Paralethal

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

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2. PARALETHAL--Chapter Two

Chapter Two

 

    By the time they hastily crammed Oswald’s body into the suit bag they discovered in the Mercedes’ trunk, Gamma’s heat had already started flirting with a cascade.  “Three blocks back … to the van,” he gasped.  “Won’t … make it.”

    “Not a choice,” Delta said.  “Turn around.”  He pulled both his partner’s and his own emergency injectors from the small cartridge case he carried in a cargo pocket.  The primary injection site was at the base of the skull, to cool the brain stem and keep autonomic functions going.  Ignoring the pain in his hands, he hit Gamma there with the first CAKE shot.

    “Ahhh, okay … that feels better.”

    “Not done yet.  We have to move fast and it will be at least half an hour before we’re back.”  He jabbed the second needle directly through Gamma’s coverall near the base of his spine.  When they checked, the thermo-sensor had already dropped four degrees.

    “I can make it now.  Let’s move.”

    Delta nodded, keeping his thoughts to himself.  CAKE—cyclic alpha-keto enamines—would lower his partner’s core temperature, but only for about twenty minutes, and at what cost to his nervous system and the artificial fibers running through his muscles?

    The only two pieces of good fortune they had were that Gamma had disabled the car alarm, and that at 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning there were still not a lot of witnesses out.  They passed a trio of homeless men stirring in Rodney Square, and were passed themselves by two runners and a biker as they walked slowly down 11th Street.  Only when they hit the intersection with French and saw no one on the street, did the duo pick up the pace, trotting for the panel van they’d left in back corner of the parking lot at St. Joseph’s.  A handful of other cars now dotted what earlier had been a completely empty lot, but no one was in sight.  Delta reached under the fender wall of the van and retrieved the keys from the magnetized box.

    As they pulled out onto the street, he cranked the air conditioner to full blast and told Gamma, “Lay down in the back and don’t move.  I’ll have us back to base in twenty minutes.”

    Sluggishly, Gamma complied, even though they both knew it would be too late.


 

* * *

 

    Dannie took a shower when she got home, but it didn’t make her feel any cleaner.  When she came out of the bathroom wrapped in towels, Anne was perched on her bed, ostensibly playing on her iPad, but quivering with nervous energy.

    Not the good kind, either.

    Seeing her daughter framed in the enormous bedroom window with the wooded north shore of Brandywine Creek behind her, and the morning sun glinting off the water made Dannie stop in her tracks.  Anne was long and lean—taller than her mother had been until at least fifteen—and possessed of a coltish, awkward grace that made her look both elfin and vulnerable at the same time.

    Plus boobs.  God help me, if they’re this noticeable when she’s just twelve, the girl’s going to have bigger boobs than I do.

    “Mom?”

    “Yeah, sweetheart?”

    “Do I need to know what’s going on?”

    Despite herself, Dannie smiled.  From his service days Dad had drummed into her—and she’d pounded into Anne—that all information in the world could be placed in three categories:  nice to know, good to know, and need to know.  She could still hear him drawl, “Darlin’, if it could hurt you or kill you, or the ones you love, it’s ‘need to know’ regardless of what any damn fool thinks.  Otherwise, it probably fits in one o’ the other categories.”

    >>That is a functional but limited prescriptive paradigm for designating information, and distinctions between categories will inevitably be compromised by emotional subjectivity.<<

    What?  For the second time this morning, thoughts running through Dannie’s brain physically staggered her.  The sensation was like having inadvertently tuned into a strong radio signal that overrode her own stream of consciousness.  Except, that’s either impossible or crazy, right?

    “Mom?  You okay?”

    She touched her head, realized that she had closed her eyes and staggered backward.  Anne looked really worried.  Dannie took a deep breath and lied as best she could:  “Been fighting a migraine all morning.  That jab felt like a brain freeze.”

    “Oh.  So that means you need to lie down?”  She could see Anne warring between believing her and figuring that she was trying to avoid a discussion.

    Forcing herself to ignore the voice in her head, Dannie sat down on the bed beside her daughter, touched her face gently.

    “You do need to know,” she said.  “But how about this evening instead of right now?  I’ve … got some things on my mind right now”—or IN my mind—“that are distracting me.  And when we talk I want to be 100% there.  Deal?”

    “Sure, Mom.”


 

* * *

 

    When Anne bounced out of her bedroom, Dannie collapsed into her queen-sized bed, letting the towels unwrap themselves.

    So I peddled my ass for a better job, and I get to explain to my daughter that Mommy is a slut, she thought.  But the good news is that I’m hearing voices in my head, so maybe I’ll go completely crazy before tonight.  That way the men in the white coats will take me away before I have to talk to Anne.

    In her head she heard—although felt might have been a better word—the distinct sound of someone coughing quietly to get her attention.

    Yes?  If you’re my other personality, it’s probably time we met.

    >>You do not have a second personality.  We are an embedded nano-scale corporate entity in residence in your corpus callosum.<<

    Oddly, Dannie did not feel panicked at this revelation.  Part of that, she realized, could come from the fact that she had absolutely no idea what the voice had just told her.  If I’m really schizophrenic, she thought, wouldn’t I only be able to use words I already understand?  Or maybe I’m secretly a demented scientist and just don’t know it.

    >>You are not mentally unstable.  Based on an admittedly limited sample, you are the most sane person we have encountered.<<

    “Okay,” she said aloud.  “If I’m not crazy, and you’re real, why I am just lying here having a conversation with you instead of freaking the hell out?”

    >>Anticipating some discomfort when confronted with our existence, we took the liberty of stimulating your hypothalamus to raise significantly the levels of oxytocin in your body.  This hormone suppresses the human ‘fight or flight’ response to anxiety-provoking stimuli that results from the excessive production of adrenalin in the chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla.<<

    So you drugged me?

    There was a pause before she received a reply.  Dannie could almost swear she felt embarrassment.

    >>We used your body’s hormonal mechanisms to insure that we would be able to converse without you ‘freaking the hell out.’  We did not conceptualize it in those terms, but it is an appropriate analogy to suggest that we indeed ‘drugged’ you.<<  There was another pause.  She waited, sensing more to come.  >>It was almost certainly unethical behavior on our part.  We apologize, and will return your bodily functions to the control of your autonomous nervous system.<<

    No!  Wait a minute.  If you do that, won’t I be too scared to have the rest of this conversation?

    >>That is likely, but it does not excuse—<<

    “Oh, shut up with the moralizing.  I feel better than I’ve felt since I woke up in that creep’s bed this morning.  So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it until I tell you to stop, okay?”

    >>As you wish.<<

    Realizing that she felt a slight chill, Dannie pulled a sheet over herself.  As she did so, she also noticed that her nipples had become sensitive, almost aroused, a side effect of the oxytocin, which was also the hormone that caused nursing women to express milk.  That information she experienced as a memory, not a direct communication from whatever it was inside her brain, yet she knew that she’d never known it, so she couldn’t have recalled it.

    >>You are correct.  Memory access functions in both directions.<<

    “What are you?  Who are you?”

    >>That will require significant time to explain.<<

    I’ve supposedly got a migraine, remember?  Nobody is going to bother me for at least an hour or two.

    >>Very well.  In terms you will best be prepared to understand, we are a laboratory experiment that failed …<<


 

* * *

 

    “It’s gone,” said Armand Shackland, his tone a combination of resignation and disgust, as he crouched over Gamma’s non-responsive body.  “The predictive algorithms must have turned defective before it was even dispatched on the mission.  Who authorized them to go off campus, anyway?”

    The tall woman in the dark blue business suit said, “I did, of course.  It was an opportunity to recover EVO-9 that we couldn’t afford to pass up.”

    Shackland stood, feeling his knees creak while the muscles in his lower back complained.  He gestured at Delta, who stood silently near the body of his former partner.  “More than likely this one has also been seriously compromised.  These are only EVO-5s.  You know that the heat control problem was not resolved until EVO-7.  Sending them on this sort of mission …”

    “Look, Professor, they’re prototypes,” the woman said.  “We’ve got four others left, and you’ve already admitted that there’s no expectation of learning anything else from the Fives—yes, I do read your reports.  If we have recovered the Nine, even you have to admit it will have been worth the trade.”

    “Let’s see about that, then,” Shackland said, stepping across Gamma toward the crumpled body of Norton Oswald, whose head, shoulders, and left arm were now outside the suit bag.  Shackland delved into the pockets of his lab coat for some tape, and attached several wires to the corpse’s forehead.  The wires led back to a fist-sized remote monitor.

    Several minutes later he said, “There’s definite nano activity, but the machines don’t form a coherent network and appear to be dying off at a rapid rate.  How long ago did you acquire him?”

    Delta said, “Twenty-eight minutes.”

    “I’d say that he had EVO-Nine in his system until roughly two or three hours ago, which means that we’ve now got two problems, Madame Director.”

    “Those would be?” she inquired coldly.

    “First,” Shackland said, with the air of a professor facing a particularly dull class, “we don’t know who Oswald spent the night with at the hotel.  Whoever she—or he—is, that’s now the host we have to find.”

    “I had figured that out, Doctor.  What’s the second problem?”

    “Thought that one would be obvious.  We just killed one of the most prominent attorneys in Wilmington—our own attorney as a matter of fact—and had his body dragged home.  Overheating is not the only reason you shouldn’t be sending those Fives out in public.”


 

* * *

 

    >>You know a great deal about the recent history of the Crowinshield Corporation.<< This was not a question, but an observation that held the tone—flavor?—of someone reading from a file. Dannie suspected that file existed in her own memories.

    Let’s hear it for oxytocin and hard nipples, she thought.

    >>But it will be useful to place that knowledge in context. After 150 years in manufacturing, and becoming the foundation of the Delaware economy, corporate raiders dismantled Crowinshield two years ago. One of the successor companies, Arsenal Manufacturing, took over management of the Alapocas Experimental Station.<<

    “Yes,” she said, impatiently. “My firm handled the hand-over. I did some of the work on the property transfers. It was one of the first jobs I had when GOD hired me. So what?”

    >>There are aspects of the organization and mission of Arsenal that—<<

    “Wait a minute,” Dannie said. “You’re talking inside my head. Why do I have to answer you out loud? Shouldn’t you be able to, like, read my thoughts? Besides, the last thing I need Anne doing right now is hearing Mommy carrying on half a conversation with herself when she’s supposed to be taking a nap.”

    >>Human thoughts are far more multi-layered and chaotic than humans themselves appear to believe. You have several dozen competing narrative tracks active at any given moment, though you are usually only consciously aware of one, or at most two. These narratives are also independent though related to the speech center, which operates as an executive communications function. We are programmed to interact most effectively with the output from the speech center, which requires you to at least sub-vocalize your conversational responses. As we were saying, Arsenal Manufacturing is—<<

    “So I can at least tone it down to a whisper, and you’ll still get it?”

    >>Yes. Arsenal Manufacturing—<<

    “Look, hold the phone with Arsenal,” Dannie said, becoming annoyed. She was also disconcerted to discover that her right hand was sliding purposefully toward her crotch, and there was a tingling sensation starting there. “I want the short version of your operator’s manual for my brain and my body before we get back to corporate logistics. Otherwise I’m going to see what about 40 mg. of Xanax can do to shut you down for a piece.”

    >>You had asked us about our origins. This is necessary background information. We can discuss our interface with you at any time, but this is highly important.<<

    As she pulled her hand back, Dannie noticed that it didn’t really seem to want to obey her commands. “You guys are the ones who let yourselves into my head,” she said. “You want cooperation, you answer the questions in my order of priority.” There was also a faint metallic taste on her tongue.

    >>This information is ‘need to know,’ in every sense of the definition that Nathan Hale Morgan, your father, introduced you to the term.<<

    That brought Dannie up short.

    “Explain,” she said. “If you’re following Dad’s rules, you get exactly one sentence or it’s not ‘need to know.’”

    This time there was a pause, the first she’d noticed in the series of responses, that lasted possibly two seconds. Finally, the alien thought pattern in her mind replied, >>You need to know because there is a 94% chance that the individuals who created us will attempt to kill you—and your daughter—within the next four days.<<

    When she remembered to breathe again, Dannie bit her lip, then said quietly, “All right. You’ve got the floor.”


 

* * *


 

    The Director forced herself to walk slowly as she left Shackland’s laboratory. She used the fifteen seconds she had to wait in the over-pressure anteroom to check her calendar. There was a weekly division managers’ meeting scheduled for 8:30 a.m. that it would not do to cancel. With a quick swipe she assigned it to her second associate, and stepped out into the hall.

    The guards in the brown BDUs stationed outside the doors to the lab were relaxed but alert. She knew they’d heard the warning tone when she entered the anteroom, and had they been American—prior military service or not—the men would have at least assumed a more formal posture if not come to attention as she passed. But of this pair one was African and the other probably Ukrainian, part of the polyglot mix of mercenaries assigned to guard the Bunker by the parent corporation. There were twenty-two of them in the detachment assigned to the Experimental Station, under the command of Sub-Major Christaans, himself a veteran of South Africa’s notorious Exceptional Services private military company. Technically, Christaans was the only person at Alapocas not subject to her orders, though he had been instructed to “cooperate fully” with her in all matters not directly bearing on the physical security of the Bunker and the EVO Project. The Director had to admit that the urbane Johannesburg native was both diplomatic and accommodating, though she could not help tasting bile at the back of her throat every time she saw that damn mountain goat patch on his left shoulder.

    With an effort, the Director pulled her thoughts away from the unusual security arrangement at the Bunker. By the time the elevator let her out in Building 262 she had begun dealing with the current crisis in the EVO Project with the same singularity of focus that had gotten her this far. Plainly, Shackland and his clown carnival of EVO rejects could not be counted upon to handle the situation; when the time came to retrieve NINE she’d probably have to use Christaans’ people. But in fact she doubted that Shackland would even be able to locate the escapee by himself. Figuring out that NINE has hitched a ride out of the lab inside Norton Oswald had been decent work, but the Doc clearly didn’t have a clue where to look now—completely aside from leaving her one very prominent corpse in need of immediate disposal.

    She would not have been comforted, however, to hear the brief dialogue between the guards as the elevator door has hissed shut.

    “Nice ass,” Yuri Plenyakov said. “Tight. Damn shame it is off limits.”

    Gabriel M’baka smiled. He said, “Have patience, friend. I did peacekeeping in Pharamaul. Nothing stays off limits forever.”


 

*  *  *

 

    >>We will attempt to be concise,<< said the thoughts trailing through Dannie’s mind, >>rather than encyclopedic. You may ask as many questions as are necessary to insure understanding.<< She had gotten out of bed, opened the sliding door, and deposited herself in the second-hand beach chair on the small balcony overlooking Alapocas Falls. It was one of the this apartment’s few perks that she had a relatively private view of the water tumbling over the mostly submerged concrete spillway; Anne’s bedroom window even lacked the correct angle for her daughter to tell she was using the balcony. Usually she found the burbling sound of the water relaxing, but right now she kept glancing over at the outlines of the taller buildings of the Experimental Station that she could just make out through the trees.

    “Go ahead,” she whispered, experimenting absent-mindedly with how little sound she could make and still be intelligible to whatever-it-was inhabiting her brain.

    >>Arsenal Manufacturing is a spin-off of the Crowinshield division that produced military-related technology, but there were initial viability problems. Crowinshield’s military division had a number of fulfillment problems with the end result that it was downgraded on the Pentagon’s list of preferred contractors.<<

    “What’s that mean?”

    A series of images flickered across her mind—almost memories. Dannie saw a news website featuring the photograph of a badly burned, horribly maimed American soldier’s body beneath the lurid headline, DOES ZOMBIE PROGRAM CREATE REAL CORPSES? She closed her eyes for a moment, experimenting with this new form of “recall,” and found that she’d somehow already read the article. Crowinshield had sold the government on something called B-TRAP, the Brief Tactical Re-Animation Project. The core idea was hardwire incredibly inserted directly into the brain tissue, spine, and large muscle fibers of the experimental subjects (soldier and Marine volunteers). During periods of extreme stress (combat) the B-TRAP system could be voluntarily activated, providing the individual with an intense if short-lived burst of strength or speed.

    >>An example would be the ability to kick in a heavy door, or to sprint away from enemy fire at an unnaturally rapid rate. One would have to be careful, however, not to break bones, rip tendons, or shred muscle due to the lack of a functional bio-feedback mechanism.<<

    “Yes,” Dannie muttered sarcastically. “One would. Obviously.”

    B-TRAP’s primary function, however, was not to augment a living soldier but re-activate a dead one. Once a sensor detected cardiac non-function, the assigned remote tactical operator (REMTACOP) could activate the corpse’s internal mesh and—at least in theory—cause the dead soldier to keep firing or fighting for as much as another three to five minutes before the system’s waste heat burned it out. The idea was partly that in a firefight or ambush gone badly the dead could actually cover the retreat of the living for a few critical moments, and partly that the sight of of dead soldier sitting or standing back up, firing his weapon with eyes closed and guts hanging out ought to freak the hell out of anybody.

    >>Despite the newspaper reports, the concept did not reach the active testing phase in human subjects, primarily due to ethical considerations. The B-TRAP activation system required a substantial amount of residual neural-electrical activity to function; such levels only existed for a few minutes after death. No one, apparently, was willing to volunteer to be killed to test the process.<<

    “They actually asked for volunteers?”

    >>According to available records, several attempts were made at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center to interest condemned prisoners in doing so. There is one partial file in our accessible memory that attests to an attempt to surgically implant the B-TRAP system in one Nour el-Malik, but this appears to have been unsuccessful. There no record of the researchers having obtained his consent, and he appears to have become deceased during the procedure. This was the effective termination of what had come to be colloquially referred to as “the Zombie Project.”<<

    There’s one advantage to talking about this, Dannie thought. Her nipples weren’t erect any more and she’d lost the urge to masturbate. “I’m expecting you to cut to the chase before screaming assassins break into the apartment to murder me and my daughter,” Dannie said.

    >>B-TRAP was replaced by EVO—the Enhanced Versatility Operative Project—which was intended to enhance living soldiers as opposed to reanimating the dead. NATO awarded this contract to Chocolat Suisse, which then subcontracted coding and hardware design to Arsenal Manufacturing. The prototype history—<<

    Dannie sat forward in the chair, dropping her feet from the balcony railing to the floor.

    “Wait a damn minute! Chocolate Suisse? The mountain goat? That squeeze bottle of brown syrup in my kitchen cabinets? They do military contracting?”

    >>Chocolate syrup, despite its status as the corporation trademark, represents less than one percent of Chocolat Suisse’s product line. It is an exceedingly diversified transnational corporation. We could provide a list of holdings—<<

    She waved away the offer, then—unsure whether the bugs in her brain could sense the gesture—mumbled, “Spare me the credit report. Get on the with story.”

    >>The prototype history—<<—Dannie swore she could sense a slightly aggrieved tone to the words, like an elderly professor mildly insulted because a freshman had interrupted her lecture with a question—>>—has been plagued with technical issues. The EVO-TWO, for example, had such poor heat dissipation protocols that one in four subjects was at risk for bursting into flame within seconds of activating the enhancements. This ironically turned out to be the critical failure, however, leading to the eventual breakthrough. Dr. Shackland attempted to control the heat problem with nanobots injected into the lymphatic system. This did not succeed, but it inspired him to a conceptual breakthrough with the EVO-SEVEN iteration. Instead of controlling the enhancements, Dr. Shackland converted the nanobots themselves into the enhancements. Instead of surgery, there would only be injection.<<

    “So that’s when he created you?” Dannie guessed, tiring rapidly of the endless, stilted dissertation.

    >>No.<< The voice in her head sounded primly offended now. >>The code in EVO-SEVEN was barely capable of regulating minor autonomic responses. We are EVO-NINE.<<

 
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