Chapter Twenty-three

Colin was quiet on the way back to his place, but I knew he wasn't truly upset at me. Not truly. Besides, he knew I was right – if there was any way of saving Dante and getting to the bottom of this Beast Syndrome business, I was the one most likely to know where to start.

I wasn't surprised to see Susan there. I was, however, surprised to see her wandering out of Colin's bedroom wearing nothing but his blue button-up. She didn't even notice me until Colin audibly cleared his throat and she glanced up, blinking and narrowing her eyes but obediently turning around and shuffling back into his room. I glanced at my uncle, but he avoided my gaze, looking slightly more uncomfortable than before.

"Nice legs," I commented.

"I know," he said.

A few minutes later, Susan returned clothed in a pair of slacks and a shirt of her own, her messy bed hair pulled into a ponytail and two mugs of coffee in her hands.

"Oh god that looks wonderful," I nearly drooled. She smirked and handed me one of the mugs, sipping at her own. Colin pulled out two rolled of paper from a corner of the room and spread them out on the livingroom table. One was a simple AAA map of the city, labeled streets and all. The second was what appeared to be a blueprint of the underground sewage system across the bay area.

"From what Dante mentioned, I've quarantined our search to the east bay here," he circled an area on the blueprint with a finger. "There are several warehouses in the area, and they're close enough to the bay that he could have smelled the saltwater. There's also a well-known part of the tenderloin nearby, which is where he claimed to have been found."

I glanced over the map, puzzling together bits and pieces of my memory. "He was found here." I indicated a spot on the blueprint a few blocks down from where Colin had initially pointed. Colin looked up at me.

"How do you know?" he asked.

"He showed me," I replied.

"I thought –"

" –he didn't know. Me too. But he did. He showed me." Colin frowned, but I continued. There was no time for unnecessary explanations. "Dante said he vaguely remembers seeing white horses in the distance and the smell of sewage when he escaped."

"White horses?" Susan interrupted. I gestured across the bay at a small peninsula. Her eyebrows raised in understanding.

"He must have seen the cranes," Colin muttered. "Which places him around –"

"Here," I pointed to a square on the blueprint. "And that's also right next to a major sewage vent, which is probably why the smell was so pungent."

"You've got quite the detective there, Colin," Susan remarked with a curl of her lips. Colin ignored her and shot toward his room, returning a few seconds later with his laptop, which he propped up on the table. He opened a minimized window to reveal a document with three columns of numbers.

"What's this?" I asked.

"The date is here, on the left-most side, and the numbers on the next column indicate district areas, each with their own distinct number, and each about five to ten blocks in diameter. The final column indicates the average voltage level, in megawatts, of the electrical energy provided to that area on that day. Now looking at the area you mentioned, most of the numbers indicate low levels of electrical energy used in the area. However, looking back on the fifth of January, two years ago, there was a suddenly spike in energy right here." Colin pointed to a row, where the third column showed a distinct rise in megawatts.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means, for some reason, a surge of electricity was required in this previously, seemingly abandoned area. Considering the levels are back to zero the next day, we can assume this was a temporary need, as the laboratory is likely generating its own energy through generators hooked up to a separate line. This suggests that during his escape, Dante may have blown one of the generators, forcing the lab to sap some electricity from the public outlets while the generator was fixed."

"So if we match up that area code with a cross section on the map or blueprints…" I began. Colin finished for me.

"We can find the lab they're keeping Dante."

Despite the ease in which we figured out the mode of investigation, putting plans into action was a lot harder. Neither the map nor the sewers were marked with the section numbers from the online data files, so it required several hours of looking up federal websites, Colin's accessible city files, and, finally, resorting to slightly not-so-legal measures of hacking into the regional database. Susan typed away at the laptop with practiced ease, giving off the impression that this wasn't her first time investigating this section of the net.

"Check this out," she said, drawing our attention away from the maps. We convened behind her seat as she clicked open a file.

"Are you on the regional mainframe?"

"Yep. Check this out."

"Project Titan?" Colin read as a page popped up, screening several articles, sketches, diagrams, and folders.

"'Project Titan Patented in 2015 to Rawlins and Co. Supervised by Dr. James Hatfield at Michigan State Research Facility…'" Susan scrolled down, skipping over the legal fine print. "'President McArthur approved commencement of Project Titan on January 3rd, 2016… Secretary of Defense Michelle Freud supplying resources and funds…' Jesus, they're all involved."

"What is Project Titan?" I asked, dreading the answer. Susan opened an outlying folder. A page popped up, covered in new information.

"'Project Titan is an enterprise of modern opportunity combining all new biological and medical achievements to create a hormone-targeting drug for military use that would substantially increase strength, endurance, and regenerative properties of front-line soldiers.'"

"Who the hell ever thought this would be a good idea?" I muttered bitterly.

"Apparently, lots of people," Colin replied. "Does it say anything about where the research was being held?"

"Give me a minute," Susan muttered, scrolling down. "Ah, here. 'Dr. Hatfield began preliminary research for Project Titan at the Michigan State Research Facility in East Lansing, Michigan. Hatfield hired four employees, two graduate students, two professional' yadda yadda… ah, here we go. 'Project Titan relocated to the San Francisco Medical Institute of Pharmaceutical Research on July 16th, 2017 after legal complications.'"

"No shit," I interrupted.

"Basically, from what I've been skimming over, it seems Project Titan was relocated at least three times before settling in San Francisco. After a string of failures upon reaching the experimental stage, however, it seems that the project was abandoned." Susan scrolled around. "There's nothing else in here."

I frowned. "That's not possible. It's clearly still going on."

Susan shrugged. "Maybe the government abandoned it and Hatfield decided to continue the project on his own."

"I doubt that," Colin said. "There's no way Rawlins or Freud would allow BS to be circulated around the city with the possibility of it being connected back to them without kicking up some major drug regulations. They've got to be connected somehow."

"It doesn't matter," I pressed impatiently. "Is there anything that could help us find where Dante is?"

"I'm looking," Susan replied. "There's a lot of information, this might take a while. Look, why don't you go back to Dante's and look through his stuff. Maybe he has more information about where he escaped from."

"Fine, I'll go check," I acquiesced, before something on the screen caught my eye. "Hey, what's that?" I asked, pointing to a folder named 'Experiments.'

Susan clicked on the folder, and immediately a video file popped up, the date April 4th, 2016 on the bottom of the screen. The video was dim and pixelated, but clear enough that we could see a person strapped to a chair, two people in lab coats – faced hidden by white medical masks – monitoring blood pressure and vital signs on a series of small computers the subject had been wired to. The subject was young – probably in his mid-twenties – with messy hair and short beard growth, looking like someone recently pulled off the streets. He was completely naked. He looked both apprehensive and excited, watching the nurses flit about.

"Experimental unit number forty-two," we heard someone mumble off-screen in the deep voice of an older man. "Human subject volunteer number one. Favorable signs shown in twenty mice, eleven rabbits, seven dogs, and three chimpanzees. Administering twenty percent dose of Titan two-point-one."

One of the nurses approached the subject with a thin syringe, slipping the needle up the man's inner arm. Slowly pushing the drug into his system, the nurse stepped back, and silence filled the room, interrupted by the occasional blip from the monitors. Nothing happened for a few minutes, the subject appearing bored, until suddenly, he stiffened. The man's breathing accelerated, the beeping of the monitors speeding up, and he released a small chuckle.

"How are you feeling?" the unidentified voice asked.

"Good," the subject rumbled. "Fucking great, actually." The sounds off the monitors accelerated, and I began to see a slight shifting of the man's physique – the muscles around his arms and legs throbbing and bulging almost unnaturally. The beeping began to even out at a rapid, but stable, speed.

"We are going to check the rejuvenation properties now. Please let me know if you feel any pain."

"Sure," the subject answered, flexing a hand under the restrictive straps. "Whatever, man."

A nurse walked up to him with a small scalpel and neatly slashed open a thin horizontal stripe along his bicep. The man in the chair didn't even flinch, and I could just barely see the skin of the wound knit itself back together. The nurse then pulled out a long, sharp, rounded object, and stabbed into the flesh of his thigh. The subject laughed.

"That fucking feels weird," he said, as the nurse pulled it out, and stepped away, revealing a small, gaping hole that slowly closed itself before much blood could spill.

"It seems we have a success," the background voice said. "We will need to monitor your progress, of course, and these doses are temporary, so –"

Suddenly, the man was interrupted as the subject let out a loud curse. I swallowed as the subject suddenly started shifting in his chair.

"Fuck, what's going on?" the man asked, voice raised. "It's starting to hurt, doc. It fucking hurts now. Jesus Christ what the fuck?"

"Chris? Chris, look at me. Where does it hurt?"

"Fucking… shit everywhere," the subject, Chris, replied. He suddenly screamed and began writhing in the chair. I watched, a sick apprehension building in my stomach as the beeping on the monitors began increasing in speed again. The nurses began injecting other substances into the IV he was tied to, and a mix of curses, mutterings, bustling, and blood-curdling screams began to fill the room, the poor quality of sound doing little to alleviate the horror. Chris suddenly began tearing at his restraints, howling, and I could see his body contorting even more, one side practically ballooning into swollen, fleshy parts. Someone shouted something indiscernible above the clamor, which was drowned out by the subject ripping out of one of the arm-restraints, and throwing one of the nurses across the room. The monitors screamed. Chris was just attempting to rip out of his second restraint, when suddenly he sized up, and with one last shriek, exploded.

I winced, flinching away from the screen with a grimace as chunks of flesh flew across the room. Curses rang through the room, and I could hear the breaking of glass and groan of the prostrated nurse off-screen. It quieted, the monitor flat-lining. Chris hadn't entirely exploded – but his chest was completely caved out, as if his heart had flown out of his chest. Two glistening ribs stuck out at awkward angles, blood and gore dribbling down his chest and legs, pooling at his feet. I felt sick. Susan immediately closed the window, hardly waiting for the video to finish.

"What the fuck?" Colin breathed. I could see, from the corner of my eyes, the pallor of his face and a sheen of sweat over his upper lip and brow.

"I'm gonna be sick," Susan muttered, flying from her seat toward the bathroom. I stumbled back into the couch, sitting down and trying to calm my stomach and keep the hospital meal that was threatening to come heaving up.

Glancing back at the computer screen, I could see the folder, now open, lined with dozens of videos of other experiments. Every single one was headed with FAILURE. I ran to the other bathroom.

Once all of us were sufficiently recuperated, Colin volunteered to take me to Dante's house to gather any viable document. The drive there was silent. The road was dark and sparsely populated. The clock on the car radio blinked 3:28am. Somehow I hadn't realized how late it was, and suddenly I felt exhausted, despite the apparently two-days' rest I had. I could tell my uncle felt the same way, his eyes heavy and his face still slightly pale. Once at Dante's house, I found the door unlocked (thankful that I didn't need to have Colin kick it in). It was relatively clean, the hole in the wall still boarded up, and brought forth a kind of depression. I didn't like being in this house all alone. Or rather, without Dante. Colin stood awkwardly at the entrance, eyeing the interior with apprehension. I quickly made for Dante's room, and with little investigation, found the suitcase in his closet.

Once we returned to Colin's house, I set the suitcase on the table and opened up the keypad. It took a few tries, since I didn't remember the exact combination Dante had given me on the night he'd had me open it. Finally, the suitcase gave an audible click and opened dutifully. There was only one syringe of BS remaining, the rest empty, or, as I suddenly noticed, the needles cracked. I rattled the canister he usually kept his spares in, and found one lonesome pill, which I handed to Susan.

"Holy shit," she breathed, twisting the pill around in her fingers. "I've been wanting to get my hands on one of these for ages. Purely for research purposes, of course," she added, noticing our expressions.

"See what you can find out about it," I said tiredly. "If there's a cure, we need it. Dante needs it."

"Sean, you should go get some rest," Colin said gently. "You're still recuperating from the attack."

"I'm fine," I insisted, tussling out the papers from the suitcase.

"You'll be no help to Dante in your condition, Sean," Colin insisted. "Look, if anything comes up, we'll wake you up ok? I promise."

I hesitated, then nodded. "Fine. But anything comes up, you get me."

"Promise," Colin repeated. I sighed, my eyes already closing over my eyes, and stumbled into the guest room, asleep almost as soon as I hit the bed.

...

.:Author's Note:. Waaah. Sorry for the really late update. This study abroad program has been kicking my arse in terms of study habits. Anyway, sorry for the rather uneventful chapter. I added some pretty gory details in there just for kicks. Ok, so no, but seriously.

Thanks for all the reviews!

- Kerrigas