Sita followed the children back to the gazebo. Her expression changed from gentle regard for her children to wary watchfulness of Deol and the others. She greeted them. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Deol studied her face. There were streaks of silver in her hair and her face had gentler contours now, brought on by age or maternity. Even her eyes seemed softer, the familiar hard edge gone. She thought she saw a flicker of recognition there. “Sita Bipen?”
Sita set a basket of carefully labeled specimens of butterflies and flowers on the table. “It’s McGillivray now. I regret I don’t remember being Sita Bipen. Your uniforms – are you from the Regiment?”
“Yes. I’m Captain Lakshmi Deol,” was there a flicker of acknowledgement for the promotion? “This is Lieutenant Nila Amra.”
Sita said, “You’ve come a long way. I trust the road was smooth.”
A smile pulled at one corner of Deol’s mouth. She recognized her old friend’s saying. “It was. It’s been many seasons since we last saw one another. It was in Chengdu. Do you remember?”
Sita held her gaze for a moment then looked away, choosing instead to watch her daughter stringing blossoms. “I don’t. I remember nothing before the hospital.” She looked back. “I’m sorry you wasted a journey.”
Deol shook her head. “No journey is wasted. I wanted to see how you were doing for myself.”
Kaspinsky cleared his throat. “Hi. I’m Major Jeffery Kaspinsky with the United Nations. It’s an honor to meet you, ma’am.”
Sita shook his hand. “Welcome.” She looked at her husband questioningly.
Donald shrugged as he took her hand. “They’ve only just arrived. Come, Beloved, have tea with us.”
Sita said, “We get little news here about the latest war with the Chinese. Is it true the border raids have begun again?”
Deol answered, “They have been raiding again, yes. We’ve increased the patrols and are keeping them in check. It seems mostly younger soldiers on training missions. If we make it risky enough, they’ll find some other test. We’re keeping it out of the realm of full war for the moment.”
“Hopefully it will settle soon then. My own children are but a few years from drafting age.”
Amra said, “It’s an honor to serve.”
Sita smiled sadly. “We merely wish for all children to live in an age of peace.”
Donald smiled at her. “Someday.”
Kaspinsky frowned at the silence that followed. Unable to bear it, he asked, “Pardon me for saying so, but what’s an American doing way out here?”
Donald answered, “My parents moved to Pandukeshwar before I was born actually. They were botanists.”
“Ah, ex-pats. Well, it’s certainly a beautiful area. I assume you maintained dual citizenship.”
Donald exchanged a look with Sita as he answered, “No. My ancestors fled Scotland for America to escape the fallout from the Jacobite uprising. My parents fled America after the California Rebellions of 2395.” He poured them each a glass of water.
“Isn’t your name from an old folk song? Something about the Jacobite uprising?”
“Hmmm…yes. My father had quite the sense of humor. That song is a bit of a joke in the family. See, there was no such person. It was written in 1819 nearly a hundred years after the event. It was passed off as an authentic Scottish song during the Tartan Fever. My father always liked the story as a cautionary tale to remind people of the importance of checking sources.”
Deol was pleased to see that, for once, Kaspinsky seemed at a loss for words. She smiled into her water glass.
Donald changed the subject. “How was your trip?”
Deol answered, “I love travelling through this region during the summer. It’s such a fascinating patchwork of colors.”
Amra added, “It’s almost strange to see undamaged houses…” she was silenced by a look from Deol.
“The lieutenant has just returned from the front. Please forgive her bluntness.”
Donald glanced at his startled children then answered, “I served in the last war and had a similar reaction when returning home. Still, it’s best not to speak of such things.” He turned his attention back to Kaspinsky and smoothly changed the subject. “What brings an American major out here?”
Kaspinsky said, “I’m a UN observer. I’m assisting Cpt. Deol in her investigation.”
“Investigation? Lakshmi, is there a problem?”
“There’s been a series of incidents,” she paused as she considered the children, “involving certain projects.” She saw none of the visual markers of the genetic alterations; perhaps they had not inherited them.
Donald took the hint. “Kailash, please take your sister out to gather more marigolds.”
Avani pouted at being sent away but smiled when Sita playfully tugged her long braid. “Go on.”
Deol guessed the girl was around eight and the boy close to ten judging from his lanky, all arms-and-legs build. He studied her with solemn eyes as he took his sister out with a collecting basket. They moved just to the edge of hearing range then a bit further when their father gave them a stern look. Deol knew she could have heard the conversation from where they settled down to pick flowers and briefly wondered. No, she decided, Donald would have reported something like that.
Amra said, “Major McGillivray, you are in the Genetic Engineering Corps, yes?” She sneezed. “Excuse me. Caught a cold.”
“Bless you. Please, call me Doctor if you must use an honorific. I retired from the Corps many years ago.”
Amra frowned. “But your file says…”
He shook his head. “I may occasionally do some consulting for the Corps but I am no longer on active duty.”
Amra looked to Deol, obviously confused. Deol said, “I’m sure it’s just an error in the records. Sometimes updates are not passed on to other branches of the service.” She wondered if Kaspinsky would believe the lie. “Dr. McGillivray’s recent work in the use of retro-viruses to heal infections is quite impressive.”
Kaspinsky commented, “I read some of your work on using short-lived viruses to cure infections in goats. Good stuff.”
Deol continued, “There’s been a series of incidents involving retired members of the Jhansi Regiment. They suddenly go on killing sprees that recreate a particularly intense battle from their careers. The latest was Lara Chandra down in Manali.” She handed him a data pad to review.
Donald frowned at the information, trying to make sense of it. “The aggression codes for the Jhansi retro-virus shouldn’t trigger this sort of violence.”
Sita read over his shoulder, her hand resting on his back. “Was she provoked?”
“Not that anyone reported. The witnesses all insisted she’d been peaceably building drums that morning and for weeks before. No drunkenness or drug use, no arguments with anyone. She was, by all accounts, quite happy.”
Donald asked, “I’ll need to run tests on blood samples – you did bring some?”
“Good. I’ll look at them when I get back to the lab.”
Amra said, “We believe the Chinese have developed a retro-virus of their own to counteract the Jhansi project.”
Sita looked up. “Are you worried about me?”
Deol nodded. “Part of our…”
Kaspinsky looked into Sita’s alien eyes. “Yes.”
Deol scowled at Kaspinsky for interrupting her. She continued, “…team believes you could be at risk.”
Donald scowled. “There is nothing to worry about. She couldn’t have been exposed, assuming they even were using such a thing at the time of the Chengdu incident.”
Sita chuckled. “You’re a scientist. Be logical. Do you know how the others caught this virus? What triggers it?”
Donald grumbled, “I hate it when you’re right. No and no.” He stared at his teacup then refilled it.
Sita tilted her head to one side. “If I wanted to disrupt this project, I would find a way to lower impulse control.” She looked at the others who seemed to confused. “Think about it. Every day we all suppress impulses. There are flashes of annoyance, anger, frustration, lust, you name it.”
Deol nodded. “Part of our training is honing our impulse control so we can remain calm in battle. Focus is the key to victory.”
Sita smiled, perhaps recognizing the Regiment’s slogan. “Exactly. Our reflexes and aggression were enhanced so we balance that with self-control.”
Amra leaned over and tapped a few keys on Donald’s console to bring up the genetic codes. She said, “Here are the sequences tied to impulse control.”
Kaspinsky looked at the display. “I still don’t follow.”
Donald pointed to one string. “It would just be a matter of breaking one protein chain at three different locations. The sites are well known from work with children suffering from attention deficit and poor impulse control. We reject candidates who have undergone the treatment for that in case the retro-virus interacted strangely with it. But how?” He pulled up medical records on the five rogues. “Hmmm…each sought treatment for flu-like symptoms. But they retired at different times ranging from ten years to three months ago. Different parts of the country…it doesn’t add up.”
Sita asked, “What if it was a time delay that needed a trigger?”
Donald considered. “Perhaps a dormant virus is introduced in the field and it’s activated later by something else?” He made a few notes. “It’s possible. A common airborne virus could be used as the trigger. Interesting possibility.” He brought up a research article. “There was a study done in Ningbo looking at activating malaria vaccines using airborne viruses. The thought was to avoid side-effects of the vaccines by only activating it when there was an outbreak. The problem is, malaria outbreaks tend to occur in areas where services have broken down due to war or natural disaster.”
Kaspinsky asked, “And you think they used a similar method for activating this retro-virus on members of the Jhansian Regiment? Why haven’t they all gone mad if it’s airborne?”
Donald shook his head. “No one developed an effective airborne retro-virus. No, if this is what they are doing, then it’s a two-step procedure. The retro-virus is introduced to an individual through a scratch or contaminated food source then activated later by a trigger virus that is air-borne. It could be engineered or more likely is just a common illness. That would explain the time differentials.”
Amra was already preparing a message. “We should be able to test this theory in the lab. I’ll see to it you get all the data and samples you need, Major.”
Donald smiled wryly. “Retired…”
Deol answered, “Not anymore. Excuse me a moment.” She started back to the car to send a private message to headquarters well out of the hearing of the UN observer.
to be continued
copyright 2011 by Kimberley Long-Ewing, all rights reserved