The next morning, as the yacht slowly approached Noble's Isle, Tom saw a fishing boat in the distance. "Looks like a couple of local fisherman," he said, as he looked through the field glasses. "We should go check them out. Maybe interrogate them to see if they can help us with an approach on the island."
"You've got the conn," said Peter bitterly.
As they got closer, Tom could see through the binoculars that the two occupants of the fishing boat were getting alarmed at the approaching vessel, but there was little that they could do other than prepare themselves to meet them. Eventually, Tom could see that one of the fisherman appeared to be a local, based on what he could make out from his dress and mien, but the other appeared to be white, either European or American. A foreigner, then.
Once they had gotten close to the little boat, the white man spoke out, "You from Oscorp? Are you also part of the new management?" he asked warily, betraying an American accent.
Tom looked at Peter. "We are from Oscorp. But we are from a different division than the group that has already arrived on the island. Would you mind coming aboard for a chat?" asked Tom nonchalantly.
"Do I have a choice?" grumbled the white guy.
As they came aboard, Tom tried to be friendly, and he had encouraged to Peter to smile as well. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Tom Jones, and this is my associate Dr. Peter Morgan."
The man took a little more of a friendly tone with Peter. "Oh! Doctor Morgan, is it? So am I to understand that you're some kind of a scientist?" When Peter slightly nodded, recognition started to come over the man's face, and in his animated exclamations, Tom smelt rum on his breath. "Wait, I do recognize you. Forgive me, but you've aged, as have we all, and you look more tanned and outdoorsy than I remember from your photos. But yes, indeed! You're Professor Morgan from Johns Hopkins University."
Peter held out his hand in modest dissuasion. "I did teach there, for a time. Now I work with Oscorp Labs, as you do also I presume?"
"Well yes, yes I do. But it's an honour, sir, a real honour," the man said, shaking Peter enthusiastically by the hand. "To think that I am in the presence of a biochemist and Nobel Laureate of your calibre, sir. I had no idea that at Oscorp we had colleagues of such renown." He waved his thumb in the direction of Noble's Isle. "Out here in the backwater laboratories, we don't receive a lot dignitaries or, or, or…" he seemed to be searching for the right word. "Luminaries! such as yourself, sir."
"And with whom do I have the pleasure of meeting? As an esteemed colleague, I mean."
The man seemed very flattered by this comment. "I'm Dr. Elias Wirtham. I'm First Assistant to Dr. Hollister, who runs the Island Laboratory."
Now it was Peter who was searching his memory. "Dr. Hollister, Hollister. What's the good doctor's first name?"
"Dr. Lily Hollister?" Tom suddenly broke in. "I've heard of her. Wasn't she the one who was the protégé of Dr. James Watson but was then disgraced under allegations of buying ovums and coercing her research assistants into providing their own eggs for stem cell experiments?"
"'Disgraced' is a little strong," said Elias. "But yes, she was an apprentice of Dr. Watson's and is one of the leading minds in the fields of cloning human embryos and stem cell research. Although, that is not her principal pursuit here, in the island Laboratory of Oscorp."
As Elias had been talking, Tom was finding himself increasingly distracted by the appearance of Elias' companion. He had a somewhat disturbing quality, but there was no one ugly feature that Tom could single out as the source of his revulsion. The only thing Tom could think of that made him so decidedly repellent was that he seemed to appear, act, and move as if he was from the uncanny valley. Even though he possessed all the features of a strapping human male, there was a creepiness to him that gave the impression that he was a quasi-modo, almost human, but not quite. Finally Tom decided to interact with this engrossingly grotesque creature. "Hi. I'm Tom," he said as friendly as he could muster, holding his hand out for a shake.
Immediately, the man pulled back his arm in agitated surprise, as if Tom was holding out a branding iron to him. "Um, yes. This is my assistant, Pea-ulĪ. He's a local," Elias said, as if the last comment explained everything strange about his lab assistant. "He's no science major, but he's eager to please and incredibly strong, so he helps me out in various ways," he said blandly. "I grant you that he's an acquired taste, but now I'm used to having him for company, and he's grown accustomed to me and my little ways, so we work well together, either in the lab, or otherwise."
"Pleased to meet," Pea-ulĪ managed to force out an awkward response with a panting grunt.
"He's still learning to speak proper English," smiled Elias, with a bit of a nervous twitching in his eyes.
"Yes, quite. Now getting back to the subject of Dr. Hollister," segued Peter. "So what would be her principal pursuit here then, if it is not working with clones and stem cells?"
Elias looked at Peter uneasily and blinked. "I'm sorry, come again?"
"What is the subject of Dr. Hollister's research there on the island?" insisted Peter.
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say. That may sound convenient, but the truth is, the research projects that Dr. Hollister works on are top secret. Only high-level executives in Oscorp are apprised of all of what we do here. And I certainly am not informed of all the different projects. I get my own assignments, and I'm always requested to sign a confidentiality agreement beforehand. I know, sounds excessive, doesn't it? I mean, who am I going to blab to here on the island? But either way, Dr. Hollister performs the majority of her experiments with the strictest secrecy, declaring that our very existence there is classified. I always assumed we were working on government contracts for the military, because of her hyper vigilance. In point of fact, I'm surprised that so many of the new management at Oscorp are privy to the island laboratory's existence."
"Well, as you can see, Doctor, we are aware of its existence, but we have a great many questions as to what precisely transpires there," said Peter.
"So what we propose, Dr. Wirtham, is that you guide us to be able to land on the island in a way that will allow us to make some discreet observations. We are all working together at Oscorp, correct? Fellow workers and colleagues endeavouring to achieve the same worthy goals, hm? So then, man, what do you say? Can we, as part of the new management, count on your assistance and cooperation?"
Elias hesitated, but then he looked at Peter and smiled warmly. "Oh, how could I say no to helping out such an esteemed colleague as Dr. Peter Morgan? Whatever you want, you name it. You can count on me for assistance and I sincerely look forward to the inestimable privilege of working together with you."
As evening began to fall, Tom sat on deck of the yacht watching the sun go down with a glass of scotch in his hand. Their plan was to be on the move at five the next morning, just before sunrise, to make their approach to the island. Tom's curiosity was definitely up. What exactly was waiting for them on this mysterious island? As if to complement Tom's inquisitive musings, Elias' odd assistant came on deck as well and attempted to lean on the railing in a very casual, human-like manner, in order to stare out to the sea. He was trying to imitate how he thought a man would behave, and he was close, but he was evidently very circumspect in all of his movements. He was so overly careful and focused in his unnatural gestures that he was making Tom feel uncomfortable, with the feeling that this guy must be up to something nefarious.
As they both rested, waiting for the welcome darkness to bring some privacy to their thoughts and features, Tom's attention was suddenly captured by another remarkable characteristic of Pea-ulĪ's heteroclite aspect.
Light from inside the cabin was the only source of illumination as dusk was falling rapidly, when Pea-ulĪ moved his head to the side. But when he glanced back in Tom's direction momentarily and the artificial glare from the lamps reflecting back, his eyes shone with a pale-green light in a most ghostly manner. The surprise nearly caused Tom to jump out of his skin, and even worse, he nearly spilled his drink. Recovering himself, Tom's eyes struggled to peer through the cloaking darkness to try and examine again this singularly inhuman trait. Tom knew, as do many, from his work with photography that oftentimes the human eye will shine with a faint reddish luminosity. But this creature, who evidently could readily see in the dark with its eyes of fire, was some kind of entirely new species indeed.
Tom gulped the rest of his scotch and steeled his resolve to investigate the island in the morning. Evidently Dr. Lily Hollister had enjoyed some success in her ethically dubious scientific experiments on the island.
The next morning, Peter cautiously steered the yacht into a natural bay to the rear of the island, a good five kilometres away from the laboratory and residence complex that was situated on the other side. Elias had designated this as a logical and discreet landing point for the small group to begin their observations.
Peter insisted on bringing Somchai, the one remaining pirate that Tom hadn't incapacitated. As Peter put it, "If you're going to beat a guy's security detail to a pulp, save one, common courtesy dictates that you have to allow the solitary guard to perform his duty. I mean, in all seriousness, we don't know what's waiting for us out there. I'm no soldier. I need protection."
The five of them began moving through the jungle warily, while Elias always kept one hand close by his holster. Pea-ulĪ eyes kept darting about with an uneasiness that seemed to spring from a heightened awareness of his surroundings, but also stemming from the jumpiness of his fellows. Somchai kept his hands on his rifle and stuck close to Peter, who seemed ill-at-ease at the beginning, yet took the time to smell a flower as they passed by, to take in the beauty of the landscape and jungle, and kneel down to observe up close some rare insect or fungus. Peter truly was a lover of the natural world, and certainly felt happier there in the wild than in the political arena. But a sense of duty and ambition had driven him to seek political postings, as well to drum up funding for his personal research programs and humanitarian initiatives. Now, as he took a moment to admire a rare orchid, he began to question whether his sacrifices had been worthwhile.
As they marched along, Tom's attention was seized more than once by the one unnatural contrivance that they came across: large rat traps. Tom noticed a few, at regular intervals in the jungle, like warning beacons to the island's natural inhabitants that human interference was poised to tame this wilderness. Finally Tom asked, "Do you have a rat infestation here?"
"You could say that," replied Elias evasively. "There are rats that are native to this island, but a few test subjects may have escaped the lab and are now running amok, stealing and destroying."
Tom started to have a glimmer of understanding. "Do these particular rats possess above average intelligence?" he asked.
Elias shrugged. "Above average for a rat, I suppose."
"Is that why you can't catch them?"
"What makes you think we can't catch them?"
"Well it looks like you've covered this place in what must be hundreds of rat traps, and they are empty, so that is suggestive that you are unable to catch these rats. Also, it would appear that these particular rats, in addition to being smarter are also bigger, so that leads to my next question; Did you inject these animals with genetic material to amplify their cognitive processes?"
Elias hesitated. "Ahh, precisely what the experiment was, I can't recall. The fact is, the majority of our research involves testing medications for diseases on animals, but I'm not quite sure if that in the case of the mutant rats that was it, exactly."
"Did you introduce human brain cells into these animals?"
Peter stopped walking and turned to look at Elias for the answer to this question.
"I'm not really sure. My area of expertise lies more as a surgeon, so I can honestly say that I wasn't directly involved in that research."
"Answer the question, Dr. Wirtham. Do these rats possess partly human brains?" Peter demanded.
"No, of course not. We only grew human brains in mice," spouted Elias, relenting. "And while they are extra intelligent, they are a lot easier to control than these rats, let me tell you."
"You made human/mice chimeras?" asked Peter. "Why?"
"Because humanized mice hybrids are better test subjects for human applications like cancer research or Alzheimer's. Surely, I assumed a scientist of your experience would understand that."
"I understand the possibilities, Dr. Wirtham. What I often fail to grasp is the ethical rationalizing behind the experiment."
To this, Elias grumbled something, more to himself than to the others, and paused to pull a flask out of his pocket. After taking a swig, he pointed down the path. "We'll be coming to our small electrical building, just there over that rise. I'm not really sure what you were hoping to see on this little inspection, but we generally don't come down to this part of the island much. Usually only to check the traps, or do a bit of fishing."
"Hello! What's this?" announced Peter. He pointed to something that lay under a swarm of flies, in the shade of some luxuriant ferns. The group crowded around the unpleasant sight to try and figure out exactly what he had found.
"It looks like a rat, but with it's head ripped off. Look. There's the distinctive naked rat-tail," pointed Tom.
"It was a big rat," mused Peter. "How did you say you created these smart, super rats?"
Elias looked aghast at the grisly scene, with the blood spattered on the nearby plants. "Apparently they injected their embryos with genetic material to enhance their neuronal communication within the brain."
Tom looked at Elias, then at Pea-ulĪ, who was shifting back and forth on his feet uncomfortably like the guilty dog that is facing his master after just peeing on the living room rug. "Do you guys know what killed this rat? I mean, it's kind of weird. It's not really eaten. It just looks like it was caught and killed. But when you examine the body," Tom pointed at the carcass with a stick. "Pulling the head off like that would not be a very easy thing to do, nor is it normal animal behaviour that I've ever observed. What kind of predators do you have on this island, anyway?"
Elias crouched and moved his head from side to side as he examined the scene, obviously calculating something in his mind. Whatever he was thinking, his dour, stony expression did not change. Finally he stood up and said, "Well, I'm stumped. As far as I've seen, we don't really have many predators on this island, but I suppose there could be some shy hunters out there in the jungle that we don't know about, up until now."
As if to corroborate that statement, Tom began to feel intense tingling running up and down his spine. His eyes darted around, and he searched the faceless, suffocating jungle, for any sign of who was watching them. Now he felt like they were the ones being hunted.
"What is it?" asked Peter, in alarm.
Along with Tom, Pea-ulĪ started sniffing the wind, and Tom could swear he saw his ears twitching. Elias declared, "There's someone out there." He was about to pull out his gun, when six paramilitary figures, all dressed in black, materialized out of the forest, assault rifles drawn.
"Stop moving! All of you! Don't touch that weapon! Hands up! Now! On your knees!" The small group was swarmed by these efficient mercenaries, and one by one they were zip-tied with their hands behind their backs.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded Elias. "You can't treat me like this! I'm the executive assistant to Dr. Hollister. On whose authority then, are you arresting us?"
"Sorry Doc, but Hollister was removed as head of this facility as of this morning. Now you answer to the new management, same as the rest of us." At this revelation, Elias meekly bowed his head, and allowed the soldiers to lead him with the rest of them, while quietly giving the command to Pea-ulĪ to submit as well.
"On your feet! Let's move!" The leader continued barking orders, and they all compliantly followed, to see where this next nightmare would lead them.