by Matthew McLean
Jhel washed his hands in the aircraft basin and noticed the band-aid on his right hand. It was dirty and ripped, barely hanging on. He turned off the water and straightened as best he could in the small compartment. The mirror showed him more of the same.
Getting out from under the microscope of GeneTech was not easy, even with Lee’s assistance. Faking vacation notices, re-directs, and travel plans for the time needed was a monumental effort that required social engineering as well as an understanding of the machine. Jhel and Lee couldn’t rightly explain why they needed to take a trip to one of the oldest and biggest Federal prisons in nowhere, Kansas. The resulting effort had left him with little time to sleep over the past few days.
Jhel felt the bump as the aerodyne detached from the wing of the suborbital and began to drop. He straightened his tie as best he could and exited the basin, making his way to the cockpit.
Lee was wired into the aerodyne’s console through his multi-touch glove. With the wetchips Jhel had requisitioned, Lee guided the aircraft down through the atmosphere in a near meditative state. Jhel remained quiet, not wanting to break his concentration.
The clouds were the only view from the cockpit for 15,000 feet. After that, the aircraft broke through and began its long elliptical landing pattern. As it swung around, Jhel could begin to make out the Fort Leavenworth compound. He stared at it intently, counting the buildings and playing other mental games.
Lee spoke in a distant voice, eyes not opening, “Uhmm…sir, I’m getting some rather disturbing news from the tower.”
“We’re to land on Pad 3 where an honor guard is prepared to meet us.”
Despite the numerous warning signs, Jhel unbuckled his seatbelt and stood to get a better look out of the cockpit window. As the GEV pulled its nose upwards and began to slow, Jhel could see a formation of men waiting on Pad 3.
“What in the Hell?” After going through numerous hoops to land at Fort Leavenworth covertly, the last thing he had expected was a red carpet.
The GEV touched down with the vent of hydraulics and the clank of steel on concrete. Lee opened his eyes. “Sorry, I couldn’t do anything about it. If I changed the landing pattern at the last minute the locals would be within their rights to shoot us out of the sky.”
Jhel looked out at the military formation just in front of the GEV. “No, no problem. We might be able to work this to our advantage.” He turned to leave the cockpit and Lee breathed a sigh of relief.
Landing complete, the belly of the GEV opened and Jhel stepped out, doing his best presidential imitation. Smiles and wave, keep moving and don’t answer questions. He approached the young woman in front of the formation and loudly stated, “I’m here to see Commander Reynolds.”
Her reply was lost in the sounds of the GEV’s turbines cooling, but she sharply turned and headed for an old HMMWV parked not far off Pad 3. Lee and Jhel climbed in with her.
A short drive through the compound ended at a brick building. Like most of the buildings it was short, ugly and looked like it could withstand a nuclear blast. Or a prison riot.
Without much discussion, the soldier led them through several security checkpoints and up flights of stairs. The walk ended at a finished wooden door that she knocked on. A curt, “Enter,” came from behind it.
Opening the door the soldier ushered Lee and Jhel in, standing aside to introduce them. “Garrison Commander Reynolds, your visitors, sir.”
Reynolds looked up from behind his desk, evaluating his visitors for a moment. Jhel took a moment to do the same.
Reynolds was obviously a professional, what some would call a career soldier. Older, he looked like he might have been carved from a block of wood. The various commendations and awards on his desk and decorating his shelves spoke of his life’s achievements. A quick glance told Jhel that most involved service at Fort Leavenworth. He had been here a long time.
Whatever Reynolds thought of Jhel and Lee, he kept it to himself. “Thank you, Corporal Jennings. You’re dismissed.” The corporal turned and left quickly, closing the door behind her.
Covering the distance from the door in long steps, Jhel stepped to the desk, extending a hand. His smile was confident, but he kept the usual warmth from it. The commander didn’t seem like the type of man that would respond to that.
“Pleasure to meet you, sir. I’m Jhel Phen and this is my associate Lee Kennedy.”
Reynolds took Jhel’s hand, both men exerting more pressure in the greeting than necessary. “I know who you are, son. I approved the landing order myself. It’s not every day that we get GT representatives down here.”
Jhel retrieved his hand and Reynolds gestured to the chairs across his desk. As he sat Jhel replied, “Well that would explain the honor guard.”
Reynolds smiled, “Well, we like to make everyone feel welcome.”
Jhel felt his smile falter for a moment as he realized with certainty that the commander was lying to him. Reynolds was obviously a good poker player, but not much of a liar.
“Of course; it certainly worked.” Smile back; shields up. “I know you’re a busy man, so we won’t take much of your time. We wanted to talk to you about one of your guests.”
“Guests?” The commander raised an eyebrow, “That’s certainly an interesting term. I don’t think I’d invite any of these boys over for Sunday dinner.”
“No, of course not.”
“Regardless, I hope this isn’t another offer from GT for biotesting on the prisoners. We said no to that in ’35 and the military’s position on that hasn’t changed.”
“No, commander, we’re actually interested in a particular prisoner.” Jhel felt his position weakening for no discernible reason. Something was going on here that he didn’t know about.
“Yes, a certain Hatcher Aspen.” Jhel took out his data tablet even though he had no need to consult it, “Prisoner Number 205587870, AKA Kansas.”
“I know who he is,” interrupted Reynolds. “The boys here call him by a different name, though. What do you boys want with the Butcher?”
Looking up from the tablet, Jhel was able to cover his surprise, “The Butcher?”
Leaning back in his chair, Reynolds reached for his cigar box, “Yessir. That’s what the screws around here call him.”
Jhel snuck a glance at Lee, who, not surprisingly, looked as surprised as Jhel felt. “Is this due to the incident in Malagay?”
Jhel knew that Malagay was the only reason Aspen could earn such an alias. It did come as a surprise, though, that the commander knew about it.
Rolling his cigar as he lit it, Reynolds took a moment to answer. Jhel saw the cigar for what it was; a tool. With the cigar as a prop, the commander could take as long in answering questions as he wanted. Also, the thick smoke from the Cuban made the air in the small office uncomfortably thick.
“Well, I’m not at liberty to give all the details, but the Butcher’s here in Leavenworth for all the right reasons. During a military operation he killed a large number of foreign civilians. Apparently, it was pretty nasty stuff.”
Jhel interjected, “The word genocide was mentioned.”
Reynolds rolled a cloud of smoke out, looking at Jhel carefully. “Now why would you want to see a sunuvabitch like that for?”
“Sir,” Jhel pulled on his business demeanor, professionalism at a shark level. “As you know due to our connections with the Federal government, GT has access to certain information. We have reason to believe that Aspen’s actions in Malagay and the resulting deaths were the result of a stolen meta-virus. We’d like to be investigate the possible connection.”
“That incident happened several years ago. It took GT all this time to track that down?”
“We’ve been following any number of possible leads. The investigation has been slow going.”
Reynolds chewed on the cigar and then shunted it to the corner of his mouth. “Well, sorry son. No one sees the Butcher. He’s still in quarantine. He’s been exposed to the agent a number of times and we’re unsure of the effects it might have on the general prison population.”
Small beads of sweat formed on the small hairs of Jhel’s neck. “Exposed to the agent? I’m not sure I understand commander.”
Demonstrating what Jhel knew to be feigned surprise, Reynolds replied, “Certainly you GT boys know about this. I mean, they call it the Kansas City Flu for fuck’s sake.”
It was Jhel’s turn to lie and he was much better at it than the commander. “Aspen grew up in Kansas City?”
“No, but there was an outbreak of the Flu on his farm here in Kansas. Hell, some of our boys worked the HazMat after we learned what it was.”
“So he was exposed to the agent here and then released it in Malagay? How’s that possible?”
“I didn’t say that. Besides, I thought you said that the virus the Butcher used was of GT origin.”
Blinking in mock disbelief, Jhel replied, “Well, that’s not possible then. Experimenting with the Kansas City Flu and other retro-viruses was outlawed near the turn of the century. GT would never be involved in such an affair.”
Jhel’s exterior was impenetrable as he felt the commander’s gaze burn through the cloud of cigar smoke. “Of course.”
“Well, if the outbreak in Malagay was somehow a result of Aspen’s exposure here in Kansas, then there couldn’t be any connection with the stolen meta-virus.”
“Suppose not.” The commander used the burning tip of his cigar to emphasize the point, jabbing it at Jhel.
“Well then, sir, I’m sorry we wasted your time.” Jhel stood, Lee following suit.
“No trouble. Sorry you boys flew out here for no reason.”
Jhel and Reynolds exchanged poker smiles one last time, “Better to be safe than sorry.”
“Odd isn’t?” Reyolds asked as he escorted the two to the door. “The Kansas City Flu burned off so quickly it never left city limits. But then it shows up on the Aspen homestead and kills everyone but him. No other farms in the area were exposed.”
“Of course, there weren’t any farms in the area by that time. Most folks had moved on after being bought out. Come to think of it,” the commander’s poker smile disappeared, “GT owns most of that area now, don’t it?”
The smile on Jhel’s face felt as fragile as a china plate. “I wouldn’t know, sir.”
The smile came back to Reynolds as if it had never left. “Certainly. Corporal Jennings will see you out.”
It was a short trip back to the GEV. Jhel made sure that they were on the aircraft and out of earshot from anyone before speaking to Lee.
“He’s lying. Aspen isn’t here. Which means he’s covering up his absence. Which means that the military is covering it up.”
Jhel looked at Lee before he jacked into the console. “I think we’re in bigger trouble than we thought.”
Lee pushed in, preparing the craft for take off. “So what do we do?”
Jhel thought for a moment, “Are the assets we had tracking the package still doing so?”
“As of 23:00 yesterday, they were.”
“If they’re still on top of him, we’ll need to come up for a reason for his immediate termination. If the military is involved in this they may know about our involvement in Project Amber. We need to get rid of him immediately in order to make sure that it doesn’t come back on us.”
There was no need for Jhel to simulate an emotion for this discussion. He let his fear show through, knowing how it would effect Lee. “We’ve got to kill Kansas.”