In hindsight there had been no need to ask about the weather—Plague knows the moment the storm starts. He stands in the observation room, looking into the now-crowded cell block as doctors and lab techs crowd around the Prodigy Harness, going through the steps to revive the man imprisoned within. He can see Horace Preston within, lying on something that looks like a coffin bed, and as he stirs he feels the temperature drop, ever so slightly.
Dr. Wallace looks up from a small hand-held computer, currently attached to the harness by a tether. He holds it out in offering. “He’s keyed to your voice, Mr. Richter.”
Richter takes the computer and hesitates. “How do I…?”
“Just speak,” Dr. Wallace says. “He’s keyed to your voice.”
Richter nods. “Mr. Preston.”
Horace Preston’s eyes snap open immediately. They do not focus.
“Mr. Preston. I need you to complete your mission. Now.”
Given how violent his reaction was before he was put in the harness, Plague half-expects a repeat performance. But he doesn’t respond at all: he simply stares blankly into space.
The air grows colder, however, and Plague’s skin tingles as he feels power surging through him. His arms itch. Rolling up his sleeve, he sees oily runes flowing over his skin. He runs out of the observation room and into the cell, holding up his arm for all to see.
“It’s working,” he says. “He’s doing it. I haven’t done anything, and it’s already started.”
Richter looks at Plague’s arm, face unreadable. Finally he nods.
“Showtime,” Plague mutters, and hurries out of the room.
Richter watches Plague leave, then turns back to regard the man in the harness.
“We are now on a very compressed schedule. Stay here, monitor Mr. Preston. I will be in OLC. Contact me if anything… unexpected occurs.”
“Yes sir,” Dr. Wallace says.
* * *
Operations, Logistics, and Control is the second largest room in the facility. It serves, in no particular order of importance, as the primary communications center, security center, and command center for the complex. The largest room in the facility is the server room next door, and it has been unusually busy of late.
Richter is immediately greeted by a nervous communications tech.
“We have a call from central. I put them on hold.”
Richter nods and sits at the communications station. The monitor shows that an encrypted outside feed is queued up, awaiting activation. Upon activation, the image of a sandy-haired man with a very serious expression fills the screen.
“Herr Kline. This is an unscheduled call.”
Jason Kline nods. “I apologize for that, but this is important. We recently resolved the security issue at the home office. I thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh? Who was it?”
“Assistants to some of the senior partners. They’re being dealt with.”
Richter nods approvingly.
“But that’s not my primary reason for calling. A week ago the TriHealth facility in New York was attacked by members of Crossfire.”
“Yes,” Richter says. “We received the data without incident.”
Jason shakes his head. “Not quite without incident, I’m afraid. My team thinks the attack was staged.”
“Staged?” Richter finds the notion amusing. “From what I understand, Vigilante did quite a bit of damage to the eighth floor.”
“To trigger the data transfer protocols,” Jason says. “They followed the data to Farraday City.”
“That is… very inconvenient,” Richter says.
“Yes it is,” Jason agrees. “You need to clear the facility as quickly as possible.”
“We are already preparing an evacuation,” Richter says, “but we are also minutes away from the final test.”
Jason looks surprised. “Oh. I didn’t realize… yes, I see the problem. Hold please.”
The screen goes blank.
Richter turns to a subordinate. “Begin issuing transit bracelets to all personnel.”
The subordinate nods once, then hurries off.
Richter turns back to the screen and waits. A few minutes later Jason’s image returns.
“In light of your specific circumstances, we’ve been authorized to provide additional support.”
* * *
Plague stands in front of Test Subject #14, staring down at the tattoo on the man’s arm. He had plenty of tattoos of his own, once. Tattoos on his arms, on his back—even one on his face. Getting them removed had been a painful process, but he’d done it willingly. It was a small sacrifice, compared to what he was getting in return.
Or so he had thought at the time.
He rolls up his sleeve and looks down at his left arm. The oily runes swirl and flow over his skin, much faster now, responding to the fury of the storm outside. It must be terrifying out there, considering how much power he can feel coming out of the ground. That's the strange part, though—the power isn’t coming from the air, it's rising out of the ground. He doesn’t understand that part.
A loudspeaker clicks and suddenly Johann Richter’s voice fills the room. “Plague. Are you ready?”
Plague raises his voice so it can be picked up clearly by the intercom system. “Ready.”
“Good. Have you chosen the index case?”
Plague looks back to the old man, focusing on the faded tattoo on his arm.
“Test Subject #14.”
All twenty-eight subjects are fully prepped and ready now. They’ve been moved from their gurneys and strapped into transparent, hermetically sealed caskets, each with an LCD monitor displaying vital functions and other medical data. They tell him that’s the most important part of the experiment: the subjects must be completely sealed off from each other, and from the rest of the world.
“All right, we’re entering Test Subject #14 into the record.” Richter’s voice pauses for a moment. “You should know we’ve been told to expect interference.”
Plague’s vision dims. He feels heat rise into his face. His fists clench tightly, and when he speaks, his voice is full of venom. “Curveball.”
“Quite possibly. Crossfire as well. This experiment is your primary responsibility, but once it’s complete—”
“Yeah, I understand. I’ll be ready.”
Plague unbuttons his shirt, letting it drop to the floor behind him. The runes are everywhere now, flowing across his arms, chest, neck and face in endless, indecipherable patterns.
“I’m starting now.” Plague focuses on Test Subject #14 and taps into the power surging around him, allowing it to pass through him as he brings his own gift to life.
Plague’s ability is simple: he can create any illness he’s personally encountered, and inflict it on anyone he wants. There are limits—the effects are temporary, not everyone is affected by his power, and some illnesses are far more difficult to create than others, requiring more time and energy—but it’s a simple, instinctive process. What he’s doing now is a departure from that. Instead of imagining an illness, he conjures the image of a very specific symbol and keeps that image in his mind.
The symbol is the culmination of decades of scientific research: a double helix, with a very specific set of nucleotide pairs at each helical turn. He builds the mental image carefully, forcing himself to remember each paired base in turn. And then, once the image is complete, he changes it further.
Plague starts at the bottom of the chain, mentally adding a symbol above the first covalent bond. He goes up the chain, like a man slowly climbing a ladder, adding a different symbol above each bond. He’s sweating by the time he finishes—recalling each symbol is a difficult and taxing process. When he finishes, the double helix structure he’d built so painstakingly has become something else entirely: a triple helix, each nucleotide pair warped into a triad.
It is no longer a thing of science. It has become something far older.
He’s shaking from the sheer force of will required to keep the image in his head. He pours his gift into it, wraps it in the power surging through the room, and sends it through the sealed casket, into Test Subject #14.
“We got a jump.”
Plague doesn’t know who said it. He doesn’t bother to look. He focuses on Test Subject #14, focuses on the faded tattoo on the helpless man’s arm, gathers every bit of power he has, every scrap he can grab from the room, and pours it into the thing he made.
“Fever spike. 103 and climbing.”
“Test Subject #12, we got a jump.”
“Test Subject #7, we got a jump.”
Plague focuses only on feeding his creation the power it needs to grow. He can hear, as if from a great distance, the excited reports of the lab techs each time it jumps into a new test subject: Five, thirteen, ten, six, nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-eight. The loudspeaker comes on, and he can hear reports from the other rooms: Thirty-five, forty-nine, sixty-two, seventy. Then the sound of test subjects flatlining: one by one, the continuous tone of death fills the room.
He focuses on his creation. He feeds his creation. He feels his creation grow, gaining in strength, lengthening its reach, ever searching for new hosts. His skin burns as the power surges through him, almost more than he can handle, and he wonders how much longer he can do this before it starts to burn him alive…
Someone is shaking him, hard. His concentration falters, and suddenly he’s staring at Johann Richter. His mouth is moving, but he can’t—
Plague blinks, sways to one side, and grabs Richter’s arms for support. He looks around. The flatline tones are gone, now, and the techs are all staring at him in a mixture of awe, fear, and exhilaration.
“Huh?” Plague looks back at Richter. “What…”
“The test is over,” Richter says. “It’s done.”
“It is?” His voice is hoarse. “What happened? How did we do?”
“Every subject.” Richter is almost beaming. “Every test subject, in every room. All infected. Well done. Well done.”
Every subject. Plague steadies himself and lets go of Richter’s arms. Richter releases his shoulders and stands back. “Every subject. How many dead?”
“Everyone in this room,” Richter says. “Except for fourteen, for some reason. That will need to be investigated. Ten in Room B. Three in Room C.”
“Oh…” Plague nods slowly, feeling let down. “So we failed.”
“No!” Richter shakes his head vehemently. “Not at all! The test was to transmit. And you did, successfully, to all subjects and to no one else. They will need to study the data more closely in order to refine the transmission process, and then they can work on the virus in its final form, but this was an unqualified success.”
“Unqualified success.” Plague takes a moment to let the words sink in. He feels himself starting to smile. “We did it.”
“We did,” Richter confirms. “Today, Project Recall officially enters Phase Three.”
A cheer goes up around the room. Someone is clapping Plague on the back, someone else is calling for drinks, someone else is actually starting to sing.
And then the walls shake. The lights flicker. The walls shake again. And then an alarm sounds, and the lights change from white to red.
The intercom crackles to life. “Security breach, upper level. Armed guards responding. Metahuman agents confirmed.”
Richter and Plague exchange glances. Without speaking, both turn and run for the door.