Playing God

J. B. Tilton

PROLOGUE

It was snowing when the truck pulled up to the gate. A man dressed in a military uniform, wearing the rank of lieutenant, stepped up to the driver's side of the truck with a clipboard in hand. Two other men, enlisted by their rank insignia, stood nearby with M-16's cocked and ready for any trouble.

"Identification," said the lieutenant.

The driver handed two identification cards down to the officer. One belonged to the driver, the other belonged to another man seated in the cab next to him.

The two men in the cab of the truck were enlisted, like the two gunmen standing nearby. It was clear that they took their jobs very seriously. They sat in their seats as the lieutenant looked the ID cards over, and then compared them with their owners.

"What is your designation?" asked the lieutenant.

"Star 4," responded the driver.

"Destination?" asked the lieutenant.

"Masters Institute," responded the driver.

"Cargo?" asked the lieutenant.

"Proto-Synthoid, Model GC-110-A-293. The unit is being transferred for completion of synthesis," responded the driver.

"Challenge for today is Silverbird," said the lieutenant. "What is the response?"

The driver of the truck looked over at his companion. Then he looked back at the lieutenant.

"The response is Tango 7," said the driver.

The lieutenant checked the information against what was written on his clipboard. Apparently satisfied with the answers, he looked at his watch.

"It is now exactly 18:35 hours," said the lieutenant. "Your ETA at Masters Institute is 20:12 hours. Remember, gentlemen, do not delay your arrival at the Institute. Good luck."

He turned and nodded to one of the guards. The guard stepped into the guard shack and pressed a button. The gates slowly opened, allowing the truck to pass through. The driver of the truck saluted, and the lieutenant returned the salute. The truck passed through the gates and proceeded into the gathering darkness.

The lieutenant stepped into the guard shack and picked up a telephone receiver. He pressed a button and waited for several moments until it was answered at the other end.

"This is the front gate," he said. "Star 4 departed for Masters Institute at 18:35 hours." He hung up the receiver.

The road down the small mountain was a winding, treacherous route. But the driver had driven it many times. He knew each curve and twist of the road intimately. Carefully he began the long winding journey that led to the highway below.

Masters Institute was on a nearby mountain. It was a secured military installation with electric fences, armed guards, private surveillance cameras, and just about every other known security device.

The route between the two installations was little traveled by the public. It was chosen for just that reason. And with the bad weather that had recently set in, there was little doubt that the journey would be lonely.

It was just after 7:30 when the truck began one of the more treacherous turns on the route. As the driver applied the brakes to slow their momentum, the pedal went all the way to the floor. The truck continued to pick up speed.

The driver quickly downshifted hoping that this would slow them down. He also began to pump the brake pedal. All to no avail. The steep incline caused the truck to pick up speed as it continued down the mountain.

The truck was beginning to slow its descent as they rounded another turn. Just as the driver thought he finally had the truck under control, a large portion on the edge of the roadway gave way, sending the truck tumbling over.

It rolled over several time before coming to rest in a clump of trees and bushes several yards from the road. The driver and passenger were dead before the truck had come to rest. The heavily falling snow was already beginning to eradicate any evidence that the truck had passed that way.

As it stopped rolling, lying on its side, a large metal container was thrown from the back of the truck. It rolled several times and then slid into a nearby stream. It bobbed beneath the surface several times, and then sat floating on the surface.

The current of the stream caught the container and began to carry it away from the accident sight. It floated down stream for several hours. Finally, it came to rest in a small inlet underneath a fallen tree. The snow quickly covered it, making it blend in inconspicuously with the surrounding countryside. Within less than half an hour, it was completely obscured from sight.

At 8:44 p.m. a gate guard at Masters Institute picked up the phone in his guard shack. A voice answered at the other end.

"This is Lieutenant Goddard at the main gate. Star 4 is 32 minutes overdue." The lieutenant returned the phone to its cradle, and then returned to his duties.

A Colonel inside the institution was already being briefed on the delay in Star 4. He listened as the Major explained the cargo, the time it left Anders Institute, and that it was now late. The Colonel thought for a moment.

"Major, declare a level three alert. I'll inform the general immediately."

As the Major began to initiate the level three alert, the Colonel returned to his office. He sat down at his desk and lit a cigarette. Then he picked up the phone and pressed a button on the phone.

"General Walters, please. This is Colonel Stone. This is a Priority 2 call."

Several moments later, General Walters answered the phone.

"General Walters here. What is this about a Priority 2, Colonel?"

"General, we have a situation," said the Colonel. "Star 4 carrying an incomplete Proto-Synthoid from Anders Institute has not arrived, sir. It was scheduled to arrive at 20:12 hours. I've initiated a level three alert."

"Alright, Colonel," said the General. "Send out search parties. If Star 4 is not found by 21:12 hours, go to level two. I'll be in the command post if anything develops."

"Understood, sir," said the Colonel.

He replaced the phone on its cradle. He thought about the possible alternatives that could have happened to Star 4. None were scenarios he cared to think about. Whatever happened, he knew that it was going to be a long night.

CHAPTER ONE

The conference room was empty except for a small handful of men. General Waiters sat at the head of the table. Sitting next to him was Colonel Stone on his left and Major Hendricks on his right.

Senator Walter Greenspan sat next to Colonel Stone and Representative Joseph Ballinger sat next to him. Next to Major Hendricks sat Dr. William J. Ambecrombe and next to him sat Dr. William Peterson. Next to Dr. Peterson sat a man apparently in his mid-30s, dressed in a suit.

Everyone in the room had been briefed on the events of the night before. Senator Greenspan of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Representative Ballinger of the House Appropriations Committee had been making an inspection tour of the facility when word came that the Synthoid unit had disappeared.

"Senator, gentlemen," began General Walters, "you've all been briefed on the situation. I want to assure you that everything that can be done is being done to retrieve the unit. We expect to have the unit back shortly."

"General," spoke up Senator Greenspan, "I called this meeting because I want to make sure of the situation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it, a piece of government equipment worth in excess of 178 million dollars just vanished?"

"Not exactly, Senator," said the General. "The best we can determine is that the bad weather caused the truck carrying the unit to leave the road. We've begun an extensive search of the entire route. But the weather is pretty bad and our efforts are being hampered."

"Semantics, General," retorted the Senator. "What it boils down to is that you've lost it."

"There is a homing beacon on the containment unit that houses the Synthoid," spoke up Major Hendricks.

"So what's the problem?" interjected Congressman Ballinger. "Just trace the signal to the unit and retrieve it."

"It's not that simple," said the General. "Apparently the homing beacon is malfunctioning. We can't get a solid fix on it."

"But you can find it?" asked Ballinger.

"No doubt about it," responded the General. "It's just a matter of time."

"I hope so," said Dr. Peterson. Everyone turned to Peterson.

"What do you mean, doctor?" asked the Senator.

Peterson took a deep breath before he continued.

"Senator," he said, "as you know we also have a monitoring device on the self-containment unit. We all know how important it is to monitor the biological activity of the Synthoid.

"The monitor apparently is working fine. Except . . . the self-containment unit seems to have been damaged. The suspension gas is leaking out. I would estimate that it will completely leak out within fourteen hours."

"What does that mean?" asked the Senator.

"The suspension gas keeps the Synthoid in a docile state. We always use the gas while transporting the units here for their programming. Up 'till now, we've had no trouble with them.

"However, once the gas escapes, the Synthoid will become active. It will probably leave its self-containment unit. While it hasn't been programmed with any memory or skills yet, it is comparable to someone with amnesia."

"Is it dangerous?" asked Ballinger.

"I don't know. Its enhanced strength must be considered. It is conceivable that, if it should happen across another person, it could kill that person unintentionally. I think that the chances of that are remote at best. But that is not my main concern."

"Just what is your main concern, doctor?" asked Senator Greenspan. His patience was beginning to wear and there was a strain in his voice.

Peterson looked at Ambecrombe who had sat silent until now. It was clear that Peterson was hesitant to continue; unsure of how the news would be taken. He looked at Ambecrombe, who just nodded, then continued.

"As you know, gentlemen, we use a variety of exotic drugs in the production of the Synthoids. One of those drugs is called Dextallon 4. Dextallon 4 was initially used for people with Downs Syndrome, but was less than effective for those purposes, so it was discontinued.

"However, the effects that it has on human cells made it perfect for our purposes. It is, in fact, the bonding agent that completes the production of the Synthoids.

"I won't bore you with a lot of technical jargon that you probably wouldn't understand anyway. I'll make it as simple as possible.

"We combine human DNA with the synthetic material we produce to create the organs and other organic parts of the Synthoids. But the process requires a bonding agent that causes the synthetic material and the natural DNA to adhere to one another.

"We found that bonding agent in Dextallon 4. In fact, it is the only thing we've found that will work as a bonding agent. Without it, there would be no Synthoids."

"Get on with it, doctor," said Greenspan, all patience now gone from his voice.

"I am," said Ambecrombe. "The bonding agent isn't introduced into the Synthoids until their mental programming is complete. That way, if there's a problem with the Synthoid, we can just lock it away and it will sort of self-destruct."

"What do you mean, 'self-destruct'?" asked Colonel Stone. Stone was a military man. He knew, or cared, little about all this high tech science fiction stuff.

"To put it simply," continued Ambecrombe, "without the bonding agent, the cells of a Synthoid begin to break down into their constituent components. Within a short time the entire unit is rendered into what we could call a genetic stew. Unit GC-110-A-293 was never injected with Dextallon 4."

"So our problem is solved," said Greenspan. "If we just wait, the unit will become this genetic stew, and we don't have to worry about it."

"I'm afraid it's not that easy, Senator," responded Ambecrombe. "You see, the cellular deterioration sets in after 172 hours. It continues for approximately 127 hours, at which time it is irreversible. The unit will then be rendered unconscious and the entire unit will break down within 84 hours.

"But the problem is that after the deterioration sets in, the unit's immune system begins to malfunction. It becomes extremely aggressive, not waiting for foreign viruses to invade it. It goes in search of them. In effect, Senator, the unit becomes a walking carrier. Anyone it comes into contact with risks contamination and infection by the unit's immune system."

"Just what type of infection are we talking about here, doctor?" asked Greenspan. His words were slow and deliberate. He knew that he was not going to like the answer.

"Because of the unit's human DNA, it is capable of biological activity as a real human. In this instance, it begins to manufacture the diseases that are most common to Homo sapiens. In this way, its body will begin to produce the antibodies necessary to fight these diseases. It will carry virtually every known disease."

No one in the room spoke. Even those who weren't scientists knew what Dr. Ambecrombe was saying. But they didn't want to admit it. The implications were too horrible to consider. Finally, Dr. Ambecrombe voiced what everyone else already knew.

"This unit's organic body, if it is not recovered within 186 hours, will begin the cellular deterioration. It will also begin producing just about every disease we've ever heard of, transmitting these diseases to anyone it comes into contact with. They, in turn, will continue to spread these diseases to people they come into contact with.

"Because the material used in the construction of the Synthoids is artificial, many of these diseases will mutate before they leave the body. Inoculation against them would be impossible. And even if it was possible, most humans couldn't withstand the massive introduction of the drugs into their systems that would be needed to protect them against the diseases. And there just isn't enough vaccine to go around.

"What I'm describing to you, gentlemen, is a plague of such immense proportions, that the Black Death in Europe would be look like nothing more than a cold by comparison."

"Are we talking about a worldwide epidemic, doctor?" asked Greenspan.

"Yes," said Ambecrombe. "And much more. We could be facing the end of the human race. No one would be immune. Anyone who comes into contact with an infected person would in turn be infected by every disease we know of. The immune systems of those people wouldn't be able to handle such an introduction all at one.

"When compared with this, AIDS would be considered a minor annoyance. No one would survive. Millions would die. Eventually, no one would be able to fight off the diseases. The human race would cease to exist."

The group sat in stunned silence. Most of the men were prepared for the possibility of mass destruction on a worldwide basis. Political and racial tensions that existed in the world, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, made such an event a distinct possibility.

But none of them were prepared for this. The end of the human race. And not by any aggression between neighbors that might erupt into world war. But by a simple accident. Senator Greenspan finally composed himself.

"What are our options, doctor?"

"Well," said Ambecrombe, "Our first option is that we find the unit while it is still in suspension. We would then simply return it here and the matter would be closed.

"Our second option is that we find it before the 172 hour time limit runs out. In that case, we can still return it to the lab and inject it with the Dextallon 4.

"But we have one other option. If we can't find it before the time limit runs out," he removed a small vial from his pocket, "we can use this. It's Sallinine. We developed it just for this type of emergency. Once the Synthoid is injected with Sallinine, the genetic breakdown is enhanced. It will completely break down within a matter of minutes instead of hours."

"Isn't that dangerous?" asked Ballinger.

"No," said Ambecrombe. "The breakdown is too rapid for the immune system to be effected. It will stop the spread of the diseases and I think we can handle anything that occurs before that, if it's not too advanced."

"How do we get to the Synthoid to use this?" asked Greenspan.

"That's where I come in," said the man in the suit. He had sat quietly through the entire exchange, not even offering a comment.

"Senator, Congressman, this is Mark Phillips," said Colonel Stone. "With your authorization, we can send Mark out to find the Synthoid. If he can return it to the lab, he will. But if he finds it too late, he can inject it with the Sallinine and solve our problems."

"Can you find the Synthoid?" asked Greenspan.

"Absolutely," respond Phillips. "My . . . special training allows me to track down individuals."

"What do you need my authorization for?" asked Greenspan. "If this man can accomplish the job, why hasn't he been sent out already? We can't have a Synthoid loose on an unsuspecting public."

"Because," said Phillips, "I am not a man. I am a Synthoid very similar to the one that was lost."

Greenspan and Ballinger stared at Phillips. He looked just like any other person. The two Congressional leaders could hardly believe that he was a synthetic being.

"Mark was one of our first successes," said Dr. Peterson. "He's been with us since 1977. Model GC-501-HT-123. He's a Hunter/Terminator. His special function is tracking and eliminating unwanted or dangerous targets."

"And," said Dr. Ambecrombe, "physically he's a match for the lost unit. We can't say that about our other men. If it becomes necessary to destroy the unit, Mark wouldn't hesitate as many humans might. He'd carry out his orders without question."

"What makes him any different than our regular men?" asked Greenspan.

"One of the drugs we use," said Dr. Ambecrombe, "is called Liscertanic Acid. LCA was developed in the 1940s as a possible method to help control violent psychiatric patients. Its use was quickly discontinued when it was discovered that it represses emotional response in human beings. The repression was so dangerous that it could result in a personality conversion of these individuals into psychopathic tendencies.

"Liscertanic Acid is necessary in the production of the Synthoids because it is one of the primary drugs that activates the learning processes of the Synthoids. But using it in the creation of the Synthoids eliminates any emotional response in the Synthoids.

"Most humans have an emotional aversion to taking another life, even if they know it's synthetic. We won't have that problem with Mark. He'll follow his orders without any emotional entanglements whatsoever. He's the perfect choice."

Greenspan and Ballinger looked at each other for a moment. If something went wrong, they would have two "lost" units. Politically and personally the results could be disastrous. But considering the alternative, it seemed an acceptable risk.

"Okay," said Greenspan, "do whatever it takes. But find that missing unit as quickly as possible. If word of this project was to reach Capitol Hill, we could all be in a great deal of trouble."

"Don't worry, Senator," said General Walters, "that won't happen. We should have everything settled within a few hours. Then we can return to normal."

"It had better, General," said Walters.

The small group broke up and the men left the room. Several minutes later, Mark Phillips and Dr. Ambecrombe were in a lab.

"Mark, you know what's at stake here," said Ambecrombe.

"Yes, Doctor," said the Synthoid, his voice devoid of any emotions.

"Good." Ambecrombe handed Phillips two vials. "Here are the Dextallon 4 and Sallinine. Locate the lost unit and do what has to be done. If it has not become aware, use the Dextallon 4. Then return it back to the lab.

"But if it has become aware, then under no circumstances is it to be captured. Use the Sallinine and use whatever cover story you have to. But we can't let the news of our latest development get out. Our research is at a critical stage right now."

"I understand," said Mark.

"Good," said Ambecrombe. "And don't forget to take your pills with you. That way you won't have to worry about eating until you've returned the unit."

Phillips didn't answer but simply took the two vials and placed them in his pocket. Then he turned and left the room. Less than an hour later, he was driving out the main gate following the signal from the monitoring device located on the self-containment unit.