By K. Eisert

The machine says to hold my breath for twenty seconds. That’s easy. In school, I can hold my breath for a whole minute! We have contests on the right side of the room when the teacher isn’t looking. The machine tells me not to be afraid. That’s the hard part. I don’t want to have surgery again. I know the scan won’t hurt because I’ve done it lots of times. Besides, I bet if I tried really hard, I could hold my breath forever.
—Patient Zero, Artificial Evolution Experiment: Isinian Normal to Human Hybrid, Post Inoculation.

 

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The little girl shrieked, “I’m scared!”

It was important she remain calm. They needed to keep both the IV in her arm and the port in her chest. Dr. Leta Reegan flipped the switch so the child could hear her.

“Of course you are, honey.”

“Where are you? I can’t see you!”

“I’m right here, sweetie. You can’t see me because you’re in an isolation pod. Let me turn on a light for you.”

Leta sat at a desk in a secret government laboratory on the innermost moon in the Isinian system. The Isinians called it Hades. At its current position, it orbited three hundred thousand kilometers away from the child’s moon. The distance resulted in a signal delay of two seconds round trip. She hoped the child wouldn’t notice. Receiving control of the isolation pod, she turned on the light inside the unit.

“Can you see now?”

“Not really. It’s foggy in here! Can you let me out?”

The Colonel waited on another line and Leta concentrated to avoid saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. He demanded to know the status of the pod transfer off Isis. She told him to wait. She switched back to the child.

“No, I’m sorry, honey. You have to stay in there until we get to the other hospital.”

“Where’s my mommy? Where’s my daddy?”

“They’re filling out forms, sweetie. Don’t worry. You’ll see them later.”

Leta gritted her teeth. That was an absolute lie. If the little girl survived the conversion, she’d no longer be able to tolerate the environmental conditions on her home moon. There were no circumstances under which she would ever see her parents again. It didn’t really matter; she probably wouldn’t make it anyway. None of the others had survived the inoculation step. Leta slammed her fist down on the desk.

Calmer, she panned the internal camera down the length of the little girl. Yes, the techs had remembered. The stuffed animal lay to the child’s right. The Colonel demanded to know why the little girl remained conscious. “She should be in a coma.”

Leta ignored him. To the little girl she said, “I have a nice surprise for you! Do you want to see it?”

“No! I want to go home!”

“Sweetie, please look next to you. Right there by your side. Do you see him?”

The little girl’s voice became shriller. “I can’t see. Why can’t I see?”

“Honey, the light must have burned out. We’ll have to fix that.”

Via her earpiece, the Colonel interrupted again. “Is blindness considered normal at this stage of the experiment?”

Leta lowered the Colonel’s volume to make him less of a distraction. She comforted the little girl. “It must be scary without the light, but don’t be frightened. You have a friend with you.”

“I do?”

“Yes! Right next to you. Reach over and feel for him.”

“It’s Dr. Axel. Dr. Axel is here!”

The Colonel’s voice grew agitated, “Her stats are spiking. Should I hit the button?”

The threat forced Leta to switch over to his channel. “Do not hit the button! Jesus! She’s just excited over her stuffed animal, Dr. Axel.”

“I’ve checked her records. Dr. Axel’s her surgeon.”

“Access the camera feed! Study the toy! It looks just like him down to the ridiculous cravat he wears.”

Per security protocol, they were on voice only. No one could see Leta flailing her arms for emphasis. The Colonel chuckled and commented on the doctor’s poor sartorial taste. In the same breath, he demanded another update. “How long is it going to take to get the pod to the shuttle?”

Leta spoke to the girl, concentrating to keep the tension out of her voice. “Honey, I have to talk with somebody else for a second. Would you like to listen to some music?”

“No. That’s OK. I’m a little sleepy. I think I’ll just hug Dr. Axel.”

“You do that, honey. You are such a good girl. You are so brave! I don’t know if I could be as brave as you.”

“I am brave. I’m very…”

The little girl dozed off. Leta switched back to the Colonel’s frequency.

“What’s wrong with you? How dare you threaten to fry a little girl! What do you think she’s going to do? Rip her way through the isolation pod and eat your liver?”

“A little girl? No. But whatever she’s turning into just might.”

“Oh hardly.”

“Dr. Reegan—with all due respect—you don’t know what she’s going to turn into.”

Leta silenced her mouthpiece. “Yes, I do, Colonel. I know exactly what she’s going to turn into. She’ll be like me. She’ll become human.” Leta wondered whether the Colonel had ever actually seen a human. He might assume her to be like the propaganda, a bug-eyed monster with hate for a soul.

“Dr. Reegan, please transfer that pod to the shuttle immediately.”

The translation program modulated the Colonel’s voice to sound strained. It translated nuances in delivery speed, volume and tone. That had been her husband’s responsibility, with his team of both humans and Isinians, before the previous government exterminated them all.

The shuttle received priority departure clearance on the mag-sled.

“Dr. Reegan, get that creature off Isis.”

 

I cannot see. I cannot hear. I cannot speak. But I feel the weight of you on my chest and I am not afraid.
—Patient Zero, Confessions of a Chimera, p. 13.

 

Leta nibbled a protein bar while she monitored the launch bay. The tech wore a Level Four biohazard suit. Leta could tell she was right-handed. The Isinians always tucked the tail in the opposite pants leg. The bulge on this tech protruded from the left buttocks.

By the color of her armband, Leta knew the tech’s security clearance to be quite low. That meant Leta would have to guard against revealing anything classified. Geez. More lying. She didn’t have to worry about the visual channel; it was never activated.

“The pod is loaded. However, we have warning lights popping up on every panel.” Her concern genuine, “What should I do, Dr. Reegan?”

“Just clear my connection and I’ll take over the controls from here. There will be a slight delay.”

The tech complied. “You have control. Please verify.”

“Introducing oxygen…”

The tech objected. “Oxygen! Do you want to kill her?”

Leta remained calm. “The oxygen might kill you, but it won’t kill her. Look at your biosign panel.”

“Dang. So what’s happening? Is the oxygen attacking the tumors?”

Leta said nothing. By her questions, Leta knew the tech believed the official government story. The little girl had contracted a tumor-inducing virus spread by the humans before their annihilation. Given the tech’s education, how could she buy into something so preposterous?

Leta engaged the shuttle’s auto-launch sequence, and the tech exited the loading bay. The tug pushed the shuttle to the mag-sled, bypassing the shipping containers already in line. The shuttle accelerated along a track several kilometers long until it reached escape velocity. Isis’ low gravity made raising payloads into space trivial, especially since the superconducting coils required no refrigeration. The average surface temperature on Isis hovered around -300°F, or within a few degrees of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Leta shook her head. If only the Isinians hadn’t panicked and killed nearly everyone in the contact team. It would’ve made so much more sense for them to move from their gas giant to Saturn. With Titan’s stable orbit and similar atmosphere, all the experiments and all the deaths—Isinian and human—could’ve been avoided.

“We’d have given you the technology to reach Earth. We would’ve.” Leta flicked the remainder of the protein bar into the garbage. “But you burned that bridge.”

They had one option left. If they couldn’t change their world, they’d have to change themselves.

Leta pulled her hair into a ponytail. It was turning gray and felt greasy. She didn’t wash it every day because the government permitted no one to see her. And even if they did, Isinians wouldn’t have known greasy hair from clean. They didn’t have any.

Leta blew out her breath. She’d never seen a conversion go so quickly. It would take several hours for the shuttle to reach Hades. She wasn’t sure it would arrive in time. She bumped the temperature up a few degrees in the pod. Minus 262°F wasn’t enough anymore.

The Colonel checked in later than scheduled. He explained that there’d been another social disturbance in reaction to the authorities arresting geologists. Leta’s jaw ached from the tension.

“The government should just tell the truth. The Isinian people should know.”

The volume increased sharply, the translator program converting the Colonel’s words into shouts. “Should know what exactly? That they’re doomed? That their very world is turning against them? That their oceans will boil off? That their air will become poison? That their only hope is to become what they fear most? Should I tell them that, Dr. Reegan? Should I?”

Leta wanted to say, “Yes. You tell them exactly that, quietly and patiently.” Instead, she remained silent.

After a few seconds, the Colonel apologized. “I need some rest.” He signed off.

Leta needed to take a break, too. She grabbed the handheld to monitor the patient and headed outside. The temperature was that of a lovely spring evening on Earth, hot enough to cook the flesh right off an Isinian.

Night would be falling in four minutes. Even after all these years, she loved to watch the gas giant block out the light from the Isinian primary. The star appeared fainter and smaller in the sky than did Earth’s sun. But that wasn’t a problem, given the tidal heating from the gas giant that kept Hades warm and toasty.

The handheld beeped. The little girl’s stats were tumbling. The star’s light flared in the outer atmosphere of the gas giant and then disappeared. Again, the handheld beeped. At this rate, Leta would not get her out of the pod and into the solution vat in time. A dry metamorphosis would result in too much damage. She wouldn’t survive, or at least shouldn’t be allowed to. The scarring would be too great.

“Come on, honey. Slow down. Give me a chance to do this. Please?”

 

I see through a single lens, my vision crisp like a cold winter’s morning. I have horse teeth and tiny ears that make listening difficult. I am forgetting what I was but not who I am. Was I really ever different? Was it only child’s make-believe? My mind explodes in thoughts like snow from an ice geyser. Teacher tells me I write poetry but I do not know how. I am the first of my kind to do it. I am, in fact, the first of my kind.
—Patient Zero, The New Arts: Poetry, Introduction p. IV.

 

The shuttle landed and a tug pushed it to the docking station. Leta had repurposed an aquarium and attached it to a medical cart. The cart stood ready in the transfer tube. The temperature of the fluid was -82°F. She paced. The clock counted down. She donned her gas mask, gloves and parka.

The panel went to green and Leta punched in the code to bypass the depressurization procedure and pop the hatch. Alarms sounded and red lights flashed. When the port opened, a whoosh of a methane-ethane atmosphere blasted in, flash freezing into snow and powdering her and her equipment. It sublimated immediately. She yanked the pod into the tube and opened the lid.

“Oh God.”

The child’s skin had become gelatinous and bonded to the bedding, the stuffed animal absorbed directly into her chest. Leta didn’t have time to surgically remove the foreign objects. She yanked the IV and chest port tubes, scooped up everything inside the pod and plunged child, bedding and all, into the solution. The aquarium overflowed and she jumped back. She couldn’t afford a flash freeze burn.

She looked up at the atmospheric scrubber control. She had another thirty seconds before she could open the transport tube door. She prepped a new attachment for the chest port. The IV to the arm had become irrelevant. There were no longer any veins to thread it into.

Twenty-one seconds.

Leta lifted her mask and took a sniff. She wrinkled her nose and pulled the mask back down. The temperature had returned to normal, but the atmosphere had not.

Seventeen seconds.

She covered the aquarium with an insulating blanket. She pulled off her gloves and unfastened her coat, tossing it to the side. She slid her gloves back on.

Nine seconds.

The temperature gauge on the solution held steady. Leta grabbed the handle of the cart with her left hand and cupped her right over the outer door release. She counted down with the clock.

“Three… Two… One…”

Leta hit the release and butted her shoulder against the door. It held fast. She swore and pressed the button hard with her thumb. Nothing. She lifted her mask. The air smelled clean, the temperature correct. She pounded on the release button with the heel of her hand. The red warning lights continued to flash despite the return to ambient conditions in the transfer tube.

Was there a fault in an environmental sensor? She ditched her right glove and pulled her headset out of her pocket.

“Control Room. This is Dr. Reegan. The outer door will not open. Please hit the emergency release.”

Silence.

“Control Room? Do you read? This is Dr. Reegan…”

“No, no it’s not!”

The translating program added a quaver of fear to the voice.

“What do you mean ‘no it’s not’? What’s going on? Open this door!”

“What did you do with Dr. Reegan?” The voice paused, “Did you eat her?”

She cursed. How could the guard have seen her? Per security protocol, whenever Leta ventured outside her quarters, the computer locked down all the viewports. Scowling, she turned to face the back wall.

The screen over the observation window lay askew in its track. In the rush to prepare for the patient, Leta hadn’t noticed. She switched frequencies and called the Colonel. “We have a security breach.”

“So I understand.”

“I’m eyeball to eyeball with a guard who’s pointing his weapon at me through the control room’s observation window.”

His voice exuded calm. “He won’t shoot. You aren’t in any danger, Dr. Reegan.”

Leta doubted that, but she had a more pressing issue. Several warning lights on the patient’s unit flashed red.

“The child’s dying. Your flunky has the facility under lockdown. I can’t get her into sickbay. He’s trapped us in the transfer tube.”

“I’m aware of this.”

A second figure stepped in front of the window. This individual wore the insignia of a Colonel on his armband. His gill slits moved in and out, his large earflaps plastered to his skull, a sign of stress.

“Colonel, I didn’t know you were here on Hades.”

He pressed a control with his webbed hand, an adaptation that made the ethane lakes of Isis navigable. He’d cut the feed from her microphone.

The Colonel barked orders at the guard, who shook them off. The alarm system on the cart began to wail. All the child’s stats blinked red. Leta ripped off the headset and threw it against the wall.

The guard clutched at his weapon, refusing to stand down. His gill slits pulsed at a faster and faster rate. The Colonel made a swimming gesture to calm him down, but he would not yield.

The Colonel eased out a stool and invited the guard to sit. He refused. The Colonel, his earflaps rising up in an expression of openness and calm, took the stool and sat facing the guard.

Leta shouted in frustration, “She doesn’t have time for a fatherly chat!” Leta strode to the observation window and pounded on it with both fists.

“The child’s dying! She’s dying!”

The guard whipped around, leveled the weapon at Leta, and powered it up. Blue flowed up from his chest, coloring his neck and gills. Leta froze. Her eyes darted over to the Colonel. He’d better do something quick, or the idiot would fire.

With the guard distracted, the Colonel reached under the console and slipped out a tool. He leapt up and smashed the guard’s face into the window, stunning him. He lifted up one of the protective scales that ran along the guard’s back.

Leta screamed, “No!”

He thrust the tool dead center. Like a pithed frog, the guard lost control of his muscles and slumped over onto the console before sliding to the floor. It made no difference that his eyes were compound; Leta recognized the fear and betrayal in them.

The Colonel deactivated the weapon and tossed it aside. He put a boot in the middle of the guard’s back and yanked the tool free. He dumped it on the console. Leta stared at it, a long thin shaft ending in a sharpened V. She used to weed her garden with something similar, but hers was made of steel. This one was forged of water frozen so hard it served the same purpose. The shank dripped blue Isinian blood.

It would be easy to dispose of the evidence. All the Colonel would have to do was pass the tool to Leta’s side of the lock. It would melt, then evaporate and then…

The Colonel banged on the window to get her attention. She grabbed her headset from the floor.

He yelled, “What’s wrong with you? Do your job!”

Leta whirled around. The little girl! She stumbled as she ran to the cart. The transportation tube door showed green. She pushed it open and shoved the cart through.

 

I must shake off sleep. More children arrive daily and Teacher grows old. I ask her why we work so hard and she replies that we are saving the world. I can barely remember that world.
“Why should I save it?”
“Because I ask you to.”
And that is enough.

—Patient Zero, Confessions of a Chimera, p. 121.

 

Leta did not speak again with the Colonel for several days. And when he finally did call, the significant transmission delay implied he’d returned to Isis. He requested an update on the child. The telemetry indicated she was still alive, but was the experiment working or not?

“She’s doing great. Better than the models predicted. We should be able to pull her from the artificial womb two weeks ahead of schedule. Then we can begin to determine her cognitive abilities.”

“You mean find out whether she’s a vegetable?”

Leta’s nostrils flared. She refused to acknowledge such a boorish question. The Colonel, unfazed by her silence, continued. “Well, this is the farthest we’ve ever gotten. Finally a success!”

She bristled. “A success? You call what happened here a success?”

The program translated the Colonel’s response as a sigh.

Her voice sharp, she said, “You didn’t have to kill him.”

“If you insist we discuss this.” He sighed again. “Of course I did. You saw his reaction. He was about to blow a hole through the observation window and kill us all.”

Leta leaned forward in her chair. “You could’ve explained things to him.”

The program inserted a snort this time. “Really? As memory serves, that’s precisely what I was attempting to do when a crazed monster descended upon the window pounding and howling. Or don’t you remember that part?”

Leta gasped as if sucker-punched. “Don’t you dare blame this on me!” She jumped to her feet, the spittle flying, “You’re the crazed monster! You!”

Silence.

One sob escaped before Leta clamped both hands over her mouth and dropped into her chair like a stone into a pond. She rocked back and forth for a few moments before composing herself. “I didn’t mean to…” As if pleading, she raised up her hands. “I needed to save the child.”

“And you did.”

Leta glanced over at the computer screen and checked the girl’s vitals. Greens across the board. She wrapped her arms around herself. “So far.”

“We do what we have to do, Dr. Reegan. Today, tomorrow and the day after that. If this experiment fails, we try again. We have no choice.”

Leta wanted to argue that she did have a choice. But what exactly was that choice? To lie down and die?

She rose from the chair and walked to her worktable. She picked up the cravat she’d finished the night before. It wasn’t half bad for someone who hadn’t sewn in years. She held it up to the light and examined the color of the material.

“Red and blue make purple.”

“What? I don’t understand. Please repeat, Dr. Reegan.”

“Nothing.” She tossed the cravat onto the table. “You haven’t hung up yet. I assume there’s something else you want?”

After a pause, “Yes. This latest supply requisition of yours, why all these new synthetics? The manufacture of such things will be difficult.”

Also on the table, in a surgical tray, lay the toy Dr. Axel, the one she’d excised from the girl’s chest. She touched its stomach and the material left a powdery residue on her fingertips.

“Your synthetics break down too readily under the environmental conditions here.”

“These will be very expensive.”

Wiping her hand on her pants leg, she said, “What do you care? The costs to manufacture these items are miniscule in comparison to how much it’s costing you to keep all of this quiet.”

“Are these materials mission critical?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

Leta hung up. One corner of her mouth curled into a smirk. “Quit your bitchin’ Colonel, and give me my damn fake fur.”

 

There are hundreds now but Teacher greets all of them when they awaken. Sewing children’s toys with witch’s fingers, she says she will die soon. I will be the one who greets them. She asks me what I will say to them. I do not know.
—Patient Zero, Confessions of a Chimera, p. 184.

 

Leta awoke to her computer, which indicated an incoming call from the Colonel. She glanced at the clock. She’d been asleep for only twenty minutes. With three survivors to care for, her exhaustion undercut her like high tide on a child’s sand castle.

“We have another one for you, a male teenager. I’m uploading his records.”

Leta watched the scan as it scrolled across her screen. His tumor expression appeared similar to the little girl’s. This one could be a survivor, too.

“Why so many all of a sudden?” Leta scowled. “Is this controlled or do you have a wildfire situation there? I’m only one person.”

After a significant delay the Colonel admitted, “I don’t know. Things are changing rapidly down here. I’m not sure the bioweapon story will hold much longer.”

“Aw, what a pity. It’s not like we can tell them the truth. They’ll riot. Oh wait! They already have.”

Leta pushed her hair back out of her face. She felt wasted and resented being awakened. “With another possible survivor, I’m going to need help. Really.”

The Colonel assured her he understood her situation and personnel would be arriving soon. He trailed off, but he didn’t sever the connection. Wanting to hurry him up, Leta asked if he needed anything else. He replied with a question.

“What did she finally turn into? From her pictures, she was such a cute little girl.”

The question seemed a non sequitur but Leta answered. “Surprisingly, she looks a lot like me. So I guess she looks like your typical alien monster. She’s still unsteady on her feet, but she doesn’t need the walker anymore.”

The translation program added a note of sadness to the Colonel’s voice. “Why surprisingly? Shouldn’t she look like you? I mean they used your DNA, didn’t they?”

Leta’s voice cracked. “Your mad scientists have DNA from my colleagues, too. Harvested from their bodies.”

His tone curt, “That was a different administration.”

Leta snorted and said, “I have no idea whose DNA they’re using.”

The Colonel refused to let it go. “It would make sense to use your DNA. You know, so you could bond with the child. Because, at least partially, she’d be your daughter.”

Leta rubbed her eyes. She just wanted to sleep. “Perhaps. But maybe they don’t want me to bond with experiments that might fail. You wouldn’t want me to become too depressed and kill myself. I’m too valuable an asset now. You know, since it’s a different administration and all.”

The Colonel remained on the line, but he didn’t take the bait. Leta reached over and scooped up the new and improved Dr. Axel from her bedside table. She hugged him to her chest. He’d undergone extensive artificial evolution, too. Now he resembled a teddy bear and could tolerate the heat and oxygen without disintegrating.

The Colonel asked, “Why do you do it?”

Leta didn’t understand and asked him to rephrase the question.

“Why do you help us?” He hesitated and said in a softer voice, “After, what we did.”

Leta raised an eyebrow. She helped because that’s what she did. It was expected of her.

“I don’t know.” She adjusted the cravat on the stuffed animal. “Maybe because it’s not fair your moon turned against you. Maybe because we’re a lot alike and if you’d come to us first we might’ve killed you, too.” Tears welled up and Leta paused a moment. She put a finger to her lips and waited for the feeling to pass. “Maybe because I’m so goddamned lonely.”

The Colonel paused for such a long time, she assumed he’d hung up and reached to click off her computer. When he did speak his voice came in low, and she had to strain to hear him.

“So, is it possible for you to love them? Just a little? To love them a just a little?”

Thrown by the question, Leta said, “I don’t know.” Her cheeks grew hot and she challenged him. “What’s it to you, anyway? Why do you care?”

The Colonel said, “That teenage boy…he’s my son.”

 

When they awaken, I will tell them what Teacher told me, “You are precious.”
“You are loved and wanted.”
“You will save the world.”
I will do this because it will please Teacher. For me, I will speak to them before they leave Isis, before they enter the chrysalis. For me, I will say, “Breathe deep the cold, dry air. Smell it, taste it and remember it, for you will have to hold it forever.”

—Patient Zero, Confessions of a Chimera, Epilogue.

K. Eisert

K. Eisert is a retired geology professor and NASA engineer who no longer wishes to write about what “is” but rather what “if.”