheduled some time for her to use the electron microscope at the university the morning after next. Emily invited Suzanne to stay at her apartment in Seattle the next evening so the two would talk more about Suzanne’s research before heading straight to the lab the following morning.

Suzanne travelled to the Seattle about once each month for business, but preferred the quiet of her island with less than 5000 full-time residents and not a single traffic light. Yet, whenever she did leave the island she embraced the experience of sailing the Salish Sea, for the ferry ride from Orcas Island to the mainland is a breathtaking journey for anyone lucky enough to make it. While there are numerous islands all shapes and sizes in San Juan County, Washington, only the three largest islands have state ferry services that transport vehicles and people to the mainland, and sailing among them in the Salish Sea provides a lot of natural eye candy. Distant mountain ranges like the Olympic peninsula are snowcapped all year. Conifer forests are peppered with the orange-red bark of madrona trees that follow the contours of the islands at lower elevations. When the ferries pass closely enough, you can almost feel the soft textures of the green moss-covered cliffs and boulders.

As Suzanne stood in the open air at the bow of the ferry, the same salt-water air which flowed through her hair also ruffled her windbreaker making a flapping noise in concert with the waves the ferry was making. She felt a few drops of water on her face, but whether it was splatter from the sea or tears from the cloudy skies, she neither knew nor cared. Following four months of nearly perfect sunshine, she was ready for the winter rains. It was the Pacific Northwest after all.

A grouping of three seagulls paralleled alongside the ferry, flapping their wings and seemingly going nowhere from Suzanne’s perspective. As she turned to go inside the ferry’s seating area, someone from the other size of the bow yelled, “killer whales.” Suzanne turned and witnessed the pod of mammals lob-tailing. Although she was hoping to see a breach, it wasn’t to happen on that trip. She smiled anyway.

After arriving at Emily’s house, Suzanne filled her in about what she expected to find out at the lab in the morning.

“So, tell me, Suzanne. What is it that you think you have in these samples of yours,” Emily asked?

“Something on the nanoscale…certainly interesting to marine life…I just don’t know if I’m dealing with an organic pathogen…they are uniform in size so I can’t imagine that they are minerals. How could a grouping of molecules or crystalline structures appear in only one size consistently in samples from different organisms collected at different periods. I’d expect a bell curve of sample sizes, wouldn’t you?”

“How small do you think they are?”

“I’m guessing they are between 10 to 100 nanometers in diameter, but whatever they are – they are all identical in size.”

“We shall see. If these are samples of a virus, we certainly should be able to tell.” Emily concluded.”

The next morning Suzanne followed Emily to the lab at the university. Since she was planning to return to the island afterwards, Suzanne needed to take her own car. Upon arrival, they found that the lab staff had everything set up already and the two could get to work right away.

It was only a minute after the first sample went into the machine when Emily dialed in the resolution which, as she was expecting, would reveal some answers. Both of them were surprised at the first image that appeared on the screen.

“Was this possibly contaminated,” Emily asked?

“No. Here. Let’s try another sample.”

After several samples, they assumed that whatever it is they were looking at was going to be a big discovery. They observed icosahedrons, three-dimensional objects with 20 identical sides, each one being an equilateral triangle. Of course, these geometries occur in nature – crystals, for example, as well as viruses. But, all of the objects in each sample were solitary. None of them formed crystals to make larger objects and none of them appeared in any degenerate form.

“OK. We have something remarkable here,” said Suzanne, but what are they? Can we identify the composition from spectroscopic analysis?”


After a little time in the lab, the ladies were not merely more baffled by the material composition of the objects, but by new mysteries of equal importance.

“What…are…you,” Suzanne rhetorically asked the objects in an inquisitive, but concerned voice.

“These are definitely artificial – constructed,” said Emily.

“Constructed by whom? For what purpose? Do you thing they are viral in nature,” Suzanne asked?

“Look at this. Clearly the outer shell of the object is made of a protein not unlike a virus, but the framework of the object seems to be several layers of a graphene matrix, each no more than 1 nm thick…Oh my GOD! There is a strand of what looks like DNA coiled up in the center of the object. This is crazy. Someone made this. This is absolutely beyond my comprehension. We need a biophysicist to take a look at this. Jake, in the lab upstairs…”

“OK. Hold on, Emily,” Suzanne interrupted. “This could be a big discovery or this could be such advanced technology that perhaps we may find ourselves in a heap of trouble for finding out about it. Of course, the investigator in me will not stop here. But, I can’t involve more people who I don’t know and trust.”

“What do you suggest,” asked Emily?

“I have a good friend…an ex-boyfriend…well, we left it on good terms…we’re good friends…anyway…he works for the US Department of Fish and Wildlife and I know he has friends at the DoD. As I recall, one in particular specializes in nanotechnology, graphene, and what have you. I’ll contact my boy…I mean, my friend – his name is Marcus – and I’ll ask him to make contact with his buddy. Can you put some of these images on a thumb drive for me?”

“Sure, give me a few minutes. Listen, Suzanne, I have a friend who is a geneticist and I’d trust her with my life. Will you let me show her these results and let me have a sample? Maybe she could sequence the DNA for us.”

“Alright,” Suzanne said, “but please do not tell her where the samples came from. Tell her the source prefers to remain anonymous.”

“You’ve got it!”

“I’ll check in with you tonight.”

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia