Ghost was already at her terminal when Backus arrived that afternoon, eyes intent on the screen. Backus rested a hand on the back of her chair and watched for a moment or two. What she saw on the monitor made very little sense...
"It's encrypted." Ghost's hands moved quietly over the keyboard.
"Yeah, I guessed. Can you read it?"
Ghost nodded. "It took me over half an hour, but I cracked it. I've got a nasty feeling they may use more than one, though. I would, if I was them. Switch them at irregular intervals."
"What'll you do then?"
She sighed. "Suppose I'll have to crack that, as well." She glanced up, frowning irritably. "I could do without the hassle, though. If I could just get inside their shell..."
"Can I help?"
"At this stage, no. They still don't know we're here, and I don't want to make any waves." She glanced up with a half smile. "I'll let you know when I need you."
Backus grinned. "OK. Coffee?"
For several hours Backus contented herself with simply monitoring DemeCeres, making sure they remained in ignorance of Ghost's presence. It wasn't until early evening that the break came.
"Ahah! Got you!" Ghost sounded jubilant.
"Sure am... Now let's see what's what."
"Can I piggyback?"
"Yeah. Just stay glued, OK?"
Backus followed Ghost into the machine...
The security systems were incredibly complicated, layer upon layer of different loops, sub-programs and trap-doors. Ghost frowned at Backus.
"They've got to be hiding something pretty major with all this shit. Either that or they've got the worse case of paranoia I've ever come across."
Backus was staring at the screen with horrified fascination.
"And you found these guys accidentally? No wonder you nearly got nuked! What the hell were you doing?"
Ghost grinned, and changed the subject.
"We'd better do something about some of these subsystems. Make it easier to move around."
"What do you want me to do?"
A few minutes later they both sat back, breathing sighs of relief. Ghost stretched hugely and yawned.
"OK - that should do the trick. We can take a breather now." She rose, abruptly. "My turn to get the coffee."
"D'you fancy going for lunch instead?"
Backus glanced at her watch.
"Uh, OK. Dinner."
"I could do with a breath of good old London air. And a stretch of my legs..."
"And I know a neat little place not far from here. Let me just update Malone and get Spencer to cover..."
Keel was pacing. He'd been pacing for an hour and Curtis was feeling tired just watching him.
"For god's sake, Chris! Will you sit down!"
Keel slumped on the sofa, scowling.
"Can't stand the anticipation."
"We don't know there's anything to anticipate yet."
"There is. There must be. I don't believe we've gone through all this for nothing..."
Curtis grinned. His partner did have a point. But a wound up Keel wasn't a comfortable thing to live with.
"So do you have any ideas?"
"About what's happening? Knowing the way things go for us, could be anything. Mad scientists, poison gas, double agents, modern day Nazis... What haven't we had yet?"
Curtis handed him a beer. "Aliens? Time travel? Time-travelling aliens??"
Keel cuffed him lightly. "I'm serious!"
But it had taken off some of the pressure. Keel leaned back, grinning, and took a swallow of beer - then regarded his partner slyly.
"What d'you think of Ghost?"
Curtis kept his face carefully neutral.
"Well, she's obviously a genius. Her style leaves a bit to be desired, though."
Keel's eyes twinkled. "Mmm. Desired. Yeah."
Curtis's eyes opened wide. "You are joking, aren't you? Please tell me you're joking."
"So am I, and I've got class and style and refinement. And decent clothes-sense."
"Pretty! Hair practically shaved off, skinny as hell... Not what I'd call pretty."
"And she's intelligent."
"So'm I. So's Backup, and Spencer, and Richards. So what?"
"Yeah, but she's all of the above all at the same time!"
Curtis sighed and nabbed a beer for himself. His partner watched him, a small smile twitching his mouth.
"Don't be stupid."
"You are, aren't you? Aw, Sam - I never knew you cared!"
"Sod off, Chris."
"Don't worry, I'm not gonna ask to change partners."
"Glad to hear it. I've only just got you properly trained."
"But I might ask her out to dinner..."
Curtis snorted. "She wouldn't know which knife to use!"
Keel grinned widely. "Who said anything about cutlery?"
Curtis groaned. "Oh god... You're not thinking of a burger bar, are you?"
"Well no, I wasn't... But why not?"
"It's hardly going to impress her, is it?"
Keel twisted to face Curtis directly.
"Can you think of anything that might?"
"Short of beating her at a computer game, no. And I think Backup beat you to it, there."
Keel looked suddenly, faintly anxious. "Hey, you don't think she's..." He faltered into silence, and Curtis raised an eyebrow.
"Y'know..." To Curtis's silent glee, Keel looked almost embarrassed.
"Chris, I have no idea what you're on about. C'mon, spit it out."
"Uh... y'know... not into men..."
"Hmm... you might have a point there. Shaved head, combat pants, Docs... And after all, she does seem to have taken quite a shine to Backup. And she's hardly fallen for your overwhelming charms, now, has she? Perhaps I ought to ask her. On your behalf."
Keel's eyes widened in alarm.
"Sam, you even think about it and I'll kill you!"
Curtis grinned. "Ah, I see. It must be love...."
Keel hit him over the head with a cushion. Curtis retaliated. Then the buzzing of Curtis's mobile put an abrupt stop to what could have become a full scale tussle.
Keel couldn't hear what was being said, but he watched as his partner's face became suddenly very serious.
"We'll be right there, sir."
Keel frowned as Curtis grabbed for his jacket and slid the mobile into the pocket.
"We'll soon find out..."
Backus had enjoyed the meal, even if Ghost had insisted on making it quick. The hacker was obviously pre-occupied, wolfing down her steak au poivre without really tasting it, and refusing dessert. They'd stuck to soft drinks: as Ghost had quite rightly pointed out, they'd probably need their wits about them for the next however-long-it-took. Time enough to drink when they had something to celebrate.
So they were back in the office a bare hour and a half later, feeling the better for the break. Ghost resumed her seat at her terminal with renewed enthusiasm, and grinned at Backus.
"OK. Shall we see if we can find what we came here for?"
"Right with you!"
Fingers flying, Ghost began to explore...
Backus followed her, paying close attention to her muttering.
"Personnel records.... Don't recognise any of these names..." Ghost glanced at her companion. "Can you download everything while I distract the system?"
Backus nodded and set things in motion.
"Archived records.... genetic modification?... S'pose with these sorts of people... psoralens... glycoalkaloids... gene splicing... antibiotic resistant genes... transgenic proteins..." She glanced at Backus. "It's not my field of expertise, but this is all plant stuff. But that's hardly big news, these days. Why all the secrecy?"
"Can you access more recent data?"
Ghost bent her head back to her terminal. Moments later Backus downloaded records from six months ago. Ghost was frowning. "I'm not sure I like where this is heading."
Backus glanced at her. Ghost bit her lower lip.
"I hope I'm wrong. I really hope I'm wrong. But it looks to me as though they've been working on some sort of new genetic modification. Can you make sense of this?"
Backus frowned at the information on the screen.
"A modification of a DNA switch? An adaptive switch? What does that mean?"
"I don't know..."
Backus looked up sharply. Ghost's voice sounded strained.
"What is it?"
"I've accessed their current projects..."
Her voice tailed off. Backus watched, fascinated, as Ghost's face blanched. Then she looked up, green eyes huge and haunted.
"Shitshitshitshit....." Her voice almost shrill, Ghost sounded both furious and scared. Backus left the download in progress and hurried to Ghost's terminal.
"What is it?"
"We've got to get in there. We've got to stop them!"
Backus gripped her shoulders. "Ghost, what have they done?"
"They haven't yet. But it's planned for three days time..."
"Pollen. Genetically modified grass pollen. They're going to release it into the environment."
"Grass pollen? Why? What will that do?"
"How the fuck should I know! I'm not a biogeneticist! Get your tame professor and ask him!"
"It could be quite innocent, you know."
She turned to stare at Malone, who had arrived silently while they were concentrating. "Innocent? You think screwing with nature on that level is ever innocent?"
"I do think you might be over-reacting a little."
She shot to her feet, overturning her chair, planted her fists on her hips and glared up into his face.
"And if I'm not? Just think, damn you! Grass pollen. Not something that only lives in one place. Grass. It's everywhere, all over the world. It's common. It helps stop erosion. It's a basic staple for a whole raft of animals." She leaned forwards, face twisting. "Don't you realise that every single kind of cereal in the world evolved from grasses? All the wheat, the rye, barley, rice, all the things that feed the world... What will happen if you take all that away?..."
Ghost was pacing. Malone was frowning. Curtis and Keel hovered in the background, tense and waiting for instructions: behind them the rest of the HQ staff were silent, attention aimed towards the temporary operations room. Backus was using a secure channel to transmit the downloaded data to Simpson.
He was scowling, concentrating as he scanned the information. The silence grew oppressive.
Malone coughed, and Simpson raised his head with a jerk.
"Can you make anything of it? Ghost thought it might be quite important."
Simpson nodded. "If it concerns grass, it is. She's quite right about cereals evolving from grass. And of course, the death - or possible mutation, to, for example, make it non-nutritional - of grass would be lethal for the ruminants."
"And how would that affect us?"
"Oh, the effects would be incalculable." He inclined his head. "Well, I probably could calculate them, given time and a decent calculator..." He shook his head and swung his attention back to Malone. "It would be very serious. The difficulties involved in disposing of the dead animals would be horrific, if nothing else."
Malone's lips tightened irritably. "But surely, genetically modified grass pollen couldn't have such an effect. To kill off all the grass? Surely that's not possible."
Simpson nodded. "Oh yes, it's quite possible - though it would take quite a considerable time, and we'd probably be able to stop it before it went too far... Ow's group in Albany discovered how to remove certain DNA elements from plant cells some years back, and using the same techniques in reverse, foreign genes can be inserted into plant chromosomes at very precise locations, to, for example, prevent fertilisation. But I don't think this project is actually designed to kill the grass. At a first glance, I'd say it's something designed to make grass more adaptable to more extreme environments. Like at the poles."
Malone frowned. "But that's not particularly dangerous, is it? I mean, I do remember all the fuss about so-called Frankenfoods - wasn't there something about fish genes being added to tomatoes to make them frost resistant? and something else to do with scorpions? - but I thought all the speculation had been laid to rest by now."
Simpson's expression soured. "No, it's just gone underground... But I could be wrong. As you know, I'm more au fait with animal transgenics, but I've heard of most of these names. Big names. Very big indeed. And assembling them all in one place, and providing them with these resources, and under the circumstances - well, I'd expect something very big to come of it."
"How soon can you analyse the data?"
"I should be able to give you a preliminary report in a couple of hours."
Malone nodded. "Give it top priority."
Simpson smiled, tightly and without humour. "Most certainly."
As the screen went blank, Malone turned to his operatives. Curtis and Keel looked grim, Backus anxious: to his alarm, Ghost was close to tears.
"Ghost? Are you all right?"
She nodded, swallowing. Keel glanced in her direction and made an involuntary move towards her - a swift, wet-eyed glare stopped him before he could move forward a pace.
"I just... There are times I despise the human race."
More than one person within earshot agreed with her. But they all had jobs to do...
"Do you think you could trace their physical location?"
Ghost shook herself slightly and nodded. Malone smiled.
"Then please do so. If we do need to take definitive action, we need to know where it should be directed!"
It didn't take long - Ghost took a short cut and accessed DemeCeres' kitchen supply records...
Backus glanced up sharply.
Malone leaned forwards slightly. "So where exactly are they?"
Ghost's expression was resigned.
"Would it surprise you if I said just outside Geneva - in the shadow of CERN?"
Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire. I once nearly applied for a job there (no, not as a rocket scientist! In Personnel Management) It's a fascinating place. For more information, click Here
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