PROJECT CERULEAN MX
The hot desert sand swirled over the building wreckage, whispering past cracked cement blocks that lay broken and crumbling in the late afternoon sun. A rusted metal fence surrounded the area, the gate tightly padlocked and marked with a large, official-looking sign that warned “Restricted Area: Keep Out by Order of the U.S. Army.” The sign cited several official Department of Defense statutes, most of which were obscured by scorch marks that blackened the metal on the lower edges.
Whatever the building had been years ago, it was enormous — roughly the size of two football fields, with deep depressions in the earth marking where large metal doors had collapsed deep within. The entire area looked lonely and forgotten, though it lay less than half a mile from the nearby Interstate highway. A drainage ditch ran down one side, exposing a massive pipe ripped open in the center.
In the distance, two figures moved steadily down a dirt road.
“You comin’, or are you chicken?” yelled a thin, reedy voice. A 13-year-old boy carefully slid his Haymaker 1200 mountain bike through an open gap in the fence, then hopped back on and raced to the top of a nearby dirt hill. He turned around and began to cluck comically, his blond hair rippling in the wind.
“Shaddup, Michael,” the other boy muttered. He huffed and puffed as he pulled up alongside him, then caught his breath. “We aren’t even supposed to be in here! You read those signs back by the highway.” His braces gleamed brightly in the hot desert sun.
The blond boy grinned. “You worry too much, Joey. You saw the guard gate — nobody’s been around here since Reagan was president. There’s nothin’ here but ghosts. C’mon... let’s explore!”
He kicked off in a cloud of dust, pealing over the hill, whooping an Indian war cry all the way down.
Joey, who was heavier-set, took off his glasses and wearily wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He’s gonna get me killed yet. Resignedly, he pushed his glasses back up on his nose, gritted his teeth, and pushed off, holding on to the handlebars with all his might.
Meanwhile, back by the rusted fence post, a small warning light just outside the gate sudden lit up, its red glow almost invisible in the hot desert sun.
§ § § § §
“So what do you think this place was?” Michael asked, as they made their way down a corridor.
Joey shrugged. “Maybe a storage area. Doesn’t look like anybody’s been here for years. I’m surprised the homeless haven’t found it yet.”
The exterior doorway had been barely visible, deliberately camouflaged to blend in with the desert landscape. It was only through pure luck that they had found it. The metal door had been damaged years ago from an explosion. The boys carefully crept inside, walking down a ramp that led about twenty feet below the earth. The late-afternoon sun beamed through an overhead skylight, giving them just enough illumination to make their way down a corridor. Most of the rooms were empty, except for the last one on the right. The office was small and cluttered, with an overturned desk in the center, a metal cabinet on the side, and plain, government-issue chairs.
“Bullet holes,” muttered Joey, delicately brushing his fingers across the wall. There were two jagged rows of what appeared to be automatic-weapon fire from large-caliber shells. Whatever had happened here had been deadly serious. The boys crept in and looked around, letting their eyes gradually adjust to the darkness.
“This whole area was part of some kind of government rocket-fuel facility,” Joey continued, glancing through some dusty paperwork on the desk, brushing off some spider webs and sending a few small insects skittering away. “Some big factory around here went up in flames back in 1988 — my mom told me she thought it was an earthquake when it happened, and she was thirteen miles away in Las Vegas. Killed a buncha people.” He paused for a moment then looked over at his friend. “Hey!” he cautioned. “Don’t open that!”
As usual, Michael ignored him and reached inside the large metal cabinet. “There’s no rocket fuel in here,” he said. “Just some of these little bottles.” He picked up one of the glass ampoules and peered curiously at it, angling it to reflect the dim light. “‘Project Cerulean MX – Revision 11’,” he read out loud. “‘For experimental use only. Destroy after 7/13/1988.’ Sounds very official.”
“That isn’t ours to take, Michael,” insisted his friend. “Put it back.”
“Hey, it’s been more than 20 years after the expiration date,” Michael replied, moving his hand behind his back. “The stuff is probably stale anyway. What harm could it cause?”
“Plenty,” said Joey, gesturing to a piece of paper he was reading. “That is, if this memo is accurate.”
Michael crossed back to the desk, shuffling through a thick layer of dust and debris. Joey pushed the thick notebook binder towards him. The faded plastic cover was titled Cerulean MX: A Final Analysis.
“Check this out.”
The blond boy flicked a cockroach off the table, then glanced down at a loose page inserted into the front of the binder and began to read.
To: Dr. Sanford Noble
From: Major General Thomas Cartwright
Re: Project Cerulean MX / PEPCON Aftermath
Date: 5 May 1988
ABOVE TOP SECRET — EYES ONLY
SECURITY LEVEL 4 CLEARANCE REQUIRED
DESTROY AFTER READING
The hostile conflict is now under control. All of the Ultra subjects have been terminated with extreme prejudice. All evidence of the experiment is in the process of being destroyed. Any residual contamination is now under control and the news media has accepted the cover story of the PEPCON explosion.
All surviving personnel will be brought to the Groom Lake facility via Edwards for de-briefing and reassignment. We will need your final summary report at this time, as per our conversation earlier this afternoon.
A Senate sub-committee hearing will take place at Groom Room 51-112A on Saturday, May 7th. I will need to speak privately with each staff member prior to the hearing. Your cooperation will ensure your safety for the duration of the project.
--MajGen T. Cartwright
Project Cerulean MX
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
“It makes no sense,” mulled Joey as he spun the notebook back around and flipped through the pages. “Judging by these print-outs, this area was either called PEPCON, Project Cerulean, or Black Mountain. But according to this newspaper clipping here, it was actually some kind of marshmallow candy factory called Kidd & Company. Curiouser and curiouser.” He looked up and gestured to the ceiling, which had large black scorch marks, the remnants of a massive fire. “But I’ve seen marshmallows burn before, and they don’t look anything like this.” He continued to peruse the pages, which were filled with a myriad of graphs and statistical charts.
“Naw, it was definitely rocket fuel,” Michael corrected. “I saw it on one of those Amazing Videos clips on YouTube. It burned like hell for hours, almost like an H-bomb.” He gestured with his hands, making a flower-like gesture. “Ka-blooey — big-time.”
“How would you know that?”
The boy shrugged and grinned. “Explosions are awesome.”
Joey started to respond, then stopped and sucked in his breath. “Did you hear that?” he whispered, looking around nervously.
A distant roar and a steady “thwup-thwup” echoed down the concrete hallway. A metallic thunk slammed over their head, as if a large object had just struck the roof.
“And that’s our cue to leave,” quipped Michael, stepping out of the office and down the hallway, hurrying towards the upwards-slanting ramp that led back to the open air.
“Wait!” hollered Joey, grabbing the large binder. “I want to finish reading this.”
The blond boy ran back inside, grabbed the boy by his shoulder, and yanked him into the hallway, half-dragging him down the corridor. “We’ve gotta get outta here, now, you douche!” They both charged up to the doorway, then abruptly stopped and carefully peeked around the edge.
In the distance was a large Sikorsky H-92 Superhawk helicopter, which hovered very low on the southeast corner of the fenced-off area, bathed in a swirling cloud of dust and sand.
Michael gulped, then slammed his back to the wall. “Whoa – is that a gun turret on the side?” he asked in a half whisper.
Joey wiped his forehead, then raised his head just beyond the edge of the underground frame. “Can’t see clear enough to make out. It’s starting to get dark.”
Michael peered out alongside him. They’ll never see our bikes from this angle, he thought, his mind racing. They had been smart enough to stash them in some tall scrub brush, keeping them well out of sight from any wandering security guards. I just hope they don’t notice our tire tracks.
“Look at this,” Joey started excitedly, pointing to one of the pages. “According to this report, this whole place was some kind of secret operation — some kind of genetic research thing, like a black ops CIA project.”
“The signs back there said ‘U.S. Army,’” argued Michael. “Nothin’ about the CIA.”
Joey rolled his eyes. “The CIA is always behind this stuff. My father used to talk about conspiracies like this all the time — the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy, even the Bush/Kerry election.”
Michael sucked in his breath and ducked back around. “Zip it,” he whispered. “Somebody’s comin’.”
Less than thirty seconds later, two soldiers wearing beige camouflage outfits jogged by. One of them stopped and clicked his Motorola walkie-talkie. “Atom-7 to Base. No intruders spotted. The barrier is still down on the Arroyo Grande entrance. Could’ve been just a coyote or a pack of dogs. This is just a wild goose chase. You copy?”
The walkie squawked and responded with some static and a muffled voice. Both soldiers began to sprint back to the waiting chopper. After a moment, the rotors gained speed.
Joey gathered his courage, then carefully nosed around the edge of the metal door.
“Are they gone yet?” whispered Michael.
With a roar, the helicopter began to lift off, its turbine engine beginning to roar. From this distance, Joey could see there was a third soldier inside manning an automatic weapon turret. This is some serious shit, he thought. Those guys were ready to kill anybody sneaking around this place. The boy finally relaxed as the chopper banked to the left and hurtled off past a group of toppled trees. The late-afternoon sun was almost gone, with just a few scarlet fingertips poking up at the horizon.
Minutes later, the boys raced back over the hill on their bikes, moving in the opposite direction. Joey struggled to keep his balance, clutching the notebook under his arm while his pudgy legs furiously pumped the pedals. Neither of the boys uttered a word until they reached the break in the rusted metal fence, where they quickly squeezed their mountain bikes through the narrow opening. By the time they maneuvered from the dirt road and onto Horizon Ridge Parkway, it was already nightfall in the Green Valley residential neighborhood.
Joey screeched his bike to a halt next to Michael’s at an intersection, where they both stopped to catch their breath.
“I can’t believe what we just...”
“Not here, Joey,” the blond boy said curtly. “Look, it’s almost 7:30. Your mom will kill us both if you’re late for dinner again. Come by my place in an hour, and we can talk about this.”
Joey started to object, but Michael raced off to the East, the bicycle rocketing away until it was a small black blob in the distance. The streetlights began winking on, casting a dim yellow glow onto the sand-covered street below.
“Asshole,” he muttered, then continued down the road, leaving a cloud of dust behind him.
§ § § § §
“This thing is totally whacked,” Joey muttered, flipping through the manuscript pages at his desk. “If even half of this report is true, this is bigger than Hanger 18, Roswell, and all that other stuff. TMZ would go nuts with this.”
“C’mon, dude,” Michael said with a grin. “I keep tellin’ you, it’s just some kinda lame sci-fi movie script. No way can this be for real.”
The black-haired boy glared at him, then pointed to the bold notice on the first page and read it out loud. “Warning! It is a Federal crime to view, possess, duplicate, or distribute this document. Violators will be punished by 20 years imprisonment in Federal Prison and/or death, by Executive Order DOI-616A, February, 1988.” Embossed next to it was an official-looking seal of the Department of Defense. “This real enough for you?”
“Oh, I am so scared,” Michael replied, making his voice shake comically, then let out a loud chortle. “It’s the same kinda bullshit as the FBI warning on DVDs.” He pushed the blond bangs out of his eyes, then yawned and stretched out on the bed. “Anybody who was in that building got blown outta Dodge more than twenty years ago. They’re all dust in the wind. Besides, the statue of limitations has run out.”
Joey slammed the binder shut and glared at him. “You mean statute.”
The boy shook his head, his expression grim. “If it was illegal to know about this stuff in 1988, it’s just as illegal now. You wanna wind up in the Carson City Prison like your dad?”
“Shut up about him. You’re assuming they’ll catch us.”
“They might. I’m just saying...”
Michael laughed. He had an almost musical laugh, and it was clear he and his friend had a playful back-and-forth kind of relationship that went back many years. “You worry too much, Joey. Just don’t take that into school for show and tell when we go back in September after summer vacation.”
The black-haired boy grimaced. “There’s no show and tell in 8th grade, you dip.”
Michael tossed a pillow at him. “Just mellow out, okay?”
“If I got any more mellow, I’d ripen and rot,” Joey retorted. He glanced at his watch. “Shit. I gotta get home or my mom and dad will kill me.” The boy got up and started for the door, then paused and turned. “You wanna hang out at the mall tomorrow? I think the new Johnny Depp film is playing.”
“Maybe. Text me before lunch and I’ll see if I can get some dinero.”
“Cool. See ya.” Joey jogged out the door, then abruptly stopped, spun around and returned to grab the notebook. “I want to finish reading this, maybe do a Google search on Cerulean MX. It’s gotta be science fiction. And if it isn’t, we’re gonna take it back to Black Mountain — or PEPCON or whatever that place is called — and get rid of it.” He glared at his friend. “And you should return those glass bottles you stole.”
“What glass bottles?” Michael said, his face radiating a look of pure innocence.
“Don’t bullshit me. I saw you stuff a handful of them in your pocket.”
The blond boy stood up and pulled his pockets inside out. They were completely empty. “I got nothin’,” he said. “If I had ‘em before, they fell out while we were ridin’ away. Just chill out, will ya?”
Joey rolled his eyes. “Later,” he called over his shoulder and dashed through the living room.
Michael leaned back, waited a moment to hear the front door slam, then reached under the bed covers and withdrew five small bottles, each about 2” long and about half an inch in diameter. He held one up to the reading light by his bed; the bottle was full of a bright sky-colored liquid that seemed to glow and swirl, almost radiating a kind of energy. Cerulean blue, the boy thought, peering carefully at his prize.
§ § § § §
Joey frowned at the computer screen. Google had no hits on “Project Cerulean MX,” at least none connected with the U.S. government. All the other searches led to dead links or faded newspaper stories related to the PEPCON explosion back in May of 1988, which supposedly killed two people and injured about 372, and caused about $100 million in damage.
But the printed report in the binder seemed to indicate that the real reason for the explosion was something much more sinister: about 100 test subjects — or “Ultras,” as they were called — had been executed, along with two dozen scientists killed in the battle. And the entire project had been erased, as if it had never existed.
“An army of super-soldiers,” he read from thick bound pages, “far more effective than any conventional weapon, capable of defeating enemy forces a thousand times greater.” He sat back, overwhelmed with data. Page after page showed alarming details about massive increases in strength, eyesight, endurance, along with graphs and charts comparing the progress of the group over a two-year period. But something had gone terribly wrong in the final days of the project. He stared at the binder. The last few pages of the report were missing, with page 46 ending abruptly in mid-sentence.
“This is like some bad episode of Fringe or the X Files,” he muttered. Never mind the fact that he loved both shows; sci-fi stories like that were great for TV, but in real life... no, the prospects were much too frightening. And from the look of the report, the results had been catastrophic.
He ran his finger down the personnel list in the front section. Most of them were listed as “Missing” or “Deceased,” but the fourth name from the top wasn’t. “‘Dr. Sanford J. Noble, Administrative Director’,” the boy read out loud. I wonder, he mused, typing frantically at the keyboard. Bingo! He stared at the screen. Could it be the same man? There was only one Sanford J. Noble in the 702 area code. Maybe a son or relative. He jotted down the name, address, and phone number.
Suddenly, his cellphone chirped. Who could be calling at 11:02?
There was a smiling picture of Michael on the phone readout. The boy hit the answer button and stifled a yawn. “C’mon, dude. It’s too late. Call me after lunch, like I said.”
“Joey?” said a weak voice. “I’m... I’m in trouble.”
The voice mumbled, then moaned. “The drugs... you were right. I hid them from you. I’m sorry.”
“I used one of my sister’s insulin needles, from where she used to keep them before she left for college. I only injected a little, just to see what would happen.”
“Jesus H. Christ, Michael! Are you insane?”
His friend let out a short scream. “What the fuck is happening to me?” He let out another strangled cry, then regained control. “Get over here, now,” he whispered in a hoarse voice. “My mom’s at work until at least 2AM. You’re the only one I can trust.”
And then there was another scream — a longer one this time.
Joey snapped his phone shut, then picked up the notebook and started out the door. He stopped, then dizzily grabbed the wall for support. Asthma attack, he thought, his breath beginning to wheeze. He quickly shook his head and fought the urge to panic, then grabbed his pocket Xopenex inhaler and inhaled a couple of quick bursts.
“That’s better,” he said with a gasp, slipping the inhaler back into his pocket.
He tore off the piece of paper with the doctor’s name on it. If this is really happening, he thought, maybe this guy Noble can help. He slipped the binder into his backpack, then tip-toed out the door, made his way downstairs, and slipped out the side door and into the night.
§ § § § §
The Spears residence was a shabby, three-bedroom house from the early 1950s, just off Hillpointe Road. The neighborhood crickets chirped softly, and most of the house lights on the street were dimmed. Joey pulled his bike up to the side. Despite the late hour, his shirt was sweaty and stuck to his back.
One glance at the driveway told him that Mrs. Spears wasn’t home yet. Her shift at the local Wal-Mart Supercenter didn’t end until 2AM. But after that, he mused, she’ll beat the living crap out of both of us. Michael’s father was in county jail for drug possession; the mother had always warned the two boys to stay away from any of that stuff. Joey had feared that Michael might one day try the same sort of chemicals that put his dad behind bars; now, the nightmare seemed to be coming true.
Joey tried the front door, which was locked. He softly cursed, then darted around the side and through the fence that led to the back yard. The kitchen door at the rear of the house was slightly ajar, and the ceiling light was on.
“Michael?” he called. “It’s me! Are you okay? If we have to, I’ll call 911.”
The boy slowly pushed the door open, then he sucked in his breath. On the floor was a naked man, shaking, doubled over in spasms of pain. The man was short — no more than about 5’ 6” — but had enormous, muscular arms, with veins that stood out all over his body. Coarse blondish-brown hair sprouted over his massive chest, fanning out to a matted “V” shape extending down to his navel. Joey’s eyes darted lower to the man’s groin, revealing a major erection that was more suited for a small donkey than a human, pushing up an inch past his belly-button.
Joey felt a momentary pang of desire, muted by absolute fear. “Who the fuck are you?” he cried, backing up against the wall his eyes widened. “I’m calling the cops!”
“Don’t,” the man whispered, then rolled over on his side. “It’s me... Michael. Please... Joey, you gotta help me.” He moaned, then vomited a small puddle of viscous fluid, and curled into a fetal position.
“Jesus,” the boy whispered, then stepped inside and slammed the door behind him.
§ § § § §
The old man mopped his brow. Goddamned Koreans can’t even get air-conditioning right. He smacked the side of the window-mounted unit. The device chugged for a moment, wheezed, then at last the compressor kicked in and a cool breeze finally began to blow from the plastic vents.
He let out a satisfied sigh. His field of expertise had been organic chemistry. Certainly, he had a rudimentary grasp of the essentials of physics, but nothing practical enough to apply to home appliances.
“Your days are numbered, my friend,” he said, wagging a warning finger at the air conditioner, a cheap Samsung unit that had been dying for the past couple of years. He made a mental note to buy a new one on sale in the morning. No way can a man survive in Nevada in a double-wide trailer without air conditioning, he mused. Certainly not with July temperatures averaging about 110 degrees. And that was on a mild day. It was still over 80 degrees, even in the dead of night.
The telephone rang. Probably just a telemarketer — but they never called past midnight. He glanced at the caller ID, but the number was unfamiliar. The old man thought for a moment. He had few friends, save for a few from the last rehab facility he’d attended — his fifth, if you started counting in the ‘90s — and none of them were likely to call him unless they needed counseling. But he hadn’t been a sponsor to anyone for more than ten years.
The phone continued to ring. At last, he picked it up. “Yes?”
“Is this Sanford Noble?”
“Yes, this is Dr. Noble. Why are you bothering me at...” — he glanced to a small LED clock on the crowded bookshelf to his right — “...at the ungodly hour of 12:15 in the morning?”
“Please, you gotta help us. My friend... he took the serum!”
“Cerulean MX! From the Army project!”
The old man caught his breath. “No,” he whispered. That was long dead. Nothing but ghosts. He’d kept the memories of that catastrophe out of his mind for more than two decades — his friends, his co-workers... Mary, the beautiful Mary Woods...
“No,” he continued, keeping his voice calm. “I don’t know anything about that. I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong number. Good night.”
He slammed the phone down. Almost immediately, it began ringing again. The man was angry now, and lifted the receiver. “I can’t help you,” he snapped. “I know nothing about any project. Even if I did, I couldn’t talk about it if it has anything to do with the government.”
The voice on the other end sobbed. It was clearly a boy, probably no more than 12 or 13. “Listen to me,” he pleaded. “I think my friend is dying! He’s... he’s enormous! I think he’s gained at least 40 pounds of muscle in the last two hours.”
Could it be true? “Where are you now?” the old man barked.
“In my friend’s kitchen. It looks like he’s eaten everything here — every scrap of food is gone! There’s empty cans and boxes all over the floor...”
There was a blood-curdling scream in the background.
The boy sobbed again. “My friend... he’s having convulsions! Please... you’ve got to help us! I’m begging you!”
The old man closed his eyes and held the telephone to the side. Ten long seconds passed.
“Alright,” he said, after a long breath. “There might be something I can do. Where are you now?”
“12112 Elsinore Avenue. Half a mile from Windmill Parkway. It’s a gray house on the East side of the street. How long before you can be here?”
Dr. Noble did some quick calculations. “It’s not far. I can be there in... perhaps ten minutes.”
“What should I do?”
“Fill a bathtub with ice. Drag your friend to the bathroom and make him lie in the tub. Keep him as cold as possible. Make sure he keeps breathing. Don’t leave him alone. Is anyone else in the house?”
“No. His mother won’t get back for at least an hour.”
His mother? “How old is the patient?”
“We’re both thirteen. Please, can you just get here?”
Noble stopped, then cocked his head. Most unusual, he thought. The serum was never intended for children. And it should have expired at least ten years ago... unless...
“Dr. Noble? Are you still there?
“Yes, I’m here. To whom am I speaking?”
“Joey... Joseph Hartford. Michael’s a friend of mine.”
“Listen to me, Joseph,” Noble said, keeping his voice calm. “Give me a minute to get my things. I’ll be there in ten minutes. Stay... just stay cool.” And I mean that literally and figuratively, he thought. He hung up the phone, then grabbed his car keys and slipped on his shoes.
It seemed the ghosts of 1988 still haunted the Nevada desert.
§ § § § §
“Will he die?” the boy asked, as the ancient Toyota Camry bumped down Windmill Parkway, taking a sharp right turn onto American Pacific Drive.
“No. Not if I can control the effects. Judging by the syringe, he was only able to inject about 10cc’s of the serum. That’s far from a lethal dosage, even for someone of his size and weight.”
The boy glanced out the window. “Are you taking us back to the project?”
“There is no project. It was all destroyed decades ago. I had a separate office about a mile away, but it was shut down that same day.” He paused. “I would rather not talk about it.”
The man took long left curve, then straightened out the car and headed towards a thatch of palm trees and cactus, just past a sign proclaiming “Welcome to Trailer Estates.”
Joey turned to look at the... creature in the back seat. They’d wrapped him in one of Michael’s father’s old bathrobes, but his arms bulged at the sleeves. It was clearly about six sizes too small.
His body’s incredible, the boy thought, like some kind of bodybuilder. But the face... There was no question: despite the beginnings of a beard, the eyes and nose were definitely that of Michael’s. He was completely unconscious, his breathing shallow, and his long, muscular were legs bent sideways onto the floor.
The man drove the Camry up to the outskirts of the trailer park, which was dim and deserted. He pulled up to the last trailer on the left and turned off the engine.
“Help me lift him out,” he ordered.
Together, they half-lifted/half-dragged the unconscious body to the steps and into the trailer.
“Set him down here in the living room. I don’t really have all the instruments here needed to do all the necessary tests. But I’ll do what I can.” To keep him alive, he thought.
“Is he... is he going to stay looking like... like that?” Joey said in a low voice. His friend almost looked like a monster — his muscles were huge, almost cartoonish, like a caricature of a superhero. Thick veins ran alongside Michael’s arms, spreading out into a spiderweb-like pattern.
Dr. Noble didn’t answer. He daubed at Michael’s face, removing a puddle of goo seeping from the boy’s mouth.
“And what is that stuff, anyway? It looks like...” Joey stopped himself. He almost said “sperm,” but that would be much too weird to say out loud.
“It’s body fat,” Noble said, balling up the tissue and tossing into a nearby trashcan. “His body is rejecting almost all the fat from his tissue. Ah, and look at this.” He reached in Michael’s mouth and pulled out a small nugget of metal. “A filling. He’s probably swallowed the rest. Look at his teeth.”
Joey leaned over, fascinated. Michael’s face seemed different somehow, almost like an artist’s rendition of his boyish features, superimposed over the face and body of a male model. The unconscious man — Joey could no longer think of Michael as a boy — had a flawless mouth of evenly-spaced teeth. Not a single cavity.
“That’s impossible,” he whispered. “Michael’s teeth were almost as bad as mine. Look — I’m still wearing braces.”
“Cerulean MX did away with that,” Noble replied. “The body is regenerating... perfecting itself. There’s no need for fillings, artificial limbs, eyeglasses. Scar tissue is eliminated, missing organs are regrown.” He looked up at the boy. “It’s merely the human form, perfected to the Nth degree.”
“But he’s supposed to be 13.”
“He is still 13 — at least on the inside. I can restore him, to some degree. But it will take some time. I can’t get any chemicals until 7AM, when the drugstore opens.”
“What... you just walk into a Rexall and get this stuff?”
Noble smiled. “Yes and no. Most of what we need will be in stock. You do have the rest of the ampoules?”
“The what? Oh, these.”
Joey reached in his pocket and produced three of the small blue bottles. “Here.”
Noble took them and peered at them through his thick glasses. “Revision 11,” he mused, “from stage 4 of the project. And you found these in my old office? I could’ve sworn they were all destroyed.”
“I didn’t take them. Michael found them in some cabinet.”
The doctor thought for a moment. “That’s possible. There was a spare office at the Black Mountain facility, a backup to the main building. Were you able to retrieve any of the computer files?”
The boy looked up at him. “Computer files?”
Noble let out a sigh. “Never mind. They’re ancient DOS files. I doubt we could even read them today.”
“Wait — I remember, there was a computer in there.”
“Any floppy disks?”
The man shook his head. “Never mind. I’ll stop by the facility in the morning.”
“They’ll kill you.”
“Soldiers. They came by in a helicopter. They... they were armed. We shouldn’t have been there.”
That’s odd, Noble thought. The alarm’s batteries should’ve failed years ago. Unless they reconnected it for some reason.
“Let me worry about that,” he said. He took a look at Joey’s face. The boy was shaking, clearly terrified. “I’m sorry. Listen, I’m a scientist, but I’m also a human being. You’re not in any danger, and neither is your friend Michael. We’ve stabilized his growth for now.”
“But how will we explain...”
“Listen,” Noble interrupted. “You should probably stay here tonight. Will your parents miss you?”
“Sure,” he said. “They’ll be totally pissed-off.” He thought for a minute. “I’ll send them a text... I’ll tell them Michael had an emergency, and we won’t be home until... when?”
Dr. Noble did a quick calculation. “Assuming I can start administering the antidote at 8AM, I’d say... well, he’ll be presentable by noon.”
“Alright. Noon, then.” We’ll be grounded for a month, he thought. But at least we’ll be alive.
“We’ll dilute the original MX formula with a solution of clonadine and lanreotide, which will create a synergistic reaction. We came up with this control serum towards...” — he shuddered for a moment, then continued — “...towards the end of the project. But by then it was too late.”
Joey nodded, then swung his backpack off his shoulder and withdrew the binder. “I know. I read most of your report. But the last few pages were missing.”
Noble’s eyes widened and he snatched the bound print-out from the boy’s hands. “Where did you get this?”
“I told you, from the —”
“I know, I know,” the old man muttered as he stared at the opening page. “From our backup facility. Incredible.” It’s as if it was written by someone else.
“You wrote it.”
Noble nodded. “I was one of only three staff members who survived. I was injured during the explosion, but I was one of the lucky ones.” He held out his left arm and pulled back the sleeve, revealing an ugly burn that stretched up to his shoulder, the withered flesh resembling melted plastic. “And that was after six successful skin grafts. I was on a lot of morphine at the time. I can’t believe I was coherent enough to dictate this report.”
“Couldn’t type worth a damn after my arm caught fire.” He looked down at the report and glanced through a few more pages. Yes, he mused. These were my words. And that’s almost what really happened.
Joey caught himself staring at the withered arm, then turned away. “Can you... can you tell me the rest of the story? About Cerulean MX?”
“Tomorrow. For now, get some sleep. Take one of these.” He handed the boy a pale blue pill.
“What is it?”
“Just a Unisom. You’re agitated. It’ll make you sleepy for now. I’ll keep Michael comfortable in here. Take the couch in the other room. I’ll stay up for a few hours. I’ll need to refresh my mind with the facts in this” — he held up the report — “and then go over the control formula. I’m concerned about the reductions involved, given Michael’s age and body mass.”
Joey slipped the pill into his mouth. The doctor handed him a bottle of Crystal Geyser water, which the boy cracked open and gulped. He let out a long sigh of relief.
“I can’t believe this is all happening.”
Noble reached out and squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “Get some rest. I’ll wake you before I leave in the morning. It won’t take me more than an hour, I promise.”
Joey stared at him, then finally nodded. Noble had a kind face. Whatever disaster had happened in the 1980s wasn’t his fault. The boy decided to trust him. “Thanks.”
His feet padded into the other room. Noble checked his laptop for email, then did a couple of quick searches and made some notes. Within minutes, he heard Joey’s breathing slip into a series of short snores. The doctor glanced through the door, then flipped off the hall light and returned to the living room.
“Alright, Michael,” Noble said quietly, as he sat down and adjusted the unconscious man’s body on the couch. “Let’s make sure you don’t cause us any trouble.” He reached into a nearby closet and grabbed several thick leather belts and bound them around the man’s massive arms and legs, securely fastening him to the couch. “And I think you’ll need a few of these as insurance.” He poured the entire contents of the Unisom bottle into Michael’s mouth, along with a small shot of water. The body stirred for a moment, coughed, then swallowed.
“Good,” Noble muttered. He knew that over-the-counter drugs wouldn’t affect a real Ultra. But hopefully this one hadn’t yet mutated far enough. At the least, fifty pills wound slow him down for a few hours — at least until 8AM.
He checked his watch, then shuddered, recalling the carnage from the original 1985 experiments; the project had gone through at least three volunteer soldiers every week for nearly a year. And the last group... they wound up filled with rage and sexual desire that was almost unimaginable, like some sort of impossible wild animal.
Noble glanced at the doorway to the other room. “Pray that your friend here stays asleep, Joey,” he whispered. “Before he becomes a monster.”
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