In a shadowed, smoky room, a man sat near a desk phone/intercom. The intercom part beeped.
"Yes?" he asked.
"The project is finally set up, turned on, and ready to roll," said an enthusiastic voice on the other end.
"Well," said the man in the smoky room, "Don't bother me about it. Every moment you waste is another hero. Another villain. Another opportunity lost to protect the public from paranormals. You know what you're supposed to do, and you know what you're supposed to tell the others, and what to keep them in the dark about. And one other thing, while you're still on the line?..."
"If this call shows up anywhere but on your personal phone bill... do I really need to finish this sentence?" He hung up.
Somewhere in Ithaca, there was a laboratory. It was a small building, which said, "NonDescript Building #1107616". Larger than the building was the grounds, a large rectangle, nicely fenced off and well-patrolled. Naturally this was somewhat on the outskirts of Ithaca, where it could be mistaken for one of the many such buildings in that area. Many things happen in some of these buildings. In some, cows are raised. In others, cows are raised.
In a nice, warm room in that building, there was a desk. There were also a few computer terminals, mostly in the walls. (Yes, walls. Little indentations in the walls, with screens and keyboards inside. Those who have been in one of Cornell's buildings may recognize this image: a sort of sill inside the wall with an indentation into which the computer has been affixed rather solidly, a touch-depressed mouse, and above it, just the front of the monitor can be seen in the wall.) A few chairs and you had the room, there really wasn't anything else. I mean it. This place was seriously non-descript. It took work to make it this non-descript (we'd like to thank our building consultant here.)
A door opened. Not just any door... ok, it was any door. First to enter was a tall man, somewhat paunchy but not really, somewhat balding but also not really, with an actually pretty full head of white but graying hair. He wore glasses but had no beard or mustache. He carried himself with a certain stiffness, and nowhere was this more noticeable than in his chest area- he seemed always to be holding something in, figuratively and literally. He also wore a beige man-tailored shirt, corduroy pants and a bit of a frown. His nametag read Dr. Edward Ries.
The woman next to him was short and smiling. You'd probably guess she and Dr. Ries were the same age or so, and you'd be right. She carried herself considerably more freely, perhaps even happily, than was Dr. Ries, about whom we were just speaking. As this story began, she was speaking rather animatedly with Dr. Ries, apparently asking him a question which he was non-verbally refusing to answer. Her nametag read Professor Christina Stevens.
Another scientist entered behind her, and, a broad smile on his face, prepared to be seated. The core of the Quarantine Project was assembled.
"So what were you asking him?" asked the last to enter, Dr. Lightfoot, of the inquisitive Professor Stevens. She sighed, and said "The usual, Sam." "It's that important to you to know just who our employers are?" asked Dr. Lightfoot.
Professor Stevens stopped once before sitting down, and gave Dr. Lightfoot a tired look, somewhat as though to say, "Isn't it important to you?" All three sat down. There was a long pause.
Christina (Professor Stevens) put her cup of coffee (heretofore unnoticed) down after a sip.
Christina relaxed, shrugged, and said "Er, ok, why did you call us in this afternoon?"
Edward (the aforementioned Dr. Ries) responded, "Just wanted to call everyone in, see how your part of the project's going, that sort of thing. How soon until you think we can run our first experiments?"
Christina was first to respond (which is frankly understandable, since Samuel's presence on the project isn't really understood, by him or by Christina, so there really wasn't much for him to .say.. Well, it's a... story.) She took several deep breaths, pulled together her lab coat, and exposited in full exposition mode.
"We're here to try to understand why superhero and supervillain origins exist, and how we can cordon off a specified area from them. I'm wondering if the unusual susceptibility of the environment in this dimension to things-going-on mightn't have something to do with the differences in radiation frequenci es between this and more, er, normal dimensions. An experiment with mild high-frequency pulses might help explain why a cat walking into a radiation waste dump around here often becomes SuperCat instead of dying."
"And I think I've been able to work out some basic theories. That much you know already. The news is that we're finished, and the engineers have, as per your instructions, finally finished building some equipment that can actually test them." "So it's agreed, then," said Edward, smiling slightly (not apoplectic with the effort, but close). "We'll set you and Random Lab Assistant 1 in the lab, and you'll set everything up for a test in two days?"
So what exactly was the project? Some years back, Ithaca was hit by an event which - ah heck. The world was hit by events which forever changed its attitude towards supers of all sorts. Ithaca was hit especially hard. Well, someone somewhere wanted, after this cataclysm, to design a super-proof field, something in which no new supers (superheros and supervillains) can have origins and in which no "powers" can take effect. To begin, the project would concentrate on eliminating new "origins." Or anyhow, that's what they said they wanted (just showing some healthy skepticism...) As to who this someone somewhere was, most of the people on the project assumed it was some branch or other of the government, and the resources it showed lent credence to this belief.
It was, er, kind of off base from the facts, but this belief was pretty commonly held. It was a very natural belief.
The project was only in its origins stage. Ries collected the other members, of whom we, of course, have met two (unless you count Random Lab Assistant 1).
In a cafe downhill from Cornell University (in Ithaca,) two people were having lunch. Joel, a teenager of medium height, black hair, and angry manner, was eating with a somewhat older teenager named Robert.
Joel put down his teacup. He looked at Robert. He looked at Robert again. His expression gave incredulous a single run for its money, though not more.
"Tell me again about this little project you're with, Robert." ("Control, Joel. Control. There's still time." Joel thought.)
Robert wasn't quite sure what to make of Joel's sudden change of attitude. He'd just broken project rules to tell his best friend in the area how he was spending his days since, um, "leaving" Cornell, and, well, you'd think Joel was taking what Robert was doing personally...
But he told Joel again anyhow, about the project, about the attempt to "quarantine" Ithaca from any future events that would make supers out of ordinary people, and even announced, happily that the first experiments were taking place the next evening - which didn't make Joel any happier. Not at all. It did, however, succeed in making him, if not happier, more pensive. Finally, Joel got up. Joel walked out before Robert could stop him, leaving Robert holding the bag for the lunch and feeling like a somewhat curious - and guilty - cat, hoping that he hadn't just done something he'd regret.
Joel went off to inform his employers, before it was the end of all their plans. More of that, anon...
Cathy Seaward was not a natural choice for a security chief. She was not very strong. She did not come from a military background. And her record was, erm, not spotless. What's more, her employers at the project knew this.
At the moment, she was sitting at a cafe in the complex, anxiously looking at her pager- important things were expected to happen this evening. She nervously ran her hand through her blonde hair. She was of medium height and medium build, was considerably attractive, and while she had a very limited range of powers, she used them very well, and she assured herself that if something did go wrong here, she'd be able to handle it. Resourcefulness was probably, in her employers' views, the main reason for their choice of her for the position.
On this particular evening, a tall female guard in khaki was patrolling the grounds, armed only with a tranquilizer pistol (provided by her employers and using apparently quite unusual technology.) The first experiments were to go on this evening, so she was especially vigilant. She was accordingly not very surprised when a vaguely familiar teenager ran out of the grounds, though she was rather disappointed in herself that she hadn't caught him running in. She easily got him with a tranquilizer dart, and hurried over to where he fell. Unfortunately, he had fallen in a ditch, where it might take a while to get him out, so she summoned over another guard, and told him to inform Chief Seaward (Cathy, in other words) that someone had gotten in and was captured while leaving. Then she got to work getting him out of the ditch.
Elsewhere, a dignified-looking elderly man got out of the bus that night, and started walking to a nearby hotel. He shook his brown coat, and felt every hour he hadn't eaten recently... once he got settled, getting some food would be a must. And then to some .very. important business. "Edward will listen to me this time. He really doesn't know what he's about," he could be heard to mutter if you listened really carefully and at the right moment. The man possessed a very full briefcase, which he swung with a light touch.
He was stopped, on his way to the hotel, by a sudden hiss. Before he could do anything, a strangely silent, very large figure grabbed him, and pulled him into a shaded alley.
"Quiet, Philip, quiet. No warning the neighbors," said the large figure. Philip could see that he was wearing armor, which made his rapidity of movement all the harder to credit. "I wonder what you just .happen. to be doing in Ithaca the night that things are getting off the ground, Philip. I wonder."
"I think you know, whoever you are..." said Philip. "Not a word, Philip. Not a word. You'll be doing a lot of talking- later." With that he dragged Philip off through back ways.
As feared, the pager had gone off. Chief Seaward (or Cathy, or Runner,) on hearing of the break-in at the lab from the somewhat distraught guard, seemed to that guard to disappear. This actually wasn't terribly surprising, since the guard, like most of the security at the installation, knew that Chief Seaward had something like super-speed (the exact nature of her power was something of a mystery, but the effects seemed to work out so.) She traveled to the basement of her home, where she quickly put on her old costume from her days before this job, about seven small weapons of various kinds, and "ran" back before continuing on to where the experiment was going to occur.
Cathy Seaward used her security access to enter the room, where Dr. Ries, Prof. Stevens and Dr. Lightfoot were quite noticeably not there. Which they by rights should have been. She ran around the base, paged them, and got, generally, no response. The room, strangely, looked unhurt; the three scientists simply were not in it. Very little was. A glimmering portal was, and frankly seemed annoyingly smug.
"I'm not paid enough for this..."
"and I'm not used to failure." (Not to mention, she thought, that she'd surely not enjoy having failed, with employers like hers. Rumors abounded, and she knew some of them were true.)
With a chuckle, she stepped in. She found herself still in the room, on the other side of the portal.
"Oh for goodness' sake..."
She went over to the wall of this (not yet described) laboratory. Near one of the (few) panels of this medium-sized room was now a sign that said, in some ghastly font (no, not Helvetica) "Touch Me!"
"I'm pretty sure this wasn't here before. Neither were the four bipedal rabbits with handguns all motioning that I should try to enter the portal again."
"I have a Pretty Bad Feeling (TM) about this. Oh well."
And so it was that she touched the panel, and entered the portal (er, rabbit hole) (er, portal) again. She ended up on the other side, in the same room, again.
A pistol-packing bunny walked up to her and conspiratorially whispered a suggestion that she "run" into the portal. Made a strange kind of sense, actually.
So she did so. She did not end up in the same room.
This was followed by complete blackness and a splitting headache. Cathy reflexively activated her powers, despite the strain this caused; strangely, this seemed to help her senses adjust. Unfortunately she found that the scene her senses were adjusting "on" wasn't one she could possibly be in. And she saw, from her own vantage point, a memory play out.
Cathy's friend of ten years, Barbara, did not look well from the sickbed. The expression on her face didn't make her look any better.
"I've seen what they're calling you on TV, you know. We .do. get TV in here, in case you were wondering," asked Barbara.
Cathy was silent, but maybe that tear from her eye was confirmation... Barbara continued, a bit relentlessly, but Cathy felt she was entitled.
"So this is how you were paying for my anti-rejection treatments? Petty thefts? You go in, you steal something, you go out, you fence it?"
Cathy nodded. There was only so long it could go on before Barbara would figure it out, and now she had.
"I won't ask what happened to the rest of the money, either... look, Cathy, I can't take it... look, you're still my best friend..."
Cathy heard this as she was already leaving. Soon after, she had turned herself in to the police, and Barbara had died, but the memory didn't cover that.
What was really painful was when the same memory played itself over, but with Barbara played by a possum. Something about this place, wherever or whatever it was, was no great respecter of persons, memories, or feelings.
Memory after memory played itself out. Her parents; her parents' death; her being met in prison by agents of the project, and their offer; lunch with Earl (and now she thought of it, the description of the person who had broken in to the project, and probably sabotaged it, sounded a lot like her friend Earl); the strange look on a guard's face when she expressed doubt that the government was funding all this...
Why that was turning up among significant memories, she had no idea.
Eventually, she figured out that, just possibly, she was in a landscape sufficiently weird that these images were her mind's best approximations to what was there. Or maybe she was just dreaming.
Soon, in the present, Cathy found that she could exercise some control over just what scenes from her past she saw depending on how she moved, like some sort of perverse air flight simulator. (She'd always been pretty good at those, a fleeting thought which brought up another snatch of experience.)
Then she remembered a hero she'd known.
Only in Ithaca would you encounter, she remembered, a hero with the powers to morph into a raccoon, a rabbit, or a deer, and nothing else. (The latter may explain the manner of his death, since the car which crashed into him looked rather banged up afterwards.) Anyhow, friendly enough fellow, and when she'd met him she hadn't yet started her thieving career (by a far sight).
There were many more memories but eventually, her mind got used enough to the strange terrain of the place to start conceptualizing it in somewhat more linear ways, if not very (there still seemed to be rabbits with pistols all over the place, except for the ones who were carrying colanders and tape-cases.) There seemed to be a large building on the horizon. It was defended by concentric circles of military-mannered rabbits with pistols.
"Oh, give me a break. It couldn't be more obvious if there were a sign saying Go to Building, Pick Up Missing Scientists."
Obligingly, a sign saying Go To Building, Pick Up Missing Scientists formed, pointing at the building. She glared at the sign.
Embarrassedly, the T in To became lowercase, so: to.
IS THIS A REALLY PICKY SIGN?
DO THEY REALLY WANT CATHY TO GO THERE?
COULD THEY MAKE IT ANY MORE OBVIOUS? (WE DARE THEM TO.)
WAS THERE ANY POINT TO ALL THAT EXPOSITION ABOUT THE PROJECT?
AFTER ALL, THE MAIN CHARACTERS SEEM TO BE IN ANOTHER UNIVERSE NOW...
All this and less ...
in an upcoming episode of Quarantine.