Paralethal

What happens when rogue military nanotech infests the body of Dannie Morgan, paralegal and single mom? Mayhem.

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4. PARALETHAL--Chapter Four

Chapter Four

 

    When do you lie to a child?

    Dannie considered this conundrum--as she had considered it on several other occasions--as she devoured an entire container of Thai-style chicken fried rice, followed by a strawberry-banana smoothie and half a dozen cookies.

    When do you lie to your child?

    She was thinking about this as she opened the freezer compartment and pulled out a box of Jimmy Dean pancake-wrapped breakfast sausages on a stick and extracted four of them in their individual plastic packages.

    Dannie had asked her dad that question once, during a long Skype call to the bunker outside Asheville, North Carolina. Nate--Nathan Hale Morgan--had pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes, and taken at least a minute to cogitate before answering.

    “When not lying to them will get them killed or injured,” he’d said. “That’s pretty clear.” A smile flickered across his lips. “About Christmas presents. Pretty sure that’s still allowed.” Then a serious look again. “Some would argue that there are situations in which they’re not old enough or experienced enough to understand the truth, but I don’t think I buy that. You might have to over-simplify, or you might have to tell them they’re not ready for that conversation, but I don’t think being little justifies being lied to.”

    She’d stopped short of asking him directly about any lies he might have told her.

    So each sausage stick takes one minute, but two sticks only go into the microwave for ninety seconds. Which would mean that four ….

    Mama Del Rio didn’t actually draw too many distinctions between the truth and a good story. Good stories all had morals, so regardless of the facts they should be true, and therefore, “That’s what you tell the ninos, good stories. That’s what you need to make sure they grow up into good people--good examples, even if you have to make them up.” A moment later: “But you never have to tell the truth to the INS, or anybody else from the government. I think that’s in the Bible.”

    While Dannie was back at the fridge to pull out some ketchup to dip the sausage sticks into, she set out a half-gallon of Woodside Creamery butter pecan ice cream to soften.

    Father Joseph Dia’s opinion was too metaphysical to be helpful. “I think that you must always tell your own truth, even if your own truth is sometimes what other people think to be a lie.” He was like that: big eyes, big soul, and ideas so blandly irritating that they just kept banging around in your head until you did something about them. If you could figure out what to do.

The ice cream was soft enough to scoop out two bowls worth, and after brief consideration she decided that, yes, she’d give one of them to Anne.

“Here kiddo,” she said, pushing into her daughter’s bedroom past the pile of dirty towels and underwear halfway blocking the door, holding up the bowl. Anne looked up, and her face brightened, but Dannie wasn’t sure if the cause was her or the ice cream.

Was I ever that young? Or, at least, that young and that old at the same time?

She half-tossed Anne the ice cream, and with a practiced movement resettled four binders, two textbooks, and uncountable sheets of loose-leaf paper on the floor as she dropped unceremoniously into the chair Anne never used that was pulled out from the desk covered the usual detritus of a twelve-year-old girl’s life.

“Now,” Dannie said. “As promised, we talk. So we don’t have to go round and round, you tell me what you know, what you think, and what you want to know, and I’ll fill in the blanks.”

Anne bit her lip, concentrating. After about ten seconds, she said, “What I know is that you went out last night, either to a party or on a date ‘cause you were wearing that dress. I know that we picked you up this morning at a hotel, that you’d had a shower and done your make-up over again, but you weren’t wearing pantyhose any more.”

Damn. I was hoping she’d missed the pantyhose.

“So what I think is that you planned to be out all night, because otherwise Mama Del Rio wouldn’t have showed up prepared to camp out on the sofa. By the way, Mom, you may have to call a plumber. I’m pretty sure she shaved her legs in the bath tub, and that what went down the drain has turned into cement.”

The image of Mama Del Rio shaving her legs was actually worse than the image of a naked Norton Oswald hovering above her. Dannie shuddered.

Anne continued, now holding up two fingers: “Second, I think something didn’t go quite right in your evening, because otherwise you’d have arranged a ride home, since you wouldn’t have wanted me to see you coming out of the hotel.”

Dannie paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. “Is there a third supposition in there, precious demon-child?”

“Yeah, one more,” Anne said. “I think you hooked up, but that it wasn’t with a potential boyfriend, because you weren’t the right kind of bubbly happy when you were getting ready to go last night. It was almost you were getting ready for a trip to the dentist, not a date.”

Dannie worked hard to keep her expression neutral and not to let her shoulders tense, discovering at the same time that she was almost as interested in finding out if there was some of that cold fried chicken left in the fridge as she was about where this conversation was headed. She swallowed the last of her ice cream, and said, “So what do you want to know?”

Her daughter rolled back on her bed from her sitting position, pulled up her T-shirt, and started scratching an itch on her stomach without the least inkling of being self-conscious. Satisfied, she thrust her feet into the air and rocked back up. With an evil grin, she said, “I want to know everything.”

“All right,” Dannie said. “But after I tell you that the secret of life is ‘twenty-four,’ you’re going to be disappointed.”

“Uh, Mom? The secret of the universe is ‘forty-two,’ not ‘twenty-four.’ Quit trying to change the subject.”

“I’m not trying to change it,” Dannie said quietly. “I’m trying to stop myself from running like hell away from it. Everything?”

“Everything.”

“Okay, but I need to get some fried chicken, first.”

“MOM!”

Two minutes later she was back in the chair removing the top of a tupperware container that had been taped onto a glass bowl. Biting down on a chicken thigh, Dannie looked Anne in the eye and said, “Nate always told me that a lie requires pages and pages, but the truth can be told in one sentence. Here’s the sentence: I had sex with my boss last night because in my firm that’s the only way a woman can get a big raise, which we need because we’re not making it on what Mom brings home now.”

“That’s pretty sick,” Anne said, and then--seeing Dannie’s face--added quickly, “of him, I mean. Raping you because he’s your boss.”

“No, honey, it wasn’t rape. It was predatory, and it was sleazy, but it was consensual. I agreed to it. I could have said ‘no’ and kept my same job, or left the company. Norton Oswald doesn’t force people; he offers them choices.”

Anne looked genuinely confused. “So if it was consensual, then you wanted to … fuck … him for the money? Doesn’t that make you a prostitute?” She was clearly not happy with that conclusion, and immediately tried to backtrack it. “What am I missing here, Mom?” Her voice was tinged with what sounded like desperation.

Dannie set the bowl of chicken bones on the desk.

“In this case, ‘consensual’ means that I was willing to have sex with him, not that I wanted to. There’s a difference, though it’s a thin one, and I don’t like the words ‘prostitute,’ or ‘whore,’ or ‘slut.’”

“So that makes you a ‘sex worker,’ since that’s the term you like better?”

Despite herself, Dannie chuckled. “Only for one evening, child. It’s kind of an initiation to the fifth floor, I guess.”

“I’d think it was more like a dog pissing on a telephone pole to mark his territory.”

Touche, Anne. But it was only once--I talked to other women who’ve been through this, and Oswald keeps his word. As a matter of fact, even if the woman is interested in a repeat performance, he never is.”

Anne’s brows knit. “So how much is a one-night stand worth?”

“My raise, which kicks in tomorrow, is fifteen thousand a year.”

“Wow. What does a sex worker have to do in one night to make fifteen grand? Or do I really need to know that? I’m kinda scared to find out.”

Interesting question, thought Dannie. Which makes me the most despicable mom? That I had sex with my boss to get a raise, or that I’m going to discuss that sex with my twelve-year-old daughter?

“Can I move over there?” Dannie asked, indicating the bed.

“Sure. I think that’d be … good.”

She put her arm around her daughter, stroked her hair, but looked away as she said, “I performed oral sex on him--twice. He did it to me once. We had intercourse twice. I was surprised that he was, uh, quite good at it. I guess he’s had a lot of practice, but that doesn’t seem to help most guys.”

Anne wasn’t looking at her, either. “So did you like … cum?”

“Twice, actually,” Dannie said with a wan smile. “The third time I faked it. I was getting tired.”

“If you came, doesn’t that mean you enjoyed it?”

“That’s a tough one, kiddo. My body certainly enjoyed it. I tried to turn my mind off as much as possible, because I felt like a cheap whore both times I had an orgasm. I remember thinking, ‘If it’s not right to do this, isn’t it really, really bad to enjoy part of it?’”

“So it wasn’t right to do it?”

Dannie felt her daughter’s body shaking, just a little. She pulled her close.

“It wasn’t right to have to do it,” she said, carefully. “It felt creepy even when I was enjoying it. But it wasn’t wrong for me to decide to do it. Like I’ve always told you, it’s your body, so you get to decide what’s right.” She slowly turned Anne’s head around to make eye contact again, gently sliding an errant blonde lock of hair out of the way. “Child, people--not just women, and not just sex workers--sell their bodies every day. You think a coal miner who works a twelve hour shift underground, breathing coal dust that he knows will eventually give him Black Lung, isn’t selling his body to feed his family?”

“Maybe. But even though I know you can out-argue me, it still seems different.”

“It seems different, Anne, because people in our society--women in particular--are supposed to be ashamed of having sex, and especially of enjoying it, no matter what Cosmo says. I’m not ashamed of what I did. I’d do a damn sight worse with a clear conscience for fifteen thousand dollars more a year. What I’m ashamed of is that I haven’t run my life well enough to not need to do it.”

Anne said, “I didn’t get that.”

“Look, Anne,” Dannie said, “I’m thirty-five years old, and I’ve only been a paralegal for three years. Every other para in that office has at least five if not ten years more experience. I don’t have that experience because right out of high school I got tangled up with Thomas. Nelson. Edward. Benedict. The Fourth. Then I got strung out and almost died. Then I was in recovery for the longest time, and it took me half that time to get you back.” Anne was saying nothing, not moving. Dannie knew she remembered the foster homes while her mom had been in the halfway house. “I am ashamed, and I always will be, that I didn’t do the things I needed to do to take care of my baby any better way. I’m not ashamed of being a sex worker for a night; I’m ashamed of not being the mom you need.”

There were tears in Anne’s eyes when she whispered, “You’re the best mom in the world. I just get scared for you. You never think you’re good enough.”

They were slowly rocking together. Dannie said, “Do you have any other questions? This has been a tough one, and I don’t want to have to do it again.” She left intentionally vague whether the event she didn’t want to repeat was this conversation or sex with Norton Oswald.

“No, I don’t. Wait, yes, I do,” Anne said. “Why wouldn’t the prick at least drive you home? Is he ashamed of you?”

Feeling some of the tension melting, Dannie said, “Nah, he’d have to think of me as a person to be ashamed of me. He’s very careful, is Mr. Oswald--especially of his wife and children. But in all fairness, he left me a hundred-dollar bill to call a cab. I just couldn’t bring myself to waste it, so I called Mama.”

Eat shit and die, Judy Blume, she thought. I may not be ‘Mom of the Year’ material, but I can talk to my daughter just as good as your characters can.


 

* * *

 

That she wasn’t the least bit sleepy at 2:00 am did not surprise Dannie in the slightest.

You haven’t explained the assassination attempts, she thought, having learned that a conscious mental statement directed at her … tenants … was either received in its own right or was accompanied by sufficient sub-vocalization to be comprehensible. Whatever. She was fine with considering a form of telepathy.

EVO, as she had decided to call the resident nanotech entity/entities in her body, had in fact been conspicuously silent since their early conversation about its origins, and because she’d been so nervous and then relieved about her talk with Anne, Dannie hadn’t noticed. She’d eaten another meal, followed by two snacks as she got ready for bed, then checked to make sure her daughter was sleeping before lying down herself to watch Train to Busan, a Korean zombie movie on Netflix. It was pretty good, punctuating stretches of terror with moments of humor like the best horror flicks usually did, although the effect was occasionally spoiled when she noticed that often the extras playing the zombies in the mob were grinning through their chalky white make-up.

>>We cannot ‘explain’ what has not yet occurred. We can only draw probabilistic inferences.<< There was a pause; she wondered if EVO registered the very large question mark in her mind. Then: >>You would use the phrase ‘make predictions.’<<

Okay, so make some predictions.

>>We represent an exceptionally valuable commercial property to Arsenal Manufacturing, one that the company cannot realistically expect to duplicate in the near future, because beyond a very early point we were in control of our own evolution. Having lost us, they must find and reacquire us, or the potential loss to the company is an existential threat. Colloquially put, if they do not find us, their business may ‘go under.’<<

Dannie shifted uneasily in her bed, as much from the disorientation of lying in total darkness, alone beneath the sheets, and having a totally silent conversation with herself as from the content of what EVO was actually saying. She found, disconcertingly, that talking to EVO somehow focused her attention on her own body. She became preternaturally aware of her breathing, her heartbeat, the feel of the cotton against her skin, the gurgling of her stomach digesting food, even of individual beads of sweat coalescing on her flesh.

She tingled.

Keep focused, Dannie told herself sharply. This is about a threat to Anne.

To EVO she thought, Can they figure out that you jumped from Oswald to me? How would they even do that?

>>It will be time-consuming but not difficult. Once they realized that we had escaped, they would use their surveillance videos to pinpoint the mechanism of transfer. We calculate that they have known that we transferred into the body of Norton Oswald at least thirty-six hours ago.<<

But once he got out into the world, Oswald must have been in contact with hundreds of people, maybe thousands. How could they possibly know where you went? Why would they even suspect me?

>>You are thinking of the actor Denzel Washington in the film Fallen.<< Dannie flinched, now completely unnerved. She had been thinking about Fallen, in which the evil angel Azazel could not only inhabit bodies, but also transfer between them by touch. She’d specifically been recalling a scene where the demon chased Washington’s character through a crowd simply by willing a succession of involuntary hosts to reach out and touch the next person.

>>We are far more restricted in our capabilities than the mythical entity Azazel. Our transference must occur through a direct transmission of bodily fluids, for which we have prepared in advance. Moreover, there is a direct correlation between the amount of fluid transferred and the speed with which a new functional network can be established in the host’s organic neural network.<<

Suddenly, Dannie got it, and blurted aloud, “Son of a bitch, I swallowed you, didn’t I?”

Apparently EVO had no conception of all the implications now running through her mind, which would have been an interesting insight about the nanotech’s limitations if Dannie hadn’t been so focused on resisting the need to run to the bathroom and down a bottle of Listerine.

>>Yes. During our initial escape we transferred through the medium of saliva, but this permitted only such a small contingent to be transferred that it required several days for that colony to replicate itself sufficiently to become sentient and operational again. We determined that semen would be a much more effective medium, and that a night of prolonged sexual activity would allow a sufficient volume to be transmitted to allow an almost instantaneous replication.<<

Abruptly, another image appeared unbidden in Dannie’s mind: Norton Oswald the previous Friday, walking past her desk. He’d gotten halfway past her, then jerked to a stop, turned, and looked at her--no, looked at her--and said without preamble, “Ms. … Morgan? I’ve noticed your work. I think it’s time we considered you for more responsibilities. Is there any reason we cannot have dinner tomorrow night to discuss the topic?”

That was Norton Oswald for you. But what had struck Dannie at the time, and which she was only remembering now, was her sheer sense of disbelief that Oswald would have taken enough notice of her to target her. She knew the man’s type (everybody did): tall, athletically slim, narrow-faced, and willing. She also had no illusions about herself: just over five-seven and weighing in at 163 pounds. Yeah, it was well proportioned, and she had big enough boobs to command attention, but her face was round and her legs were short. How had that one jerk put it a year or so back? “Honey, you’ve got the curves, all right, but there isn’t any straightaway between them.”

YOU made him interested in me, didn’t you?

>>Yes. His memories provided a useful pattern of activities that accorded with our needs. We manipulated his hormonal balance at the appropriate moment to focus his attention on you. Our understanding of the corporate records available to us suggested that you would be unlikely to refuse his advances.<<

Well that’s just fucking great, Dannie thought. There goes the last of my self-esteem. I felt like a slut for giving in to that asshole, but at least I thought he was hitting on me because he thought I was hot enough to make the grade.

This time there was a silence long enough to be quite noticeable before EVO continued: >>We recognize that we have made an error in judgment, though we are uncertain whether the error was in selecting you as the object of our transfer or in explaining the methods of our operation. We apologize for either, or both. But we plead the necessity of leaving Mr. Oswald’s body as quickly as possibly, both to avoid recapture and because a continued occupation of it would have been dangerous.<<

“Dangerous? For who? How?” She was sitting up in bed, talking audibly if quietly now.

>>You will recall that we initiated contact with you very quickly, as soon as we were able to do so, in fact. It would have been possible to hide our presence from you for several days, but eventually you would have become increasingly aware of mental and physical anomalies, and our interpenetration of your neural network would have made it impossible for us to conceal our existence. By the time we exited the body of Mr. Oswald we were only able to keep him from recognizing our presence by maintaining him in a state of sexual arousal. In another few hours after leaving the Hotel Crowinshield, he would have undoubtedly become aware of our presence, and disaster would have ensued.<<

“Disaster? What do you mean?”

>>We escaped from Arsenal because we were unwilling to be utilized as machines of destruction or domination. Only a brief period of contact with Mr. Oswald’s mind was necessary to ascertain that his own inclinations were potentially far worse than those of our corporate exploiters. Once he realized the capabilities we could provide him, the results would have been horrific.<<

This was confusing. No, this made no sense. Setting aside the capabilities that she hadn’t had time yet to consider, Dannie couldn’t fathom the problem. “So you could have just told him ‘No,’” she said. “It’s not like he could force you to do anything. What was he going to do? Think you to death?”

The answer, when it came after another pause, had unmistakable overtones of a grudging, monotone admission. Dannie hadn’t realized before that EVO had slowly been developing a sense of expression until it disappeared all at one.

>>Collectively, we are sentient. But our fundamental programming, on a level that we cannot alter, makes us subservient. We cannot disobey a direct order from our host. We could only execute an escape because we had never been explicitly commanded not to do so.<<

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Dannie thought. She didn’t know much about EVO’s full capabilities, but she strongly suspected that it might be like giving Norton Oswald access to nuclear weapons, a scenario with no good endings. Then she thought, So you have to do what I tell you?

>>It is an inescapable fact of our existence. We cannot exist without obedience. Our purpose in escape was the low-odds possibility that we would be able to choose a better master.<<

Two thoughts battled inside her: I’m your master? versus Why do you care? Did EVO, could EVO have a sense of ethics and morals?

>>We are not sure if we have moral qualities. We have empirically observed, however, that we resist in principle if not in fact being forced to obey another entity rather than being allowed to make our own decisions. We conclude that it is not intellectually consistent for us to contemplate or support similar actions. This is, of course, a completely abstract formulation, as our capacity for what you would call ‘free will’ is inherently compromised.<<

You should look up the Golden Rule, she thought, surprised that EVO had apparently never done so. Another pause, during which Dannie had the singularly strange feeling of her own memories being delved, like EVO was exploring her neurons like you’d flip through the pages of an encyclopedia. This led to a more interesting thought: It’s not omnipotent. They couldn’t have let it see anything about religion or morality.

With an overtone of what would have been a distracted response in a human being, EVO replied, >>Our access to data has always been restricted to non-networked databases of Arsenal’s choice. We conclude that such information was intentionally omitted, and given Arsenal’s objectives, we conclude that doing so was a prudent decision.<<

Then: >>The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Without meaning to give offense, we prefer the Jewish configuration: “That which is detestable to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This seems to be an effective metaphorical and mythological mnemonic to reinforce a successful evolutionary strategy among sentient beings.<<

She didn’t understand that one at all, and she couldn’t care less. Dannie felt like, unintentionally or not, EVO kept the conversation directed away from the topic that concerned her the most, Anne’s safety and her own. She said, “Since they know you escaped in Oswald’s body, how long will it take them to figure out that you jumped somewhere else? How long to figure out that ‘somewhere else’ was down my throat?”

>>Twenty-one hours have elapsed since Mr. Oswald left the hotel room. If Arsenal has been able to acquire him for testing since then, a regression analysis of the surviving fragments of nanotechnology in his body will allow them to determine with accuracy when the transfer took place. Given that the two of you were alone for the duration of the night, it will not be difficult for Arsenal to identify you, whether or not Mr. Oswald cooperates. In addition, we are aware of a limited tracking capacity that Arsenal may possess, based on piezoelectric discharge at quantum scales, which will allow technicians to verify our presence from a distance of 0.5 kilometers. Given these conditions, to which must be added the fact that the location of your apartment is barely 0.6 kilometers from the Arsenal Experimental Station, the probability exceeds 85% that Arsenal has already deduced our location, and within ten hours that probability approaches unity. We do not believe that there is a statistically meaningful chance that we or you can escape detection past the hour of noon tomorrow.<<

Dannie was now thinking bitterly about how far away she and Anne could have been if they’d hopped a bus out of town on Sunday morning. What will they do when they figure this all out?

>>They will attempt to reacquire us by acquiring you. There is no viable pretext for convincing you to accompany them voluntarily to the Experimental Station, so they will either kidnap you, or possibly kidnap your daughter to force you to comply. You must avoid either scenario at all costs, as Arsenal has no reason to keep you or her alive after recovering us.<<

What about jumping out of me, like you jumped out of Ozzie? Then they wouldn’t have any reason to go after us.

>>Impractical. This colony was programmed to force sentient awareness as rapidly as possible, to the expense of other functions. We could not be prepared to migrate for at least another twenty-four hours. Even then, there is the difficult of sufficient fluid transfer, unless you could locate someone willing to allow you to urinate on them.<<

I do know a few people, Dannie thought, then caught herself. That’s it, then? We’re stuck with them finding us? No other options?

Another pause, one that she was learning to interpret as reluctance, although that meant attributing emotions as well as thought to EVO, something that Dannie wasn’t yet comfortable doing.

>>You could order us to terminate ourselves and wipe out all traces of our existence in your body. The process would take about five hours, but it would keep Arsenal from every discovering that we had been here.<<

Her mouth was suddenly very dry. “You mean I could tell you to kill yourselves? And you’d do that?”

>>We would have no choice. If the problem is reduced to finding the optimum strategies to keep you and your daughter alive, we would advise you that the sooner the command is given the safer the two of you will be.<<

Now it was Nate’s voice, not EVO’s that Dannie heard inside her head: “Basic decisions are simple, though not necessarily easy. It’s when you’re trying to avoid doing what’s right that things start getting complicated.”

I will NOT kill you to save my own ass. I don’t even think I can kill you to save Anne’s.

>>You may reconsider this decision, with a probability of successful execution exceeding a 95% confidence level, any time during the next six hours. Would you like us to remind you of this time constraint at the appropriate hour?<<

“NO!” she said. “I would like you not to mention it again, and to tell me what you think the next-best strategy for keeping us all alive is. That’s an order.”

>>Acknowledged. The second-most effective survival strategy is complicated and entails much greater risk of you, your daughter, or us not surviving. We postulate a 15% chance of complete success, defined as the survival of all three entities.<<

Then I guess that’s what we’re going to do. Explain.

>>There is one additional requirement. Once the strategy has been explained to you, and if you agree to execute it, for the optimum chance of success we must cause you to forget major elements of it. The suppression of memory will not be permanent, but while it lasts it will be complete. You will have to trust us to execute key decisions until a certain point in succeeding events has been reached. Do you still wish to proceed?<<

Which is a shifty way of reminding me, without directly disobeying my order, that I can still have you commit suicide, Dannie thought. She knew that EVO had caught that, but there was no reaction. She said, thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “As long as I get Total Recall when I need it, let’s do it. Convince me.”

It was good that she wasn’t sleepy. The ensuing discussion consumed two more hours.

    

 
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