The puppy barked which sounded more like a squeak. The scientist shushed the small creature. The furry animal pranced to the man and pawed at his legs. The man picked the creature up. “Sorry. Still training this one. Do come in.”
Even Lennon had no words. He and Juliana stared openly at the animal under the scientist's arm. The man chuckled. “Well this is a good reaction. You're the first people outside the laboratory to see an animal.”
“That's a dog,” Lennon finally got out.
The scientist nodded. “Indeed.” He held his arm out to the inside of the door. “Come.”
Juliana and Lennon followed him inside. A glass chamber greeted them. The man held his hand on a pad that scanned his fingerprints. A green light flashed and a door whooshed aside. “Please step in one at a time for decontamination. We can't allow our specimens to get ill. You understand.”
Lennon stepped through first. A mist blew over him and a door at the back of the chamber opened to let him out. After Juliana's turn the scientist came out a side door. “Thank you for your cooperation. This way.” There was an elevator waiting and they piled in. The scientist pressed the only button and the door shut. A breath later they were descending. The man shifted the puppy to his other arm. “This little guy is getting heavy.” He scratched the puppy behind the ears. The puppy tried to nip his hand playfully.
Sudden tears sprung up in Juliana's eyes. She smiled as she watched the sweet creature. The scientist held the puppy out to her. “Would you like to hold him?”
Her arms shot out with excitement and he moved the puppy to her. She carefully held the squishy body and moved his face close to hers. The puppy breathed on her. It smelled sour and sweet at the same time. It was the most disgustingly sweet smell she'd ever experienced.
The scientist leaned against the steel wall and crossed his arms. “That one's only a month old. Cute, huh?”
A tear trickled down her cheek and the puppy licked it away. She giggled. “Cute,” she concurred with a soft voice. She held the puppy close to her chest and he rested his chin on her, staring at her with curious, black eyes. “What kind is he?” she asked.
“Beagle,” the scientist informed.
Lennon began asking questions concerning the lab. Juliana sat against the wall when she heard how far down the lab went. Five hundred feet. The distance made her feel ill. How long had these men been trapped? The whole of her father's imprisonment? No matter how long, she couldn't imagine staying below the surface without fresh air or sunlight for so long.
Lennon motioned to the puppy now playing around Juliana's ankles. “Do you have many of those?”
The scientist pushed out his lower lip. “Well, no. Not many beagles, anyway.”
“What's that suppose to mean?” Lennon asked skeptically.
The man raised and lowered one shoulder with a small smile. “Eh... we have a few other breeds, some birds, mice, a giraffe...” He halted his list when he saw the looks on their faces. Bugging eyes and gaping mouths. A puppy was one thing... but a giraffe? Juliana had read about those tall necked, spotted beasts, but to think there was one hidden underneath New Paris astonished her. “Can we see it?”
The elevator stopped and the doors moved aside. The scene before them came to a standstill. Men were standing around the lab, goggles over their eyes, syringes and beakers in hand. When they saw the newcomers they weren't sure how to react.
The scientist stepped into the lab and held his arms out to present them. “Gentlemen, didn't I tell you this day would come?”
One of the younger scientists set down his effects and walked closer. He pointed a shaky finger at them. “People. From the outside.”
“The door has been opened!” another man shouted. The laboratory was suddenly in an uproar. Panic mixed with their delight. In the back came the sound of broken glass. They pushed to get closer to Lennon and Juliana. The scientist who had greeted them held out his hands. “Calm down, gentlemen!”
The many men toned it down, taking deep breaths. Some had to take a knee. Lennon spoke. “I am Lennon Learmen and this is my companion, Juliana Russo.”
All eyes fell on Juliana. She could tell that they all knew her name. One mouthed it to himself in awe. She set down the puppy and he ran to a scientist. She stepped forward. “Why was the code to your fail safe my name?”
No one answered her. A man in the center of the crowd offered his own question. “Where is Carlo Costa? If the door is opened then he is the one who did it. Only those involved with Project Reinisiate know the code.”
Men nodded in agreement, eyes searching for a sign of their old comrade. Juliana wanted to forget about Carlo, but at every turn something reminded her of him. She stomped her foot. “He's dead!” she bellowed. Her direct, blunt report brought a hush over the lab. Lennon touched her shoulder but she shrugged it off. She tugged her headlamp from her head. “Why?” She needn’t elaborate.
The young scientist looked to the man who'd greeted them. “Ellis?”
The man –Ellis– rubbed his head. “Mademoiselle, Carlo Costa was a brilliant man and with his advanced knowledge and dreams to heal the planet came danger.” He paused for her response. She offered none. He cleared his throat and continued. “Carlo began Project Reinisiate thirty-seven years ago. Only those in high government positions knew of it. Gerard Black, being a well-known and powerful man in our new world, somehow learned of it and tried to learn of our lab's location. Luckily for us someone in the government destroyed all records of Project Reinisiate upon Gerard Black's discovery, including records of those involved with the project. Our families were relocated for protection and we were ordered never to leave unless an emergency occurred. That is why Carlo left the laboratory.”
Lennon held up a finger. “Carlo told us he wanted everyone to abandon the project.”
Some of the scientists chuckled. Ellis shook his head. “I have no doubt he told you that lie. No. He never wanted to give up this work. It was his life. His dream. He only left for his wife's sake.”
Juliana remembered Carlo telling her about his wife. He'd said he wasn't married anymore. Had Gerard Black abducted her to get to him? Killed her perhaps? Ellis said, “Madame Costa died while he was away. He arrived in New San Gimignano an hour after the fact. It devastated him when he found out. Still, she'd given him a precious gift. Upon his return to the laboratory, he created the fail safe and administered the pass-code to us.”
“But why is it 'Juliana?'” Lennon asked. He wanted to know just as badly as Juliana did. She stared into Ellis's eyes. He tried to break contact but her hold was too intense. “Madam Costa died during childbirth,” he stated. “Carlo gave the child up... for the child's own protection.”
Lennon's jaw dropped and he shot his eyes to Juliana. She took an unsteady step backward. “You mean to tell me that Carlo is my biological father?” She said this with such disbelief behind the words. Ellis nodded. He could see the shock building inside her. He smiled for her benefit. “Listen to me, Mademoiselle Russo. Carlo knew if Gerard Black ever found out about you he'd use you against him. He only ever wanted what was best for his child, even if that meant removing himself from her life.”
A door at the back of the room opened and two men entered. The door was to another elevator. The laboratory must have had separate floors. The men stopped dead when they saw the gathering. Whatever they'd come to say lingered on their lips. One whispered to a man at the back and when he answered the new man's eyes shot straight to Juliana. He knew her. They all knew her.
Juliana saw Lennon look her up and down. He looked at her with different eyes. A new person stood before him. In his eyes Juliana had changed with that one simple fact. She was Carlo's daughter.
She rubbed her eyes. How could have Pietro never told her? When he and Carlo were together on the zeppelin they'd shared this silent secret. She'd stood inches from them and they'd said nothing. A dizzy-spell overcame her. Lennon steadied her as she swayed.
Ellis moved his eyes to the men who'd come from the elevator. “Yes, Messieurs?”
They stood uneasily until one of them said, “The capuchin has three arms.”
Ellis pinched the bridge of his nose. “Follow me,” he told Lennon. “Help her.”
“I don't need help,” Juliana mumbled. She pushed on Lennon's chest and balanced herself. They walked behind Ellis, moving through the scientists to the back elevator. Five bodies standing in the elevator was a tight fit. Juliana had never experienced the feeling of claustrophobia before, but as the elevator moved deeper underground she found it difficult to breathe.
The trip didn't last long. The doors opened to reveal another level of the lab. More scientists were hard at work. There were half the amount than there were upstairs. However, the men weren't what stole Juliana's attention. It was the rows of cages lining the walls. The multitude of noises in the room clogged her ears. Hoots and howls. Growls and purrs. She feared her ears would bleed.
Something tickled her nose and she sneezed. Ellis fanned the air. “Our newest initiate is loosing most of his fur,” he explained. Two men were trying to calm a leashed capuchin monkey. The beast only had a few patches of fur on his petite frame. The three arms the men mentioned were clawing at the air, whipping wildly. His long fangs were bared, warning off the humans. The poor thing looked terrified.
Ellis went to assist his comrades. The capuchin's eyes were darting back and forth, frenzied. He tried to bite the men and did a back flip. The men held onto the leash to keep him on the table. Saliva dribbled from his mouth. It flung into the air with each strong jerk.
Ellis moved his hand over his throat and shook his head. The other scientist's face became disappointed. He pulled a syringe from a drawer and stuck it into the capuchin's hip. Instantly the creature relaxed. He sat down, then lay down, and finally his crazed eyes slid shut.
Juliana covered her mouth. Ellis looked at her. “He felt no pain, I assure you. Sometimes the procedure doesn't take and the result is a defective specimen.”
Something slimy pressed upward against Juliana's ear. She jerked away with a quick intake of breath and spun around. A long, purple tongue slipped like a noodle into a pair of large, golden lips. Juliana automatically reached out slowly to pet the soft nose of the baby giraffe. A smile spread across her face. “Fantastic,” she said.
Lennon tapped on Ellis's shoulder. “You need to bring one of these animals to the surface. When the people witness them there will be nothing Gerard Black can do. He'll be powerless to stop Project Reinitiate.”
Ellis scrunched his nose. “The problem is our animals have never been outside this lab,” he said. “There's no telling how they'll react.”
Juliana turned from the giraffe. “You can't stay down here forever. Don't be afraid.” She looked at one of the cages. It housed another breed of dog. A small thing covered in black curls. Juliana pressed her hand against the skinny bars and the dog sniffed her with a cold nose. With mutual trust, she unlocked the door and lifted it out.
Ellis grimaced. “She's kind, but I still don't know.”
Juliana smiled at him and kissed the puppy's fluffy head. “She'll do great. Let's go.”
* * *
The elevator moved upward. Juliana closed her eyes and waited to feel a fresh breeze or smell the icy river. Never again would she go below ground. It suffocated her. She preferred open spaces, to soar. The puppy began whimpering. Juliana stroked her back. “Shhh. It's all right, little one. You're about to make history.”
The elevator slowed and then stopped. Juliana's heart skipped a beat. The doors slid open and Lennon led the way up the tunnel. Juliana had left her headlamp in the laboratory, so she walked in step behind Lennon, mimicking his every move so as not to stumble.
They made it to the end of the tunnel. Lennon told them to wait and he stuck his head out into the night, making sure the coast was clear. When he lowered back down he said, “There are a few men out in the street. One has a gun and the other is suspiciously staring at the river. They may be working for Gerard Black.”
Juliana held the puppy close to her. “What do we do?”
Lennon leaned against the tunnel wall. He ran his hand over his head. Ellis took a step forward. “We should wait until morning,” he suggested. “That way there will be more witnesses.”
“Good idea,” Lennon praised. That's what they did. They went back down to the lab and tried to sleep. Juliana wasn't able too. She stayed up the remainder of the night with the puppy. Her every thought focused on Carlo.
At one point in the night, Ellis approached her with a cup of water. She hesitated to take it. He said, “We've rationed our supplies for the passed year and a half. Only now we don't need too.” He set the cup beside her. She relented and took it. After a few sips a question came to her. “How long have you been trapped down here?”
“Like I said, Mademoiselle. A year and a half.”
That didn't make sense. She'd thought they'd been trapped for as long as Gerard Black held her father and mother captive. Ellis sat in a chair across from her. “Carlo left the laboratory when he heard that your adoptive parents were hostages.” She cringed at the word adoptive. Ellis didn't notice her reaction. He continued. “He knew there was a much higher risk of him finding the laboratory, so he secluded himself in the woods of New Tuscany. That's when we locked it down.”
“But you had food and water prepared for such an outcome?”
“Yes. Carlo made sure we were well prepared for any occasion.”
Everything Carlo had told her when she'd found his cabin had been a fabricated back story. He had been more of a spy than a scientist. She held the sleeping puppy closer and tried to forgive his lies.
End of Part 9