Matthew Ryan was a materials engineer turned security specialist who worked for the CIA. He had a daughter, Lisa, a five year-old who could read and write better than many teens, and whom he loved more than anything in the world. Her mother was Matthew’s ex-wife, a brilliant scientist. Carol was also a woman of stunning beauty: light copper hair, milk-white skin and piercing blue eyes. But she was ruthless when she was in the middle of a project. One day she simply didn’t come home after work, and Matthew found out a week later she had been sleeping at her office’s sofa, completely enthralled by new research. Her feelings of guilt as a mother were strong, but deeply buried. After all, no one could take better care of her little girl than Matthew, and no one could do her job better than herself.
After a few weeks, Carol moved in with a fellow colleague, Greg. When the divorce process was finally over, her relationship with Matthew had evolved to distant politeness. Her new boyfriend was as handsome as an old Hollywood star, a Robert Redford or Paul Newman at the height of their masculine grace: tall, broad-shouldered, with a strong jaw and an easy, bright smile. Greg and Carol looked like the ultimate dream couple: their faces could be on billboards, movie screens, or on the cover of fashion magazines. In reality, it was their names that headlined prestigious scientific publications.
Meanwhile, Carol, Greg and the rest of their team had been recruited by the United States Homeland Security Department to work on a confidential research project in partnership with the CIA and NASA. It didn’t seem possible, but they had discovered a material with special properties: it took the form of a super strong, flexible armor, like a skin-tight base layer worn by superheroes in comic books. It had the most bizarre appearance. It didn’t look quite solid, though it was a kind of translucent, formless gel. It didn’t look liquid either, though like water, it was supple and could take the form of other containers. It behaved like a transparent, gelatinous, whitish sort of clay, for it could be sculpted and molded as desired. Its origin was an extra-terrestrial ship engine that had crashed in the middle of nowhere, hence, the highest safety protocols were deployed.
Carol and Matthew had shared custody of their daughter. But because of their job, Carol and Greg had been relocated to a secret research facility. She took Lisa with her, something Matthew agreed with when he was assured by the CIA director herself that the facility had been magnificently prepared to provide the children of officers and researchers with the best education in the world. Matthew just wanted what was best for Lisa, and so it was. They talked on the phone almost every day, and every time Lisa told her dad about all the new things she was learning, about her new friends, and about how Greg was in fact a really funny man. But she also constantly mentioned how much she missed her dad.
One day, Lisa didn’t call, and on the day after that, Matthew called Carol. No answer. He decided to reach out to Greg, but he didn’t really expect him to pick up, and Matthew assumed at first that they were just busy with work. A few days passed without news. Matthew grew worried and decided to go after them. He called his contacts from the agency and demanded to talk to his ex-wife. Nobody could tell him what was going on. His previous CIA director owed him one, and that is how Matthew managed to get the necessary security clearance to enter the facility and see his daughter again.
A fleet of trucks filled with soldiers and explosives was on their way to the research facility, and Matthew got a ride in one of them. The location was protected by the US Department of Defense Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, but it wasn’t inaccessible – though the road was dangerous and seemed to go on forever, winding up and down on the edge of high precipices. The trucks went on. Matthew noticed sharp, rocky valleys, river gorges, snow-tipped mountains with dark-green slopes covered by pine trees, and sand deserts. The trucks went on some more. The road became misty and pale yellow: a dust storm.
It took 12 hours. “By the time we arrive, the test will be over”, Matthew heard an officer say. After going through the security check at the huge entrance gates, he went straight to Carol’s current home, a tiny but well-furnished apartment. He knocked and called, but no one answered. He tried turning the knob, just in case. It was unlocked. That struck him as very odd. Everything was still, as if no one had been there for days – it was an eerie sensation. He looked and looked, but there was no sign of Carol, not even Greg – even the sight of that bastard would have given him some relief. But the cold hand clenching his chest was called Lisa: there was no sign of her in that place.
In the middle of his search, Matthew was startled by someone knocking on the door. He was scared and opened it cautiously. It was one of the officers he had shared the ride with, Lieutenant Cooper, followed by a high-ranking official – an Army General, assuming from the four stars and countless other badges pinned on his uniform. The man introduced himself as General Carter: “Mr. Ryan, I came as soon as possible. There was a problem during the test”. The General looked grave, his deep voice booming at Matthew’s strained ears. “Dr. Carol Grant and Dr. Gregory Rodd have disappeared”.
A graveyard-worthy silence. “What? Where is my daughter? What happened?”, asked Matthew.
The General answered: “Unfortunately we cannot explain what happened to your ex-wife, Mr. Ryan. But your daughter is with us – she is quite safe in our underground head-quarters, so no need to worry about that. I understand if you would like to take a minute to rest, but –
“No, I’ll go with you right now. I need to see my daughter”.
Matthew left the gloomy house with his hopes a little less shattered. His daughter, it turned out, was really quite alright. He saw her from a distance, through a one-way mirror. She was asleep, and only then, when he noticed how normal she looked, still unaware that something had happened to her mother, did the knot in his throat seem to slacken. But now he was worried about Carol and – who would have imagined – Greg. General Carter looked like a man who had aged ten years in ten hours. Fortunately they had footage of the accident, and Matthew could add his expertise to the team in order to find out what had happened. The footage showed a tall black man wearing what seemed like an armor made of the gelatinous substance. General Carter explained he was an astronaut called Thompson and was now under strict observation at the hospital wing of the underground complex. “You’ll see why”, the General added.
The general played a video that showed Dr. Thompson approaching what looked like a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship and proceeded to assess it, as would a mechanic do with a broken car engine. He walked around it, reporting the damage and describing its features. Carol and Greg were enclosed in a metallic cage with a foot-thick temperate glass window about ten meters away, checking Thompson’s vitals and the armor’s response to the different levels of radiation. Thompson approached the exposed engine at the ship’s rear. Suddenly, there was an explosion, and the gooey, transparent material that made up Dr. Thompson’s armor went everywhere, as if it was multiplying out of his suit. Carol and Greg got hit by the substance and simply vanished, their containment structure having served no other purpose than blocking shards and debris from the spaceship’s engine. Thompson, on the other hand, suffered no visible alteration, except that part of his helmet was torn apart, exposing the left half of his face to the now tainted environment. He staggered and removed his gloves, his desperate hands scanning his own face in search for signs of injury.
“It happened 76 hours ago. And that’s basically it”, said General Carter dryly. “Our rescue team took Thompson out of there straight to quarantine. He’s being monitored day and night, obviously – he pointed to the left, where a cluster of screens showed the apparently uninjured Doctor Thompson pace up and down his gloomy, bare-looking containment room. The General continued: “The containment booth where Dr. Grant and Dr. Rodd were working is exactly as it was before. It seems that the Mutagel – sorry, I forgot to say that’s what we’re calling it now – the Mutagel has infiltrated into the reinforced glass windows and artillery-resistant metal walls, and ‘chose’ the only two organic beings in the vicinity, attaching itself to their bodies. In all our extensive previous tests, the Mutagel had never had any particle-destroying effect on organic matter. It just naturally turns itself into a shielding armor, but the wearer remains whole and visible, as we can see from the example of Dr. Thompson”. The General looked inquiringly at Matthew.
He understood the implied question in just a few seconds. “No, she never told me anything about it. Carol was” – he caught himself right on time. She wasn’t dead yet, after all. – “Carol is… she has always been extremely secretive about her work, even when it’s not particularly sensitive or confidential. This is a top-secret project, right? Carol would have kept it that way. I can assure you I never heard wind of this… this Mutagel thing, not from her, nor Greg, nor anyone”. He concluded with a tired voice.
“Well… I believe you. We scanned the area in all possible ways to find traces of Dr. Grant and Dr. Rodd, but nothing showed up so far. Except for this” – The General was now directing Matthew’s attention to a side monitor, where several cameras continued to record the accident perimeter in real time. Matthew noticed a weird blurry shadow disturbing the atmosphere, similar to a mirage effect caused by hot air above tarmac. It moved up and down the screen, but had no distinguishable shape. Sometimes there seemed to be two of them – whatever it was, and sometimes the screen surface looked flat and normal again.
“When did you fist see this, this rippling effect?” – asked Matthew with curiosity.
“A few minutes after the accident. We haven’t of course been able to send anyone back there, but our instruments keep working. They seem to pick up higher temperature levels whenever this… this disturbance comes near one of the thermometers. The dosimeters also denote higher radiation levels…” , answered Carter, dryly.
“You do realize that this can be another property of this Mutagel thing, right? That Carol and Greg are dead and this Dr. Thompson might be going the same way? – said Matthew in an earnest and slightly desperate tone to General Carter. But he hadn’t reached the end of his wits, not yet. From all he had seen so far, all the secrecy and concealment in the General’s manner, and from everything he knew about Carol – who could be said to possess many flaws as a wife and mother, but never as a scientist – no, he was sure the key to the question was the brave, mysterious and now quarantined Dr. Thompson. He took only a few seconds to reach this conclusion, keeping an eye on the accident site monitor and the other on the screens that showed every corner of Dr. Thompson’s room, where there was now the same air rippling mirage effect from the accident site, exactly around the area where Dr. Thompson stood. Suddenly, Thompson vanished. The General immediately grabbed the secure line and called the hospital wing, unable to keep his voice steady anymore, his face shining with nervous perspiration. For Matthew, that was it, the last straw. He took a quick look at the facility’s plants spread on the General’s work station, grabbed the distracted man’s clearance ID and put on a hazmat suit he found in the storage room – he was already packed with his good old Glock pistol. Walking resolutely out of the underground labyrinth and taking a last look at Lisa, who was still slept peacefully, he went straight to the secured area where, he hoped, the origin and the end of the problem would lie.
At the entrance, there was a concrete wall and a tunnel, where a robust, 50-centimeter thick metallic gate barred his way in. He held General Carter’s ID card over the optical reader, and the gate opened noiselessly. The tunnel lights ignited as he walked, turning off immediately after him. Matthew couldn’t help acknowledging a curious feeling of being watched, a nagging impression he’d been feeling ever since he’d left the underground complex, although he had checked a thousand times and was visibly utterly alone. In ten minutes he reached the other side of the tunnel. A vast open space awaited him, and he noticed, now in person, the same rippled air effect he’d seen in the control room on the monitor screens. Matthew approached the still intact glass structure where Carol and Greg had observed Dr. Thompson testing the Mutagel armor, the dosimeter he’d taken along beeping more frequently with each step he took. He hesitated, walking cautiously towards the so-called “mirage”. There were two of them, and from this short distance he could see they were transparent beings that moved and took the appearance of the surrounding environment, but still retained a human-like shape. These strange chameleons began to stir and shake as if they wanted to move; the dosimeter’s needle went crazy, and Matthew realized they must be Carol and Greg, struggling to communicate, to tell him what to do.
The figures shook and stirred like they were trying to break out of a straight jacket, and after a few seconds of muffled grunting, Matthew heard words in Carol’s crystal-clear, but at the moment, desperate voice: “behind you!”. The warning was useless, for he had already felt hands, mighty hands that clamped like iron pliers around his chest, pressing all the air out of his lungs – an invisible snake crushing its prey. Barely able to breathe, Matthew was thrown away with the force of an elephant, landing close to the radioactive wreckage of the space ship’s engine. He felt, rather than saw, a tall and powerful human form advance towards him, and he knew that this was the end – his end. It came closer, and then he noticed: it was a sort of transparent air disturbance, readily changing its appearance to match its environment, thus being almost invisible – except for the left side of its face: Dr. Thompson’s face. The other two transparent beings, which Matthew now knew to be Carol and Greg, began to shake ever faster, their almost invisible contours approaching Dr. Thompson from behind.
Dr. Thompson didn’t notice; his whole attention was fixed on the ship’s engine, lying a a few meters beside Matthew. A ghostly, anguished voice came out of Dr. Thompson’s invisible mouth: “I knew you’d figure it out. I know what you want to do…” his voice broke, but when he spoke again, it was calm and controlled. “You see, this engine is where the Mutagel came from. The armor doesn’t work, and I need to feel whole again. I can’t let you destroy it. I have to kill you, I am truly sorry” – he said, though he didn’t look it.
Matthew’s pistol had fallen meters away, behind Thompson. He instinctively held his hands up and tried to argue his case – his mind was on Lisa: “Thompson, please, I can help you. Just let me take you back to the base, we’re going to figure it out together, I’ve just arrived, you know what I can do, you have to believe me… We’re going to make you whole again” –
He was cut short by astronaut’s cold and steady voice: “We’re not going to do anything together, my friend. It pains me to say this, but this is where it ends.” Matthew’s pistol was apparently hovering in the air, right behind Thompson. Who held it? Matthew couldn’t say. Exactly when Thompson took a step forward, whoever was holding it aimed a shot not at Thompson, but in Matthew’s direction. The bullet passed right beside him and hit the engine instead – the mysterious and dangerous substance which had been the scientist’s whole world for months exploded like a cold, pale mushroom cloud, the air around them sizzled like fireworks, Matthew’s skin stung with heat, and then he felt no more.