He coughed again, into his fist. The silver-walled auditorium was a house strictly divided, though its intimate dimensions enforced proximity upon both factions; they sat on either side of the central aisle in their labcoats and baize-red biohazard scrubs, consuming every detail of the dissertation. Shaw sat before the fixed seating on a separate chair. He turned and glanced toward the rear at Josephine while the balding senior technician charged with oversight of all incoming materia ceased his sonorous account and referred to the projector, stepping backward from the whiteboard. He flipped through anterior and posterior views of the cadaver, through images of oxidizing reds and marbled blue-greys. Where asphalt had worn away the skin, the evening-primrose hue of subcutaneous fat formed broad quilted fields, giving way to shaggy, flaccid muscle, then glistening bone.
“Rachelle Addison Whateley, age twenty seven, nulliparous Caucasian female. Toxicology and biopsies indicated sustained abuse of scripted synthetics but no major pathologies. Some of the damage you’re seeing was post-mortem... all is consistent with the report submitted by our witness. None of this looks ritualistic or sexually motivated, so we’re happy that this is just the result of a disorganized opportunist attack.” The man slid his laser pointer into the pocket of his trousers. “I’m aware that there has been... criticism of the decision to relocate the material immediately after the exam." He waved down the hands that rose in response to his reference. "We were labouring under a number of constraints in real time, but samples were taken and submitted... and as you may have already heard, we found something of considerable interest."
Checked once more by his throat, the man coughed loudly in the midst of transferring further data to the projector and took a moment to gaze down at the screen of his laptop, its glow reflected in his eyes while the auditorium returned to silence.
“Taken from inside an open crush fracture of the Atlas arch. It’s at two hundred times.” He squinted up at the intricate retiform pattern, picked out from a complex of interrelated translucence by the paler green delineating its interlocking diamonds. A minute circle pieced the middle of each tiny scale so that the configuration, taken as a whole, resembled the layered thatch of a butterfly’s wing. “Epidermal material... from one of our most elusive target species.”
The speaker slid a chair out from the desk beneath the projector and selected a face from amongst those clamouring for attention on the right side of the room, taking his question with a slow nod.
“This is standard polarized?”
“It is. The first of three fragments we extracted from the cadaver, all from digital contact with the fractures in the victim’s neck.”
“Did you get any into a stain before degradation?” Two hundred gazes, both glassed and naked, fell to the senior technician.
“We still have the samples." the latter replied, succumbing to dramatic timing. "They’re proving stable.” Another, half-skeptical silence broke under the weight of two hundred competing demands. “There’s some nominal enzyme activity, but it’s profoundly retarded, so we finally have our pound of flesh... so to speak. Yes...” He indicated another inquiry.
“I think it’s safe to say that this argues against the conventional mammalian theory. They’re been assigned to the C class of catalogued anthropomorphs, and given the species number five.”
“So... the lizard guys win?” exclaimed a technician sitting behind Shaw. Leaden, humourless acrimony was exchanged as parties settled wagers, some refusing to accept the prima facie evidence and weathering the disgust elicited by their intransigence. Above the noise generated by this process another member of the audience assumed priority, using his imposing height and forbidding, lantern-jawed countenance to quiet those around him.
“Yeah hi... Bateman, Anatomy.” The petitioner’s attitude expressed itself in the dry, muttered pitch of his voice, his wrath almost seeming to presage the sudden emergence of spines through the fabric of his pale blue lab coat. Though Josephine had not seen him enter, O’Connor buttoned his jacket as he stood up in the front row, assuming a sanguine, reciprocal precedence. “You're presumably aware that we've been hammered for our description and at the same time denied access to this thing from day one of this project... presumably you understand the need to describe something before you can patent it.” The technician removed his glasses. “If you can't give me an immediate assurance thatsomeone has been tasked to yank one off the sidewalk, I’m going over your heads with my concerns. If we've got this stuff, its just a matter of time til someone else does.”
“No one is more aware of the need to acquire this material." O'Connor assured him. He allowed his dark, glassed gaze slow play across the seated mass. "You can rest assured that the logistics of a live capture are being considered as we speak."
"See, I find it ironic that the musculo-skeletal scope of these things has been slapping everyone in the face for the ten years spent developing the ADMs... they're not bigfoot, we had the footage the whole time, and if you couldn't sell this before now that's systemic failure." Bateman contended sourly. O'Connor wrung a black smile from his own thin features.
"If you can cite some other documented incident of gift-wrapped human material containing chunks of our target species I'd be happy to explore why it wasn't kicked up the chain. When we have a C5, Anatomy will be the first to see it. In fact, you can come on down and help unload it if you like.”
Biochemistry enjoyed his riposte far more than those seated in the saturnine ranks behind the complainant, the latter’s box-cutter stare darkened further by the remarks at his expense.
“Laugh it up like that when the PLA or Kliner-Gentec or Kraft beat us to market, asshats.” he told them from his plastic seat. From the back of the room, Josephine glanced down at O’Connor’s position; he was looking back at her. She stood up, slid her laptop bag across the seats and climbed the aisle toward the rear exit.
She had parked her jeep in the section furthest from the windowless complex and facing the closely-spaced cedars. Shaw walked toward it quickly upon emerging from the last security cordon and climbed in alongside her, thunder-faced.
“Bateman carved us up for not securing the unknown sub. Stood right there in his geek scrubs and told us exactly how it would have gone down if only he’d been there with a damn goldfish net and a garden hose.”
Josephine wiped the dust from the dash with a slow hand.
“Bateman’s always been a psycho shut-in. He and O’Connor should get engaged. The two that fled on Swiss papers a while back flew in three days ago, so you'll be seeing them sooner rather than later.” she assured him. He shook his head at the prospect.
"I don't need any more crap right now." Shaw muttered to himself inaudibly, regarding her obliquely and running a hand over his crop. "O'Connor's been poking it with a stick, wanting to know why I didn’t get a crew out there while it was happening. You need to think about where you were on the night in question, and get your story straight, because I'm not getting hung out for something I didn't initiate.” The heat of his status as unwitting catalyst prickling beneath the collar of his white shirt. "And if you still got anything from the blacked-out female, flush it when you get home. There’s no way in hell they’re not going for a live capture after this. Jesus christ... no proven ballistic heat, no clue what meds will drop them... I'm gonna get chunked out there.”
Keeping her eyes on the windscreen, Josephine edged her hand along the dark twill of her skirt toward the compartment between their seats, knocking back the lid and delving into it. Almost unwillingly, Shaw looked up and saw the hard, dark, die-stamped regularity of the shapes that had attracted her attention through the windscreen. In the last row of ashy green conifers stood three black figures, taller than they should have been, their body suits like slick marine skin, excluding the afternoon sun that reflected in the thick shielding glass of their visors. A bright red point slid off the windscreen glass before her and descended the bonnet of the jeep, dropping out of sight where the steel curved down toward the grille. The ADMs were difficult to visually extract from the dark monotony of the surrounding branches, and by the time she had drawn back the slide of the gun in her lap they had returned to their sinister union with the trees.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce