Well now, I've got to get more content posted while we're waiting on the next set of voting results.
This week I am very happy to present my first full commissioned story (with illustrations) by Mertail.
So, without further ado (tune in all week for updates) - after all....what's a normal day at TransRepo Industries without a little mishap?
Part 1: Release in the Lab
It started as a normal day in the Biogenetics Lab of TransRepo Industries. The current project, under way now for nearly two years, was a simple one to describe but fiendishly difficult to implement. An unexplained, as yet, rise in the number of people needing service dogs with increased capability was fostering feverish research into genetic methods to increase canine intelligence. The original work had been with virus carriers for the new genetic material. This created some interesting small steps in the first few months. The unfortunate problem was that you had to wait for the puppies to be born and mature a bit before you could see the actual effects of your genetic tinkering. That all changed with the creation of the first DNA compatible nanites. These microscopic machines, working in tandem, could completely restructure the adult animal based upon the changed DNA that the viruses had introduced into the animal’s cell nucleus. Instead of waiting for the next generation, you could get good indications immediately (or at least a few days). Of course, the puppies would be a step beyond that having actually grown up with the modifications and would have the advantage of learning to use the enhancements completely. Regardless, it did speed research considerably and ensured that the puppies would be good candidates for further enhancement even if they didn’t meet the final requirements. The results had been so spectacular that some of their canines had doubled their intelligence in only three generations.
The down side was the cost of the facilities. Nanites were more difficult to contain than a simple bacteria or virus. Nantes were machines and simple sterile technique didn’t get rid of them. You couldn’t merely swab an area with an antibacterial or antiviral and count on their destruction. Half the level 2 virus containment facility in the lab had been reconstructed as a nanomachine containment area. It was like an onion with the nanite containment inside a much larger biological containment facility. The nanites required very expensive multiple layer seals separated by high frequency radio regions tuned to the size of the particles. When the high intensity radio was absorbed by nanites, they rapidly heated and evaporated. The seals, the RF kill zones and the requirement for ultra-high strength metal walls made the the nanite containment area take much more space than was actually available for research. It was a reasonable compromise to lose so much of the high containment virus facility to keep the research going at an increased pace or so Dr. Ginian Rubio argued when the facility was proposed ten months earlier.
The accident was caused by a series of unfortunate events. None of the events by themselves would have released the nanites. It started months prior with a modification to connect the Nanite Containment Lab to the rest of TransRepo’s high speed secure communications network. The lab had been designed with only connection to the larger Class 2 Virus lab’s network and hence only indirectly to the rest of TransRepo. In early testing, the reduction in data rate was severe enough that Dr. Rubio had insisted upon the change. The installers, skilled as they were with biological containment systems, had no experience with nanites. They ran the conduit through all of the seals and used a thick layer of biologically impervious silicone rubber to seal the holes they created. Fine in a biological containment but near useless with machines that could tunnel into organic or semi-organic materials.
The modification would have made no difference had the inner seal remained intact. Seal breaks occur all the time in containment facilities. It’s why there are multiple layers of seal and, depending on the facility, special biological detection sensors. Unfortunately, there weren’t any good nanite sensors but the multiple seal layers sandwiched around the radio kill field should stop them. Of course, the containment had negative pressure. This was a standard part of biological containment. The nanite section even had an additional level of negative pressure. This had been installed at the insistence of Dr. Robert Woodall, the head of biological research. No amount of arguing could convince him that negative pressure was essentially useless when dealing with nanites. Bacteria and virus particles, being essentially passive, would carried back into the lab by negative pressure. Nanites, though, were machines with their own mobility. The negative pressure slowed them down but didn’t completely stop them.
When the seal broke, the nanites started to spread to the next seal. This should have stopped them and would have, except for the metal conduit carrying the finer optics of the network. Metal is an excellent choice for biological containment. Bacteria and viruses can’t easily pass through metal. Coat it with silicone rubber and all is well. Nanites, though, were totally unfazed by metal and quickly discovered the fatigued regions where the conduit had been bent to go around corners. The layer of silicone rubber plastered on these regions might as well have been air. These nanites had to be able to penetrate this kind of material to be able to spread throughout the host animal’s system. The nanites quickly got into the finer optic conduit.
The radio kill zone relied on the nanites being exposed. That would normally have been the case in the cable bays and ventilation system. The metal of the retrofitted fiberoptic system shielded the nanites that managed to get in. It was, in essence, a superhighway for them leading to the outside world.
The result was that a large cloud of the tiny machines got into the ventilation system and began to spread through out the building. Had the machines been in their normal unprogrammed state, all would have been well. The cloud would have dispersed through the building and the nanites self-destructed about 10 minutes later. With no instructions, they wouldn’t have even entered peoples bodies. Unfortunately for the people in the building, an experiment had been in progress and the nanites had been part way through their final programming. They had their first phase programming and were biologically active. They had been receiving their targeting: a bitch with a set of specific DNA markers. They escaped before all of the markers had been loaded. All they got was that their target was female and not much else.
Hannah Nyquist was one of the researchers in the lab when the seal broke in the inner containment of the nanite research area. She didn’t notice the nearly invisible silver cloud when it escaped her research station, nor did she notice when it settled on her arm. The first signs of any effect weren’t noticed for several hours, in fact.
She and her colleagues were taking a break. Something had clearly gone wrong in the experiment. Roughly 2/3 of the nanites had self-destructed before they’d been injected into the subject. Or that was the theory. What else could account for the sudden disappearance of such a huge number of nanites from a sealed environment? They’d gathered around the water cooler to discuss what had happened.
“I don’t think they self-destructed prematurely,” Hannah stated. “Where’s the breakdown products?”
“There was that sudden airflow change at around 14:25,” reminded Dr. Fred Szydlowski. “That’s probably what dissipated the breakdown products.”
“I’m not so sure. There’s no chemical trace in the lab.”
“What else could it be then?”
“I’m not sure,” Hannah said as she reached up to brush an annoying hair from one ear. She stopped when she discovered that her ear felt unfamiliar. “There’s something wrong.” She continued to feel her ear, trying to ascertain exactly what was unfamiliar.
“Is something wrong?” asked Fred.
“I - uh - don’t know. My ear feels odd.”
“Let me take a look,” Fred offered.
They went back to the biological portion of the lab to get an examination scope. By the time they got back to the lab and had passed through the four sets of containment doors, nearly 10 minutes had passed. They no longer needed the examination scope to see what was ‘odd’.
“Hannah,” began Fred. “You’d best look in a mirror. Your ears are becoming - well - pointed.”
“Pointed?! What do you mean pointed?”
Fred pointed at the shiny side of a supply cabinet. Hannah, looking at her somewhat distorted image, felt her ears. They’d continued changing and it was now clear they were pointed and considerably longer. They looked familiar, somehow, but she couldn’t place where she’d seen ears of that shape before. She looked about the lab, a mixture of concern and confusion on her face. During this scan, her eyes passed across the form of their latest experimental subject.
“They’re the same as Deelie’s,” Hannah exclaimed.
Fred looked back and forth between Deelie and Hannah several times before agreeing. He stood stock still for several seconds before Hannah raced over to the wall to slap the Emergency Containment Breach wall unit. Sirens began to wail throughout the facility. The pair of them heard the solid thuds as the ventilation system was cut off by hydraulically driven seals that prevented any further contamination from escape the research area.
“It’s probably too late,” Fred noted. “The nanites went missing over a half hour ago.”
A voice, Ginian Rubio, came over the communication system.
“What’s happening?” she demanded.
“We’ve had a nanite escape,” Fred stated.
“To what extent?”
“2/3 of the last experiment went missing. Some have entered our bodies and Hannah is showing some signs of changes.”
“The target subject was a female dog. Her ears are starting to match the ears of the subject.”
“How is that possible? The nanites would have to get out of the nannite containment and the biological containment. Negative pressure -“
“Wouldn’t do a damned thing,” finished Hannah disgustedly. “They are self-mobile. They don’t just drift. You were told that when the negative pressure was insisted upon in early design.”
“But how did they get out in the first place?”
“Seal break. You know that happens. Labs are designed with that in mind,” noted Fred. “We’ve six layers.”
“But the RKZ?”
“No idea. They’ve definitely escaped into the building.”
“Regardless. You two are confined now until we trace every last one of them down.”
“Protocol,” stated Hannah unnecessarily. “Fred and I will use the scanners to determine how many infected me. It’ll give us a better idea as to what kind of problem we are dealing with.”
“I want a report every 30 minutes or if you find something significant,” Ginian ordered.
Fred merely nodded as he an Hannah headed towards the now useless Nannite Containment zone. Useless as it was, the computer still insisted upon the usual surface decontamination so it was 15 minutes before they actually got to the scanner.
“Self-destruct was timed for 90 minutes,” Hannah said slowly. “Unless they went early, there won’t be any breakdown products yet.”
“Okay. Get up on the table. We’ll have to do an active scan for them then.”
Hannah quickly climbed up onto the scanner table and lay down. A few minutes later, the scan began. After three passes, two more than normal, Fred turned the machine off. He entered the area from the control room.
“This is definitely not good.”
“Return signal is 12 decibels too low.”
“So less than a quarter of them?”
“So it seems. Best tell Ginian.”
Hannah nodded still feeling her strangely shaped ears. They were becoming furry as time went on. While Fred gave the report to Ginian, Hannah went to the bathroom for a look in a real mirror. Her ears were definitely becoming more like Deelie’s. A soft brown fuzz covered their outer surface and was spreading down the side of her face.
When she returned, she looked quizzically at Fred.
“Ginian is putting the entire building on lockdown. I’ve never seen her so afraid.”
“You were exposed. We should scan you, too.”
“Too right!” Fred quickly got up onto the scanner bed.
His results were puzzling. There was some nanite return but it stopped at the first live layer of the skin. They’d seen results like this when they’d first started out on this experimental path. It indicated that the nanites didn’t recognize the target host. In past, with containment intact, it had been no problem. The nanites just concentrated in the skin until they broke down and the body eliminated the result. A nice, self-limiting problem.
“So what are they targeted at?” Hannah frowned.
“We need to look at the programming logs.”
The pair powered up a link to the central server and began looking at the data being downloaded at the time of the seal break. The nanites had been receiving their first low-level instructions. Programming always took place in a series of layers. They had only received target markers for female and mammals but little else according to the logs.
“They’ve no structure programming yet. Female mammals are recognized as targets but they’ve no DNA update code yet. They shouldn’t be doing anything more than invading the target and waiting to expire.”
“Well, they’re clearly doing a lot more than that. Fred, is it getting cold in here?”
“No. Not really. Why?”
“I’m feeling cold.”
“Let’s take your temperature.”
A few minutes later, Hannah was discovered to be running a mild fever, no more than half a degree. Neither researcher could explain it as their dogs had shown no similar rise in temperature. It was, of course, noted in a newly created ‘subject’ chart and a report made to Ginian. Within moments, the PA system announced that all women in the facility were to report to the central clinic.
Hannah’s temperature continued to increase until she was a full degree and a half above normal. She was distinctly uncomfortable. The feeling of cold passed and was replaced by one of extreme heat. Without asking Fred, who watched in disbelief, she stripped off her lab coat and blouse. Her explanation of being too hot merely made Fred even more uncomfortable. He was feeling no such increase in heat.
After another pair of reports and 60 minutes, Fred suggested that they hunt for breakdown products again. Hannah shrugged and climbed up onto the scanner bed again. Fred’s first scan was followed by three more. He returned before she could even get down off the scanner bed.
“There’s some breakdown but not nearly enough. They’ve picked up a genetic target somehow.”
“They can’t do that spontaneously.”
“They shouldn’t be able to do that. But they weren’t fully programmed either.”
“Where would they get the DNA target?”
“Deelie?” asked Fred.
“We were working with her a fair bit before and during the incident. We’d have had some DNA from the dog on our clothes, maybe even our skin, maybe even some particles internally.”
Hannah was about to protest when she remembered she’d petted Deelie before putting on her nannite containment suit. It had seemed harmless at the time. Her hand went to an ear, by now a virtual clone of Deelie’s.
“Can we stop them before they do something else?” Hannah asked.
“We’ve never had to use it but there’s the emergency self-destruct codes. That should have been loaded with the first of their programming. It’s part of the kernel code after all.”
“Looks like this is the right time to try it then,” she said wryly, a hand reaching for her increasingly furry ears.
“You’ll have to get into the microwave command transmission zone then. I’ll fire up the code when you’re in and sealed.”
Hannah rushed into the MCTZ and sealed the door behind her. She smirked at how the general public thought microwaves were only for heating leftovers. These were a different frequency, of course, and designed to send the instructions to trigger the kernel program of the nanites to self-destruct. She tapped on the observation port to indicate she was ready and Fred entered the code. As far as Hannah was concerned nothing happened. That was as expected, of course. These microwaves weren’t for cooking after all. Fred met her as she left MCTZ.
“We’ll know in a few minutes. Time for another activity scan.”
They did ten scans over the next two hours. The nannite activity dropped precipitously in the first twenty minute and had virtually stopped by the next scan. ‘Virtually’ but not entirely. After ten scans, there were still a significant number still active.
“So what do we try now?” asked Fred. “They all should have died.”
“Let’s try resending the code. Maybe some were shielded by bone or something,” Hannah was grasping at straws because they both knew that the particular microwave frequencies chosen went through bone as easily as anything else.
They tried three more times before midnight to get the recalcitrant nanites to behave but they simply were ignoring the self-destruct order. Exhausted, they decided they’d be better for a couple of hours of sleep. Their company had instituted relaxation and nap rooms many years earlier after numerous studies had demonstrated the value of these in improving productivity and reducing errors. They parted company as they entered the gender separated rooms.
When Hannah awoke the next morning, she felt strange but couldn’t quite place what was wrong. As she dressed, she discovered that she was completely covered by fur from just below her ribs to the tips of her feet. With only her bra on, she ran screaming into the lab.
“What’s wrong?” asked a concerned Fred before he caught sight of her furred lower body. “Shit. That’s not good.”
“You think?” asked Hannah acerbically. “Ginian needs to know.”
“I’ll make the report. You need to dress, I think.”
Fred returned a few moments later to discover that Hannah had only put on a lab coat.
“You think that’s enough?” he asked concerned.
“Nothing else fits!” shrieked Hannah. “My feet are too long. My legs are shorter. I’ve a damned tail!”
“You’re kidding,” offered Fred lamely.
“Do I look like I’m kidding? Get the damned documentation camera.” Hannah headed to the main examination room.
They spent the next ten minutes taking dozens of shots of her body. These were dispatched electronically to Ginian.
“Why are they still active?” demanded Ginian. “The self-destruct, both the emergency and the normal timed one, have long since passed.”
“We don’t know. I could contact some others that are using nanites. Maybe they’d -“
“NO! We solve this one ourselves. No one would trust our products otherwise.”
“NO! Absolutely not.”
Hannah, absentmindedly stroked the fur on her lower body, thinking. Her brow furrowed once more and then she interrupted the conversation.
“What happened to the other infected people?”
“We let them go home after a couple of hours. After all, the nanites were supposed to self-destruct.”
“So you’ve got, maybe, dozens of infected people out there? Fortunately nanites can’t replicate or we’d be in really big problems.”
“Just eight, counting yourself. For some reason, the nanites in most people didn’t recognize a host and did as they were programmed.”
“You’ve got to contact those eight. They need to know. Get them to come back into quarantine so we can monitor them.”
“I’ll propose it to the board but I doubt they’ll approve. You know what that would do to our reputation?”
“A lot less than eight women turning into dogs on the front page news,” Fred grumbled.
“Find a solution,” demanded Ginian as she signed off.
“As if we haven’t been looking?” Fred shook his head. “She was once a pretty good researcher. Administration has gotten to her head, I guess.”
“Well, let’s start looking.”
They tried to extract some nanites from Hannah but they were sparse. It took several blood samples before they managed to get even a few. Hannah felt like a pincushion from the number of phlebotomies but knew it was necessary. During the hours it had taken to extract even a few of the defective nanites, Hannah became increasingly uncomfortable sitting on her chair. Finally, she got up to walk around.
“Hannah,” Fred looked worried. “The stub of a tail you noticed this morning …”
“A dog’s tail? That’s just what I need.”
She was indeed growing one and a pretty impressive one at that. Delia was a German Shepherd. They had tails that could be 50 centimetres long and very definitely furry. It was tiny now, less than half that, but it was definitely a tail. In humans, the tailbone is called the coccyx and is a fused curve that is used to anchor muscles to help us stand. Hannah’s coccyx had separated and the muscles shifted to her hip.
Since the changes were continuing slowly with the reduced number of still active nanites, they took time every hour to document her changes. The tail grew longer and heavier over time and soon sprouted fur almost identical in coloration to Deelie’s. Her legs continued to shorten and her feet lengthen. By the end of the day, there was no doubt. Her legs were now more canine than human. This had the unfortunately side effect of Hannah being unable to walk upright any longer.
She walked about on all fours from station to station still bravely attempting to gather the data they’d need to stop the nanites. Her hands weren’t very useful for walking in this way and the skin on her palms was soon sore. Fred found some hand lotion and that helped a bit. Hannah decided to move as little as possible to avoid further damage to the palms of her hands. Late that evening, after finally managing to retrieve the damaged program from the nanites, they turned in. They’d decode the program in the morning when they were rested.
Hannah awoke early. She looked around at the world. There were strange smells everywhere. In her early morning daze, she wondered what it could possibly mean. As she became fully awake, she realized she had acquired at least some of a dog’s scent receptors. As she ran her tongue over her teeth, she felt something strange. She had pointed canines now! Getting off the cot, she padded over to the washroom for a wash. A strange clicking accompanied her. She quickly traced it’s source. Her hind legs now had claws instead of nails. Finishing her morning routine, she returned to the lab where Fred was waiting. It was on the way back to her station that she noticed that it no longer hurt to walk on the palms of her hands. Looking at one palm, she noticed darkened hard regions. Her palms looked like a cross between the bottom of a dog’s paws and a human palm. ‘Wonderful!’ she thought disgustedly.
“Another activity scan?” suggested Fred.
“Might as well,” Hannah shrugged.
Whether the results could be considered good news or not depended entirely on your perspective. The nanites were gone, completely broken down. They’d completed their transformation program and, having nothing else to do, finally self-destructed. Fred was relieved but Hannah was less so and her emotions were demonstrated in a stark manner by her drooping tail.
“They’re gone!” Fred crowed. “No more changes.”
“I don’t want to be a dog,” Hannah grumbled, her tail low and her ears back.
“Best report to Ginian,” Fred offered.
“Of course,” Hannah just stretched out on the desk. “You do it. I don’t think I could be civil to her right now.”
Hannah was feeling strange. Very strange. She needed something. She didn’t know quite what. Fred returned and looked at Hannah.
“They’ve figured out how they got out. Ginian’s high speed network connection. Hannah, Ginian has launched a new program to return you to normal. The other seven, too.”
“Wonderful,” grumbled Hannah. “How long do you think that will take?”
“At least they’ll be trying. What’s that on the desk?” asked Fred.
“Near your tail.”
There was a strange, blood tinged fluid staining the desk. Fred shook his head.
“It can’t be. You weren’t …”
“Weren’t what?” demanded Hannah.
“Well - um - fertile?”
“I’m on the damned pill,” Hannah snapped before she thought. “Damn it all! I was on the last week of the month. They’re just sugar pills.”
“So you could be …”
“I’m in bloody heat!” Hannah now knew why she was feeling strange. “You stay away from me!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Fred backed away to the other side of the lab. “I’d best tell Ginian. Maybe she’ll have a suggestion.”
“Ginian?!” growled Hannah her ears back. “Why not??!!”