The next day saw three men visiting Hat Island. None was Dr. Winchell. The three men were courteous, calm, and utterly intractable. They produced a mountain of paperwork and legal orders giving them complete access to the students, their information, and the grounds of the school and dormitories. It wasn’t much of a stretch to say that they had free rein of the entire island.
There to meet them at the docks alongside Xinasa were two lawyers. These lawyers dutifully examined every document, verified their authenticity, and promised to follow along every step of the way to make sure that the investigators stayed within the boundaries set by the court. Xinasa knew that Master Zhao was likewise keeping an eye on the entire affair.
Their first step was one that Xinasa hadn’t expected - they pulled aside Tara and questioned her about her illness.
“I was doing my heart exercises,” said Tara seriously, “Then I got really tired and fell asleep. When I woke up I was in bed.” They spent nearly twenty minutes asking her other questions, trying to pry more information out of her, before the lawyers calmly told them that they had asked quite enough. She was a sick little girl not a suspect for a crime. The investigators, having learned essentially nothing, left.
Their next step was to split up. One reviewed all of the medical records for the afflicted children, including Tara. These were downright baffling. In such a situation, they expected to find that the doctors had run a host of diagnostic tests in an attempt to determine the source of the illness. Instead, they found that the children had been dutifully monitored and that each had an EEG run to verify normal brain activity, but that was all. No blood work or other tests had been done and there had been no documented attempt to find the cause of their condition. This, more than anything, started to raise red flags. In their minds, the only reason for a doctor not to search for the cause was because he was certain he already knew it. Anything else was medical malpractice.
The other two visited the sleeping children and performed a battery of tests, took blood samples, and generally poked and prodded them. For each one they went down a checklist, dutifully marking off potential conditions that the Department of Health monitored for. In the end, their tests managed to rule out every illness on the list. They convened a quick meeting and decided their next course of action. Since they suspected the doctor was already aware of the reason for what was going on they decided to attempt to pry it out of him. Unlike the interview with Tara, the investigators made no pretense of cordiality.
“Tell us what you know about the children’s condition,” said the one that Jiang Han dubbed ‘number one’, his tone hard. Dr. Jiang just smiled an infuriating smile in response.
“I know that the children are not in a coma. They exhibit none of the signs. Their brain wave patterns are normal for a person experiencing the stages of sleep. Despite this, they cannot be awoken.” His answer was delivered in a calm and straightforward manner but the content was utterly useless.
“Yes, but what caused this condition?” asked ‘number two’.
“I don’t know of any illness which can cause this condition. As far as I’m aware, they are all perfectly healthy.” Once again his answer was infuriating.
“How can you say that they are perfectly healthy when you haven’t run a single test beyond the EEG?” asked ‘number three’.
“I have monitored them extensively,” said Dr. Jiang. “They show no signs of illness. They aren’t running fevers, there is no excessive sweating, no vomiting or diarrhea, no sores or rashes. In fact, they show no signs of illness at all. I’m sure that if you tested their blood they would all have normal white blood cell counts. They aren’t sick.”
“How can you possibly know that?!” said the second one. Unlike Dr. Jiang, they had run basic blood tests with portable equipment they had brought with them. It was exactly as he said - each one had a normal white cell count. The blood they had gathered would go to a lab for further testing, but for the time being they didn’t have any direct evidence to disagree with the diagnosis of ‘healthy’.
Their interrogation lasted until they gave up from exhaustion, having spent nearly six hours grilling Dr. Jiang. Despite the treatment, the doctor looked as fresh as a daisy. In stark contrast, the three investigators were all bedraggled looking, their clothes sweaty and their eyes tired. Worse, they were dispirited. They had found precisely nothing. They unanimously decided to end their investigation for the day. It was nearly midnight and none was looking forward to the hour-plus trek home, so they didn’t delay, boarding the boat to the mainland in sullen silence.
Once they were aboard the three reconvened at one of the tables on the main deck where they could be assured to spot any eavesdroppers.
“Alright,” said number one, “Now that we’re away I want your honest opinions. How do we proceed?”
“The doctor is obviously toeing the company line,” said number two. “As far as I’m concerned the sparsity of their medical records can only mean that they either aren’t the complete records or they didn’t bother to do any testing because they already knew the cause.”
“Since we can’t move the doctor, we move the organization,” said number three, his tone a low growl. “We declare that we believe the condition is caused by an environmental factor, leak it to the news, that type of thing. This will give us cause to shut down the school and relocate the students. Of course, once the students are re-homed, it will be very hard to get them back. I would be surprised if more than 1 in 5 returned to this school. While that’s going on, we use police resources to search the school. It shouldn’t be too hard to get a CSI unit for a couple of days. We’ll break them up into teams with one of ours as lead, give them a list of things to search for. It shouldn’t be hard to make a rather large mess of the school. I’m certain that we can keep the place closed for long enough that it will essentially become defunct. Once the pressure has built sufficiently, we simply ask them to tell us how the students got into their condition. I’m willing to bet they’ll tell us.”
Number one looked to number two. “Any objections?”
“None,” said number two.
“Then it's agreed. I’ll call the boss and get the paperwork started. If we’re going to claim its an environmental hazard, we have to come up with some plausible reason for our suspicion. Any ideas?”
The conversation continued but Zhao Gang mostly stopped listening. Fury boiled in his heart as he considered the strong-arm tactics that were going to be employed against his school. He patiently suppressed the emotion, knowing that the investigators were correct in their assumption that they were aware of the cause of the condition. Further, he believed they truly were seeking the best interests of the students. Despite all his monitoring, not once had he heard any of them express a desire for personal profit, which he admitted was likely the only reason he had managed to avoid ‘disappearing’ the lot of them. No, they seemed to be upright people who were simply willing to play hardball in order to solve the problem. Looked at it that way, their reaction wasn’t so unreasonable, especially since nearly a hundred of his students were ‘afflicted’ at this point.
Zhao Gang continued to listen to their conversation with half a mind while he called his lawyers to inform them of the likely direction of the investigation. They offered to attempt to block the order to evacuate the school but Zhao Gang stopped them. Not only would they be suspicious of how he knew they were seeking the order, attempting to keep the school open in the face of such a grave condition would be viewed negatively by the public. Instead, he focused their attention wholly in another direction - the children could not be allowed to be dispersed. He would exert every bit of his influence, spend every penny of the wealth he had accumulated, to keep his students together. Nothing else mattered.
As he spoke with his lawyer he also began giving out instructions to his disciples. Anything suspicious was to be removed. The holding pens for the various beasts under the courtyard was to be hidden behind a formation and all evidence of its existence erased. He intended to allow the investigators to do as thorough a search as they pleased. Once those orders were given he contacted Xinasa.
“I need you to work with the lawyers,” he said bluntly. “We need someone to speak to the press. Make sure they know that we are cooperating fully with the investigators. Allow the media into the school if you have to. Our public image is going to suffer for this, but we need to be seen as concerned and involved as much as possible. Allegations that we’re attempting to hide or deflect blame could be disastrous. If possible, we need to be the victims here.”
“Of course, Master Zhao. I will attend to it,” came Xinasa’s confident reply.
Once he finished with Xinasa he contacted Jiang Han. “Han,” said Zhao Gang brusquely, “How close are the earliest students to waking up? If we can increase the rate of their absorption of natural energy, we might be able to make that happen sooner.”
Jiang Han, not simply a medical doctor but a skilled spirit healer, passed a few moments before replying. “It is… not impossible. It would have to be done gently, however. If we are too forceful we risk damaging them instead, or worse, causing their constitutions to be malformed. As for who is closest to waking, I have no idea. Generally speaking, forming an innate constitution happens prenatally and has, to my knowledge, never been previously observed.”
“Figure out a way to get a student or two awake with minimal risk,” replied Zhao Gang decisively. “As for the other students, prepare for them to be moved. The investigators are going to force us to evacuate the school at least temporarily.”
“If we leave the school,” said Han seriously, “The natural energy may not be thick enough to support the finalization of their constitutions.”
“I’m aware. I’ll be speaking with Orixin Verin next. Focus on your tasks.” The obvious confidence in his tone soothed Han and he severed the connection with a brief, if respectful, farewell. As Zhao Gang contacted Verin, he began mentally planning out his next moves. Most important would be finding a place where they could house the students and on-site staff, one that would let them modify the property enough to set up the necessary formation. Thankfully, all the formations he needed to transfer the natural energy were already designed, they would simply have to implement them in record time. Compared to the formations on the courtyard these would be relatively simple but much, much larger.
Having spoken with Verin to make sure the appropriate materials would be ready, Zhao Gang called the lawyer back. “Thomas,” he said seriously, “Any progress on finding a place to house us temporarily?”
As they talked, Zhao Gang fought not to grit his teeth. This might not be a life or death battle, but it was battle nonetheless. He would not lose.