With slender fingers the fog first choked the trees before encircling the building. It was the kind of grey morning that gave no hint at the movements of the sun, that suggested that time was suspended, shadows given pause and highlights wiped away like fingerprints. The fog was a mercy, Dr. Klinger had said the previous evening, eying satellite feeds with a fevered intensity.
Max could see only the tops of pines distantly from the window of his cell. Below him, in the courtyard outside the back entrance to the compound, voices barked and metal cried as the persons from the lab hastily loaded equipment into vans that purred and fumed. It was an impromptu moving day that had sent everyone left in Dr. Klinger’s small operation into twenty four hours of perpetual motion. More than half of the original group had been mown down in the flight from the old campus.
“This time the watch worked,” the doctor said. “This time we didn’t put faith in AI only to discover how easily they could corrupt it. This time we went back to the beginning. To all beginnings. We rely on human wisdom and loyalty. The animal in us all can save us all.”
When Klinger started to rave, Max would go still, studying anything he could latch his gaze upon. He would take even breaths and remind himself that if he gored the doctor with his antlers, he would lose the only person in the group that had something like love for him. He had overheard the others speaking before their last flight from the hired guns of the corporation. He knew that some of them wanted to either give him up or incinerate him themselves. The idea was to hide all proof of the experiment. He was a liability.
When he told Dr. Klinger this, he was given assurances.
“I know who you heard saying those things. I always knew they weren’t loyal, Max. And did any of them make it out alive?”
“So am I supposed to relax and believe that karma will take care of everything? If karma were handling this-”
“You can’t believe that a man of science is concerned with karma.”
“If karma were really handling this, I’d like to know what the fuck I ever did to deserve being mutilated? Turned into a freak?”
The doctor struck him then, a quick, catlike blow with the flat of his hand against Max’s cheek. His eyes were bright with feeling.
“You are not a freak. You are an entire ecosystem. A miracle. The intelligent material of dozens of forms of life, each rewired to cooperate within your body, helping to circumnavigate all of the safeguards that evolution put into place to prevent science from stitching together new life. You are a marvel of biological engineering.”
Max had turned away. This was weeks ago and the first time he had ever felt the urge to kill. It had never been in his disposition to respond to a blow with a blow. His instinct had always been flight. It had made his father think of him as weak, peering at him with hazel eyes that were aloof with disgust. Or perhaps simply he was confused by Max.
The day that Klinger struck him, a different response emerged, like a chain buried in the mud that was suddenly pulled from both ends, so that it rose up with a metallic whine. That was when he knew that the doctor’s talk of an ecosystem was not limited to what he could see in himself when he looked in the mirror. Something was rewriting itself in Max. He was still apt to take flight, but now equally inclined to draw blood.
The doctor had turned away then, knotting his fingers together, his shoulders curving inward toward his chest. “Anyway, the betrayers weren’t taken down by accident. I scheduled the departures to make them most likely to be in the line of fire. Karma is a blind justice that primitives believe in. Any definitive retribution must be thoughtfully orchestrated.”
He turned back to Max then and he could not see the change in him. He must have still imagined him to be a man who cowered in the face of pain, because he placed a hand on his shoulder gently.
“I will always protect you, Max. You mean more to me than you will ever know.”
It was funny to think that this man was saying to him something that would inspire hope and peace were it to come from a parent or a lover. Issuing from the lips of this man, with his ignored beard and exhausted squint, it felt like a life sentence.
They could not both live, Max thought. One of them had to die.
Klinger studied him closely then.
“If you ever ventured out into the world, they would likely see you as you see yourself. You might be taken into another lab, taken apart, and studied organism by organism. And they’d make sure every trace of you was gone. What muriatic acid couldn’t sluice away would be pulled out of servers on line and taken from yellowing old folders.”
Max didn’t want to listen to Klinger, but he found himself mesmerized.
“Or else they’d shoot you where you stood, aiming for the head. They might bury you and say prayers that you’d never rise again. You would become a legend, something hill folk pass down to keep their children from wandering into the forest.”
This time when they abandoned their compound, Max studied the order in which the teams climbed into the vans. The hired guns were nowhere near them yet, according to the last communication with their watch, yet he wondered if Klinger were still hedging his bets, putting his weakest links in harm’s way in some bid to feel that blood was not quite on his own hands.
Max was put into a vehicle with Klinger and two women he knew as Natasha and Inez. He knew they were doctors, but they never wore name tags, and everyone at the institution called each other by their first names except for Klinger. Natasha was tall with angular features and long, beautiful hands. Her gaze was always quick and inscrutable. Inez was short and compact, wore her hair in a braid that coiled like a snake at the back of her head. She cracked her knuckles nervously whenever she listened to a briefing from Klinger, but sometimes Max thought she was looking at him with empathy when he happened upon her gaze.
The four of them were in back of the van, with another woman and a man in the front seats. They didn’t use horns to signal and they didn’t use communication devises. All phones had been turned off after the last contact with the watch, because once the lab was loaded and ready to go, the last thing to disconnect and load was the scrambling device they had used to prevent detection for the last two months. If anyone so much as took a selfie, they might in some way open themselves up to another ambush. The GPS systems in their vehicles had been ripped out and left at the site.
Their departure had been planned from the beginning. In the absence of any modern technology to assist them, they were getting out with old school methods. Careworn paper travel atlases had been procured and – unless the roads had been changed significantly since the turn of the century – they would get them to their next temporary compound. Their movements were synchronized with old fashioned timepieces. A small alarm bleeped one Klinger’s wrist watch and like magic the van in front began to roll forward into the fog.