I Am Phantom (Novella): Subject Number One, page 1part #1 of I Am Phantom Series
Subject Number One
Other Books By Sean Fletcher
The I Am Phantom Series:
I Am Phantom
We Who Remain (August 2016)
The In the Depths of Darkness Series:
In the Depths of Darkness (December 2016)
Subject Number One
The setting, characters and story used in this book are completely fictitious and come from the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and are not intended by the author.
© 2016 Sean Fletcher
All rights reserved
First edition published August 2016
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the author, except in the context of reviews.
Cover Design: Audrey Mackaman
Editing thanks: DeLaine Fletcher, Sierra Pandy, Sarah Sanborn
Table of Contents:
I Am Phantom Preview
About the Author
The tests were doomed to fail. Lucius Sykes could see that from the charts projected at the front of the small conference room. Clayton Carlyle, the other lead scientist on the project, had put up the graph showing the latest round of test results on the serum. They started off well enough, but by the end…
“So as you can see,” Carlyle was saying, glaring at the chart as though it was its fault they had failed again, “we need a more stable base compound. The serum breaks apart within seconds of contact with red blood cells. Ruptures them. That’s in a controlled test, though the human body is infinitely more complex, so there’s a chance it’d be different in a live subject. If we were to move ahead with subject testing as proposed—”
“No,” Lucius said. The ten other scientists in the room turned to him.
Clayton narrowed his eyes at Lucius. “No, Dr. Sykes?”
Lucius tapped roughly on the printed test results in front of him. “We already talked about this. We can’t release it for live subject testing, regardless of the benefits you think it might have. We can all see where this is going. Not just this test. The project as a whole.” He took a breath. The rest of the room waited. Lucius allowed himself a brief moment of satisfaction. Despite his age, he was one of the two lead scientists on this project. They would listen to what he had to say, whether they liked it or not. “Right now, with the results, the superhuman serum may just have to be put on hold.”
There was a general murmur around the room. Not as many dissents as Lucius had thought there’d be. But then, he hadn’t expected too many. This had been the fifth failed strain in the last year, and they still hadn’t come any closer to stabilizing the serum or bestowing super human abilities on live subjects.
Dr. Van swiveled in his chair to face Lucius. He fixed him with an oily smile. “Dr. Sykes, forgive me, but it sounded like you want to shut this project down. The operation’s had its ups and down, I’ll grant you that, but you and your—ah—vast experience hardly have the last say on whether we continue or not. The Defense Department didn’t pay us millions to return empty handed.”
“Dr. Sykes and Dr. Carlyle are lead scientists on this project,” Dr. Lin said. “So whether you like it or not, he does have a say. A big one.”
Dr. Van settled back in his seat with a frustrated grunt.
Dr. Lin gave satisfied smirk, and Lucius resisted staring at her. She was beautiful; almond-shaped eyes with long lashes and a black veil of glossy hair; glasses perched just at the tip of her short nose.
Lucius wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t the only one on their project with a crush on her. Though—and he could have been completely biased—he always suspected she favored him more. She had stuck up for him, after all.
She flashed him an encouraging smile and a wink. Lucius’ mouth went dry.
His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He cleared his throat. “I’ll take another look at the data and consider it again. But I’m not encouraged. Dr. Carlyle and I can speak after that and see if we go forward with this.”
“Dr. Sykes,” Van said, “be reasonable. We’ve all put so much into this.”
“As have I, Dr. Van. More than most. You think I want to throw all that away? But this is the fifth time we’ve sat here and come up with nothing. The people out there,” he pointed to where the open room of their underground work facility held dozens of other scientists, all hard at work on the same serum, “they expect us to know what we’re doing. They expect progress. And we don’t have it.”
Dr. Van uncurled his fingers and dug them into the pockets of his lab coat. He seemed to fumble with something. “And that’s your final say?”
Lucius didn’t drop his gaze from Van’s tight-lipped face. “It is.”
Van nodded like that had decided something Lucius wasn’t aware of.
Carlyle had sat down. “Maybe if we move ahead on the chimp tests we could see some of the progress you want.”
“Absolutely not,” Dr. Lin snapped.
Carlyle fixed her with a cool stare. “Excuse me?”
Lin seemed to realize what she’d done and backed up. “I mean, we should make sure everything is stable before doing that.”
“Not your call,” Carlyle said. “Not even Dr. Sykes’, though I’m sure he’d like it to be. I will run it by the board personally and get back to everyone.” He sighed. “Why don’t we talk about what we have accomplished?”
An hour passed. Then two, as they looked through the rest of the test results. Lucius found his attention drifting from the slides, to his doodles, to Dr. Lin. Dr. Lin caught his eye and gave him an encouraging thumbs-up. Dr. Van saw this and scowled deeper. Lucius didn’t care.
It was as Carlyle was finishing up the second round of slides that the rear door flew open and Kenneth Ryans, the head of security, practically ran in.
Lucius had heard a little about Ryans since he’d been hired. Possibly rumors, possibly not. Fantastic military service in some of the roughest war-torn countries, including some jobs that were strictly off-the-books. The man was skilled. However, he was still young (not that Lucius could talk) and this was his first security detail. He was still getting used to dealing with ‘civilians’. Like how the best way to break news was not to burst breathlessly into a room like the building was on fire.
“Ryans!” Carlyle barked. Ryans’ steps faltered. “This is a private meeting. Whatever it is can wait until after.”
Ryans quickly assessed the situation and stood up straight. He didn’t look embarrassed, maybe only slightly annoyed that his objective had been hampered. “I apologize, sir, but it can’t. I need Dr. Sykes.”
“He can join you after.”
“It’s urgent, sir.”
A sense of foreboding flared deep in Lucius’ gut. Nothing good ever followed a line like that. Had his mother died? She hadn’t been feeling particularly well lately, but then, she never was. Maybe something had happened to someone he knew. That’d be a short list. Being the only sixteen-year-old at his college meant it hadn’t exactly been easy to make friends. Even now, at twenty, making friends still wasn’t his strong suit.
“It’s all right, Carlyle,” Lucius said, gathering his papers and standing. “I’m sure Ryans wouldn’t waste my time unless it was really important. Catch me up when I get back, okay?”
“Now, what’s so urgent that you had to save me from being bored to death?” Sykes said, trying to lighten the mood and stave off his own dread.
Ryans didn’t crack a smile. “You’d better just come see, Dr. Sykes.”
He led the way down the hall lined with conference rooms and out into the open area that acted as the main research and production floor of the project.
It was as big as a gymnasium, with screens a dozen feet wide at the front like they were set up for the world’s greatest Super Bowl party. Rows of computer-crowded desks ringed around the front. Just behind them, the benches were lined with test tubes, centrifuges, distilling materials.
To maintain the secrecy of the operation, the funding for the project had been used to create an underground bunker, stretching beneath the streets of Queensbury, North Carolina. Not even the sewer maintenance workers knew they were here. The techs and other doctors wore long white lab coats. It was cold this far underground, and it worked to their advantage. Most of the things they worked with required cooler temperatures to operate.
“The suspense is killing me, Ryans,” Lucius said, giving a warm laugh.
“Sir, I don’t know who—they must have known all the doctors were in a meeting or somebody would have heard. But I promise I will double patrols around here from now on. I’ll do them personally if I have to.”
Ryans led him back towards the hallways containing the doctor’s personal offices. Back towards Lucius’.
Even from a distance Lucius could tell there was something wrong with his office door. And then he knew why the second Ryans grimly pushed it open. It should have been locked. It would have been, if the lock and handle hadn’t been smashed in.
“It’s bad, sir,” Ryans said, stepping aside.
Destruction. Bookshelves flipped over, their contents a shredded mass, like someone had taken scissors to them. Papers tossed like confetti; the framed degrees and pictures on his walls smashed in, littering glass across the floor.
Anger, white hot, bubbled under his skin. He clenched his hands into fists so hard he swore his fingers would break. And then, with a willpower honed over years of practice, he let it all go. Almost.
“Sir?” Ryans said.
“I’m fine, Ryans.” He stepped over broken glass from a picture frame. “Let’s see what the damage is.”
“You’re sure you checked every possible angle?” Lucius asked, head in his hands. He sat in the middle of a destroyed pile that, until yesterday, had been his life’s work for the past five years.
Ryans waded through the discarded papers, trying his best to shift them into some kind of order. “I checked, sir. The doctors requested to not have cameras in the offices. But I’m having my men investigate as we speak.”
He moved another stack of papers, then stood straighter, his hands clasped in front of him. “If you want to fire me, I completely understand. I take full responsibility—”
“Nobody’s firing you, Ryans,” Lucius said wearily. “Now that this has happened we’ll need you more than ever.” Lucius glanced over at the man, noting the barest hint of relief in his stiff posture. Yes, they’d need him for sure. Someone had gotten away with breaking in this time, but who knew how much it would happen if Ryans wasn’t here. Corporate sabotage was a very real possibility. As was somebody finding out what they were doing and trying to replicate it for the highest bidder.
Lucius heaved a sigh, letting all his building frustration and anger go with it. “I’m sure you did the best you could, Ryans.”
“We’ll figure out who did this, sir,” Ryans said, a harsh glint in his eyes.
Lucius shook his head. “I’m not concerned with who so much as why. All my files are still here. And the most important data for the project isn’t even in here. If they wanted that they could have taken it, no problem.”
“Regardless, we’ll get them.”
“I’m beginning to think there was another reason.”
Intimidation, Lucius thought. It was just too convenient, wasn’t it? He voiced his thoughts about shutting the project down and slowing the production process, and the next second all his work was mysteriously destroyed. Far too convenient.
Ryans was watching him, waiting. Lucius waved his hand. “Nothing. Forget it.”
Ryans made another wobbly pile of paper on the desk. “I can get my men in here to help, sir.”
“No, thanks. I’d prefer to do it myself.”
Shoes clicked on the linoleum floor outside. All day the rest of the team had stopped by to apologize or offer help. They meant well, but Sykes had seen the anxiety behind their eyes, the unsaid thoughts of glad it wasn’t me. Regardless, he appreciated their gestures, hollow as they were.
This time the visitor was less than welcome.
“You haven’t made much progress,” Dr. Van said, appraising the room like a used car salesmen. “I would have thought you’d at least get some of this mess cleaned up by now. There’s still work to be done on the serum.”
“Oh, you know,” Lucius said, trying to keep his cool, “the first couple hours were spent wallowing in my own self-pity, but now that that’s out of the way, I’m getting down to the real work.”
Ryans snorted. Dr. Van looked less than amused.
“Just thought you’d like to know,” he said, “that we submitted the proposal to begin testing on the chimp. We’ll know within a week or two.”
So that’s why he looked so incredibly smug. If Lucius had been holding a more solid object in his hand, like a paperweight, rather than a bunch of useless papers, he might have been tempted for some target practice. He took another deep, calming breath. He was having to do that a lot lately, and he didn’t like it. But there was no point in getting upset. His office was already destroyed and unchecked anger would only cloud his judgment.
“That’s great to hear, Dr. Van. I’m sure you’ll be just as happy to hear that I’m getting my proposal ready, too.”
Dr. Van scowled. Lucius stared right back, unflinching, challenging. Ryans merely looked confused, and Lucius was okay with that. There was no reason for him to know about the project ending just yet.
Dr. Van was about to retort when Dr. Lin appeared behind him.
“I just wanted to check in again on how you were getting along,” Dr. Lin said. She took in the massive mess with some amusement. “Still a long way to go, I see. Are you sure you don’t want any help?”
“Dr. Sykes is pretty self-reliant,” Dr. Van said. “He’s used to taking on things that are way over his head.” Dr. Van put a gentle hand on Lin’s upper arm, stepping closer to her. She winced minutely, as if scalded by a hot iron. “We’ve still got more to discuss about the serum’s genome mapping.” He moved his hand down towards hers, drawing closer. “Why don’t we leave Dr. Sykes to his work and go discuss it over dinner?”
Dr. Lin didn’t look at him. “No thank you. Strangely, I’ve just lost my appetite.”
Lucius and Ryans moved to intervene, but she yanked her arm away from Dr. Van and brushed off her sleeve. “I’ll be feeding Bobo.”
Then she was gone. Dr. Van glared after her, then stalked off in the other direction.
“I could file a sexual harassment claim, sir,” Ryans said, still staring at where Dr. Van had been. “It’d be my pleasure.”
Lucius sifted some papers with the toe of his shoe. “No. Dr. Lin wouldn’t want him to see he got to her. She’s…what’s the word?”
“Oh-ho, don’t let her hear you say that. Let’s go with strong-willed.” Lucius picked up another pile of papers and stacked it on his desk. Now his mind wasn’t on it. It was on Dr. Lin.
“Maybe she would like to go to dinner,” he said almost to himself.
“That’s the spirit,” Ryans said. “
“No, don’t worry about it. Just make sure a new lock’s installed. I’ll clean up the rest.” He took another look around and resisted sighing. “Eventually.”
He paused at the door. “But what if she doesn’t like younger men? What if she doesn’t think of me that way?”
Ryans rubbed his jaw, grinning. “Listen, Dr. Sykes.”
“Sure, Lucius. When you get your doctorate at twenty, then any co-worker tends to be older than you.” He glanced at the shattered face glass of the framed diplomas on the floor. “How’d you do that, anyway?”
“A lot of extra classes,” Lucius answered, making sure the collar of his lab coat was down. “Thanks for the pep talk.”
The other doctor’s offices were empty. It wasn’t surprising. Until they could get the go ahead to try the next round of tests, there wasn’t a point to hanging around. The few people who were still on the main production floor were either finishing up last minute projects or were the lingering members of Ryans’ security team.
Lucius found Lin where she said she’d be: in Bobo’s containment room. The chimp had an entire outfitted room in the back with a large steel cage all to himself. The decision to even bring Bobo in, not to mention attempt testing on him, had been beyond controversial. Dr. Lin had lobbied to at least put some creature comforts like plants and a swing to make Bobo feel more at home. Others thought it would turn him into a pet. It sort of had, but Lucius wasn’t complaining. To do anything less than try to make him comfortable seemed like a crime.
Lucius leaned against the doorframe. Lin smiled, but continued slipping some apple slices to Bobo through the open cage door. The chimp happily accepted them and swung back to his swing to eat them.
“He likes you,” Lucius said. “A lot. More than he likes me, for sure.”
Dr. Lin closed the cage door, sealed the tub of apples, and replaced them in the fridge. “He’d like you too if you gave him treats. He only likes me because I feed him apples. Isn’t that right, Bobo?” She waggled her fingers through the cage.