Bzrk, p.11
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       Bzrk, p.11

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
 
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  Oh, yeah …

  Burnofsky lay back, forgetting the pipe still dangling from his hand, and laughed softly, happily to himself.

  ELEVEN

  “Who are you?” Sadie asked.

  Noah shrugged. “They said not to tell anyone my name.”

  They looked at each other across the shabby room. The walls were a water-stained green. The ceiling was pressed tin with a repeating wreath pattern that wrapped around the place where a light fixture must once have hung. The couch was cracked brown leather, and there was a rectangular glass coffee table decorated with rings left by cups and mugs. A disappointingly empty bag of hot-and-spicy Doritos sat next to an equally empty soda can.

  There was a TV. CNN was on, but muted.

  There was a computer. Someone had left it on a game site.

  There were cameras, but neither Sadie nor Noah saw those because they were no more than nail holes in the crown molding.

  Sadie was seated in a deep, badly upholstered Morris chair. Noah had just walked in and looked a bit lost. She had a mug of green tea. He had a camouflage backpack that he pushed against the wall so as not to trip anyone.

  Sadie was sharply alert, despite not having slept at all, and Noah was blinking too much and breathing too hard as a result of not having slept enough.

  Morning had cast a gray shadow behind the pulled-down blinds in the tall windows.

  Sadie saw the inexpensive luggage, the jacket that had definitely not come from any of the shops on Fifth Avenue, the sneakers, the arguably cute and definitely authentic bed head, the tentative mouth, the alarmingly blue eyes.

  She had noted the English accent. She knew—from her mother, from her mother’s British friends, from several visits to London—that English accents came in a wide range of types, from “My ancestors cleaned out stables” all the way up to “Your ancestors cleaned my ancestors’ stables.” Noah was definitely on the stable-cleaning end of the spectrum.

  That made her inclined to like him. Or at least to think that it might be possible to like him.

  For his part Noah saw a girl doing her best not to look like the sort of girl who was probably comfortable ordering around grown men and women. A girl with servants, he thought, you could see it in her look. Not haughty. Not a bitch. But also not even a little bit shy about looking him in the eye and allowing her judgment to show clearly.

  She thought he might have some potential. She also expected to be disappointed.

  He thought she would never agree to go out with him.

  She liked his eyes.

  He liked her freckles.

  She thought that he probably thought she looked a little startled.

  He thought she could probably smell his “I slept on a plane” breath from clear across the room.

  Nijinsky and Ophelia came in together. Renfield just behind them. He took up a post leaning against the corner of two walls.

  Noah looked at Nijinsky with some surprise. He had last seen him in London and somehow identified him with that city, despite his being an American.

  Nijinsky smiled. He had a warm, quizzical expression, and Noah thought, hoped, anyway, that Nijinsky might not be a bad person.

  Noah watched the way Nijinsky took in the physical setting. Weary familiarity and disdain. Nijinsky was not a young man who would ever approve of water-stained green walls or coffee rings on tables. He was casually dressed in a blazer and slacks and collared shirt that taken all together must have cost—by Noah’s estimate— a hell of a lot.

  Noah had not met Ophelia, Sadie had not met Nijinsky, but of course no one wanted real names spoken, so neither Noah nor Sadie were introduced.

  It was frankly starting to annoy Sadie. She was quite confident that Nijinsky knew who she was. Obviously Ophelia did. They all did. Except maybe the boy. The one with the startled look on his face and the eyes that kept going back to her again and again.

  As for Noah, he knew that Nijinsky knew who he was, but beyond that there was no reason anyone should know him.

  Ophelia sat on the couch, close to Sadie, and patted the space beside her while smiling at Noah. Noah obeyed and sat.

  Nijinsky looked around, a little desperate for a seating solution, and finally lowered himself with minimal physical contact onto an armless chair. He flicked his blazer expertly so that it draped just the right way. His trouser legs stayed where they should and did not reveal above-sock flesh.

  “We’ve never had two new people at once before, so procedures are a bit ad hoc,” Nijinsky said.

  “But very glad to have you both,” Ophelia said. She had two smiles, one right after the other. The one for Sadie was sisterly. The one for Noah was cordial, and also included the information that she was too old for him, nothing personal, but he was not to flirt with her.

  Noah hadn’t been considering flirting with her. He was in fact desperately trying to avoid looking at the sprinkling of freckles across Sadie’s nose and cheeks, and he was trying not to feel the sadness that throbbed through her tough-girl expression, because, well, there was no because, really. He just wanted to look at her. And he knew he shouldn’t. But he did look at her and then looked away and did this possibly twenty times. And bit his lip, which didn’t help.

  “You’ve both been given some basic information,” Nijinsky said. “You know why you’re here. Your motivations are your own. You just need to know that you’ve already crossed the line. Sorry if that wasn’t obvious, but you are in. In. And there is no out for either of you.”

  He didn’t smile, so it wasn’t a joke. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, signaling that this was serious.

  “You are part of us now. You’ll get orders. And you’ll obey them.” Nijinsky’s eyes slid over Noah to rest quite deliberately on Sadie. Noah used the excuse to steal his own look, and boy, you did not want to be the guy who was on the wrong end of the defiance in Sadie’s eyes. It wasn’t a put-on; it came from all the way down deep. From reptilian brain and spine and fist.

  Noah looked away and rested his own gaze on Nijinsky. Was it racist of him to think that Asian eyes showed less expression? Whether it was or not, Nijinsky was hard to read. And then, just a glint of amusement. Nijinsky liked Sadie. Not that way, but he liked her.

  “We all get orders,” Ophelia said.

  “Yes, we do,” Nijinsky agreed.

  “We all understand.”

  “Yes.”

  “The stuff that matters …” Ophelia finished the sentence with a shrug.

  “We’ve all lost people,” Nijinsky said.

  Ophelia nodded. No smile. The skin of her face was brittle, stretched, concealing memories. It was hard now to imagine that face ever smiling. And yet she had, hadn’t she?

  “We don’t want to lose any more,” Nijinsky said. “We put our lives on the line. And those who run biots risk their sanity. We do this of our own free will. We do it so that we and the rest of the human race will continue to have free will. So that people will be able to choose: right or wrong, good or evil. The other side claims to want universal happiness, and I’ll tell you: they aren’t lying.”

  He let that sink in for a moment, a self-consciously dramatic pause.

  “They would use technology to make the human race into a sort of insect society. To make us all one mind, united. No unhappiness, no stress, no rage or jealousy. But we choose a different world. We choose the right to unhappiness.”

  “We’re fighting for unhappiness?” Noah asked skeptically. “It sounds a bit crazy when you put it that way.”

  Nijinsky laughed, delighted. “Oh, it is.” Then, serious again, he said, “We fight for the right to be what we choose, to feel what we choose. Even if what we choose seems crazy to others.”

  “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll fight for revenge,” Sadie said.

  Nijinsky’s eyes glittered. “Oh, yes. That’s fine with me.”

  A look passed between him and Ophelia. Ophelia looked satisfied, almost an “I told you so” look. They were pleased,
Nijinsky and Ophelia, pleased with their new recruits.

  “We leave our old names behind, and choose a new name,” Nijinsky went on. “From the start it became a … let’s say a custom … to choose the name of someone, real or fictional, who had slipped the surly bonds of sanity.” He made a wry smile.

  Ophelia said, “Vincent for Vincent van Gogh, Nijinsky, Hamlet’s Ophelia, Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes, Caligula.” She blinked when she said that name. “Kerouac, Renfield here—a character from Dracula no less—and of course, Lear.”

  Sadie, who missed very little in life said, “Who’s Caligula? That’s a pretty heavy name.”

  Ophelia used her eyes to direct the question to Nijinsky. Nijinsky closed his blazer and buttoned it. “This isn’t the Girl Scouts. We can’t allow betrayal.”

  Sadie smirked. “Caligula is your enforcer.”

  “What is this?” Noah asked. The sound of his own voice surprised him. He hadn’t intended to speak. “You came to me. You told me and—” He glanced at Sadie, realized he wasn’t supposed to be indiscreet, blushed, and picked up the dropped thread of his thought. “You came to me. Then that fucking test. And I was, like, okay then. Now you’re saying what? What are you saying?” His mouth didn’t look tentative now. There was a curl in the upper lip that made it seem just a little bit as if there was someone harder hiding behind the blue Bambi eyes and the diffident manner.

  Nijinsky nodded slightly to himself. “I’m telling you that if you betray BZRK, you will get a visit from Caligula. And I want you to understand this, boy.” He stabbed his manicured finger at Noah, not angry, but like, “Hear me, remember this, or God help you,” and said, “No matter who tells you they can keep you safe from Caligula, they’re lying. No one can keep you safe from Caligula.”

  Sadie looked at him, the blue-eyed boy. Never a blink. No flinch. “I wrote a paper on Sylvia Plath. She was a poet. She was thirty when she stuck her head into the oven. Turned on the gas. Breathed it until she was dead. Her children were in the next room.” She blinked once, a slow, deliberate move. “Is that crazy enough for you?”

  Nijinsky drew back, almost like he feared contamination.

  Noah looked at her in absolute wonder and he thought, She’s already crazy. And at the same time thought he would fall asleep that night only after lying awake a long time and thinking of her.

  “Sylvia, then?” Nijinsky asked.

  A slight headshake. “Plath.”

  It had a religious feel, that moment. No one smiled or laughed or winked or, Noah was sure, even considered doing any of those things.

  “How about you, kid?” Nijinsky asked, still looking at Sadie. At Plath.

  “I don’t … know …” Noah said. “I mean … I wrote an essay on Nelson Mandela once. But he wasn’t crazy.”

  That did earn a smile from Ophelia, an unambiguously sweet one. Renfield looked puzzled and a little offended to find himself puzzled. He had no idea who this Nelson Mandela was.

  Noah wasn’t sure how to read Plath’s look. Sizing up. That was as close as he could get to defining it. She wasn’t quite judging him, just assessing him. Measuring him. Like she might do if she was picking up a screwdriver and wondering, “Is this the right size?”

  Ophelia said, “If we’re to have a Plath, perhaps we should have a Keats. Also a great poet. Plath was American; Keats was British. He was also depressive and an opium addict. And like Plath, he died very young. In his twenties.”

  “Two poets in one day,” Nijinsky said. He stood up, moving with just a little less grace than he’d shown sitting down. “This may seem silly. Making you take new names. But it has a point.”

  “It’s not …” the newly named Keats began to say.

  “The point,” Nijinsky said, eyes seeking theirs, each in turn, “Is that you must right now, here, without pause for further consideration, and without later regret, accept that you are in a fight with a deadly enemy. From here forward your lives are in danger. From here forward you surrender any claim to privacy. From here forward there are only two outcomes for you: death or madness.”

  His phone rang.

  He drew it out, looked at the caller, turned abruptly, and walked away.

  “Or victory,” Ophelia said quietly, when she was sure Nijinsky would not overhear.

  TWELVE

  “They’re in,” Nijinsky said into his phone. “Plath and Keats.”

  “Dr. Violet is wired,” said Vincent into his. “She’ll give us what we need. Tonight. It should be safe enough to bring the two young poets.”

  “Are you going to equip them both? Plath hasn’t even been tested.”

  Vincent hesitated. “Do you laugh at the idea of instinct, Nijinsky?”

  “Yours? Never.”

  “I’m going to equip them both. Instinct. And need. Time is short. She’ll do.”

  At the same time miles away, in another location, Burnofsky dropped the flash drive from the China Bone in front of Bug Man.

  And Ophelia wrote an e-mail to her brother back in Mumbai. She told him about her studies at Columbia. She invented some problem with one of the professors. She attached a picture of herself and a girl she didn’t really know, standing in front of Low Memorial Library, both of them making peace signs at the camera.

  And Renfield showed Plath to her room and Keats to his. They were adjoining but not connected.

  Plath’s room looked like a miserable, run-down hotel where a drunk might spend his last days. Keats’s room looked not unlike his room at home, except that it could do with an England poster. The rooms were identical.

  “How long do we stay here?” Plath asked.

  “There is usually a period of observation and training,” Renfield said. He was looking her up and down in a way that implied it didn’t need to be a lonely time for her.

  “What is there to observe?” she asked. “I’m sure you have biots on me.”

  Renfield did a sort of aristocratic nod, not exactly a bow, but an acknowledgment. “Not me, personally, at the moment,” he said.

  “They can read my thoughts?” Plath asked. Asked and answered, but she wasn’t convinced.

  “No.”

  “See what I see?”

  “Yes. And hear what you hear, depending on where they are placed and whether they are equipped for hearing large sound waves.”

  Plath struggled a bit with that. Keats blushed.

  Renfield actually seemed to experience a moment of fellow feeling. “You get used to it.”

  And he was, at that moment, seeing the grainy, gray-scale images he was getting from a rather bad connection in Keats’s eyes. His biots were running yet another check for nanobots: couldn’t be too careful.

  He was seeing his own proud expression as Keats looked at him. Then Keats’s quick glance at Plath’s chest. Then the refocus on her face. The quick glance away when Plath looked toward Keats. And then a bit longer than necessary on Plath’s neck, cheek, ear.

  Yes, the young prodigy there was smitten with Plath. Or at least checking out the possibilities. Renfield considered resenting the fact. After all, if anyone was going to be spending quality time with the prickly young thing, it should be Renfield himself. It’s not as if he was exclusive with his other friend.

  But then he remembered that Keats was Kerouac’s brother. There was a great debt there. Renfield would honor that debt by looking out for the youngster. But in a way that didn’t allow Keats to have … quality time … with Plath.

  There were limits even to debts of honor.

  A few minutes later, Keats lay on his cot, staring up at the ceiling. He should be afraid. Instead he was overwhelmed by the thought of her. Just a wall separating them.

  Could they read his thoughts?

  Maybe not. But they might be looking through his eyes and that was close enough. What about when he went to the toilet? Jesus.

  Had Alex gone through all this?

  And more, obviously.

  But Alex was a soldier, tough as they came,
and Noah was not. Noah was a kid whose only training was in video games, footie, and the arcane art of barely scraping by on schoolwork. He had been in three fights in his life, the first when he was nine and an older boy had called his mother a MILF. That had cost Noah a black eye and a torn ear. The other two had involved eruptions on the football field and had ended when teammates pulled him back.

  War? That was Alex, not Noah.

  Not Noah: Keats. He supposed he’d have to look the poet up. Three poets suddenly in his life: Pound, Plath, and Keats. Did poetry drive people mad, was that it? And Kerouac. Not a poet, but another writer.

 
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