"Why is there a hole in the window?"
"Yes, that is rather odd isn't it?" replied Dr. Mason.
"Odd nothing, it's more crap is what it is. We've got a ton of stuff to do and they're keeping us waiting in a drafty conference room for an emergency meeting they haven't shown up for. I doubt they even realize how important the work is right now. Like we need a little pow wow to tell us the entire project's going sideways! We should be downstairs fixing things, I still haven't figured out exactly what caused the nanites to fail in the damn cougar."
"I'm sure you'll figure it out Bret."
"If I can get back to work sure... and it's cold in here," said Bret, too worked up to acknowledge the attempt at consolation.
"I'm sure they'll be here soon, this mishap has undoubtedly created quite a bit of paperwork at the top end of things as well."
Only Bret's respect for Dr. Mason kept him from voicing what he thought about that. To Bret paperwork was a necessary evil in order to record results, and the fact that Dr. Mason handled most of it for the project meant he held his tongue on the subject.
Regardless, they weren't kept waiting much longer. The door to the room opened, and in walked a short man in an immaculate black suit, shoes shined to a reflection and his black hair slicked back with gel. The picture would have been perfect if he weren't straining to maneuver while holding both his briefcase and a cardboard box filled with cables and cassette tapes.
"Sorry to keep you gentlemen waiting. Had to get permission to retrieve these tapes."
He walked over to the other side of the table and placed down the box, followed by his briefcase.
"Dr. Mason, Mr. Savvy, it's nice to meet you. You can call me Mr. Slick, I work for New Dawn's president directly as a sort of rapid response man. I'd like to go over a few things concerning the state of your project, I've been reading over the reports and I must say it's interesting stuff," said Mr. Slick with a smile, as he proceeded to open his briefcase and began pulling out papers. "Using nanobots to attempt to control the mutavus virus. Makes for a much more interesting read than most of the paperwork I usually have to go through."
He finished pulling out papers and closed the heavy briefcase with a clunk.
"Now to get to the point. Concerning recent events New Dawn Inc. has decided to put this project on hold. It seems-"
Bret popped out of his chair upon hearing this.
"You can't! We were finally getting somewhere! We've worked too damn hard on this!"
"Sit down Mr. Savvy," replied Mr. Slick, his friendly demeanor suddenly absent. The room had already been drafty, but now the temperature felt like it had dropped several degrees, the warmth stolen by Mr. Slick's frown. Bret cringed and sat, remembering who it was that Mr. Slick reported to. This was another reason why Bret normally left dealing with the paper pushers to Dr. Mason, he just didn't have the temperament for it.
"Now then!" said Mr. Slick, his smile right back in place. "While I do need to discuss with you both the state of the project, the reason the project is being put on hold is that Odd Summer has started somewhat early this time around. All biological projects are being put on hold for now, not just yours."
"So it's already been confirmed then?" asked Dr. Mason.
"Not officially, but it was this whole incident with your project that confirms it. I took the liberty of speeding up the autopsy on the cougar. While there isn't any trace of the nanobots, there also isn't any evidence of the normal wear and tear caused by rapid mutation and growth. The cougar triggered gentlemen, mutavus had nothing to do with it."
"Of course! That explains the speed of it, I thought the nanites... Dr. Mason if we check the data we should have a perfect recording of a fauna trigger event!" said Bret.
Dr. Mason chuckled at the sudden reversal of Bret's mood.
"You see Bret, what do I always tell you? Just a setback!"
"I'm afraid I wouldn't celebrate just yet Mr. Savvy, Dr. Mason," interjected Mr. Slick. "Now, I have some slightly more sobering news to impart to you both. You see, while this project is currently being shelved due to Odd Summer, there has been some question as to whether or not to restart it upon Odd Summer's end. You see, this endeavor has not quite been meeting it's project goals, and its been brought into question whether or not the significant expenses to keep the project running are worth the results."
"But, we've been making lots of progress. The scientific value alone..."
"Believe me, I understand the scientific value of your results so far Dr. Mason. However, New Dawn Inc. is a weapons manufacturer, and when it was agreed to fund this little venture the both of you promised that you could deliver a weapon from your research. A promise you have not yet delivered on."
"But the prototype was performing well! Yes it died to the cougar, but you can't expect a prototype to win against full blown super powers! Especially not in its first real world encounter."
"That is one of the reasons why this is still up for discussion Mr. Savvy. Please, let me outline the situation a bit more precisely, things are a little more complicated than they appear and I have some things here which should help to show why we are apprehensive about this project."
Mr. Slick began to unpack the box of electronics he had brought with him, from it he removed several cables, cassettes, a portable screen, and what appeared to be an antique cassette player.
"Now, as the accident happened in the middle of the night we don't have any eyewitnesses to what happened. Luckily we do in fact have a recording of the test chamber. Which is what I have with me here," Mr. Slick said, as he finished withdrawing components from the box and began assembling them.
"We do? I thought electronic surveillance was a security risk?" replied Dr. Mason.
"If we could have had electronic recordings that would have made things much easier until now," added Bret sullenly.
"Ah, well as you are both aware these biological weapons experiments are not, in the strictest sense, completely legal, necessitating the lack of electronic recording and the excessive pen and paper work."
Both Mason and Bret deflated a bit at the reminder of the legality of the project. They had known what they were getting into beforehand of course, but they had felt that the chance of finding a possible method of prevention for mutavus outweighed the risks.
"Now this little device is a VHS recorder. Practically an ancient relic, but what it lacks in modern features it makes up for in the fact that it records the footage onto a physical tape and not an electronic file, thus preventing any passing technopaths from being able to see what it records. They'd have to physically grab the tape and watch it from the player, and this little device was set up to both wipe the tape every couple of days and self-destruct if someone tries to tamper with it. That's the reason I was late, had to call the President himself and get the passwords for it."
"Wait, so we actually do have security tapes for the lower floors then?" asked Bret.
"No no, this was the only one set up and it only overlooked the test chamber. He said it was a little extra security since we are dealing with bio-weapons, but between you and me I think he just likes to watch the fights."
"Watch the fights..."
"You know how eccentric they can be," replied Mr. Slick as he finished plugging the VHS player into a small portable screen and turned it on before inserting a cassette. "I've taken the liberty of forwarding it to the beginning of the combat test in question."
The screen lit up, displaying the test chamber. From the position it looked like the camera was mounted on the ceiling pointing at the test chamber window. Inside the test chamber was the prototype and the two cougars, one of them already dead. As the tape played it showed them what they had already seen, the rapid growth of the cougar, the prototype's escape, and the cougar angrily attacking the mesh as its arm regrew.
"The next interesting part happens about an hour after everyone goes home for the night," said Mr. Slick who then began forwarding the tape. "Right around... here."
Again the tape showed the test chamber with the cougar sleeping inside.
But then the prototype, clearly seen, simply walked on screen from the left before stopping in front of the test chamber. The scientist's eyes went wide.
"That can't be, the prototype escaped first?" said Bret.
"Oh it gets better, keep watching Mr. Savvy."
The prototype wandered out of the field of view, whereupon Mr. Slick forwarded the tape slightly. Again the prototype appeared before it began to carve through the window and began throwing pieces of the window at the cougar. The cougar finally attacked, the prototype ran, and the cougar broke through the hole to get into the lab proper before running off-screen after the prototype, whereupon Mr. Slick stopped the tape and turned to the two dumbfounded scientists.
"Now then, it kind of looks like your prototype escaped its chamber just to commit suicide-via-cougar doesn't it? I don't suppose you two could shed some light on this? "
Both scientists were silent, unable to explain what they had just seen. Finally Dr. Mason spoke, "It, it looks like it was trying to goad the cougar into attacking it by targeting the corpse of the sibling, could it have understood what it was doing Bret?"
"N-no, its not that smart, it thinks by trial and error. It probably noted the reaction from the cougar when its throw went wild. That part is in line with its programming."
"And what about carving through the window? That glass is tinker designed," asked Mr. Slick.
"The nanites build and dismantle at the atomic level. With enough time and energy they could probably burrow through anything," answered Bret.
"Isn't that somewhat dangerous? You do remember the gray goo incident twelve years ago do you not?"
"No, a disaster like that would have been literally impossible for the prototype, I made sure of it at the start of the project. The nanites self-destruct if they don't receive a signal from the core after a couple seconds. It's built into the physical design, can't be bypassed."
"I've heard more than one tinker claim the same about their devices Mr. Savvy."
"He's right Mr. Slick," interjected Dr. Mason. "At the hardware level the nanites and core are more like molecular clockwork than programmable machines. I checked over the design myself when we started the project. We wouldn't have gone ahead without that fail-safe."
"Hmm, I see. What about it leaving the test chamber?"
"That... that I'm not sure of," said Bret, "It was supposed to follow orders when it received them, but it had automatic protocols to follow otherwise, one of which is trial and error in a combat situation. When one of its combat tactics failed it was supposed to try something new. Admittedly exiting the test chamber is a leap in logic, but it did seem to be getting more original in its tactics over the past dozen or so tests. I'll need time to go over the memory dumps to really figure it out."
"I see, well in that case I suppose I only have one more question that remains unanswered."
At this Mr. Slick pointed at the window. Both scientists looked, and after a second their gazes snapped to the hole in the window.
The carved hole.
"H-how long has that been there?"
"A guard reported it this morning. It's what caused me to be called for, although when I arrived I expected a break-in, now I'm thinking it's more along the lines of a break-out."
Mr. Slick turned to the two horrified scientists, "I don't suppose you could convince me that hole is entirely coincidental and that the prototype is definitely dead could you?"
Neither scientist spoke up.
"Pity. Then I must ask, is there any way this could be traced back to New Dawn Inc.?"
Bret snapped out of his fugue at that.
"You can't be serious? We need to warn people!"
"I already have. I sent a report to Central stating we had confirmed an animal trigger, a clear indicator that Odd Summer is starting. New Dawn Inc. is dedicated to holding back the horrors that Odd Summer brings as well as cleaning up the aftermath, but we can't do any of that if a bunch of capes are breathing down our necks and holding back progress can we? Do I make myself clear?"
"I, I, bu-"
"Crystal Mr. Slick," said Dr. Mason as he put his hand on Bret's shoulder. "We quite understand the situation."
Bret looked at Dr. Mason before his gaze sank to the floor, his shoulders slumped.
"Good. As for the prototype our agents will keep an eye out for it, although I doubt they'll find anything with Odd Summer in effect. An escaped monster isn't exactly at the top of the list of strange things right now. Is there anything else you can tell me about it that might help them find it?"
"Its physical abilities are all detailed in the reports," said Dr. Mason. "As for behavior, if it's still following protocol it will prioritize survival. Learn from combat, map the area, um, seek tactical advantages, avoid major threats..." Dr. Mason trailed off.
"... and eat when its hungry," finished Bret.
"Mm, I see," Mr. Slick turned to the window. "Well keep your chins up gentlemen, with Odd Summer starting there's always the chance it will crawl into a hole and die before it ever sees another person, there's plenty of scarier things out there after all." Mr Slick turned back to the two of them, cheap smile back in full force. "Now then, lets discuss personnel reassignments."