Cassie examined her garden boxes and frowned. The potatoes should’ve all sprouted by now, but only half had done so. She had watered and fertilized, and there was plenty of sun. The potatoes had been bristling with eyes when she planted them. There was no reason for them not to have grown.
Annoyed, she dug in one of the boxes with an old spoon. Finding nothing, she dug deeper.
How could this be? She had planted this particular box herself. She turned up plenty of loose soil, but no potatoes.
Suspicious now, she turned her attention to another box. Again, nothing. After a few deep breaths to fight her rising anger, she threw off her gardening smock and stomped downstairs.
Ignoring the hostile look from Mundo’s guard, Cassie burst into Conference Suite A. “Someone stole my seed potatoes right out of the ground!”
Mundo, Alex, and to her surprise, May, all stared up at her. “We’ve got bigger worries right now than potatoes,” Mundo said. “May has been raided again.”
“I’m sorry about your art,” Cassie told her. “But this is about whether or not we eat this fall.”
“And this is about the Telo,” she snapped. “And maybe about the Pharms and Obits, too.”
Mundo motioned Cassie into a chair. “Since you’re here, you might as well stay.”
“It’s not top secret stuff, anyway,” Alex added. “We’re just trying to connect the dots so we can make a plan.”
“This time she was there when it happened,” Mundo explained. “They tied her up and questioned her about…what was it again?”
“Somatropin,” May said. “They wanted to know if I knew how to make it and didn’t believe me when I said no. As if I could make it in that primitive lab, even if I knew how.”
“But what is it?” Cassie asked, noticing the raw patches of rope burn on May’s wrists.
“Human growth hormone,” she said.
“But what’s that got to do with the Telo? Telo attacks the genes.”
“That’s the mystery,” Mundo said.
“One of the guys who interrogated me said his brother had Telo,” May said. “He told me he would die if I didn’t make him some somatropin.” She gave a small shrug. “He could’ve been crazy, of course. Or confused.”
“But it’s interesting,” Alex said. “Why would someone think such a thing would help? That’s a pretty specific request.”
Mundo nodded and was about to say something when there was a perfunctory tap at the door and Mundo’s girlfriend Kayleen entered, pulling Doc along by the sleeve of his lab coat. “I told him it was urgent,” she apologized. “But he was more worried about some brat’s infected foot.” Kayleen threw herself into a chair in disgust.
“I think it’s starting to gangrene,” Doc explained.
“Amputate,” was her answer.
“I’ll remember that’s your solution if it happens to you.”
Mundo waved a hand. “Enough.” He leaned forward. “Your dad was a biochemist, right?”
“Biomedical research,” Doc said. “Why?”
Mundo explained what had happened to May that morning. “So what do you think? A link between Telo and hormones is stupid, right?”
Cassie could see by the distracted way in which Doc sank into a chair that something Mundo had said hit home.
“My father was an rhGH researcher under contract to Sandoz. He was one of the creators of Omnitrope, a synthetic growth hormone, and he was conducting human-subject testing on a next-gen version of it when the Telo started.”
Mundo frowned in irritation. “Translate that into English, please. Did he know something about the Telo?”
Doc took a breath, and Cassie noticed his hands were clenched as if in prayer. “He got a phone call one night. People were dying, and things were getting crazy. Dad went out in the garage to have some privacy, but something the guy said pissed him off because he started yelling. We could hear him all over the house. He said it wasn’t ethical. He said he’d rather die because at least he’d die with a clean conscience.” Doc bowed his head and stared at the table.
“So can we find out more?” May asked. “Like who called him and what the conversation was about? What did his research turn up that was so unethical?”
“I don’t know.” Doc gave a small shrug. “My dad’s papers and laptop were at the lab when he became symptomatic. Security wasn’t letting people leave with company property, in case they died before they could bring it back. All the records of his work are probably still there somewhere.”
“So let’s go to the lab,” Cassie offered.
The others gave her a look that suggested she wasn’t very bright.
“Pharms,” Doc said. “I went there soon after he died and they had already taken over. They let me have his lab coats and a family photo from his office, but that was it.”
“But that doesn’t have to be the end of it,” Alex said. “We don’t know how hard it is to sneak in and out of a Pharm operation because no one’s ever tried.”
Mundo shifted in his chair. “Sounds like a lot of risk for something we don’t know will be of any use. I don’t want to jeopardize our trade relationship right now. Nisha may be needing pain meds and antibiotics soon.”
“Narcotics aren’t good for her,” Doc said. “And we can trade with one of the other tribes for antibiotics if she develops puerperal fever or something.”
“Besides, with all due respect, this is more important than one pregnant girl,” May added.
“Come on, man.” Alex leaned forward. “Let me take a team over there and scope it out. For all we know there might be no danger at all. They could have drugged-up guards, a bad lock, an unguarded fire escape—until we look, we can’t say what kind of risk is involved and whether or not it’s worth it.”
Mundo drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Fine. You can check it out. But don’t go in until we have a chance to talk about this again.” He stood and looked around the table, his gaze settling on May. “Would you like to stay here, or would you prefer an escort back to your place?”
May gave a weak smile. “I’d rather move my whole operation here. But that would make people suspicious and besides, I seem to be in a good spot to hear things. It would be best if I went back. Alone.”
“That’s stupid,” Alex said. “Let me send someone with you. One of the girls, so it’ll look like you were out delivering jewelry.”
“I’ll go,” Cassie offered.
Alex raised his eyebrows. “You’re not a trained fighter.”
“I can handle a gun and pepper spray.”
“I’ll send Julilla. If you want to tag along and Mundo has no objection, that’s your lookout.”
Mundo shrugged. “If you’re caught up on your chores, it’s all the same to me.” He stretched like a lazy cat, then gave a nod to Kayleen, who was still sprawled in a chair, looking bored. “Let’s go in the other room, babe. I’ve got an assignment for you.”
Without a word, Kayleen stood up and went into the back room, unbuttoning her blouse as she walked. Mundo dismissed the rest of the group and followed her, then shut the door behind him.