Charles S. Shorter, Hazard Specialist 5, and Randall Mendez, Hazard Specialist 4, arrived on schedule at the abandoned Admundson-Scott South Pole Station in their C-5A Galaxy. The Pauley Skistrip hadn't gathered any snow since the occupants all left, two weeks earlier, so landing was easy. Still, looking out over the raised headquarters and smaller outbuildings, the place looked like some abandoned winter ghost town. And ghost town it was. The cargo they had carefully ordered was waiting by the strip. The two Homeland Security inspectors had brought along a snowmobile in case the one parked by the cargo didn't work. Before they left, the residents of the South Pole Station had dug a mine into the Antarctica perma-ice and carefully removed two huge blocks that would weigh just under the Galaxy carrying capacity, each, fit the cargo bay, and be totally free of surface snow. It was a tall order for those remaining at the station, but they got the job done to specification before leaving, taking the first block of the two they prepared, with them
"Time to get busy, Randy. Let's get dressed and get this over with as soon as possible." In addition to layered clothing to fend off the cold, each man put on a special chemical hazard suit designed to remain flexible in subzero temperatures. The suits were awkward, but necessary.
"I'll bet that snowmobile doesn't start." Randy remarked to Chuck, trying to alleviate the angst he was feeling about their mission—their last mission.
"I hope it does. Otherwise we are going to have to go through decontamination procedure to use this one. Fully suited, the two men left the plane, and its pilot, navigator and copilot behind, through the side door, a few short steps to the icy Continent
Randy was right. Exposed, like the snowmobile was, for a few short days, even in the Antarctic summer, the battery registered, but was all but dead. Randy resorted to using the pull cord and plenty of primer, and the two-stroke roared to life. Chuck jumped on the seat behind the handlebars and Randy climbed onto the seat on the sled and they were off. They didn't have to go very far, just to some virgin snow about a quarter-mile from the Station. With a small shovel-like scoop Randy shoveled snow into a wide topped glass jar held by Chuck until it was full. After Chuck tied down the jar on the sled, they headed back to the plane and cargo. The whole operation took less than 15 minutes. It then took an hour to carefully sweep all the new snow off the cargo and its wheeled pallet.
It took even longer to get the tractor started with jumpers from the plane, and to pull the 20-ton block of ice into position so that the winches on the Galaxy could pull the cargo in. Once the block of ice was in position, Chuck signaled the pilot to open the cargo door and hook up the winches without stepping onto the Antarctic snow. The first set of winches pulled the wheels on the outside of the cargo ramp until it came to a position where two other winches, tied to the block of ice itself, wrapped in canvas and ropes, could pull it off the pallet and onto the skids on the cargo bay
Once Chuck and Randy had carefully swept off all the snow from their hazard suits on the cargo ramp and then carefully swept the ramp so that no snow would end up on the plane, Chuck once again, signaled the pilot to close the cargo doors. On this specially designed Galaxy, the entire cargo bay was refrigerated. Carrying the glass jar with the snow sample, they retired to a portable clean room at the front of the cargo bay and strapped down while the plane took off. It took them another 20 minutes to carefully remove their hazard suits and isolate them. Chuck still had to handle the jar with surgical gloves.
Inside the clean room was a special testing chamber designed by the Stanford Cryogenics Laboratory. The jar containing the collected snow was placed on a hot pad until the snow melted—another 15 minutes; while the two inspectors waited silently, watching the snow slowly melt to water. By now the plane was well on its way to McMurdo Sound. Chuck carefully placed the jar in the isolation chamber attached to the testing chamber. And then, he and Randy both placed their hands in the remote controls and began the test. "So far, so good." Chuck declared as he carefully unscrewed the top on the jar and poured some of the water into a small Petri dish in the chamber.
Carefully aligning the atomic microscope, Randy got a picture on the monitor. It wasn't good. "Oh damn, there they are again. It looks like there are no places on Earth they haven't reached. I'll forward this data on to Homeland Security and then let's get out of here. We're done for anyway." There was a somber, defeated sound to his voice. On this, their ninth mission, they had struck out again.
Chuck replied. "I guess that clean ice cube we're bringing back won't do much good. I don't know about you but after we go forward and tell the Captain, I am going to hit that bottle of Dewar’s. I know it's against regulations, but what are regulations anymore, anyway."
"I'm with you Chuck. Let's get out of here."
Dr. Xian Feng, Nobel Prize winner for his work in cryogenics, had set the alarm for 2 am and sped up the Southwest Freeway to his lifetime parking spot next to the President of the University of Houston, bleary eyed, but still eager to see the results of his latest experiment. Cryogenics is a tedious field of study. Eureka moments are few. Since his Nobel Prize many years before, Dr. Feng had been unable to make any progress in levitation or cold fusion except to replicate his earlier success. Some of his colleagues on campus and in the larger scientific community were beginning to doubt his ability. All the more reason for Xian to get up at 2 am.
Feng's Cougar One Card got him past the turnstile to the campus interior and his parking space, through the entrance to the Physics Building and the entrance to his laboratory. As for the campus policeman on the bicycle, all it took was a wave. When the lights came on, Xian rushed to see the results of the experiment. He had to wait until the atomic microscope warmed up, the computer booted, and the image came up on the monitor. Dr. Feng adjusted the controls with his touch screen and focused on what he was seeing, something never seen before, a new molecule. Cold fusion had worked this time. Xian was staring at his creation in disbelief. An "Ah Hah" escaped his mouth in confirmation.
The next few minutes were spent searching the Internet and Feng's sketches to try to determine the exact composition of the molecule before him. It looked like deuterium or heavy water, but contained a dual deuterium isotope, one more than tritium. In the sequence of molecules, he mentally dubbed it, "Q4O", and made sure that he had good sketches of the molecule as well as the visual proof stored and backed up on his computers before Xian started to have a panic attack, bent down in his desk chair with his head between his legs, breathed deeply, and cried. When he looked again an hour later, the new molecule was still there in sufficient numbers—about .5% of the 10 mL sample—that he knew it was stable and not a momentary phenomenon. The scientist's joy was biblical. He wanted to call his wife and wake her up, but dared not. Xian would have to keep this one quiet until he had prepared a careful paper. There were more tests to do—evaporation, condensation, boiling point, freezing point... It took him until just before his class at 9 am to finish. The molecule evaporated and condensed exactly like water. Its boiling point at that solution was 100.37°C and its freezing point was .0033°C. —well within the bounds of the natural world.
Dr. Feng’s excitement had given him renewed energy, so he prepared the outline and began his paper the next day after class. Eager for uses for the new molecule, he thought, perhaps, that it could be useful for purifying water, like hydrogen peroxide. In order to test his idea, Xian’s girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Pritchard, a noted microbiologist, came to mind. Xian's long-suffering wife had borne him two children, helped fund his schooling and entry to the United States, but she did not understand his work. When he and Dr. Pritchard got together for scientific conferences like the annual AAAS meeting, they sometimes shared the podium, often had dinner, and invariably a hotel bed. All this, of course was kept quietly discrete, although some of their colleagues were in the know but did not want to reveal the affair.
They met at lunch in the Cougar Room. "I've got the most exciting news for you." Dr. Feng blurted out as Dr. Pritchard joined him in a booth away from other faculty in the sparsely populated lounge.
"Oh, you do? What's that?" Shirley secretly hoped that Feng was going to tell her that he was divorcing his wife, but she also knew him better than that and the look of excitement on their lover's face was very uncharacteristic—so she was intrigued.
"With cold fusion, Shirley, I've created a new molecule. It has four hydrogen isotopes and I'm calling it a quadrium for now, Q4O for short."
Xian's words shook Shirley to the core. "Oh my God! That's another Nobel Prize! I'm so happy for you, Xian. I didn't think you'd ever be able to top what you did 15 years ago." Dr. Shirley Pritchard, Associate Professor of Microbiology, had to catch herself to keep from shouting her joy to the others in the room. Shirley was not only his lover; she was rapidly becoming a groupie.
"I have started to prepare a paper. Based on the lineage and structure of the molecule, I have been attempting to discern its possible uses. At first, I thought it could be used to provide low-cost energy. However, Q4O is too stable for that. My second thought was that quadrium could be used to purify water. If it can, and you work with me to prove it, you too, could be in line for a Nobel Prize. All we have to do is try. In order to avoid any suspicion, I suggest after your last class at 10 pm tonight?"
Dr. Pritchard thought for a moment. "I will see you in your lab about 10:15. Sometimes my students hang around my lab and I don't want any of them to see me go there, honey." The mutual admirers continued their lunch discussing possible experiments to prove the molecule's uses. There was no suspicion in the Cougar Room. The colleagues often ate lunch together.
After lunch, Dr. Feng called his wife, apologized for not coming home, and told her that he was on the verge of a major discovery and would be very late again that night. His wife, as usual, understood and told him that she would welcome him home no matter what the hour. He made another 10 mL of the molecule, knowing that the process would be complete about the time he would meet Shirley. Xian did not let up, but continued to work on the paper and try to come up with potential uses for the discovery.
The second batch of water-quadrium solution finished about 9:30 pm. Xian was pleased to find that the second 10 mL had the same quantity, .5%, of the quadrium molecule. It was as he expected, for Xian was a meticulous methodologist who required precision when duplicating experiments. He would use this second batch for experiments with Shirley.
Shirley arrived about 10:35 pm. By that time, Xian's hands were sweaty and he was drinking coffee to keep awake even though he had grown more agitated every minute past ten. Relief flowed through him like cool water when he saw her opening the door. Breathless, Shirley whispered, "I'm sorry, there is one guy in that class that likes to hang around. I think he's got a crush on me because he keeps asking questions long after the other students have gone. What a pest!" She knew Xian would understand... men were always hitting on her because of her striking good looks.
"Okay, I've got a new batch of the molecule we can take to your lab. I hope you have some bacteria laden water that we can test it on." She smiled at his little joke. The two researchers were out the door and down the hall to Dr. Pritchard's microbiology lab in a couple of minutes. "We can start with 10 mL of anything you have. So far, I've duplicated the process and determined that the molecule evaporates, condenses, boils, and freezes similar to water."
"I thought heavy water didn't evaporate?" Shirley asked as they reached her laboratory door.
"It is only minutely heavier with an extra hydrogen isotope. Many gases, like helium, are much heavier at room temperature." Xian smiled to himself to think he was teaching elementary chemistry to the renowned microbiologist.
Once in the lab, Dr. Pritchard went to her fish tank and ladled out exactly 10 mL of water. One look under the microscope convinced both of them that there was enough bacteria to make the water undrinkable. Dr. Feng carefully split the sample he had into two 5 mL samples. With the microscope, computer, and monitor in position, he carefully poured one of the samples into the bacteria laden water. There was an immediate fizzing sound that lasted for about five minutes. The fizzing sound was gas being released. Feng regretted that he had not captured the gas, but he did get a slight temperature increase in the sample, about 2°C, that indicated a chemical reaction had taken place. There was also some precipitation of molecules of hydrocarbons as solids that drifted to the bottom of the vial.
To the researchers’ astonishment, the bacteria that had been seen swimming around in the monitor before the experiment were gone. The water looked to be as pure as sterile water. After a few more tests, they determined that this was true . Using Shirley's electron microscope, the proportion of the quadrium molecule had increased by .2%, an astonishing result! Not only had quadrium purified the water, it had somehow affixed additional hydrogen isotopes to other water molecules, reproducing. This was the first time in Dr. Shirley Pritchard's career that she had seen anything other than very complex living molecules reproduce.
Both scientists had visions of a world where water could be purified for cooking and drinking without boiling. It was almost too much to bear. They both started jumping up and down, hugging and kissing each other. Unable to think of sleep, they finished the paper. Shirley said she would edit the work and add a few footnotes in the morning and then e-mail the article to an editor she knew from Science. She knew the story would break before Science would publish it, but she didn't care. They both had proof in their labs of Dr. Feng's discovery on their computers. Aside from the fame and awards they would receive, they both would be fabulously rich from patents on the process. Dr. Feng told Shirley that he would begin the patent process the next day. It was already 3 am. They both decided to go home.
On his drive back to Sugar Creek, Xian began daydreaming. Why was it that Asian guys liked white American women so much? He guessed it was because of their blue eyes and butts... Asian women don't have butts... there was loud honking and lights flashing behind him. Xian regained his thoughts, looked down and saw that he was doing 45 mph in the freeway left lane. Cars were backing up behind him and honking. He accelerated until he reached 70 mph with other cars flying by him on the right, honking their horns and flashing their lights in anger. In 15 minutes he pushed the button on his garage door opener and was driving into his garage.
Xian undressed and crawled into bed at 4:10 am. His wife turned over and hugged him. She smelled the perfume of another woman on him. She had known that perfume before. She thought she knew who it was. She smiled and tears formed in her eyes as she tried to drift off to sleep in his arms. Xian, exhausted, fell asleep immediately without saying anything.
The next morning, to be sure, Dr. Shirley Pritchard saw the other 5 mL on her lab table and decided to duplicate the experiment from the night before. As before, the quadrium molecules in the sample completely destroyed the bacteria in the contaminated water she had removed from her refrigerator and warmed up to room temperature. Assured that she had duplicated the previous night's findings, she sent the article and followed it with a phone call. After reading the article, the editor from Science called her back, excited, and asked her to send copies of the video files of the purification process. Shirley called Xian in his laboratory to inform him, but he wasn't there. She feared he was still at home recovering from 24 hours without sleep, so she sent the files without conferring with him. And then, she had to go to class. Fifteen minutes later, Pritchard’s graduate student, Jerry Brown, arrived and started cleaning up the laboratory. He saw the vial on the lab table, picked it up, smelled it, and concluded that it was just sterile water and poured it into the lab sink. Jerry then dutifully sterilized the vial for future use and put it away. When Dr. Pritchard got back from her class she looked for the vial but couldn't find it. She questioned Jerry. He replied, "Oh, you mean that one on the corner of the lab table? It contained only water, so I threw it out."
Dr. Pritchard was about to chew her assistant out when she thought better of it. "Oh well, no harm done.” No use stirring up any curiosity now. But she already had by her question and the pained expression on her face. Shirley Pritchard went home thinking everything was okay. She dreamed about the riches and fame that would come to her in the coming days after Science published their article. Things couldn’t be going any better.
Jerry Brown was brilliant, curious, and eager to get ahead. After Dr. Pritchard left, he logged (she had trusted him with her password) into her computer to see what it was that made that vial of water so important. He checked her e-mail. Immediately, Jerry found the e-mail to the Science editor with the attachment. Afraid that he would get caught, Brown forwarded the e-mail to his Yahoo address, made sure that he deleted the forwarded e-mail in her Sent, and then in her Deleted file, and then logged out. Jerry wiped down Dr. Prichard’s keyboard as though he had left fingerprints
Shirley kept calling Xian in his lab phone, unsure when he would make it back. Finally, about 7:30 pm, Feng answered. "Hi honey, are you alone?" He gave the affirmative. "I just wanted to let you know that I ran another sample and everything turned out identical so I sent the article and the video to Science. They are excited about the discovery and will publish it as soon as they check out your calculations, sketches, sources, and the video. I think you had better prepare for the two of us to go on national television. I know you don't feel comfortable with your English, but perhaps you could work out a few phrases and plan to smile a lot for the cameras. But then, you have been there before and I haven't. I hope your wife doesn't mind."
"My wife will have to live with it. She is a very fine woman and a good mother to my children—soon to go off to college. I do not want to hurt her, so I will tell her only what she needs to know. I have to go now. I am preparing some visuals in PowerPoint for a talk that I might have to give once our information is published. Bye now." Xian’s mind was on his work, not his lover, Xian hung up before Shirley could say her goodbye. She shook her head in recognition, and hung up too.
Jerry Brown arrived to his apartment about 11:45 pm. After he grabbed a sandwich, Jerry started looking at his e-mail. He'd almost forgotten about the one he forwarded until he saw it far down on the list of e-mails from his friends and his usual spam. Immediately, he opened the e-mail and began reading. "Wow," Jerry thought as he read, "this is really cool." He was hot to tell his friends what Dr. Pritchard had done, along with Dr. Feng. He didn't think of the consequences. After reviewing the video, he decided the best way for his friends to see it, was to put it on YouTube. Brown was a member and quite familiar with the process, so he had the video of the molecule, gobbling bacteria, up in no time. It took a little longer to compose an e-mail describing the discovery and how he worked for Dr. Pritchard and send it to all of his friends. It was about 3 am before Jerry finished with all of his e-mail and turned in.
The video went viral. By 10 am, TMZ had picked up the story and reported it. The people at Science were furious for having a tawdry celebrity network scoop them on a scientific matter, so they published their version on the AAAS website. The phones for both Dr. Pritchard and Dr. Feng were ringing off the hook with news media trying to reach them. They both found themselves giving telephone interviews to the major networks, CNN, and all the local stations in Houston while trying to grab some breakfast. By mid afternoon both researchers were on different planes to Manhattan for next morning interviews with major networks. It was a madhouse, an expected, but unexpected madhouse. Even Jerry Brown was dragged into the circus as the guy who broke the story. When questions came up about whether the university would forgive him for what he had done, Brown honestly admitted that he didn't know. He did know that Dr. Pritchard would be furious and probably fire him from his cushy lab job. Still, all the attention made him heady. Other opportunities awaited his attention.
It took a while for the general population to catch on to why the discovery was so important. As endless rehashes of the importance of the quadrium molecule to the world appeared on television and on the Internet, people in general learned that the molecule could take water, filthy with bacteria, and clear it up without removing the minerals, and without boiling. This meant that all the people in the world who had to drink muddy, polluted water every day, could be given filters to remove the dirt, and a small amount of this "almost holy" water to put in it, and then would have crystal-clear, pure water to drink. This meant that millions of lives would be saved every year and bacteria borne diseases like dysentery could be defeated. It was revolutionary. Science at its best. The world couldn't wait to get its own bottle. People mobbed every retail water outlet and the Internet, trying to be first to buy a bottle. The news media took pains to try to quell this fervor by reporting that "for now" the magic water would be produced in laboratories in very small quantities, and have to be tested, first on animals, and later on human subjects, before it could be reproduced by manufacturing. Estimates of the potion's availability to the public ranged from two months to six months, depending on which news source one listened to. Dr. Feng and his co-heart, didn't have a clue. They were only familiar with how pharmaceuticals were manufactured and approved—that usually took years. The researchers weren't at all sure how their process, on a fast rail to being patented, would be tested, approved, (probably by the FDA) and released to bottle water companies for manufacture. They were already getting calls from lawyers and venture capitalists most willing to help them start a corporation and keep all the profit to themselves.
"This is Meryl Hudson, ABC-13, reporting this afternoon from Brays Bayou. Earlier today we got calls from people along the Bayou that they had observed dying birds of all kinds. When we got here, we also found dead squirrels, cats, raccoons, and possums. The Bayou water is littered with dead fish and crabs. The animals, fish and birds do not seem to be harmed in any way, and no one can tell us why they died. We are below one of Houston's sewer treatment plants and it is very suspect as the cause. We tried to call them earlier, but they said they had some sort of crisis in their bio digesters and couldn't talk to us."
(Thirty minutes later, ABC-13 broke into regularly scheduled programming to bring a special report) "This is Meryl Hudson, ABC-13, reporting from the Southeast Houston Sewage Treatment Plant just off Brays Bayou. As we reported earlier, there has been a massive bird, animal, and fish kill in and around the Bayou just east of here. We have Arnold Schneider, associate chief engineer, City of Houston, with us to try to explain what may be happening here at the sewage plant that might be affecting the wildlife in the Bayou area. Mr. Schneider, earlier we heard that something was going on at the plant when we were reporting the kill off of wildlife just east of here. Can you fill us in on what is happening at the plant?"
"I just got here, but I've been in touch with the engineer here at the plant. He tells me that sometime two days ago, all of the bacteria in the bio digester started to disappear. We were afraid that treated, but still raw, sewage would get out into the Bayou and cause trouble all the way to Galveston Bay. When we tested the outflow from the plant, we were surprised to find that it was almost bacteria free, too. That seemed to be impossible without the bio digester operating. We haven't solved the mystery yet, that's why our plant people were reluctant to talk to you earlier until I got here. I wish there was more I could tell you. You will have to check back with us tomorrow and see if we have figured out what is going on. It sure seems like the plant is causing the problem with the wildlife, but clean water never killed anything."
"That was Arnold Schneider of the City of Houston telling us that they do have a problem here at the Southeastern Sewage Plant and will let us know when they've solved the problem. Until then, we'll try to find out what is killing the wildlife."
After three days of nonstop interviews with the press, meetings with other scientists, and even a stop at the White House, Dr. Xian Feng was exhausted. He had been on the toilet in first class on his plane to Houston for over an hour, constipated, when he heard a loud banging on the toilet door. It was a stewardess, shouting, "Dr. Feng... Dr. Feng! We have arrived at Intercontinental. It is time to get off the plane! I hope you're all right! Are you all right!
Feng hadn't been right all day. His eyes were dry and bothering him. His mouth and throat were dry and he'd been drinking a lot of water but it seemed to run right through him without affecting the dryness in his mouth. There was a general unease in his body that he attributed to exhaustion. He had had three martinis upon embarking on the flight, and that allowed him to sleep for a while, but the last half of the flight had been sheer torture. All he wanted to do was get home.
It was 11:15 pm when the shuttle dropped Dr. Feng at his car. He didn't relish the hour drive back to Sugar Creek, but he had to do it. As he was passing the beautiful skyline of downtown Houston lit up at night, Xian started to choke on his dry throat and his muscles started to spasm with the choking. He lost control of his Mercedes and slammed into the left lane barrier in a flurry of sparks. Fortunately, Feng didn't hit any other cars and they didn't hit him. By the time other cars stopped and their drivers got to him and pulled him out from behind the airbags, Dr. Feng was gasping his last breath and his body was rigid from spasms. He wasn't hurt in the wreck, but he appeared to be dying. Eighteen cell phones called 911 and an ambulance arrived in five minutes. Dr. Feng died in the ambulance on the way to St. Luke's emergency room. Doctors there found nothing wrong with him that would've caused his death, so they took blood samples and swabs to the laboratory to see if he had some sort of rare disease. The blood samples were negative. The swabs of his throat showed absolutely no bacteria. This result was not only unusual, it was unheard of. The doctors in the emergency room were alarmed and called the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
In the meantime, a number of people that helped try to save Dr. Feng after his accident recognized him and had reported what they saw to the news media via texting and telephone calls.
"Good morning this is Today Houston NBC at 5 am. We have a late breaking story to begin our newscast. Apparently, Dr. Xian Feng, the Nobel prize-winning physicist from the University of Houston who recently made a breakthrough discovery in the purification of water four days ago has died shortly after he crashed his car on 59 South near downtown just after midnight. Witnesses on the scene said that his car was totaled, but Feng appeared to be unharmed except to be incoherent and agitated. He died on the way to the hospital. No word yet on what caused his death."
When Dr. Shirley Pritchard did not answer phone calls after returning from Washington DC the night before, her colleagues at the University of Houston called the police. At 8:15 am, University of Houston police were at the door of her loft overlooking Buffalo Bayou with a spectacular view of downtown. After loud knocking did not reach her, the police broke down the door and found Dr. Pritchard lying face down in her kitchen, in her bathrobe, with a broken glass in her hand. She was dead. The liquid in the glass had evaporated, but it appeared to be nothing more than water from the tap. Her cell phone showed that she had made several calls to Dr. Feng's cell phone, and no call to 911. Dr. Pritchard's body was taken to St. Luke's emergency room where doctors found that she had the same absence of bacteria in her nasal passages, mouth and esophagus as Dr. Feng had. Once again, they made a call to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and e-mailed the results.
"This is a special report from CBS news. TMZ has reported that Dr. Shirley Pritchard, co-contributor to the recent water purification discovery by Dr. Feng has died. Her death closely follows the death of Dr. Feng last night. Our sources at the Centers for Disease Control report that, while they haven't determined the cause of death yet, it appears to be linked to the recent discovery by the scientists because all bacteria in the researchers' bodies was destroyed. The Harris County Coroner is conducting autopsies and we should have the results by noon. Stay tuned for further developments in this fast breaking story."
As a precaution, after an emergency meeting, University of Houston officials closed the Cullen Science Center at 10 am. At the same time, the President met with Homeland Security and ordered the building cordoned off until a specially selected HAZMAT crew could arrive. At this stage terrorism could not be ruled out. As the news spread around the country and around the world everyone began to sense that something diabolical may have happened to the two scientists.
Charles S. Shorter, Hazard Specialist 5, and Randall Mendez, Hazard Specialist 4, were chosen to spearhead the investigation and report to Homeland Security officials. Shorter flew from Washington DC by military jet to Ellington Airbase. Mendez flew from Atlanta and the Centers for Disease Control by military jet to Ellington as well. The two had never met. When they arrived, HAZMAT officials from the Houston Fire Department met them. At 1:15 pm, a police-escorted parade of vehicles left Ellington Airbase headed up I-45 for the University of Houston. The parade was followed, at a police designated distance, by a fleet of helicopters from local and national news media.
In route, Shorter and Mendez quickly introduced themselves to each other and began the process of gathering together equipment they would need for entry into the building. While they didn't worry too much about the hazards they would face, the inspectors prepared their suits for that eventuality. Upon arrival, a large crowd of students and curiosity seekers surrounded the building. University Houston police led the inspectors through the crowd to university officials waiting near the front entrance. Shorter greeted the man he thought was the President of the University. "Hello, I am Charles Shorter. The President has asked me to investigate the situation here. I have been assigned Randall Mendez to assist me. We will not need any other help right now because we do not know what we are facing. If we need help we will call for it."
The man Shorter was addressing spoke. "This is President Randelia (he referred to a demure woman standing next to him). I am Charles Hynes, Dean of the School of Science and Technology. If I can be of any assistance, feel free to telephone me on my cell phone (Dean Hynes gave Shorter his business card)."
Shorter nodded to and took the hand of the lady. “My apologies Dr. Randelia. Do you have floor plans to the building?"
"Yes." Dean Hynes signaled to a man who brought the floor plans over. Hynes pointed to the 3rd floor plan. "Dr. Feng's laboratory is here, room 350. Dr. Pritchard's is down the hall at room 315. The police have prepared access cards for you so you shouldn't have too much trouble entering the building and rooms. Let's keep in touch by cell phone. Do you need any police to go with you?"
"No, no use in endangering anyone. We'll go in alone." Shorter and Mendez checked their phone numbers, sealed their HAZMAT suits and entered the building.
In the meantime, at the Harris County morgue, downtown, the autopsies were complete. The coroner determined that the researchers both died of the same cause. They were extremely constipated because none of the food they recently ate had digested properly. Their lungs and bronchial tubes were constricted by lack of mucus and they died of asphyxiation. It was a slow and agonizing death as evidenced by Dr. Feng's agitation on the plane and before leaving the airport and Pritchard’s frantic calls to Feng.
The plague of dead animals, birds and fish had spread to parts of Pasadena and the Ship Channel. Wildlife officials were at wit's end to try to figure out what was happening until a veterinarian determined that the animals were being asphyxiated because they lacked mucus in their lungs. The two news stories broke at the same time. It didn't take long for everyone to connect the two.
Homeland Security enlisted a top panel of scientists to review the researchers' report and video for any clues to what was going on. There was no time to convene a panel in any formal way. An Internet conference was hastily convened and within minutes of the request scientists were working on the problem. They quickly came to three conclusions: First, the quadrium molecule evaporated like any other water molecule, and therefore could take the form of vapor and travel through the air. Second, the video showed that quadrium was a perfect bacteria killer. And third, that the quadrium molecule, once it had consumed bacteria, could somehow create new quadrium molecules from the hydrogen and oxygen in the bacteria it killed. The only way to keep the molecule from spreading was containment. Unfortunately, based on the animal kills east of the University of Houston, the molecule had escaped to the local environment. The scientists could only conclude a grim prospect: that the molecule would eventually cover the Earth. Based on the tragic death of the two researchers, Pritchard and Feng. More deaths could be expected.
Shorter and Mendez entered Feng's laboratory. Everything appeared to be in order. Computer network officials from the campus gave them access to the computers. They soon found the files they were looking for: A copy of the report and a video of quadrium eating bacteria. Vials on the counter all were sterilized. In the refrigerator, a capped vial with about 2 mL of liquid carefully marked, "Q4O", was the only evidence the experiment had taken place in this lab. Randall took a video of the vial in place and carefully placed it in a sealed evidence box and they left the laboratory with Dr. Feng's computer. At Dr. Pritchard's laboratory, they once again found evidence of the report, her e-mails to the Science editor, and the video, but they did not find any physical evidence of the experiment. Twenty minutes after the two investigators entered the building, they came out, evidence in hand. Shorter and Mendez were quickly transported to a waiting jet at Ellington for transport to Atlanta. The crowd at the Cullen Science Center dissipated.
Chuck Shorter called his wife in Alexandria. "Hi honey, we're finished here in Houston and are on our way to the Centers for Disease Control. Kiss the girls for me; I don't know when I'm going to get home. This one looks like it will take a while." Randy Mendez was single and enjoyed assignments like this. He was married to his exciting work and called no one.
By 2 pm the mayor of Houston called a press conference. She expressed her "apologies for the inconvenience" for measures she may have to take in the coming days because of the "problem at the University of Houston." She advised everyone to "remain calm" and that she may have to ask the good people of Pasadena to evacuate if any human beings were affected by the "alarming animal kill in and near Brays Bayou."
By 3 pm some of the good people of Houston had already decided that it was too dangerous to stay, had packed up, and left town to the north, the west, and southwest to Mexico. By 5 pm the flow of people leaving had become a flood. The mayor held another news conference saying that "There was nothing to fear—no one has died." But her message was to no avail. An hour later, there was gridlock on all freeways, farm to market highways, and major streets leading southwest, west, north, and even east on I 10. Stores were being emptied of bottled water and nonperishable food. Gasoline in local stations was in short supply and unavailable on the roads out, and everyone was in a state of panic to try to leave town. Where were they going? Most didn't know because all of the hotels and motels in Texas and Louisiana were quickly booked for the night.
Jerry Brown's roommate found him dead, sitting on the toilet. The roommate tried to report the death to the police, but couldn't get through to 911. Instead, he dragged the body to a bed and called a local funeral home and Jerry's parents. Jerry's parents lived in California and couldn't afford to come to Houston. They wired money so that Jerry could be cremated. When Jerry's friends learned from his roommate that he was dead, they were shocked. As a graduate student, Jerry had few friends on campus. The students put two and two together, remembering that Jerry had worked for Dr. Pritchard, and called the Centers for Disease Control.
Mendez and Shorter were on their way back to Houston. Fortunately, they were flying to Ellington. From there, they took a helicopter to the Ship Channel. I-45 was jammed with traffic trying to go through Houston and impassible. With their hazard suits on and bird and fish kill all around them, the inspectors quickly took measure of the water and a sample for the Centers for Disease Control. The helicopter flew on to Beaumont. With no fish or animal kill in evidence, they took another sample. The inspectors then flew on to Lake Charles where another sample was taken.
When Shorter and Mendez got back to Ellington, as they expected, the results were positive—there was a healthy population of deadly quadrium molecules in Galveston Bay. The water in Beaumont also tested positive but in lesser concentration. Lake Charles water tested negative for quadrium. Based on what Shorter and Mendez found, Lake Charles would be affected very soon. With the evidence they needed, Chuck Shorter and Randy Mendez took their jet back to Atlanta. Their findings preceded them. Their samples were only for the historical record. The diagnosis was in.
The Centers for Disease Control and Homeland Security convened an Internet conference with the best meteorologists around the world. The conference concluded that the quadrium molecule would evaporate and become part of rainfall around the world following the prevailing westerlies until it reached the stratosphere where it would be accelerated by the jet streams and various weather patterns affecting the atmosphere between the North and Southern hemispheres.
By three o'clock, Arnold Schneider died. It took his wife over an hour to reach the mayor. The mayor was up to her ears in alligators—dead alligators. Her city had panicked, and there was nothing she could do. People were dying by the roadside from lack of water, heat exhaustion and stress. Looters were everywhere and armed vigilantes were shooting some. For now, those who chose not to panic were okay. But the City of Houston's water came from Lake Houston and it was only a matter of time.
At 5 pm, the President of the United States preempted all television for a public announcement:
"To the citizens of Houston, of the United States, and the World. Four days ago, two scientists working on heavy water at the University of Houston told us that they had discovered a new molecule that would save millions by being able to purify water. We applauded their discovery and had hope for mankind. However, Drs. Feng and Pritchard are dead, victims of their own discovery. Not only are the two scientists dead, but animals, fish, and birds are also dying. The City of Houston has panicked, and there is anarchy in the streets. The Governor of Texas has called out the National Guard and people are dying, not from the water, but from their own fearful activity. I have reports of people being shot for looting and robbing others and people dying from thirst and stress causing heart attacks by the roadsides because cars have backed up for miles and run out of gasoline.
"This is not a time for panic. We must all began to understand what we know. We know that what is in the water is killing people. We also know that the molecule that is killing people is also in the water vapor in the air so that it can be in the rain. I am asking everyone to stay out of the rain and not taste the rain in any way. For now, bottled water or well water should be safe. However, there is no guarantee that the molecule, called quadrium, will not also, eventually, get in those water supplies. Whatever you do, do not go into any water on the surface, not the puddles, rivers, lakes, or ponds, including the oceans, until we come up with an anecdote or other cure for this scourge.
"I repeat. I am asking for calm and the scientific community to act quickly to come up with an answer to our dilemma. In turn, when we have news, good or bad, I will report it to you. In the meantime, God bless you all and may God save our souls."
The President's message was broadcast in many languages around the world. It did not reach some and confused others. Panic set in almost everywhere. Governments were toppled and anarchy spread. Cities were the worst. Their occupants either fled in panic like in Houston, or committed the worst kind of atrocities. There was no one to stop them. Military and police discipline broke down.
It rained in Atlanta. The quadrium molecule was detected in the rainwater at the Centers for Disease Control. Chuck Shorter and Randy Mendez were in Central Florida at Crystal Springs. They found trace amounts of quadrium molecule in the water but no evidence of any wildlife death yet. Both figured it was only a matter of time. The inspectors made a rest stop near Orlando for a couple of days at a NASA retreat. Disney World and the city were nearly deserted. Highways traveling north were jammed with people trying to get out, go north, and go anywhere to get out of the path of the advancing deadly rain.
People in Pasadena, Texas, started dying. Clinics and emergency rooms, even with all the people that had left, were overwhelmed. The Governor of Texas had mandated that all medical personnel either remain on duty or standby to assist if the medical emergency increased. About half of the medical people in the Houston Galveston area heeded the Governor's call. The rest had either already left or felt that their families were more important than their medical obligation.
The crisis in the City of Houston was only eclipsed by the crisis in the country. Those that had a plan to somehow weather the scourge came face-to-face with those who left their homes in some illogical, frantic attempt to find safety. The media continuing to discuss the problems posed and possible solutions, but no foolproof way of avoiding the quadrium molecule seemed to be in the offing. While governors called out the National Guard to maintain order, deserters reduced the ranks of the Guard and those that served were unsure what to do and couldn't maintain order except to shoot looters and robbers on the spot.
Pasadena, Texas was becoming a ghost town. People were left dead and dying in the streets and homes with no one to take care of them or bury them. Activity in the Ship Channel had ceased after many of the vessels had left for the Gulf of Mexico. Deaths were being reported in Beaumont, Baytown, and Orange, and many other small towns in Southeast Texas, as well as parts of Western Louisiana.
While the media became hampered by the loss of personnel who panicked and left their stations, the Internet cranked on, providing all kinds of information—some good, some bad, and some horrible—to the huddled masses looking for a way out. When it became apparent where the scourge was headed, a calm came over much of the country, as yet, unaffected. It became obvious that those in the upper Midwest stood the best chance for survival. Family farmers in this area got their water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Most of these farms had ample stores of surplus grain, sufficient outbuildings, and stocks of livestock that they could keep indoors, well watered and well fed—indefinitely. These people were clannish, well connected, and well armed, as the hordes of people who flocked to their farms soon found out. Once friends and relatives were safely in the arms of these friendly folk, all roads in were cordoned off and guarded by rifle and shotgun. Those that drove from the cities looking for friendly farmers were sadly mistaken. After shooting at the cars, farmers were not beneath shooting at their occupants.
One of the things learned was that any animal, bird or fish that had died from the molecule could be eaten if it was properly cooked. Another thing the Centers for Disease Control found was that some viruses escaped the appetite of quadrium molecule. That fact was little consolation, since viruses were the archrival of the Centers.
At the end of Day 9, the President, key members of the President's staff, the Supreme Court, and the Congress were shuffled off to a secret location—some speculated that it was Camp David—where they could be protected, but still be in communication with the world. Many other heads of state followed suit, seeking their own hideaways with safe water. In the meantime, while there was calm in most places, where there wasn't, it was anarchy and chaos.
Early miners in Europe used canaries warning of any poisonous gases or lack of oxygen in mines. It was appropriate, that Chuck Shorter and Randy Mendez in their specially equipped Galaxy C-5A arrived in the Canary Islands. Within a few minutes, in a puddle by the runway, they detected trace amounts of the quadrium molecule. Within another few minutes, Europe and North Africa were notified. For fear of a nuclear meltdown, the President of France ordered all of France's nuclear power plants to be shut down. To compound what they faced with the molecule, the people of France were faced with widespread power outage and cold dark nights. Soon, Europe and North Africa were embroiled in the kind of anarchy that was already prevalent in the Southeastern United States.
In the Southeastern United States, hundreds of thousands were dying without the benefit of healthcare or burial. The President called it: "The greatest tragedy to ever strike the known world." He was right—everyone knew it. The revised weather map shown on television, wherever there still was television, showed a map being gradually filled in with dots depicting where there were human deaths. On the Internet, Google supplied a similar graphic. The red dots, like blood, spread around the world as though a burst artery.
Shorter and Mendez arrive at the Caspian Sea. A bird and fish kill that makes it unnecessary for them to do any testing greets them. As a matter of habit, they collect a sample and do a test, anyway. By now both men are tired and worried by their constant failure to find any water that is unaffected, constant travel by airplane, and sleepless nights. They see no point in continuing to chase the leading edge of the scourge. After consultation with the Centers for Disease Control, they decide to return home.
By now, fish, shellfish, seals, whales, and dolphins are washing up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Atlantic Ocean. The seabirds were having a feast on the carcasses, but soon, they too, fell from the sky by the millions. The panicked had settled in, hunkered down and begun to prepare for what may have or have not happened. The news media, scrambling to keep up, couldn't. Those, whose families were safe, returned to report. Wearing HAZMAT suits, they ventured out to the shorelines to record the spectacle of death of millions and millions of creatures. As one reporter sadly stated: "It's just all too horrible to report. It makes me sick and I'm going home."
It wasn't widely known whether eating any of those dead creatures would pass on the molecule or not. The Centers for Disease Control declared that as long as a creature was cooked by frying, baking, broiling, or microwaving (not boiling) and it was completely dry, not juicy, it could be eaten. The same was true of vegetables and fruits. Dehydration units flew off the shelves of stores when the word got out. The problem was still water. No one knew for sure that the water they were drinking was safe. Drinking water that was suspect at all was like Russian roulette. The scenario was being played out all along the Southern Gulf Coast. For those that didn't escape north and stayed—and they had their reasons—mostly selfish or foolhardy, were soon running out of bottled water. Most turned to deep underground wells in a hope for survival. These wells were good until contaminated by surface water. The people that had wells lived in the country and were deeply religious. Some took to having priests, pastors and other religious leaders bless their water before they drank it. Others tried filters in the false belief that they could remove the "heavier" quadrium molecule. In the worst case, hucksters sold devices and antidotes that were said to "purify" the water. It was hard not to let the rain get in your mouth, or stay out of the streams and rivers, lakes and ocean, when you had spent your whole life by the water. One by one, the people that stayed in the path of the "deadly rain," died. The few that remained alive could not bury or help them. They only hoped and prayed that their next drink of water would not be their last. A pet or any animal that could be found still alive was used as a tester to check if water was good. Unfortunately, it usually took about three days to find out.
Chuck Shorter and Randy Mendez were now based at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio. They were asked to fly out one more time to see if the molecule had reached the West Coast. Birds and animals had been dying in the Hawaiian Islands since Day 22. The people of California had delayed any real response, mostly because most of them drank surface water and had few options as far as leaving the state. Farmers and ranchers in Arizona, Oregon and Nevada were known to shoot anyone in a car containing California plates. With very deep wells and very little rain, some of these remote desert ranches had a good chance of long-term survival. Unless you were a traveling army like the Hells Angels, you wouldn't dare approach these remote havens. The Hells Angels, indeed, were missing from their usual haunts. Internet rumors abounded as to where they were hiding out.
Shorter and Mendez arrived at Edwards Air Force Base in a rainstorm. Fortunately it wasn't one of those three-day storms, so they and their crew toughed it out inside the C-5A for six hours until the desert became parchment dry again. "Watch out for any puddles," Chuck half joked as they stepped off the plane. There were stories of people that had died because they accidentally stepped in a puddle and the water somehow got in their mouths.
"I will, if you will." Randy quipped. All the sleepless nights and nightmares was getting to him more than to Chuck, consoled by his family, now safely at an uncle's farm in Ohio. Randy had already lost an uncle and cousin in Florida. He sensed what the people of California were facing. Many family members of his were either here or in Texas. He wasn't in touch with them because he was under orders not to. It was hard to resist.
The Air Force had a truck ready for their equipment. Within 20 miles they came upon one of the aqueducts supplying water to Los Angeles. When they tested the water it was the same. Quadrium was present in small quantities. Soon, all of the United States would be affected. A tear came to Randy's eye in his HAZMAT suit. He was thinking of his relatives in LA. He had all the protection of the United States government. They had nothing but their wits. He prayed a silent prayer for them as he watched a kid on a dirt bike kicking up dust on the other side of the aqueduct. For all he knew, the kid could be a member of his family. Randy picked up the sample and joined Chuck on the truck. He couldn't stop thinking that two hours before, that dusty road had been rained on by the same storm with dirty water that greeted them at Edwards.
On their way back to Dayton, Chuck expressed his thoughts. "Well I guess that's it. The jet stream has done its job and carried the damn thing around the world at high speed. I guess we'll be headed for Alaska. My wife and kids are okay at the farm for now, but I got people all over."
"I know... I know." Was all Randy could say before he broke down crying.
When a fish kill occurred in Juneau, Shorter and Mendez were ordered to New Zealand from Anchorage. They had to be refueled mid-Pacific and were surprised when a tanker met them. It would have been better to stop in Wake of one of the other Air Force outposts, but through endless video they had seen the destruction of human and animal life, close up and in panorama from the ground and in the air. The weirdest part was that there was no smell, no stench. Without any bacteria, the bodies just dried out in the sun, like so many ancient mummies. Chuck wondered if any aliens would arrive on the planet and find all these bodies. He wondered. He wondered what if. He tried not wondering and thinking of his family—they had lost touch while he was in Alaska. Communication was breaking down. Chuck had no idea how they were doing on the farm.
Word was that most of Australia was affected. New Zealand wouldn't be very far behind. Chuck expected there to be a lot of wild partying during their time there. It was anything like Alaska, people were drinking up all the booze and having sex with all those people they hadn't before. Chuck remembered seeing that old movie, On the Beach, where the last survivors of nuclear war in Australia took to wild partying and reckless behavior—some even committed suicide rather than face the radiation slowly drifting in.
Mendez and Shorter landed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for the last time. The two inspectors ended up at Fort Hood. With the Edwards Aquifer beneath, and a forest of wind turbines to their West, the Army and some of the government, including the Centers for Disease Control, set up shop at the Fort for the long haul. Researchers from all over the country were brought in to the laboratories at UT Austin to try to come up with a viable solution to the water problem. Chuck and Randy, part of the key team, could not even try to go home.
Google, using its satellite imaging capability, began photographing the world at night. Where there was light, there still was power. Anyone with an Internet connection could follow the images in time lapse showing how the light of the world was gradually diminishing each night. Power companies and grids were shutting down for lack of operators and maintenance. All the nuclear power plants had already been shut down. While many plants were automated and carried on for a while without human intervention, eventually a human decision was needed and the computer system went into the failsafe mode and shut down. Some small hydro and geo thermal plants, and private generators continued to operate for a very long time.
As news media outlets dropped out because they lacked staff or lost power, channels begin dropping from the cable and satellite feeds. The Internet remained up and operating after most of the media were long gone. As the cable networks failed, only the satellite feeds were left for the few channels that remained. Eventually, as routers, hubs and relays failed, so did the Internet. By that time, if anyone saw, the Google picture of the globe was as dark as before electric light.
No one knows how long they lasted. Those with good water like artesian wells and were able to grow food may have lasted a very long time. The spark of human life remained until the last drop of pure water passed the lips of the last living human.
On this day we are so fortunate to have found, in an ancient settlement on our satellite planetoid they called, “the Moon,” the chronicle you have just read from the other ones. We are fortunate because we are virus, and, until now, had no record of our Genesis.