Loose Ends by Grumpy Ghost Owl
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DISCLAIMER AND WARNINGS
This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planetsare the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Thank you to Naa-Dei Nikoi for beta reading, and to Sharon Alvarado for feedback and technical advice.

NOTES
Keyop has an operation, and Chief Anderson recalls the past. This story is basically one giant info dump so if you hate info dumping, this is probably not for you.

RATING
This story is rated MA15+.





Battle of the Planets: 2163
LOOSE ENDS




Sometimes, it seems that a lot of my job is about tying up loose ends.

Sometimes they're mine. Other times, they've been left for me by other people.

I deployed G-Force, minus Keyop, on a routine mission to reconnoitre and clean out a base Spectra was trying to establish in the British Columbian wilderness. A secret installation of ours, which Spectra clearly didn't know about (this is why we call some installations 'secret') had detected some unusual traffic and discovered some decidedly unlicensed building going on.

The mission had been a qualified success. The base had been dealt with, but a small group of Spectrans had escaped and hijacked a hover coach full of tourists. The hover coach pilot managed to get off a distress signal, which drew media attention, but G-Force were able to rescue the hostages and took the Spectrans prisoner without any loss of life.

It was noted, however, that G-4 did not appear to be present.

As always, there was speculation. The media requested a statement, and, as always, declined, but I did condescend to brief G-Sec's Public Relations Manager and threw her to the wolves in my stead.

The news announcer addressed the camera, reading from the autocue: "A Galaxy Security spokeperson maintained that there is no truth to the rumour that a member of G-Force has been injured or killed." He paused, looking sincerely at the invisible audience before continuing. "In other news today, the Cosmic Space Patrol destroyed a rogue Tramulan corsair near the Vega - Arcturus space lane--"

I switched the television off.

On my instructions, our PR Manager had issued a flat denial that anything was wrong. Strictly speaking, this was true. I wasn't about to tell the whole galaxy that G-4 was unavailable because we'd decided to get his overbite corrected.

"No p'ctur's 'f me," Keyop complained from the bed.

"No, they didn't show any pictures of you," I agreed. "Anyway, don't you want to wait until your new publicity shots are done?"

He shrugged, an expressive movement of skinny shoulders under his hospital gown. He was hurting, and I wasn't much in the way of company for a small boy.

"The others'll be back soon," I said. "You want me to call Dr Kate to adjust your meds?"

He shook his head. "W'nna be 'wake."

"You don't have to stay awake," I said. "Sleep would be the best thing for you, right now."

He blinked slowly, not far away from sleep as it was. He yawned and winced. "Maybe," he slurred.

I looked around and waved to Kate Halloran, my Chief Medical Officer. She walked across from the main desk and stood on tiptoe so she could peer at Keyop over my shoulder. "Hey, big fella. Is this man bothering you?" she asked.

Keyop smiled at her -- children adore Kate.

"Very funny," I said. "I have to get back to my office. Keep me posted."

"Yes, sir, Mister Chief of Galaxy Security, sir," Kate said. "Quit worrying," she told me. "He's going to be fine." She turned her attention to her patient. "Does your mouth hurt? We can get you something to fix that right up..."



I've never been good with children. As a general rule, they have no use for me and I find them difficult to deal with. I'm even worse with babies. They terrify me. They make unintelligible noises and have an unfortunate tendency to be damp at both ends.

I remember the last time I had to deal with babies: we were a year into phase II of the G-Force Project and it wasn't going as well as we'd hoped. In fact, it seemed to be foundering, and tragically so. We'd had three patients -- all female -- reject their cerebonics within twenty four hours post op. We immediately plunged the children into drug induced comas and removed the implants. We were too late, however. The damage to the girls' central nervous systems had been done, and we were obliged to turn off their life support three days later.

To make matters worse, young Donald Wade was showing signs of incomplete integration. We confined Don to the medical wing, much to the boy's disgust, and monitored him closely.

Bob Halloran was running computer models again.

"I still don't know whether it's coincidence or something that we're missing," he said.

"The sample isn't big enough," I said, "and I really don't want to try for another rejection just for the sake of the stats. What does Dizzy say?"

"Dizzy's running the genome charts again and looking for suspect alleles." Dizzy was our geneticist, Dr Anna Diaz, formerly of Johns Hopkins. "She thinks maybe Princess' mixed heritage might have something to do with the fact that she integrated the implants so well."

"A fluke?" I shook my head. This was supposed to be science, not roulette.

"Look, we know Princess' father must have had a good dollop of alien blood. We don't know who he was, so we can't get a DNA sample, but the question's largely academic anyway since Dizzy doesn't know what she's looking for, yet. She's pretty sure it has something to do with proteins."

"It's always something to do with proteins, Bob." I leaned against the wall and let my head tilt back. "Proteins have kept scientists gainfully employed for centuries on every planet advanced enough to conceptualise the idea of long chain molecules." Cerebonic issues were nearly always specifically about proteins, however. It was the way the implants interacted with the human body, altering its biochemistry to create the enhancements programmed by the designers, and proteins even made up parts of the tiny machines.

"Four boys and four girls implanted. Four surviving males, albeit one borderline, and one surviving female." Bob recited the statistics that the entire team knew off by heart. "You're right, the sample just isn't big enough for us to start drawing inferences, let alone conclusions."

"Apart from the very high likelihood that it has something to do with proteins," I sighed. "Have Dizzy look at neurotransmitter levels again and I want the autopsy results on her desk the minute they've been signed off. The way those kids died..." I closed my eyes and wished I could erase the memories.

"You don't have to remind me," Bob said. As our resident neurosurgeon, he'd been the one to try and save them. He took it hard.

"Sorry," I said.

"Yeah. Me too."



After the mission debriefing, I took the senior members of G-Force to the medical wing to look in on Keyop. Kate had administered analgesics and anti-inflammatories, and the boy was sleeping peacefully, his face swollen and pink.

"Poor thing," Princess murmured, and sat down in the chair next to the bed.

"It's supposed to help," Mark said, giving Keyop a dubious look.

"He doesn't look a whole lot different," Tiny said, forgetting to lower his voice, and Jason elbowed him in the ribs.

"Shhhh!"



Dr Diaz presented her preliminary findings. "Cerebonics is definitely a complex field," she said, making what was possibly the understatement of the decade. "I'm pretty sure the issue lies with the subtle differences in hormone levels and neurotransmitter balances. The juvenile central nervous system adapts to the implants a lot more readily than the mature CNS ever could, but we still face massive challenges getting the body to accept the enhancements. It's taken me a full week to run an in-depth study of Princess' genome and I found quite an interesting mix. We know Princess' mother was an Earth woman and her father was an unknown male of mixed heritage. Not only did our mystery man carry Laconian genes, which accounts for the pretty green highlights in her hair, but somewhere in his ancestry he also carried a mix of Spectran and Urgosian DNA. Princess' body produces unique proteins which are only marginally different to those produced by Earthlings, Laconians, Spectrans and Urgosians and identical to no single pure strain subspecies."

"Then shouldn't she be less compatible with the cerebonics?" I wondered aloud. "When we tested her, she showed a high compatibility rating, but we designed these things based on Homo sapiens terrai, not --"

"I know," Dizzy said, forestalling my protest. "The thing is, I think we hit the jackpot with this girl because her system carries genes from all four subspecies and is able to adapt to the cerebonics more readily than a pure blooded representative of any of them." She smiled ruefully. "I'm no expert on exobiology, but I think there's a lot that even the real experts don't know when it comes to blending Homo sap subspecies. If you look at our best male subject, it's Mark. His maternal grandfather was Rigan. Another hybrid."

"We know a lot about the individual subspecies' genotypes," Bob added, "but how they work in terms of molecular biochemistry when we combine them is still a relatively young branch of medicine."

"Keep working on it, Dizzy," I said. "You could be on to something."I pushed my chair back. "Let me know what you need and I'll see that you get the funding. Within reason," I added.

"Define 'reason,'" Dizzy retorted with a smile.



Keyop woke up, not unexpectedly given the noise levels, and wanted to know how the mission went.

"We rocked," Tiny said, grinning.

"But it was that much harder, without you," Princess hastened to add.

"Yeah," Mark said. "Right. Absolutely."

"Yeah," Jason said, "and you weren't even the one who had to do Keyop's checklists." He folded his arms and glared at the youngest member of the team. "Hurry up and get better, squirt, or I'm going on strike."

Keyop chuckled. "Time... you earned your pay."

"I'd say he's definitely on the mend," Jason said. "I've got qualifying rounds tomorrow, so I'm going to head back to the mainland."

"You're not staying the weekend?" Princess said.

"I have to be at the track early. Honest, I'd stay if I could."

"I'll be here, Princess," Mark said, turning those big blue eyes on her so that she couldn't look away.

Sometimes, I think I should have a long talk with that boy, but I can never bring myself to do it. All the same, I felt compelled to put a spoke in his wheel, just in case Princess was inclined to swallow his altruism act. "Yes, you'll be here, Commander," I said, "given that your jet's due for that targeting system upgrade and you'll be on duty in the maintenance hangar, running tests with the engineering crew." I didn't say anything about how he was getting behind with his paperwork. I always like to keep something in reserve.

He had the grace to look abashed. Princess looked down at her hands, which were loosely clasped in her lap. "I'd like to stay with Keyop," she said.

"Me, too," Tiny said. "I promised Captain Jack I'd visit him this weekend, but I can be back here Sunday morning."

"And I'll be back after the race meet," Jason said.

"So I'll have all of you underfoot," I grumbled. "Don't keep Keyop up too late. He's supposed to be resting."



It had taken three months.

"We should have done this before we ever attempted a live human implantation," Bob grumbled.

"Bob," Dizzy said, "if we researched every possible protein interaction, we'd be producing reports until the end of time. Literally."

"I guess," Bob said. "Clarity in hindsight, huh?"

"We'd better start developing some more testing protocols for candidates," I said.

"Already on it," Dizzy assured me.

Security Chief Conway, who always seemed to know what was happening with the project at about the same time (if not before) I did, paid us a visit. Bob and I were on hand to provide the fifty cent tour.

"Sorting out the protein problem?" he asked.

"They're all protein problems, sir," I told him. "Life may have started out with a bipolar lipid based micell but it runs on proteins."

Conway ignored me, the way he always did when I said something incomprehensible. I tried to lead him to the conference room but he made his own way to the genetics lab, and Bob and I were obliged to follow.

"Dr Diaz," Conway rumbled in greeting.

"Chief," Dizzy said. She didn't smile the way she usually did whenever anyone turned up at the door.

"I understand you're making progress, doctor," Conway said.

"I've just about mapped an ideal cerebonic compatible genome, sir," she said.

"Really?" Conway glanced at the mass of data posted on the walls and on Dizzy's computer screen. "Most impressive."

It could have been a recipe for the genetic makeup of pea soup for all Conway knew. I found myself folding my arms and wondered why I felt uneasy.

"The thing is," I said, "that this is one combination of genes that we think may work with cerebonics. There could be any other number of individual compatible genomes, but finding them all would take several lifetimes."

"What we need," Bob quipped, "is to basically build the ideal human from the ground up."

Conway turned his head and gave Bob a look so sharp it could have cut him in half.

Alarm bells sounded in my head. "No," I said. "Absolutely not. It can't be done."

"Can't?" Conway echoed. "That's an unusual sentiment for you, Anderson."

"It's completely impractical," Bob hastened to say. "You'd have to do a lot more research before you refined the genome down to a workable model. There are so many factors we haven't taken into consideration with this."

"But you said it was ideal," Conway said.

"Only in the sense of cerebonic compatibility!" I insisted. "That's a pretty narrow set of parameters. You can't build something as complex as a human being based on one set of requirements! Sir, we don't have the expertise, the resources or the funding."

"I was joking!" Bob pointed out. "It's pie in the sky."

"I don't know..." Dizzy's tone was thoughtful. "If you based your starting point on a really healthy human and eliminated anything deleterious..."

"It's not going to happen, doctor," I said, putting as much authority as I could into the statement.

"Let's not argue about theoretical concepts," Conway said. "Tell me how the children are progressing." He herded us out of the door and we adjourned to the conference room to talk about Mark, Jason, Don, Tiny and Princess.



When Keyop sat up in bed, he trailed electrode leads. "Wired... for sound," he quipped. He was sounding better, anyway.

"How do you feel?" Bob Halloran asked him.

"Funny," Keyop said. He looked confused.

"Any dizziness, disorientation?"

"Yep." Keyop nodded, but carefully. "'S like you said."

"We figured as much," Bob said, putting a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. "With your cerebonics' healing function temporarily off line, you're going to have to recover from this operation like a normal human being so that the implants don't reverse the effects of the surgery."

"Understand," Keyop said.

"Unlike a normal human being, however," Bob said, "we're going to keep you here for monitoring just to make sure those cerebonic nanites behave themselves, and as such, Dr Kate says you can have as much ice cream as you want, a computer station with a gaming interface, and Zark's sending 1-Rover-1 to visit you tomorrow."

Keyop brightened considerably.

"I think we could possibly set some parameters on the ice cream," I warned.



As Director Special Projects, I couldn't devote all my time to the cerebonic programme, and my executive duties were keeping me busier than usual as Conway claimed to be having difficulty securing funding for everything we had across the board. I was spending days at a time with various project heads, trying to decide where the axe would fall. Conway himself vetoed any cutbacks to the G-Force project.

Six weeks after Conway's little visit, I dropped by to see Dizzy, only to find her workstation cleaned out and her staff bewildered.

"She said she couldn't come for a drink Friday night," the head technician recalled. "Said she was going away for the weekend. Monday morning, we all turn up and..." he gestured at the empty desk.

"Don't touch anything," I said. "I'll get Internal Security onto this."

The Director Internal Security was politely unhelpful when I called. "Don't make an issue of it," she warned me.

"Gail," I said, "one of my senior scientists has vanished!"

"David," Gail Turnbull sighed, "Dr Diaz hasn't vanished. She's been reassigned. It's so compartmentalised, I probably shouldn't have told you this much. Don't push it."

"Conway," I concluded. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. "Okay, Gail. I'll drop it."I shut down the tele-comm, left my office and returned to the lab, where I glibly assured the staff that Dizzy had taken a plum assignment elsewhere at short notice on a highly classified project and that a replacement would be found as soon as possible.

That night, I waited until everyone had gone home, and accessed the genetics laboratory. The first thing I did was run a diagnostic on Dizzy's computer. Over the weekend, someone had downloaded a lot of files from the network and copied the hard drive to boot. That someone had been using Dizzy's log on ID.

I shut the computer down, then put on an apron and a pair of thermal gloves. Staff going into the cold storage area usually suited up against the chill, but I wasn't planning on spending a lot of time among the frozen specimens. I knew exactly which canisters I was looking for.

One by one I opened them.

One by one, in billows of supercooled nitrogen fog, they confirmed my suspicions.

One sample from each of the project children had been taken, with one exception: all of Princess' tissue samples were missing.

It didn't take advanced math to add one and one together:Dizzy had based her ideal genome model on Princess. She'd been open to the idea of creating a human to match the template. The tissue samples were gone along with Dizzy and a complete copy of all her work.

And I was out of the loop.

I secured the cold storage area and the laboratory, then headed back to my own office for a cup of coffee and a belt of scotch from the bottle I kept in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. It was mostly full, in testament to my pathetically moderate drinking habits, but when I needed it, I really needed it.



In general, the ISO isn't the first name that comes to mind when most people are asked to nominate the kinds of places that employ top plastic, reconstructive and maxillo craniofacial surgeons.

Which is probably just as well.

The Interplanetary Security Organisation does, however, retain a team of trusted professionals who carry out work that can never be discussed at cocktail parties.

As it happened, Dr Arpana, the maxillo craniofacial specialist was claustrophobic, and she was less than happy with having to spend several days at Center Neptune. Dr Lewis, the oral surgeon was a keen scuba diver and considered himself fortunate. We gave both of them as much time on the artificial cay above the base as we reasonably could and ensured Dr Arpana had twenty four hour access to a psychologist.

They had been bemused by all the extra monitors and by the way Bob Halloran monitored Keyop during the operation, but knew better than to ask questions.

Keyop endured the extensive post operative examination with stoicism.

"He's healing nicely," Shivanthi Arpana said in her soft, musically accented voice. "I'm very pleased with his progress."

"He's still going to need long term orthodontic work," Frank Lewis cautioned.

Keyop sighed and grimaced. "Braces?"

"I'm afraid so," Lewis said, "but you'll look great in time for your junior prom."

Keyop made another face. "Phooey!"



When I was offered the post of Deputy Chief of Galaxy Security, My deputy Ian Winters stepped in to my old job as Director Special Projects and Bob Halloran became Deputy Director Special Projects. Bob and I retained control of the G-Force project, however. We weren't about to relinquish our stranglehold for anything Walter Conway could offer us. Much as the irascible old spymaster would have liked to prise me loose, our expertise and the legal caveats under which we'd signed over the patents to the cerebonic technology had him over a barrel.

For this, Conway afforded us a grudging respect.

If he expected me to demand information about the genetic project when I took the job, he was destined to be disappointed. I gave in to curiosity, several months later, however, when he was obliged to go in to hospital for a prostate operation. He took four weeks' leave, and called me in to his office a couple of days before he was due to go.

"It's standard procedure for you to be briefed in case I die under anaesthetic," he growled resentfully.

"I know," I said. "All you need to tell me is where to look."

"The tapes," he said. "I've stored all the access codes you need on a set of tapes."

My horror must have shown in my face because he waved a peremptory hand at me. "It's nothing that can be accessed by anyone else. I had the tape format created specially for this purpose, and there are only two readers which were built here for these tapes. If anyone tries to decrypt them in anything other than one of our readers, they'll self-destruct. The information's secure."

"I'm sure you know best," I said. I had no choice but to take his word for it, and back then, it was true: the information was indeed secure.

"I'll be back, you know," he said.

"Of course you will," I agreed. "I'm not even going to use your office space." I had no intention of sitting in Conway's chair. Despite health regulations, Conway smoked in his office and relied on the environmental system to remove the smoke. I speculated that the upholstery on his chair probably contained as much nicotine as his lungs did. I got up out of my chair without being dismissed and walked toward the door. "Oh, by the way," I added, "how far away are we from taking delivery of our ideal cerebonic recipient?"

I saw a brief flash of anger cross his face, then he folded his arms and his mouth twisted in a cynical acknowledgment. He'd known all along that I knew what he was up to. "The genetic project is turning out to be a long term investment."

"In other words," I said, "you've sunk too much funding into it to back out, now."

"Get out of my office," he snarled.

If I felt pleased with myself at getting an admission out of Conway that the genetic project may have been ill-advised, it evaporated by the time I'd reached my own office down the hall and had time to think about the implications. From experience, I knew that failure in most projects meant dead rats, dead primates, a coffee bill that resembled the Planetary Debt and a lot of bleary-eyed, rumpled scientists.

My own team had blotted our copybook with three human fatalities, which was appalling any way you looked at it. Anna Diaz had an aim of building a viable human being with a custom genotype, and for that kind of work, you couldn't use rats.

By the time I reached my desk, I felt physically sick.



Keyop had to be anaesthetised for the recalibration of his cerebonics. He looked even smaller than usual on the table, a myriad of electrodes attached to his head and his narrow, naked torso. His implants had been shut down and were being re-educated to accept a new physiological 'norm' that took into account the surgical correction of his jaw and palate.

The technicians were also trying to correct the aberrant electrical impulses in Keyop's speech centre. We wouldn't know how successful they'd been until he woke up.

Princess had wanted to stay but I sent her to the maintenance hangar to assist Mark with the targeting system upgrade on the G-1 Jet. She didn't need to see Keyop, pale, still and wreathed in wiring like this.

Seeing him lying there took me back.



In Conway's absence, I agonised over making contact with the elusive Dr Diaz. As it turned out, she saved me the trouble by placing a tele-comm call to my office.

"I've almost got it," she told me. "I've got half a dozen embryos gestating in vitro." And how many, I wondered, had died so that she could get this far?

"You had that much belief in the project, Dizz'?"

"Have," she corrected me. "It's like Conway says, David, we have to look at what a war is going to cost and compare the cost of doing something with the cost of doing nothing!"

"I'm surprised Conway didn't tell you not to contact me," I said.

"He did," she said, "but you're Acting Chief of Security, now, so I figure it doesn't count. We're going to have to work together on this sooner or later. I'm sending a report in. Come by the lab while you're in the big chair and take a look at what we're doing."

I didn't visit Dizzy or her embryos while I was 'in the big chair.'I was kept busy with other concerns and didn't particularly want to see what she was doing.

Walter Conway's surgery was a success and he was back in his smoke stained office right on schedule. I was more than happy to hand back the reins and go back to doing my own job.

The first three designer humans died in their glass wombs at the beginning of the third trimester. There were three more, a mere six weeks younger, who showed signs of suffering the same fate. Anna Diaz received permission from Chief Conway to ask for help.

"You've refined the template so well," Bob Halloran said, after analysing the results, "that these kids' nervous systems can't function properly on their own."

"What's the answer?" Dizzy wanted to know.

"We'll have to implant the cerebonics before they hit twenty weeks," he said.

"Can we do that?" I asked.

"There's only one way to find out," Bob said. "If we don't do it, we'll lose the kids. If we get it wrong, we'll lose the kids. If we get it right... we might still lose the kids, but we will have given it our best shot. Bottom line: it's their only chance."

"Do whatever it takes," I said.

Cerebonic implantation doesn't require major invasive surgery. The implants themselves are nanites, tiny devices so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope. The application of nanotechnology in medicine is nothing new. Our great breakthrough was in the development of nanites capable of carrying out repairs on the human nervous system, which had hitherto resisted anything we could throw at it apart from stem cells. The nanites Bob and I built could have revolutionised the treatment of spinal cord and other major neurological injuries, with the exception of the brain, of course, which continues, after centuries of advancement, to confound the understanding of the medical profession. They were so advanced, we had the conceit to give them a name of their own: cerebonics.

It was Security Chief Walter Conway, a non-scientist (he held a degree in economics) who saw the potential for military applications of our particular brand of nanotechnology. Conway was a persuasive man. He convinced Bob Halloran and me to sell our patent to Galaxy Security (assuming I make it to old age, I won't have to worry about providing for myself, and the Halloran kids can choose any college or university they want) and recruited us as part of the deal.

We refined the cerebonic nanites to carry out various tasks inside the body. One variety retained the original purpose of repair work. Their job was to keep the body operating within preprogrammed parameters. Inhabiting the blood stream and the lymphatic system, these nanites would rush to any area where an injury was detected by the nervous system and start repairs. They could slow or stop bleeding, lay down epithelials in a wound bed, assist the immune system, even accelerate the knitting of broken bones (as long as we provided them with sufficient building material.) Another group kept the heart and lungs healthy, ensuring blood vessels remained clean and unclogged, removing debris from airways and alveoli and maintaining oxygen levels. Some strengthened muscles beyond normal human limits. A minority inhabited the space behind the eyes and coaxed the retinas into enlarging the foveae and producing twenty percent more rods and cones than usual. Others still, the tiniest of all (and this was our crowning achievement) worked their way inside the mitochondria and boosted the efficiency of each and every cell to provide more energy than even the fittest athlete could dream of.

The cerebonically enhanced human would have reinforced musculature, a self-repairing body, immunity to certain toxins and pathogens, could see better both in normal light and in darkness, and had the stamina to run several marathons then go to a party afterward.

That Bob and I could have been millionaires and possibly won a Nobel prize for medicine into the bargain occurred to us regularly, but we'd made our choices and when it comes down to defending your planet, about the only thing you can use a Nobel medallion for is a poor man's cosh or a third rate garrotte.

The majority of the cerebonic implants were delivered in a straightforward manner into the femoral artery. Others, however, had to be injected directly into the spinal column and others still had to be delivered precisely behind the eyes. Given that we were dealing with paediatric patients, we used a general anaesthetic and kept the children sedated for twelve hours afterward while the nanites integrated with their bodies.

When the procedure went well, the subject was largely unaware of what was going on. Cerebonic implants were as small as virus particles so their invasion was painless. Each set of implants was customised to the recipient and carried protein markers unique to that individual so that the immune system wouldn't attack them. Even so, we were taking a risk.

The biggest danger, however, was not the body's immune response but the delicate balance in the central nervous system. It only took the slightest imbalance in electrical impulses and neurotransmitter chemicals for the patient to undergo seizures so violent as to be fatal. We'd managed to narrow down the genetic and physiological make up of candidates likely to accept implantation, but we still had no guarantees.

Now we faced an additional complication: Dr Diaz and her team had created human beings designed to take cerebonic implants. She had refined the design so well that they required the presence of cerebonics in order to function. With the young survivors who had originally been implanted, we recalibrated the 'healing' nanites every three to six months depending on the growth rate of the subject, reprogramming them with a new 'normal' template.

Dizzy's foetuses were developing normally, which is fast, and none of our specialists could say for certain whether or not we'd be able to keep up with Mother Nature.

I didn't like our chances, but as Bob had said, if we did nothing, we were passing a sentence of certain death on Dizzy's three surviving subjects.

I reassigned as many staff as I could to work around the clock. Bob and I left our executive duties for Conway to reassign while we spent every waking moment in the lab.

"Are you ever going to ask me what happened?" Dizzy asked me one night while I was waiting for a computer model to run.

"Do you want to tell me?" I was staring at the computer screen, brewing a headache.

"It wasn't like I just up and stabbed you in the back, you know," she said.

"Ah," I said, and took off my glasses to clean them. It was displacement activity on my part, and we both knew it.

"When I went home after work the day we had that talk in the lab, Conway was waiting for me in one of those big black limos. He told me he wanted me to run with the idea of building the ultimate warrior, told me he was reassigning me and that the project was to be compartmentalised."

I merely nodded and put my glasses back on.

"He told me not to say anything to anyone, to meet a team from Internal Security after work on Friday and we'd clean out my office. What was I supposed to do? I did as I was told."

"Of course you did," I said, surprised at myself for actually feeling sympathetic. I took a deep breath and let it go. "We all do as we're told, Dizz'." The other option was to fall afoul of the merciless machine of the ISO, where Conway was a big wheel and we were tiny cogs that could -- for the most part -- be replaced.

"No hard feelings?" she ventured.

I thought about that for a couple of seconds. "Not toward you," I said. "I have plenty of hard feelings, but you're just as much a pawn in the system as I am. If I blame you for anything, I have to blame myself as well."

"But you do blame yourself," she said. She was always an observant individual.

"Yes," I agreed, and got up out of my chair. She was obliged to step back. I walked away and got myself a cup of coffee. When I returned, she was gone.

We lost the first subject before the modified implants were ready. She must have reached a critical point in her neural development earlier than expected and went into cardiac failure.

In a delicate procedure carried out within the confines of the artificial gestation chambers, the two remaining babies, both boys, were fitted with additional monitors and implanted with cerebonic nanites.

All we could do then was wait.

I took a shower, changed into fresh clothes and fell asleep on the couch in the staff room. When I woke up, six hours had passed and Bob Halloran was sitting at the scratched, cluttered table cradling a cup of coffee with a bottle of Scotch within arm's reach.

"What happened?" I asked, struggling to my feet.

"We lost subject ten," Bob said. Under the genetic programme, they'd had their own file numbers. Now that they'd received implants, they became Human Cerebonic Subjects nine and ten.

There was nothing I could say except, "I'm sorry."

"Me, too," he said. "Coffee's fresh if you want it. I broke into your office to steal the Glenlivet."

"Sounds reasonable to me," I said and headed for the percolator. "How's number nine doing?"

"He's within normal parameters so far," Bob said. "Everyone's got their fingers crossed."

"Right." I found my cup, filled it three quarters of the way up with coffee, then sat opposite Bob at the table. "You'd better give me a belt of that," I said, indicating the bottle. He took the cap off and added liquor to my coffee. "And make sure it finds its way home," I added.

For the next twenty four hours, I don't think anybody on the team got any sleep. Even those who tried wound up back in the lab, weary and pale, complaining of insomnia.

We ran out of coffee and nearly went into meltdown.

For the next four months, subject nine was monitored around the clock. Not a moment passed when there wasn't at least one scientist watching him for any sign of ill health. He grew and developed at the phenomenal rate of all foetuses and the cerebonic team was kept on its toes, constantly modifying the output and the activity of the nanites.

The baby had brown eyes and grew wispy brown hair like delicate water weed. One day I heard one of the technicians addressing him by a name I'd never heard before.

"Cheops?" I echoed. "Isn't that a pyramid?"

"Keyop," he corrected. "My father was a exobiologist on Lucavia," he explained. "He used to study critters that were almost identical to our archaeopteryx, an extinct kind of bird precursor that's only found as fossils on Earth. The Lucavian ornithoids belong to genus Archaeopteroides. Dad used to call 'em 'chaeopts' for short. This little guy reminds me of some of the youngsters he used to bring home."

"He doesn't look like a baby ornithoid to me," I said, thinking of little fluffy chickens and ducklings.

"He does," he insisted. "Atricial young hatch out naked and helpless. Baby chaeopts come out looking a lot like him, only smaller."

"Whatever you say," I said, shaking my head.

The nickname caught on, and someone even taped a name tag with a phoneticised spelling -- "KEYOP" -- to the gestation chamber.

"Well," Bob reasoned, "you can't call him subject nine forever. How's it going to look on his birth certificate?"

We were in my office, finalising a status report for Chief Conway. "His birth certificate?" I echoed.

"Hadn't thought that far ahead, had you?" Bob chuckled.

"No," I admitted. "Who are we going to list as the parents? His DNA was grown in the lab for heaven's sake!"

"Well," Bob said, grinning, "Conway nominated you as legal guardian for the other kids."

"But they have biological parents. Do we even know who the template donor was for this child?"

Bob shrugged. "Could have been Princess."

"A somatic cell nucleus from an eight year old girl!"

"Guess you're it, then, buddy," Bob said, grinning.

"I thought I signed on to this outfit to be a scientist, not a parent," I grumbled.

Even the off duty members of the team turned up for Keyop's 'birthday.' We were all on tenterhooks again as the tiny boy was removed from the support mechanisms of the artificial gestation chamber and asked to survive on his own. He coughed, spluttered and cried as he took his first breaths and the medical team cleaned him of the pale vernix that covered his body. His tremors worried me at first, but Bob was grinning.

"Think back to med school, Dave," he teased.

"That was too long ago," I grumbled, but I tried to relax. Bob had been present at the births of all the Halloran brood and I figured that if he considered this screaming, wrinkled, fist shaking little neonate normal, I could do likewise.

The midwife wrapped the baby in a soft blanket and handed him to Bob. "He's beautiful," Bob said.

"I'll take your word for it," I said dubiously.

"Want to hold him?" Bob offered, all avuncular generosity.

"Um..." I took a step backward, much to the amusement of the team, who laughed at my discomfiture. "No," I decided. "I'll leave that to the experts."



Keyop was sitting up in bed, reading a book about timber wolves. Princess was nowhere to be seen.

"How are you doing?" I asked by way of greeting.

He started to speak, faltered, and said, "Oh... Kay," without any superfluous syllables. He smiled ruefully. "I seem... to have swapped... one sp-speech impediment... for another."

I sat down in the chair by the bed. It was warm. "Princess around?"

"She went... f-for a cup of... hot chocolate. "Keyop picked up a bookmark from the bedside table, stuck it in the book and closed the cover. "Doctor Bob thinks my... new stutter c-could be... hab... itual rather than... ff-physiological."

"So it's going to be braces and speech therapy," I said. "There are worse things, you know."

"Yeah." He shrugged. "I'm going to... m-miss... g-gum."

"You're more coherent already," I said. "We'll have you reciting poetry in no time."

He chuckled. "There...was... a y-young man... from Nantucket..."

"I don't think so," I warned.

Princess walked in, carrying a styrofoam cup. "Hi, Chief."

I got out of the chair and let her sit down. "Our patient seems to be doing well."

"Yeah." Princess put her cup on the bedside table. "He's already making up a list of polysyllabic rude names to call Zoltar."

"Excellent attitude to have," I decided. "Just remember," I added, "when you make up my list, 'tyrannical' is spelled with a 'y' and two 'n's."

Keyop blushed beet red, and I knew I'd sprung him.

I left him wondering just how much I knew, which is always a good way to leave people in this job.



The genetic project continued to exist in name only after Keyop's birth. The boy was subject to intense study and scrutiny as he grew, and joined the other children when he turned two.

Security Chief Conway was diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable brain tumour when Keyop was nine. In typical Conway style, he told no-one of his condition, saying instead that he needed to take a holiday. He adjourned to Camp Parker for six weeks with his extended family. The day before he was due to return to work, he sent everyone away, explaining that he had a sudden, urgent teleconference to attend to. He kissed his wife goodbye, farewelled his children and grandchildren, then sat on the shores of the artificial lake that bears his name, and shot himself.

When I heard the news and read the suicide letter he left, my reaction was to think, with no small amount of bitterness, that the vicious old puppet master had managed to stay in control right up to the moment he pulled the trigger. Even from his refrigerated drawer in the morgue, he was pulling my strings and compelling me to dance to his tune. In addition to the letter, he left a document recommending that the President appoint me Chief of Galaxy Security.

One of my first acts on assuming the leadership of G-Sec was to shut the genetic programme down once and for all. We needed to know a lot more before we made another attempt at building designer humans, and we had a team of five successful cerebonic recipients, who were already proving to be a handful.

I sealed the files and forbade anyone associated with the project to ever discuss the details with anyone, especially Keyop. I've told him as much as I think he needs to know: that he was created in a laboratory especially for G-Force, that he is unique, and that he is valued. I've never mentioned the hundreds of experimental zygotes that were destroyed or the five other babies who died before they could be born. He should never have to carry the burden of such knowledge.

As to what happens when Keyop reaches adulthood and wants children of his own, I can't say. Will his modified genes prove to be dominant or recessive? Will they be lethal, sublethal or simply deleterious? Should we even consider allowing his genetic material to join the human gene pool? Should we render him sterile while we still can, or is his genome so modified that his germ cells will be non-viable by default?

For all his foresight and all his brilliance, Walter Conway wasn't good at working out the fine details. He made long term plans that left a lot of loose ends for other people to tie up. Undeniably, his scheme is working and we continue to hold off the forces of Spectra as they try, time and again, to conquer our world and take it for their own. All the same, the cost to individuals has been high, and the five youngsters who make up our last and best line of defence will probably keep paying that price for the rest of their lives.

And the vast majority of the people who are alive and free because of those five can never know just how much we all owe them.





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