The View From Below
The RECLAIM I and II teams rolled out of the shelters to find a world that resembled the one we had left behind, but it was a world that was terribly alien at the same time. Nature was upended in unexpected ways, functioning almost as a machine. Most disconcerting of all was the way in which organisms that should have been predator and prey coexisted almost symbiotically.
One team reported a wind knocking a sparrow's nest from a branch. A falcon swooped down and returned the nest to the tree. One by one it tenderly grasped the baby birds in talons that could split them open and carried them back to the nest.
Later that same day a mouse ambled up to the falcon and fell at its feet. After remaining motionless for several minutes the large predatory bird began to eat the mouse. Life was continuing to feed on life in the way it always had, but now the sickest prey volunteered itself as it neared death and the predator could be relied upon to help a healthy prey animal.
This strange behavior led to grotesques observed by the RECLAIM teams, like deer seething with hundreds of thousands of ticks and immense ant colonies covering entire hillsides.
The teams also encountered grave danger in this new order of things. Animals usually ignored the RECLAIM teams or behaved as fearfully around them as would be expected of a wild animal. However, at other times the teams seemed to be recognized as interlopers by even tiny animals. If they remained in one place for too long they would find themselves swarmed by insects and other animals trying to chew through their masks or simply weigh them down. Several teams were lost in this way, exposed to the spores and never heard from again. This prompted the military to outfit each team with an incinerator to keep insects and small animals at bay.
When RECLAIM III teams began collecting samples the scientific discoveries were almost immediate. Laboring under the fearful ban on spore research that was in effect before RECLAIM many scientists spent their days speculating about the nature of the spore infection. They were eager to test their pet theories out on the plants and animals brought back to the labs. The first major discovery appeared on the net less than a week after the specimens began arriving.
The articles were pulled and redacted and Doctor Luce's work was made confidential almost immediately. He published a short statement the next day claiming that his research was incomplete and premature without observing the influence of the red worm on the spores. The ISU locked down all research coming out of the labs and filtered it carefully before leaking anything else to the press.
In a way, Luce's forced retraction was somewhat correct. When RECLAIM III teams brought back a dead worm the understanding of the process by which the spores were shaping life on the surface was changed dramatically.
The terrible worms, immense red creatures resembling marine polychaetes, seemed drawn to human settlements, but could be found wandering through woodlands and even slithering through bodies of water. They were few in number and two were never seen together. They ranged in size from just slightly longer than a man, to forty feet in length and weighing several tons. They were hard to kill and were observed rallying organisms around them when threatened.
Dissection of the dead worm revealed a complex nervous system with a vastly enlarged glandular structure similar to a human pineal gland. Attached to this was a mass of fibrous tissue that seemed plantlike and out of place even in the alien body of the worm. Theories abounded, but the most popular was that somehow a plant of some sort was fused with the worm to create a symbiotic organism capable of boosting the latent signal carried by the airborne spores.
In this way, so the theory went, animals in close proximity to the red worm would behave more cohesively as a group, whereas animals far away would follow the simple biological imperative of the spores to propagate. This spore propagation behavior was evident in the initial outbreak during which infected sought out uninfected life forms or simply reverted to natural behavior. Animals fearful of humans (most animals) were rarely directly involved during the outbreak phase, suggesting natural preservation behavior could override the spore directives in the absence of the worm.
The dead worm proved to be the key to unlocking the cure, but discovering its secrets took a heavy toll on those involved in the research. The person who bore the heaviest of this burden of knowledge was Dr. Lyle Joffries and his CDC research team. Dr. Joffries, a neuropathologist, had literally written the book on NSS and was one of the only researchers working explicitly on a cure. He did not have direct access to the worm specimen, but he was flown preserved tissue samples from the RAVEN ROCK facility.
Dr. Joffries had the equipment at CHESAPEAKE to do something that would have come very naturally to any researcher: he could sequence the worm's DNA.
Shortly after receiving the results from the DNA sequencing he sent a very short email to his colleague and EFRE head Dr. Paul Two-Horses.
The results were irrefutable in spite of all the physical evidence to the contrary. The blood, tissue, and organs of the red worm were human. There was no modification to the DNA, no tampering. The invasive fibrous mass of plantlike material attached to the enlarged pineal gland was believed to be responsible for the horrific appearance of the red worm and its exponential growth.
Almost as important, Dr. Joffries believed he could develop a toxin fatal to the spores and not necessarily fatal to humans. He had experienced some success with a concoction of Hexazine Dioxopryl. He could kill the spores with this corrosive chemical, but the level of exposure required was inevitably fatal to the test subject.
By deriving organic chemical blockers from the tissue of the worm, Dr. Joffries was able to create a drug that told the spore colonies to stop reproducing. This took the wind out of the sails of the infection and allowed the Hexazine Dioxopryl to burn away the contagion. It was still a dangerous treatment, crippling many test subjects and killing nearly a third outright. No one had any idea at that point if a human infected with the spores could even be brought back from the altered mental state.
The catch to this treatment, above and beyond the already terrible side-effects of Hexazine Dioxopryl, was that the organic blockers could not be synthesized. To produce a cure in sufficient quantities Dr. Joffries would need dozens of red worms.
Moral quandaries were easily ignored by those in the ISU with knowledge of the volatile secret of the red worms. They immediately restructured the RECLAIM III teams to provide Dr. Joffries with his specimens. Within six months the cure was ready. Dr. Joffries published the lie that the drugs derived from the worm were pure Hexazine Dioxopryl. The secret was kept safe.
RECLAIM PHASE IV would be supported by the deployment of AGENT RED.