The Sleeper Gene by Robin D. Laws

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Genre: Weird conspiracy / horror

Springboard: A molecular geneticist at New York’s Rockefeller University recently announced his success in triggering genes in mice by remote control, through the use of radio waves. In the real world, this opens possibilities for non-invasive medical treatment. In a world of horror and paranoid weirdness, it empowers a sinister conspiracy to override victims’ identities from afar.

Setting: This premise works in any modern or futuristic setting. For the purpose of fleshing it out, let’s use our contemporary world, with a hidden layer of mad science and horror.

Premise: A covert organization turns ordinary people into fanatical saboteurs by remote control. You might replace the group described here with a set of villains already established in your setting.

Backstory: Billionaire pharmaceutical executive turned political activist Paul Marsh heads the Alliance for a New Tomorrow, a political action committee that operates as a front for his global personal ambitions. He rose to vast wealth by betting the fortunes of his small research firm on Elevra, an erectile dysfunction treatment eliminating the unpleasant side effects of competing medications. Marsh sold his company to a gigantic conglomerate, Freitag Inc., and then shot up through its corporate ranks to become its CEO. He did this using a secret by-product of the Elevra research, code-named Obseq.

As social animals, we sometimes find it advantageous to subsume our immediate desires to the will of an alpha, or pack leader. In each human genetic code lie switches for our impulses toward defiance or obedience. Obseq turns on the obedience switch and at the expense of our instincts for dominance and self-preservation.

Marsh owes his speedy ascent to Obseq. He covertly dosed his Freitag superiors and now counts his former bosses as slavish sycophants.

That’s only the start of his ambitions. Now he’s going to secretly take over the government of whatever country the PCs operate in. For familiarity’s sake, we’ll assume the US government. Any democratic system will do; adjust details as needed. (In a parliamentary system, for example, the plot turns on a race within the ruling party to replace a sitting prime minister.)

Marsh has already met with, and dosed, a major candidate of each leading party. But some people are more resistant to Obseq than others, so he has to eliminate other contenders for their nominations.

Sleepers Awake

Obseq remains dormant until triggered. It alters not only the genetic triggers of Elevra users, but also their sex partners. (Barrier protection thwarts its transmission.) Through its customer service network, Freitag tracks Elevra users, secretly monitoring them for other health traits that signal an acute vulnerability to Obseq. Marsh’s operatives—also hopped up on the obedience drug—trigger it via remote control devices disguised as smartphones. They then approach the victims with instructions to carry out sabotage missions against primary candidates Marsh has targeted for removal.

Using whatever hook works for your group, PCs are engaged to investigate after middle-aged electrician Fernando Garcia is arrested breaking into a safety deposit box belonging to the campaign of candidate Matthew Chiles. Completely apolitical and unable to account for his actions, Garcia seems an unlikely dirty trickster. The theft leads investigative reporters to dig into Chiles’ financial background, leading them to irregularities that sink his standing in the polls. As the PCs look into this, they learn that Garcia has died in custody from a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. If they conduct or observe the autopsy their medical expert sees that this was no ordinary hemorrhage—Garcia’s brain liquefied!

(The remote trigger process is much less stable than direct dosing—but then, Marsh views all of his sleepers as expendable.)

Case Backlog

A news database search reveals an unusual incidence of scandal and interference in both primary campaigns to date:

  • Refreshments vendor Louie Enoch threw a soft drink at candidate Lauren Thomas during a her appearance a sporting event, setting off her famous temper and eliciting embarrassing news footage.
  • Escort Terri Munguia broke into candidate Jerry Dennard’s hotel room, in a failed attempt to implicate him in a sex scandal.
  • Unemployed IT consultant Brenda Giannone hacked into the database of the Barrett Toll campaign, breaching the privacy of his top donors.

When interviewed, they all convincingly deny any interest in politics, but are unable to supply any other motivation for their actions. PCs with psychological training sense something indefinably disconnected about each of them.

Whoever they interview last suffers a seizure under the stress of questioning. The subject tries to flee, if possible, and attacks them, if not. At the end of the altercation, the victim dies, bleeding from every orifice.

(Increase the horror quotient, if desired, by giving the victim superhuman strength and a zombie-like bite attack.)

A remote control's infrared seen as near-infra...

A remote control's infrared seen as near-infrared through a still image from the camera's CCD sensor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As their investigative options wind down, another incident occurs. Insurance adjuster Alissa Swarts rushes into Jerry Dennard campaign headquarters, sends a USB flash drive skidding across the room, and, having already drenched herself in gasoline, sets herself alight. She is burned alive; several staffers suffer serious burns. The drive contains a document in which Swarts claims to have had an affair with the married Dennard. This, too, is false, but dominates the news, giving media organizations the pretext they need to finally run with true, though thinly substantiated, stories of Dennard’s compulsive womanizing.

In the meantime, the PCs can search surveillance footage from cameras down the street to see another figure, graphic designer Tanya Sievers, hand Swarts the flash drive and gasoline. They can then track Sievers’ movements by security camera. In this footage, a man in a dark suit seems to beam his smartphone at her, then take her out of sight. He is then seen getting into a car and driving away, its license plate visible on camera.

Freitag, Inc.

The car turns out to have been rented on the credit card of a Freitag subsidiary. The PCs then follow an electronic trail leading to Marsh and his Elevra / Obseq plot. His donations to the two favored candidates are a matter of public record. Any reasonable investigative method discerns the rest.

During this legwork phase, Marsh may send Obseq victims after them, supplying a bracing jolt of ultra-violence.

When finally they try to interview Marsh, he turns out to have surrounded himself with Obseq victims. He activates them to attack, in heedless and bloody zombie-like fashion.

What Now?

The heroes have busted Marsh’s plot, but the two most likely contenders to the presidency are presumably in still his thrall. In the hopeful ending, any reasonably outlined counter-plot succeeds in pushing them aside for unaffected candidates. In the horror ending, one of them wins, and sets about turning the country into an authoritarian democracy run for the benefit of its moneyed ultra-elite.

AUTHOR: Robin D. Laws

Robin designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Upcoming projects include Hillfolk, the first game using the DramaSystem RPG rules for personal interaction, and his eight novel, Blood of the City, available August 2012 from Paizo‚s Pathfinder Tales line. There Goes My Dream Job, the second volume of his comic strip, The Birds, is now available from Pelgrane Press.

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