The black limousine pulled into the old country road and bounced along down the dirt track, an astounding sight that would have shocked any local people, had they been in the area at ten o'clock at night. You don't send limos down old country roads. That's why they are old, because limos have no purpose on them. Whoever owned the limo clearly used it as a symbol of their opulence and prestige, even in the dark in the country. They were probably regretting their choice of vehicle now, however, as the car was really bouncing. It would have been remarkably uncomfortable. The road rambled on, seemingly erratically, and eventually the car parked outside what seemed to be some old derelict grain silos in the middle of nowhere, and an enormous man emerged, swearing in what seemed to be several languages.
The man had once been very muscular, but all of that had obviously been a long time ago, and his muscle was running to fat now. His hair was cut in the classic military style of the country, i.e. almost none left, and his moustache was finely clipped and put you in mind of a small child that has been drinking chocolate milk. He wore a tailor-made suit that seemed to contain his vast bulk, if only barely. Still swearing, the man made his way up towards the grain silos, rubbing his backside, and occasionally stumbling on various rocks and cracks in the ground, surely doing some permanent damage to his expensive Italian loafers. He made it to the grain silo on the far left, felt his way along the chipped, dirty concrete wall, swore, and finally stopped at a section of warped wall that looked no different to the others. He fished a plastic key card out of his suit pocket and slotted it into a seemingly random crack in the wall at around knee height. He waited for the duration of about three seconds, and the concrete slid back pneumatically to allow entry for a medium sized man. Unfortunately, he was definitely not a medium sized man. After much squeezing, and much more swearing, he managed to force his belly through the doorway.
Inside was very different to outside. The first thing one would notice was the white. The whole place looked like it had been hosed down with disinfectant and whitewashed fifty times, which perhaps it had been, if it was indeed once a grain silo. Florescent lights beamed white light onto a white floor and white corridors moved off into the distance with white doors on the side. The large man shielded his eyes briefly, adjusting his sight to the sudden light, and then began to move down one of the three corridors that branched off the main entrance.
The second thing one would realise about the place would be that it seemed much larger than the outward appearance of a grain silo would lead you to believe. The corridors seemed endless, and the doors connecting to them innumerable. The man wondered what tricks were pulled in order to conceal this place from prying eyes.
The third thing people would notice about this place would be the sheer number of people that moved throughout the doorways and hallways. Increasingly, as you got near the places where corridors joined, you would find yourself swamped by weedy men with acne and halitosis in glasses and white overcoats. It was as if all the stereotypical scientists in the world were holding an annual get-together, but they were all in a hurry to be elsewhere. The large man had to stop frequently or else risk being trampled to death by sheer numbers of clipboard wielding, pasty-faced men. The scientists would ignore him generally, assuming correctly that he was authorised to be here, and they broke around him like water breaks around a rock. Eventually, he reached areas that were less over-populated, and he could move freely again, still cursing under his breath.
The fourth thing a visitor would notice is that the ground sloped sharply downwards quite often, and sometimes there were even escalators. This was how the sheer size of the facility was concealed. Most of it was underground, away from prying eyes. For this place, this laboratory, was the site were highly illegal things were being perpetrated, the least of which was extending onto private property. Experiments were performed here, diabolical experiments which, if the world was aware of them, would cause horror, disgust, and in most countries, the death penalty. The fat man knew all this. He was the one who funded the whole operation. It didn't matter to him the nature of the experiments, as he was a member of that large group of people who believe that the ends they will eventually reach will justify the means. He was funding a project that was working on the dream of dictators and the favourite theory of conspiracy nuts, and would make him the richest man in history.
The man, who was called Chavez, was serving a brief stint in the Air Force in his youth when he realized that he just didn't care about people. Not a bit. Never a thought for human wellbeing and contentment came from his train of thought, which tended to follow the tracks of exploitation and violent acts. Soon after this realization, he was dishonourably discharged from the air force for failing to report or intervene in a physical disagreement, which ended in the near-death of a fellow cadet. He didn't care. He had finally found out how to put himself in a position of power. Exploit people. And now, forty years and several suspected crime syndicate ties later, he was among the top twenty richest men in the world, having tried his hand at politics, the stock market and being CEO of a major steel product manufacturer. But, as usual with greedy people, he wanted more. He reasoned that, since people were always trying to kill each other, why shouldn't he try and make it easier for them? So he turned his steel manufacturing plant into a weapons factory, and received lucrative government contracts. But still he craved more, and one day, a man who worked in his design team came to him with an idea….
By now Chavez had reached the central nexus of the corridors, and a big white set of double doors was all that separated him from the results of the millions of dollars he had spent. He didn't realize it at the time, but he would be spending the rest of his life in the areas that lay beyond. He paused, straightened his tie, and pushed the doors open.
He was immediately engulfed in a storm of paper and shouted orders. A sea of scientists churned around him, and piles of paper changed hands faster than the eye could see. Chavez made his way forward, put slightly off balance by all the hustle and bustle. Finally he reached the centre of the large room, where work benches and apparatus sprawled in a seemingly random pattern, largely obscured by still more paper. All this paper made Chavez even more uncomfortable than the bustling scientists. He was the kind of man who didn't like things being recorded too closely. He moved on with a slight shudder towards the central feature of the lab.
A large machine stretched from floor to ceiling, looking like an gigantic egg with thousands of tentacles in appearance. The main part of the machine was a central sphere, with many small pipes, tubes and wires leading away from it. The wires led into computer terminals that surrounded the device, the pipes into the ceiling, and the clear tubes into giant vats in the corner marked, 'COOLANT'. Chavez gaped at the sight, and he was not a man who gaped easily. Around the machine, working at terminals or bustling around with a look of higher purpose and devotion in their eyes, still more scientists buzzed around like bees around a queen. And in the eye of the scientist storm, in the centre of the bustle, directing and controlling, was Castillo, the metaphorical queen bee himself.
Castillo came from a hazy background in the slum districts of various capital cities around the country, having taken a hand in criminal dealings and operations from a very early age. Specializing in computer blackmail and hacking, he was picked up by police after an online raid Castillo perpetrated targeted a company designed as bait by the authorities. After realizing that police orchestrated the whole thing and they had been watching him for some time, Castillo would act remorseful, be set free on good behaviour bonds, and quietly disappear, to re-emerge in a new city with a new identity. After he reached the age of twenty-three, he gave up slumming and joined an upcoming government organization, no doubt with the intention of embezzlement or some other money-making illegal activity. The government organization happened to be in Chavez's pocket, and Castillo came to the attention of Chavez through a man he had known recognizing and reporting him to Chavez's man in the police force. Instead of firing Castillo, or worse, Chavez had given him a high-paying job at his steel company designing new weapons of war. Castillo had designed some highly sensitive anti-personnel mines, some highly innovative radioactive death rays, and some highly destructive shrapnel grenades. But he was fascinated with the common solider, and cheap ways to improve that man in combat. Finally, after some tinkering with both machines and flesh, he decided that the common solider was weak and imperfect. So, with faultless logic and a complete lack of morals, he set out to improve the common man with some highly experimental and dangerous techniques he himself had pioneered, and the result was the machine that now stood before Chavez.
Castillo caught sight of Chavez battling his way through the maze of benches and sighed, pasting a false grin on his face. It put Chavez in mind of a monkey begging for a banana, although in this case the banana was large amounts of money, and the monkey was…well, basically still a monkey.
Chavez finally managed to reach Castillo and the two stood for a moment, sizing each other up. Chavez completely overcast Castillo in size and bulk, but Castillo had a mind like a firework. They were dangerous men, hard, cruel, and corrupt. The only thing that an observer would be able to see about the two that matched were their eyes, which were cold, calculating and without a shred of mercy. Those same eyes were watching each other now, deciding what to do and what to say. Every word the two men spoke to each other was like a fencing match, and each liked to think that they outmatched each other. Today of all days, Castillo was sure he had the upper hand, and it was he who opened the conversation.
"Behold the glory of mankind's works," Castillo intoned in a reverent, reedy voice. "Behold the strength of machine and flesh. Behold," he flung a hand back towards the machine, voice raised to a shout, "the future!"
All of the milling scientists paused and turned towards the pair. "The future!" they thundered back at Castillo, like a stadium full of sports fans watching their team in the Grand Final. Chavez rolled his eyes. And here he had thought Castillo was the only crazy showman he had working for him. He cut to the point straight away. "You said it was finished. Show me." It was a direct command that he knew Castillo could not ignore. Castillo knew it too, and his lips thinned in irritation. Without speaking he turned and walked off towards one of the many doorways around the circular room, the scientists making way for him as if he were Moses of biblical fame. Chavez followed, smirking. He had gained the upper hand again, through direct command. He knew that irked Castillo. He considered it unsporting, so Chavez would make sure to do it again.
Through the door was a long corridor with full-length windows lining the walls. It reminded Chavez of a zoo or aquarium. Castillo was standing by the first one with a mildly impatient look on his face. Not enough to warrant a reprimand, but enough to annoy Chavez, and Castillo knew it. It didn't take much to annoy Chavez. With a look like thunder on his face, Chavez walked over to the window that Castillo was standing next to, looking in to avoid Castillo's mocking eyes. Castillo began to speak, with a trace of victory in his voice. "These were our first experiments, using the serum and powders I originally came to you with. They were complete failures in the sense that they cannot fight or even move, but they were a step on the ladder that is progress." Chavez looked in, but all he could see were several large pink blobs in the centre of the grey cell that lay beyond the window. Castillo reached forward and pressed a button, and the floor of the cell swivelled towards the two.
Chavez gasped. The pink blobs had heads. Now that he looked closer, he could make out arms, hands, legs and feet too. The eyes in the bloated face stared blankly at him, and several of the things were lying down. None of them moved, except for the rise and fall of what seemed to be their chests. None of them blinked. Bile rose in Chavez's throat, but he forced it down. It would not be a good idea to vomit in front of Castillo, as he would surely find a way for it to get out somehow, without jeopardising the secrecy of the operation. He managed to force out some words. "What…are they?"
Castillo smiled a cold smile that never reached his eyes. "Why, they are people. Or at least, they were. The serum boosted muscular development considerably as you can see, making them practically all muscle. However, the serum had a particularly detrimental effect on the brain. They cannot blink, eat, or even move. They can breath and their heartbeat is strong, but it is as if they are in a waking coma. They are vegetables."
Chavez shuddered. He had known the cruel and unusual experiments conducted inside this facility were horrible, but he had never known how horrible. Castillo moved on to the next window, paused briefly to give Chavez a look, occasionally rotating the floor to give him a better view, gave some background information, and moved on calmly. Chavez saw people with wasted bodies and grotesquely over-sized skulls, people with extra limbs growing out of their torso and waist, people with dead, rotting limbs still attached to their bodies, even multiple corpses in clear vats with warped flesh and, on one occasion, wings.
Finally they reached the end of the hall. Chavez breathed a sigh of relief and mopped his brow with his finely tailored suit sleeve. Castillo was unperturbed. He merely opened the door at the end of the hall and stepped inside. Chavez followed, a little apprehensively, and groaned as he saw yet more viewing windows. Going over to the first one, he was surprised and relieved to find nothing more than a large white rat twitching its whiskers at him. Castillo came up behind him, smirking. "With the multiple…failures…that we suffered while working with humans, we decided to downsize our experiments in both the size and the complexity of our experimental organisms. While working with earthworms, a breakthrough occurred. Rather than using serum and powders and other such medical paraphernalia, we discovered a new source of energy. This energy travels invisibly through the air, much like nuclear radiation. These discoveries are what we have been working on the past seven months. Now, with the perfection of a machine to capture and emit concentrated beams of this energy, we have tested it on several rodents. This was our first truly successful experiment."
Chavez looked closer at the rat. It seemed normal from a distance, but up close he could see it was much larger than any rat he had ever seen. Looking still closer, he could see muscle rippling under the rat's skin. He smiled. This was more like it. Castillo continued. "This rat has the strength of approximately twelve point seven four other rats working together." Chavez snorted. He was paying these people millions for precise calculations of rat strength. But there were so many scientists; he guessed they all had to do something.
Castillo continued. "We believe that if this effect were duplicated on a human, they would be able to lift a car above their head with ease, and most likely be able to throw it, too. We haven't done the calculations yet." Chavez snorted again, piggishly. That was a surprise. Castillo bowed perfunctorily and was silent.
Chavez straightened up. "Well, I believe that you have fulfilled all expectations with your machine. I want a human tested on, and once you are sure you have the procedure down correctly, I want you to contact…"
Castillo cut him off. "Hold on a minute, sir. I said this was our first experiment. There are still several others, and what they can do make this one look…look like a very poor example of the power of this machine." Chavez rolled his eyes. Castillo wasn't very good with similes. He wasn't connected closely enough to the real world to make them accurate.
Castillo crossed over to the next window, and Chavez, with a final satisfied glance at the powerful rat, followed. Inside was another rat, and Chavez couldn't help noticing it was much smaller and weaker looking than the one exposed to the machine. He sneered, and Castillo, seeing his expression, groaned inside. The man was a fool. It was a good thing that this rat was one of the most dramatically enhanced, though it certainly didn't look it. The rat in question bemusedly cleaned its whiskers, and Castillo leaned forward and pressed a button without saying anything, for once.
A small doorway opened in the side of the white walled box that the rat was being held in, and through the doorway leapt another rat, with dark fur and bared teeth. It looked vicious, and it flew through the air towards the smaller rat with murderous intent. The white rat turned and stared at the oncoming ball of rodent fury with the same calm expression it had given to cleaning its whiskers. Castillo shielded his eyes.
A ball of fire erupted from a point just in front of the smaller rat, roaring forward much like a type of flamethrower Castillo had once designed. The torrent of fire caught the oncoming rat full on, and Chavez watched dazedly as the rat was reduced, slowly and with the crackling of burning flesh, to a pile of ash and a few remnants of singed fur. The white rat blinked, yawned, and lay down with the obvious intention of taking a nap there and then.
Chavez laughed the laughter of one who has been shocked greatly and doesn't know how to react. Castillo smiled, and waited for what he knew was coming.
"Good trick, Castillo, good trick. You actually had me believing that that rat could breath fire. Excellent party trick."
Castillo sighed. "Did you see in that cell, any pipes or matches, any shimmer in the air that could have been gas, any opening in the walls of any kind except the one the rat came through, or anything at all aside from the two rats?"
Chavez shook his head.
Castillo sighed again. "Of course you didn't. The rat can summon a flame without any need of combustible materials or even a spark. It can just conjure it out of the air."
Chavez laughed again, but there was a strain of nervousness in that laugh. "You're actually serious."
Castillo nodded. "This is for real. The machine alters the baser chemical components of organisms while still allowing them to maintain their physical form. We have here, in other parts of the lab, rats that don't eat, rats that don't sleep, rats that can disappear and re-appear seemingly at will, rats that can bend light, rats that can walk on water…the list is endless. This room merely contains our favourite and most powerful rats. Shall we continue?"
Chavez nodded weakly, muttering under his breath. Castillo thought he heard the words, "…walk on water?" before they moved on to the next cell.
This cell had a rat that was barely recognisable. At first Chavez thought that it was another grossly over-muscled freak, but looking closer he realized that the rat was of average size. All of its fur was standing on end, giving it the look of a ball of fluff with legs. Chavez laughed, and even Castillo smiled. The rat turned to face them, and suddenly its fur went completely flat. Chavez stepped back in surprise, and Castillo grinned broadly. There was a crackling noise, and bolts of electricity leapt around the confined space, with the rat in the centre of them, still staring at Chavez. The lightning roared, and then died away as abruptly as it had appeared. The rat turned away, with all of its fur on end again, and Chavez got the impression of indigitation on its face, which was partially obscured by fur. Castillo explained.
"This one appears to have electricity building up inside it, much like static electricity you might get from a carpet. This room is made of non-conductive materials, so the electricity is simply reabsorbed back into its body. Every now and then we must drain the rat of electricity completely, or else it will explode like our first three." Castillo made a note on a whiteboard on the wall next to the glass window. The notice read: 'Serial Number 14534 in need of draining." Chavez had already moved on the next window with child-like glee. Looking at his face, you would think that all his Christmases had come at once. In a way, they had.
The next window had a rat on the ceiling. It was just sitting there, blatantly and unknowingly defying all rules of gravity with an expression of absolute peace on its face. Chavez shook his head. So much for Sir Isaac Newton.
"This one is a mystery to us. It seems to create its own field of gravity and just move wherever it wants to. It is one of our stranger experiments, and the one that irritates me the most." Castillo shook his head in resignation.
Chavez rolled his eyes. Aside from him, the only thing that could possibly annoy Castillo would be to not know something. They moved on.
The next fifteen minutes were fascinating. They saw rats with speed, rats that commanded other rats, rats that could jump ten times their height, rats that could freeze (both the ice and the turn-to-stone variety) and all manner of strange and impossible variations on the laws of nature. Chavez was astounded. This project could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, and he had some pretty wild dreams when it came to money. At the very least, he could make a very profitable rat circus. He turned to Castillo in wild excitement.
"How did you do this?"
He immediately regretted his words. Castillo launched into a long and complex explanation that left Chavez completely in the dark. He caught the words 'quantum', 'reality' and 'fissionable material'. Finally, when he heard 'brief explanation of the theories of space and time' he held up a hand.
"OK, OK. I don't need to know how the blasted machine works, as long as it works. You have convinced me. We start mass production now."
Castillo blanched. Mass production was to be the final stage in their project, where they would create hundreds of super soldiers from…volunteers…and perform some brainwashing to make them easier to command and control. That procedure was still in the early stages and Castillo did not expect mass production to go ahead for some months. Indeed, it was not even close to being ready.
"We cannot go into mass production today," Castillo almost whined in surprise. "The mind altering techniques are not yet complete. We have no test subjects. We will need at least several months before we are ready to even consider mass production."
Chavez shook his head. "Get me a test subject. You have so many people here; surely one of them could be convinced to volunteer. I want a super solider, and I want one today. You are going to get me one, or I will cut your funding."
Castillo reeled inside. The ultimate threat was one to his funding. He turned and passed through a large set of double doors that led back into the main chamber. He opened his mouth and bellowed a set of inconceivable instructions into the chaos. They had an electric effect. The hectic mass froze, and every scientist turned and stared at Castillo, mouths open. Silence reigned. Chavez squirmed at all the eyes fixed on them. Castillo surveyed them haughtily. "What are you waiting for?" he snapped.
The scientists turned and plunged back into the familiar noise and swarming movement. Chavez noticed something was different now. Each scientist now wore a tight expression, and had a wild look in their eyes. In some, the expression was of fear, in others, excitement. Chavez shook his head again. He remembered a saying he had heard somewhere. "There is no genius without a touch of madness," he said, and Castillo looked at him with something that looked remarkably like respect in his eyes.
"Yes. We are mad, and from our madness will come the beauty of science. It has begun. The future marches on, and it cannot be halted. We begin now." Castillo marched forward, always the showman. Chavez rolled his eyes, but even he appreciated the gravity of the situation. If the machine worked on a human, a new race would be born. Humans would be rendered obsolete in as little time as a decade, and most likely war would ravage the planet. He planned to be on the side that would earn him the most money and power. And that, he realized, was the altered side. A wild excitement gripped him and he followed Castillo, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around.
"Test it on me."
Castillo's face went through various stages of absolute shock and surprise. He was silent for over a minute, contemplating the ramifications of what Chavez had just said. If Chavez died in the experiment, they could cover it up. Kill the limo driver; make it look like an accident. And if Chavez died, his son would take over the enterprise. Castillo considered. He liked Chavez's son. He was easily controlled. Still, he felt it his duty to at least make a token effort to stop Chavez.
"Remember the blobs, sir." Castillo said warningly. "Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
Chavez was getting less sure by the minute. His wild excitement was beginning to fade against the prospect of death. " What are the odds of failure?"
Castillo was honest. "About one in three billon. But…"
Chavez held up a hand. "No buts. I will take the chance. Fire up the machine."
Castillo was indignant. Fire up the machine indeed! It was a very sensitive piece of equipment! Which needed his attention, he remembered. He turned and started pressing buttons on a computer terminal at extreme speed. His hands reminded Chavez of a concert pianist he had seen in France. Every movement quick yet precise, every flicker of his hands holding purpose, his face clenched in tight focus. The machine instantly responded, coolant tubes hissing and diodes on the sides flashing intently. Castillo watched the sequence of flashes, and resumed pressing buttons with increased fervour. Chavez watched in apprehension as the large metal egg of the machine swivelled and revealed a large hatch in the side. A tap on his shoulder made him jump, and he looked behind him to see two scientists beckoning him. He followed them up to the hatchway, biting his stubby fingernails in nervousness. He calmed himself by repeating Castillo's words. One in three billon, he thought desperately. One in three billion. The words were scant comfort.
Finally, they were at the hatch. Chavez peered inside. It was white and straight, and reminded Chavez unpleasantly of a coffin. He prodded the machine experimentally. It sat there. He sighed, and gave Castillo a meaningful look from where he stood. Castillo rolled his eyes and tapped a button. The chamber and entrance widened considerably. Chavez stepped inside daintily, if a morbidly obese man can ever step daintily. Turning uncomfortably, the last sight Chavez would ever see greeted his eyes. Hundreds of men in white coats, staring upwards at him as if he were a god. He could see the reverence and respect in their eyes. As last sights go, it wasn't bad. He smirked. Let's see how much more reverence I get when I can set them on fire, he thought meanly. So much for appreciation. The hatch hissed closed, and Chavez was engulfed in darkness.
Outside, Castillo was really getting into the spirit of things. If Chavez thought he was moving fast before, he was wrong. His hands were a blur, and sweat poured off his brow. The others turned their reverential eyes on him. The man had a soul of silicon and a mind of megabytes, said some of the technicians. He lived, he existed for his computers. Some others joked that he certainly wasn't promoted to his exalted position for his social skills. They would be right.
The symphony was drawing to a close. Castillo tapped out yet more commands and the machine began to glow with a deep red light. Some of the scientists shielded their eyes, but most had weak eyesight from years of working at computer terminals, and they continued to look on. Castillo, bathed in red light like a demon from the depths of hell, tapped out one final command, and a bright red button emerged from beneath a panel on the control pad. Castillo flung up an arm, and flourished his hand.
"The future!" he cried, and pressed the button.
There was a shudder in the ground.
One in three billion is still a chance.
There was a roaring sound.
A flash of light.
And the lab erupted in a torrent of noise and flame, consuming Castillo and the luckless scientists and sending a beam of pure energy straight into the world's atmosphere.