Mark Iraklis peered out through the windshield of the Executive gunboat, awestruck by the beauty of the tropical sun slowly starting to sink into the ocean, while going over in his mind the invasion strategy for the morrow. Now that they were underway, he was feeling quite confident, both in the plan and in the calibre of his troops, but his attitude towards his worthy confederate was different altogether.
Iraklis cringed at the now familiar sound of Harry Osborne barfing in the lavatory of the bridge. "I'm surprised that you've got anything left to give," he dryly called out.
Osborne staggered out of the lavatory and collapsed in a chair. "I don't know if it's the water or the sea travel, but I literally cannot keep anything down."
"Well, you look terrible," said Iraklis encouragingly. "Have you considered the possibility that it's your nerves acting up on the eve of your first battle?"
Osborne's menacing glare came across more dreadful marked by the shady circles under his eyes. "I recognize that you will never tire of reminding me of my lack of military experience. Well, you'll see how tenacious I am in pursuing my goals, soon enough," he said bitterly.
"Yes, but I respect you for recognizing your limitations as well," responded Iraklis goadingly. "Appointing Vitaly as direct commander of your forces was the right decision, I can see."
Osborne said nothing to this, but just drank from a bottle of seltzer.
"So are you going to observe the battle from my Command boat, then?" Iraklis asked.
"Certainly not," spouted Osborne. "Vitaly may direct the landing and subsequent battle, but I retain my position as Commander in Chief," to which comment drew a sardonic smile to Iraklis' lips. "I will return to my ship presently. I just wanted to have a word with you first. What are you grinning at?"
"Nothing," chuckled Iraklis. "I just never grow weary of your enthusiasm for grandiose titles."
Osborne rolled his eyes, but seemed too exhausted to offer a retort. "I just wanted to make sure that you understand our adversaries. They are not soldiers either, and will wish to fight us with delaying tactics and escape, provided they are able to gather the evidence they seek, with which to damn us."
"Well, therein lies our strategy. We will be sure to cut off any chance of escape."
"And if they refuse to come out and fight, instead choosing to hide and using their troops to attack us in battles of attrition?"
"Our forces will be sure to draw them out, there is no doubt about that," declared Iraklis. "And even if they so chose, they would not be able to hide forever. So Vitaly has approved of the plan? My forces will approach to the north of the island, while yours will land to the south."
"That is the other thing. I feel that it should be my forces that approach from the north, while yours attack to the south."
"What difference does it make? Why does Vitaly make this change?"
"As you said while drawing up the plan, the south is more marshy, and my troops have more experience landing on proper beaches. Do not try to leave us at a disadvantage, Mark."
"It was not meant to be a disadvantage, but rather a surprise, outflanking manoeuvre to come the way of the marshes. Well, fine. I don't understand why Vitaly would question me like this, but fine. We'll do it your way then."
"It wasn't Vitaly who wanted the change, but you're right, we'll do it my way," concluded Osborne, as the two men glared at one another.
Tom sat in his cell, contemplating when would be the ideal moment to effect his escape. He certainly did not plan on sitting out the next eventful day. He was broken from his deliberation by the sound of the lock being opened. He looked up to see Dr. Elias Wirtham opening the door.
"Elias! Good to see you. But how did you get out?"
"One of my faithful assistants let me out. I think with all the preparations for tomorrow, these new managers are too preoccupied to notice that I'm not confined to my room. Come! I have something I'd like for you to see." Elias motioned Tom forward to leave his prison.
"Alright. What's going on?"
Elias talked in hushed tones. "Judging from what I've managed to overhear, it sounds as if they're preparing for a bloodbath tomorrow. And perhaps the one person who could do something to prevent this outcome, Dr. Hollister, has proven herself to be completely indifferent. I fear I must look to myself to get out of here alive."
"I'd say you're fears are justified. Do you want to make some sort of a deal?"
"You strike me as a reasonable person, Mr. Jones. If you help me to avoid the crossfire and then make an appeal on my behalf to the authorities, I'm willing to make sure you don't die here in your cell as well."
"Agreed. But what has absorbed the attentions of Dr. Hollister so that she would completely ignore a war on her doorstep?"
Elias was leading Tom further into the testing facility, where they encountered fewer soldiers and more people in lab coats, rushing around with files, test tubes, and other research equipment, trying to save and protect what they could. "They're battening down the hatches," said Elias, looking at Tom. He handed Tom a white coat, as he put on one as well. "Put this on. We don't want to attract undue attention to ourselves. I think the soldiers would rather focus on their battle preparations then deal with this unsettling aura of pandemonium in here."
They entered into a large testing area, where large animals were miserably occupying enclosures. Especially the apes caught Tom's attention. "What were you testing on these animals?" he asked. He paused to look carefully at a chimpanzee whose compound was labelled 'Caesar.' As he examined the smugly impassive face of the chimp, Tom could swear that he saw intelligence burning in his eyes.
"Like the vast majority of our research, we were studying disease and testing treatments. But to accomplish that, Dr. Hollister's idiosyncratic field of expertise was creating hybrid test subjects that were closer to humans biologically. Caesar, for instance, is unparalleled in his cognitive abilities as an ape." Elias approached Caesar and started talking to him in sign language.
As Tom watched, he was amazed at the complexity of the conversation. "Those aren't just simple signs you're using with him," he said, as Caesar signed back, even putting emotion and grunts to punctuate what he was saying.
"You can talk with Caesar just like talking to a human," said Elias, proudly. "And be careful what you say. He understands English perfectly as well." Elias turned back to face the ape. "Yes I am aware that some of the rules have been broken. Believe me, we are going to investigate and prosecute the guilty." Caesar signed something else that ended with the ASL sign for question mark. "No, Shastra is otherwise engaged at the moment and cannot be bothered to attend to your concerns. Rest assured, my dear Caesar that we will give this matter our undivided attention."
"Who's Shastra?" whispered Tom.
"That is the name that Lily goes by amongst the animals. It is a Sanskrit word for 'knowledge', but more specifically 'rules.' She chose it because she sets the rules and Caesar especially appreciates the stability that her rules and knowledge bring. It bothers him when these rules are not abided by. No. I understand, my friend. Calm down and listen to me." The two of them were signing to each other furiously.
The conversation ended with Caesar looking upset and turning his face away from Elias.
"He doesn't look very happy."
"I was trying to reassure him," said Elias. "He can sense that something is wrong and was demanding to know what was going on. Basically he wants me to let him go, but I won't do that unless it's actually safe for him to be out and about." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "I know for a fact that Auchmann and Kasady do not want our animals wandering around."
"Who's this?" asked Tom, pointing to the next subject, a Bonobo who stared malevolently back at Tom as he tried signing to the ape to ask him his name.
"This is Koba. He hasn't demonstrated the same levels of cognition as Caesar, and that's to be expected, since he was injected with human glial cells and not specifically the neurone. Glia are the cells that support nerve cells and strengthen the connections between them."
"What's wrong with him? He looks like he's been through the ringer." Tom could not take his eyes off of Koba's engrossing ugliness. He was covered in scars, blind in one eye, and in general just looked like a mean, old son of a bitch.
"Well, he's a veteran of testing various products, medicines and treatments. That's how we make the money to fund the research, and the drugs we have successfully tested have saved countless lives."
"Human lives, I guess," observed Tom. They continued on to encounter an empty enclosure that was labelled 'Guthrie,' where two men in lab coats were comparing notes. One of them Tom recognized right away. "Hello Peter. How are you?" Tom held out his hand for a shake.
"Tom. It is actually good to see you. So I see you've had the chance to observe Hollister's little house of horrors. You can't tell me that you haven't started to feel some doubts as to the ethicality of unrestrained experimentation."
Tom pursed his lips. "What are we looking at here?"
"Well I'm glad that you brought Dr. Wirtham. Elias, I want to know about this test subject that seems to have escaped, but I can't seem to get any useful information out of your assistant here," referring to the other man.
The other scientist started to raise his hands in protest, but Elias interrupted him. "It's okay, William. We obviously have a problem here, and it would be good to enlist the help of Tom and Dr. Morgan. So it would seem that Guthrie has escaped."
"Uh yes, that is the situation, sir," said William, with a bit of a whiny voice.
"I suspected as much when I returned to the island and saw a dismembered rat in the woods."
"Who, or what is Guthrie?" asked Tom.
"Be careful what you ask, Tom. I've already learned that this is a touchy subject around here," said Peter, drawing an angry stare from William.
"It's okay. I was planning on telling you anyway," said Elias. "In many ways, Guthrie is Dr. Hollister's crowning achievement. She was able to successfully to perform head anastomosis, or transplant the head of a wolf onto another body."
"As barbaric as that sounds, head transplants have been done before. Robert White transplanted a monkey's head onto another's body in the seventies."
"Yes, and many of us have practiced the Dr. White test here for preliminary research for Dr. Hollister to make history. She is going to perform a human head transplant." William's eyes were practically on fire, he was so excited, while Peter looked at him with great disgust.
Elias continued: "Guthrie is obviously something entirely new. Dr. Hollister was able to grow a headless embryo using human stem cells and a wolf mother, so we had a matching headless body. Then she was able to develop a wolf that was a genetic match and also was born with human glial cells. Then came the really tricky part. We severed the wolf's head, which as you are aware, involved severing the spinal cord. We were able to re-fuse the severed cord by using cell-to-cell fusogens. And thus Guthrie, a healthy, intelligent wolf with a different body, was born."
"So, basically, you guys created the wolf-man," said Tom. "It's all very cool, but why did you do it?" Peter was so shocked, he couldn't even speak.
"The implications of this kind of transplant are enormous. We could help people that are suffering from broken spinal cords, for example. Or people with genetic diseases such as muscle dystrophies whose bodies lose more and more functions over time, eventually leading to death, could benefit greatly from this procedure. These diseases all affect the body but not the head. Should the head be transplanted, these afflictions would be left behind in the old body, while the new body would enable the head transplant donor to live a longer, healthier life. This would ultimately serve to improve the standard of living for the recipients and could potentially double their life spans. Up until Dr. Hollister's and Dr. Connors' research into creating animal-human hybrids, we've always hit a wall in the issue of immune rejection, but now, thanks to them, in the last few years, we've made some great strides."
Peter was finally able to find his voice. "There are at least two problems with your reasoning, Dr. Wirtham. The creation of a body that is a chimera is unnatural, and will result in the animal DNA becoming dominant unless it is given preservative treatments, and, need I point out the obvious, your star test subject is on the loose in the wild. Also, if I must explain the other difficulty, is the horrendous cruelty meted out on the animal test subjects for 'preliminary experiments,' as you call them. Now with computer advances, there are many alternatives to the intense tortuous experiments that you have performed. The lives and suffering of these animals is not worth the price you are paying for the data collected."
"Yes, computer models are the way of the future, and I for one am glad of it," agreed Elias. "But for a computer to factor a conclusion, data must be entered to create the model in the first place. Without these experiments, we wouldn't have the basis for the computer modelling programs. But yes, the fact that Guthrie seems to have escaped is greatly problematic. We must bring him in. Dr. Hollister is still studying him to prepare for what has become her new obsession: transplanting a human head onto a body."
"So how do you propose we hunt this Guthrie creature?" asked Peter.
"I suggest that we use the resources that we've created, such as Caesar over there," said Elias, pointing at the chimpanzee. "He is viewed by the others as the alpha, and he certainly could find Guthrie and bring him in better than any of the others. My only reservation with him is that he's devilishly clever, and he might try to pull something over on us."
"I have my man that I brought with us, Somchai. He could come along as muscle."
"I think I'd trust the ape before I'd trust your pirate," said Tom.
"Well, I didn't think you would approve so I didn't mention him earlier, but our security guard is a man by the name of Thomas Fireheart. He submitted to treatments where they spliced his DNA with the genetic traits of a mountain lion, so he is a skilled tracker. I suggest we bring him along as well."
"Yes, we will be quite the freakshow, but I suppose that is what it has come to," sighed Peter.
As the little group of hunters headed into the jungle, the animosity between Caesar the chimp and Thomas the tracker quickly became evident. Once, as Thomas was trying to stealthily walk along a path, Caesar, who was looking in the trees, accidentally bumped into him and stepped on his foot.
"Hey! Watch where you're going, dammit!" yelled Thomas haughtily.
Caesar responded by hooting and snorting, and then signing his rejoinder to Elias, who chuckled in response.
"Caesar doesn't appreciate how Thomas always treats him as inferior," said Elias in an aside to Tom. They walked through the forest brandishing tranquilizer rifles, although Elias had his trusty revolver on his hip, as did Somchai.
They came across more dismembered rat carcasses that convinced the group that they were on the right track. After walking past a beautiful waterfall and swatting their way through clouds of mosquitos, Thomas held his hand up, signalling the other five to stop, as Caesar sniffed the air. Somchai's head nervously jerked around from side to side and he raised his tranquilizer rifle. Caesar started hooting quietly, and Thomas glared at him and gave a sign to shut up.
"It's okay," said Elias gently. "There's a good chance that he already knows we're here."
They all whipped their heads around to the sound of a twig snapping, followed by a faint growl. Somchai really looked freaked out. His hand shook violently as he tried to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Then he heard another sound coming from a different direction and saw a shadow moving through the trees. He dropped the dart gun and pulled out his pistol, firing indiscriminately into the trees.
The eruption of actual gunfire caused much consternation amongst all the living things in the area. A flock of birds came flying out of a tree and took to the sky with much cacophony. Thomas and Elias started shouting at him, and Caesar, hooting loudly, ran over to Somchai, first grabbed the gun and kicked Somchai in the midsection, all in one smooth motion. The pirate went tumbling backwards off the path.
Thomas yelled, and Caesar disappeared into the leafy undergrowth. Peter, Elias and Tom went running after where Somchai had rolled, but they made slow progress down the slippery slope that was cluttered with underbrush, roots, and rocks.
Somchai rolled roughly and landed in a muddy creek. He struggled to get up, but he had hurt his knee and his shoulder. He looked around, starting to panic, and pulled out a large knife. Caesar, from a tree, called to him, but Somchai paid him no heed. He started to hobble as fast as he could along the creek, when suddenly he noticed that something had changed. All the birds had gone quiet, and Caesar had disappeared again. He looked around, paused, and then continued as fast as he could.
Again a shadow seemed to flit across his peripheral vision. He stopped to look back and saw nothing. When he faced forward, a large, snarling figure collided with him with incredible force. The wind was knocked out of him, and he just had time to take a brief look at his attacker when his throat was ripped out.
Thomas Fireheart, followed by Tom, were the first to find scraps of Somchai's clothing and bloody footprints next to the creek. His body was nowhere to be seen. "Do you think he got away?" asked Tom, bemused.
Thomas sniffed the footprints and the slight breeze. "No. This was a kill."
"But why did he kill him?"
"The idiot shot at him and triggered his animal instincts. He was defending himself."
Peter and Elias finally managed to extricate themselves from the bushy slope and rushed over to where Tom and Thomas Fireheart were standing. "What happened?" asked Peter.
"He took him," concluded Elias, looking around. "Guthrie got him. He's gone. We should get out of here. We're too exposed."
"Dr. Wirtham is right," said Thomas, standing erect. "I've got an idea to lure Guthrie back into captivity, but we should start heading back before it gets dark. And where's that stupid monkey gotten off to?"
"I'd be careful if you're planning on going after Caesar, Thomas," warned Elias. "He's acting strangely. It seems to me that he has some sort of a plan."
"You overestimate him, Dr. Wirtham. He's an unreasoning beast, born a mere animal to be taken and destroyed. All of these creatures vilify the things that they understand not, and they in their destroying shall surely be destroyed. All of you'd best head on back. Use the rabbit paddock to lure in Guthrie and then capture or kill him. He's a dangerous beast, so I recommend that you all exercise the utmost caution in your schemes for him."
"Aren't you coming with us?" asked Peter.
"No, I'm more of service to stay out here and trail Caesar. If he is trying to escape, we'll know about it soon enough."
Tom, Peter and Elias were soon back at the compound, where they headed to the rabbit pen. Tom was immediately struck by the freakishly big, anthropomorphic eyes of the furry little animals.
"Let me guess," Peter was the first to comment. "You introduced human eyes into these rabbits, so that you could then perform the Draize eye test on the poor critters."
Tom was able to observe even from a distance, that some of the animals looked blind, with blank, clouded eyes, while others were red, swollen, and discharging fluid. But on a cursory glance of the group of probably fifty or more bunnies, the majority looked relatively healthy.
"You know as well as anyone, Dr. Morgan," said Elias, "that the differences in anatomy and biochemistry between the rabbit and human eye mean that traditional testing of irritating substances is subjective, and basically unscientific. But creating animals that resemble humans genetically is what makes us 'special,' and we've been able to conclusively approve and disqualify many products and chemicals for human use, thanks to these little conies."
"But the cruelty and the gratuitous suffering that you're subjecting these unfortunate creatures to is completely indefensible, Dr. Wirtham," said Peter. "Surely you can't look into the ridiculously large eyes of one of your blind hybrids and tell me that you don't feel the pain and suffering that you've caused?"
Elias seemed like he didn't know what to say. "We anaesthetize them before the tests," began Elias, looking ashamed. "If they suffer irreversible damage we immediately euthanize them to alleviate their suffering," he said quietly. Then he added, "I guess I try not to think about it. I just remind myself of the people and businesses that we're helping by providing accurate safety tests." Elias pulled out his pocket flask and took a swig.
"So now, the plan is to use these poor creatures as bait to attract, and hopefully capture, a bloodthirsty wolf-man? Do I have that right?" Peter reamed.
Elias gulped down his whiskey. "Pretty much."
Tom tried to cut the tension. "Don't worry Peter," he said, slapping him on the shoulder. "We'll be here to protect the bunnies, and you're armed with a pistol, aren't you?"
"You might want to get one," said Elias, gravely.