Desert of Doctor Moreau

“Don’t worry; they are supposed to be on our side.” Marlow gestured at the dark forms moving in the jungle, not moving his eyes from his tablet. I was still not sure if they were human, animal, or simply shadows of the canopy. The shore was moving rapidly off the bow of our hydrofoil. “We call them ‘the royalists;’ led by the families who wielded significantly more economic and cultural influence prior to the encroachment of Chinese business interests. We bankroll their arms and supply trade with Saudi Arabia and provide intelligence support. They cause trouble on the corn plantations. We would rather they not win; we just want to drive up the cost of Chinese economic expansion.”

“The jungle is still so dense. You’d think the river would be more developed. I thought I’d at least see a power line.”

“People like us would rather development not happen unless it happens it happens on our terms. The Congo River Basin has a variety of strategic resources that we would rather not fall under the control of Chinese investors. We won’t see any of their flags, but you won’t be seeing any roundup-ready corn, either. There are also some benefits to a lack of development. For instance, they create situations conducive to testing new weapons and tactics, and maintaining our supply of veteran soldiers and stwrategists. The U.S. military regulators conducts some peacekeeping efforts against the royalists. And, we conduct experiments of a different kind. 

You will be helping us tunnel a secure internet connection off Colonel Kurtz’ research base. Many years ago, he was trading ivory along these waterways. He discovered a native occult technique of using fetal stem cells to enable healing from extreme injury and extend life. After traveling the world to investigate the medicinal practices of other primitive societies, he has returned here to continue similar research for DARPA. This area is perfect proving for such research, and longer it stays ‘primitive,’ the more Kurtz can accomplish.”

I awoke as our cargo carrier came to a surprisingly quick stop and dropped down a couple feet off its hydrofoils. It took me a second to orient myself in space as the bulky craft sloshed in its own wake. Out of my window, I could see men on a bulky concrete and steel pier below guiding us in with mechanical winches. The patterned dull orange of their duck-cloth fire suits stood out against the background, glinting with zippers and rivets. The shore was still an impenetrable wall of foliage, and the only visible structure was a multi-tiered concrete blockhouse at the end of the pier. I stood, bracing myself against the seats as I walked down the aisle. Marlow entered the cabin from the deck, waving away my curiosity. “We’ll be out of here in under twelve minutes. Just grabbing fuel.” He sat down in the same spot. “Grab food or go to the bathroom while we’ve got the time.” 

“Are they with us?”

“They’re with Meridian Ventures; they’re trying to build an integrated rail, seaport, and spaceport network around the equator. They epitomize globalist imperial business interests to the royalist. The royalists maintain a love/hate relationship with the Chinese: the near slave labor, pollution, and deforestation of their industrial expansion drives recruitment and support for the Royalists’ anti-foreigner, anti-industrialization raiding campaigns. Meridian Ventures provides decent jobs, infrastructure, education, and modern medicine; many potential Royalist recruits are dissuaded from violence by the promise of gainful employment with Meridian. Meridian is also winning the culture war of modern international values against the old cultural identity that supports traditional social hierarchies and power structures, while the Chinese are the perfect propaganda piece for an isolationist take on traditional Congolese power structures.

We gave the Royalists the supply schedule for this outpost, so they know that a supply ship will be arriving later today. We expect a raiding party to try to make capture this facility after the ship arrives. They’re still a ways off, but I want to be a ways out before they get here.”

I walked to the window, taking in the ephemeral calm. One of the dock workers looked and nodded, giving a thumbs up through a thick leather glove that lingered slightly too long. He must be tapped into the audio feed off my wire. From the outside, Kurtz’ lab resembled a submarine bunker. Moss and small trees grew from the blunt, concrete mound, barely larger than a city block. Large ventilation apparatus protruded at sharp angles from the foliage covered in a rough camo paint. We glided into the structure more slowly, staying clear of the narrow walls. Rubber lined docks flanked the craft, unlit despite the thick shadow of vestibule, and without the usual colorful markings. Men in grey jumpsuits moved around the craft; they appeared to have strangely short torsos and exaggerated limbs. I never got good look at them; Marlow hurried me into a freight elevator. 

The door opened to a rush of chilled, positive pressure. The lab’s interior was cavernous. A large staging area full of cargo branched off into gaping hallways, lined with an orderly mess of pipes and cables.

“I’ll give you a quick tour on the way to your office.” Marlow pulled me out of the way of a pallet jack driving itself into the elevator. I followed his hurried gate through the mixed foot traffic of people oddly stained lab coats and grey/safety orange jumpsuits. “Our servers and IT department are in the old section. It has been down here for almost thirty years. This project started as a way to cope with falling recruitment and the increasing cost of veteran healthcare. We figured out that giving a disabled veteran control of military equipment is significantly easier and cheaper than providing a comparable replacement for what they had lost. This program keeps soldiers in the field and off the dole: helping us retain talent and our investments in training while easing the military's burden on the taxpayer. We call it ‘Frankenstein's army;’ the bureaucrats call them ‘dragoons.’”

The concrete walls flanking the hall opened up into a series of glass panes. We could see people, or at least the bulk of the head and torso, contained in braided and woven steel papooses and mounted on some form of military-spec electric wheelchair. Their bodies appeared abbreviated below the belly button. Their bare “shoulders” were missing their clavicle and shoulder blade. Cables and tubes were threaded in and out of their skin, tracing patterns across their skulls, protruding from the steel banding of their ‘clothes.’. They mulled around what seemed to be a recreation area for those lacking limbs. Television screens and other electronics seemed to be controlled by a combination of voice commands and brain-to-computer interfaces

“They’re modular; we can put them in and take them out of many of our tanks, trucks, aircraft, and boats. We’ve even got a couple of motorcycles for them. They’ve got a nice universal interface, and require less food, water, sanitation, bedding and climate control than the typical soldier. Their reflexes are almost sixty percent better, and they can interact with more controls simultaneously. We keep them under wraps, but they're competing with the marine corps for sensitive operations while taking and keeping wounded warriors off the streets.

But, they have their limitations. We’ve expanded. The human body and mind have many limitations, and not can be easily bypassed with steel and electronics. Doctor Moreau’s project is a natural extension of this one; he’s just using different materials. Your office is on the end there. This is Ed, he’ll be showing you around our system.”

As with many of my government contracts, the IT infrastructure was woefully neglected, with spending likely funneled to the most visible and measurable channels. Multiple large processing farms appeared on a the network, but with a terribly antiquated interface. I tried to ask Ed subtle, probing questions into the extent of the research at the facility, questioning the function of the ‘gene sequencing’ computer bank, and the if there were any outgoing keywords we should be filtering. Ed turned out to be fairly forthcoming.

“Dr. Moreau's work largely stems from his discovery of chemical and genetic techniques to remove or edit cell membrane markers that the immune system uses to different self from nonself. This allows for some novel transgenic techniques. The new wing is devoted both to creating human-animal hybrids and expressions of human atavisms. Much of this work is done through vivisection; it's messy, but doesn't require the wait involved with pregnancy and maturation. It also allows the use of the critically injured or disabled as a feedstock. But, Moreau has grown a couple of test subjects from embryos or surgically modified fetuses.The vivisection experiments provide a form of rapid prototyping for genetic engineering projects. I like the paycheck, but I am not going to defend it on any moral grounds; I am doubtful as to whether it is even practical. If you want to talk to someone more about it, you can give some relief shifts to one of the food-service workers; you’ll get access to almost everywhere.”

The mess hall was an odd mix between an inner-city primary school and a coffee shop. It's reductionist attempt to create isolated and communal spaces were either insulting or not taken seriously. It took shortcuts from bare, minimalist brutalism. One of the buffet attendants readily gave me a turn ‘stocking the pens.’ I would be spending an afternoon prepping and delivering food to L-wing, imbedded deep within Moreau’s territory.

The shift was in a couple of days. I spent the time migrating databases, establishing permissions, pushing the limits of what halls I could wander without a security guard giving me weird looks, and going through files from the privacy of my stark concrete dorm. I got access to the bulk of their file system, but not given encryption keys for any of the descriptive sounding documents, like image files or video logs. But, I could discern some information from shipping documents exchanged with wildlife preserves, safety procedures dealing with high-voltage cages, animal psychology studies, and research papers investigating the combat advantages conferred by the visualizations of people suffering from ptsd. The research seemed to conclude that certain kinds of trauma could dramatically improve many metrics of combat performance.

On my normal commute to and from the dimly lit server hall, I got to speak with the papoose people. They seemed happy, even grateful. Many of them had been brought back into the program after being ‘abandoned’ to deal with mental, physical, and job-training deficits on their own, while others had been able to continue the military career that had been their life goal. There was a collective feeling that they were getting a good deal. When asked if they stayed in contact with their friends and family, the prevailing response was that they did not want to be seen like this, or jeopardize the security of the program. Many of them expressed nostalgia for the outdoors, sex, or eating their own food; it appeared that everything entering or exiting their GI tract did so through a series of clear tubes interlaced with the banding of their lower abdomen, fed by a compact, quiet series of pumps and canisters racked below their ‘seats.’ But many of them expressed doubt that they would have been able to experience those simple pleasures anyway, as they had previously suffered some form of paraplegia. They didn't know much about Moreau’s work, but suspected that they had left some of their more desperately wounded teammates to his labs.

On the day of shift, I finished a stretch configuring ports on a pair of ip-isolation routers and then checked into the kitchens. They presided over a vast complex of walk-in freezers filled largely with hanging meats still on the bone of large herd animals. I helped stack these slabs onto carts and then unload the carts into warm defrosting baths. Shortly after we started, and woman in a lab coat brought in a cart from a different department wheeled in a cart and measured precise quantities of various powders and oils into the baths. We monitored temperatures with digital meat thermometers. They were ubiquitous in the kitchens; ten-inch screens mounted every twenty feet dangled rubber-cabled probes. I remembered seeing their readings fed into the building-automation data feeds I was tasked with airgapping from the internet enabled machines.

After they reached an appreciable but not culinary 110 degrees Fahrenheit, we loaded them onto back onto the carts and took the food-service elevator down. I estimated that the journey was only three or four of the cavernous levels below the first sublevel I had been largely confined to. I was surprised to see the level being relatively dim, with the bulk of the light emanating from thick polycarbonate plate flooring, braced between thick steel I-beams. Some mixture of sports equipment, military gear, and medical equipment was mixed haphazardly along the walls.

Pushing my cart out into the glass, I saw “the pens.” Moreau’s “projects” were surely housed in cages below, but were oddly silent and invisible in the stretching, cavernous warehouse space. Their curving, geodesic bars stretched to the ceiling, my floor. The habitats seemed to be inspired by some sort real-world environment, reminiscent of many of the war-zones I had seen on tv.. Bones, with varying degrees of damage, were ubiquitous.

We clipped a slab of meat into cables wound up on ceiling and the head “chef” pulled back one of the floor panels. A button lowered the bovine rib cage down into the enclosure. The panel was quickly closed behind it, with the cables moving through narrow apertures. I latched it closed on one side of the panel, while two of the other cooks latched the two other sides. The chef lowered it to within 25 ft of the floor and then we continued.

While we were clipping in food for the fifth pen, the cables entering the first pen jerked and started creaking. I turned to look but one of the other cooks grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back on task. Ask I looked down through the glass past my latch, I saw one emerging from a pile of rubble. But the chief chef pulled me up by the collar before I could fully process what I was seeing. By the time we left at a jog, all the two-dozen cables were rattling.

We returned to the kitchens and repeated the procedure in four more sections of the warehouse. Each time, I caught more glimpses of the creatures. They had obviously human faces and spines, but were otherwise contorted amalgamations of animal and mechanical components. Their behavior seemed feral and alert. Their faces were largely obscured by coarse hair and strips of Kevlar or metal foam grown into sinew. Bits of fur and clothing lay strewn about the enclosures. We didn't talk about it.

Later that night, I dug through a shared folder containing drafts of an academic research paper detailing the effects of modifying the human endocrine profile to match that created by the gastrointestinal and glandular system of various animals. It cited another local pending draft on ptsd. They were trying to figure out how to publish their data on human experimentation.

I took a couple of days to comb through their databases and configuring ports. I got a series of uploads started, and went to see the papoose people. I met with a old, cynical pilot who had participated in the Saudi airlift, extracting test subjects from a Russian-staffed lab working on creating a fungal solution to sexual unorthodoxy. I plugged a homemade wifi adaptor into one of his neural plugs on our way to dinner, allowing him to use advanced permissions to access the building-automation subroutines.

During the next shift change, he opened the distilled-water reservoirs valves that protected the protected generator level from high heat or fume levels. Without a concurrent “adverse event,” alarm, the building’s flood warning system was tripped. High-voltage cables were de-energized, methods of egress sprung open, and a Chinese bunker buster crashed through the roof of the installation, blasting a hole through the top three layers of concrete. Soldiers from the pacific trade syndicate and royalists federations swarmed down through the breach.

They brought Marlow to me at the docks so that I could walk him through the transition. The facilities would be transferred to Meridian Ventures, the scientific “equipment” would be transferred to the Chinese military, and the royalists would receive all other transportable goods and vehicles. Meridian would link up with the new Silk Road and share infrastructure, while maintaining exclusive rights to the African continent. The royalists would receive land rents and access to infrastructure.

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