Bzrk, p.13
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       Bzrk, p.13

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
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  “Yes.” She said it, and somehow it knocked the wind out of her. Her father. He was the man Vincent had seen. He was the man “no longer with us.”

  A freight elevator carried them up two dozen floors.

  As it rose Vincent said, “We’re going to meet a woman named Anya. She’s a scientist. A friend of mine. She will most likely do what we ask of her. But there is a chance she won’t. I haven’t had time to prepare her as thoroughly as I would like.”

  Prepare her.

  Sadie found the words chilling. She would be meeting a woman who had been prepared. She noticed Keats’s reaction, a brief look of disgust that came and was quickly suppressed.

  Yes. Interesting. Maybe there was more going on with blue eyes than she’d thought at first. And he looked like he had a nice body underneath the layers. And he was very definitely interested in her; she’d noticed that right away. He wasn’t subtle.

  Why on earth was she thinking about any of that? It disgusted her. She disgusted herself. But a part of her brain knew the answer: Because of all the things you have to think about, Sadie, my dear, Keats is the only one that isn’t terribly sad or terribly frightening. So think about what his bare arms and shoulders would look like, because the alternatives … oh, Sadie, you don’t want to think about any of those things.

  Vincent had a swipe card that let them walk through various locked doors. There were cameras everywhere. And everywhere the little red indicator lights went dark.

  A final door.

  Vincent hesitated, seemed to gather himself, and knocked.

  A very attractive woman, at least a decade older than Vincent, opened the door. She and Vincent did the kiss-kiss, but with a bit more than “just friends” emphasis.

  Sadie was instantly certain she and Vincent were sleeping together. And it occurred to her that during that brief contact Vincent had quite possibly transferred biots to her.

  Down the rabbit hole into paranoia.

  “Thank you, Anya, for helping us,” Vincent said. He held her two hands while he said this. “These are John, Sylvia, and R.M.”

  Hands were shaken. Sylvia, Sadie thought. Okay. And John must be the poet Keats’s first name. As for Renfield, she was going to have to Google that. Was it R. M. Renfield?

  “The tragedy has disrupted things,” Vincent said. “Your help is vital, Anya. John and Sylvia both have very serious medical problems, and you’ll be helping them, and me, tremendously.”

  Anya’s eyes had stayed on Sadie a bit too long. She recognized her, or thought she did. And a line had appeared just above the bridge of her nose, a frown, a doubt.

  “Get the goddamned signal repeater back up!” Bug Man shouted. “Goddamnit! Goddamnit!”

  Signal was in and out. One second he had a clear, almost HD-quality view of the people in the room, and the next second he was looking at static.

  One thing was sure: that was Vincent he’d seen leaning in for a kiss. AFGC owned some bad video of Vincent, junk, but good enough that Bug Man had spent hours watching it on a loop, trying to suss out his opponent. Trying to see what the dude was about. The video showed Vincent walking to a taxi. That was all of it, but Bug Man had watched it probably fifty times.

  Now he leaned forward in the twitcher chair, muscles straining, teeth gritted. Vincent. Right there, now. Real and big as life. And Bug Man with a crap repeater killing his communication.

  Burnofsky was at his elbow. “They’re working on it, Anthony.”

  “It’ll take three minutes just to patch in a replacement unit,” Bug Man raged. “You’d better damned well hope Vincent takes his time.”

  “You have visual again,” Burnofsky remarked.

  He could watch the screen over Bug Man’s shoulder. He saw what Bug Man saw, and so he didn’t need to be told that this was low-res video, glitchy as hell.

  “Yeah, I’m going to take Vincent on with this,” Bug Man said with savage frustration. “I’m pulling back out of range.”

  “First thing he’ll do is check on his wire,” Burnofsky predicted.

  “He won’t find anything wrong there,” Bug Man said. But in his head he was going over it all again. His nanobots were well away from Vincent’s elegant web of wires and transponders. But Vincent had something eerily close to psychic ability when it came to sensing an enemy. It would take so little to alert him.

  Bug Man executed a simple reverse. It would move all twenty-four of his nanobots—fighters all, no spinners—in a precise move-by-move reversal, back down into the woman’s brain. It wasn’t the best way to move, but with lousy communications it was the best he could do.

  The screen split into twenty-four smaller screens. Three of them were totally dark—probably optics that had been blocked by fungus. Fungus was always an issue, little mushrooms that were unfortunately sticky. Or maybe one of them had picked up a macrophage along the way.

  Bug Man enlarged one of the best-quality visuals. He saw images of half a dozen nanobots walking backward, retracing their steps. Back along the optic nerve, like daddy longlegs in a tunnel. He switched to rear-facing views. Even lower res, and he didn’t dare burn up battery by switching on all twenty-four light arrays to clear things up.

  Right now Vincent could take his handicapped army apart. This repeater issue had to be solved. In a couple of days he’d be inside the brain of the president of the United bloody States, and he didn’t want to be watching visuals more degraded than a beat-up Game Boy.

  “Just got news. It’s going to be a while,” Burnofsky announced. “They don’t have a backup on-site. It’s on its way, but it’ll be twenty minutes. Not three.”

  “Twenty minutes?” Bug Man felt the blood drain from his face. No, this was not possible. He was not going to get his butt handed to him by Vincent. “Get some macro force in there,” Bug Man said.

  “At McLure headquarters?” Burnofsky laughed. “If you have to lose some nanobots, lose them, Anthony. It’s not the end of the world.”

  Bug Man pulled off his gloves, pulled off his helmet, and unwound himself from the chair. The nanobots would continue automatically returning to their earlier start point. They didn’t need him to do that.

  “Oh, temper, temper, Anthony,” Burnofsky said. He was laughing.

  “You want to get your balls cut off by Vincent, be my guest.” Bug Man jabbed his finger at the old man. “I don’t play this game in order to lose. When communication is up, ninety percent minimum, give me a call. Maybe I’ll still be hanging around.”

  “I’ll need to take a few cells,” Anya said.

  They were in a lab, Noah—Keats, had to remember that— supposed it was a lab, anyway. He’d never been in a lab before and didn’t know what they looked like except from films. But Dr. Violet was wearing a white coat. And most of the equipment was white and chrome. And the floor was stainless steel, as were the walls.

  So: a lab. Or maybe just a steel room with some unfathomable pieces of equipment, the only familiar part of which was the syringe in Dr. Violet’s hand.

  It had a tiny little hook on the end of the needle. Wait, that couldn’t be right. And there was no plunger, just a needle, really and—“Ow!”

  She had stabbed it into the pale part of his arm, and now there was a tiny gobbet of his own meat stuck to the end of the needle and a small but enthusiastic bleeder.

  “That’s the only part that isn’t automated,” she said with a distant smile. “Also the only part that hurts.” She handed Keats a Band-Aid.

  Dr. Violet set the syringe on a small stainless-steel holder. She then took a windowed plastic bag from a drawer, tore it open, and withdrew something rectangular, the size of a phone, or a little smaller. It was white, smooth, sleek with rounded edges. It looked like something from an Apple store.

  She pressed the only button, and the rectangle opened like a blooming flower. A light came from within.

  “It’s called a crèche,” Vincent said. “Each crèche holds two biots. Or will, once they’ve grown.”

  Dr. Violet deposited the piece of human flesh within the petals, pressed the button again, and it closed.

  Plath did not cry out in pain when it was her turn. But she’d had warning, unlike Keats.

  He wondered what her real name was. He wondered if he’d ever know. Susan? Jennifer? Alison? He had the feeling everyone but him knew it.

  She was looking around the room with some expression other than fear or nervousness. More like regret or loss, maybe.

  Keats was good at reading expressions. Girls always told him he understood them. It had worked for him, that ability to actually pay attention to girls’ emotions. It seemed that looking at their faces occasionally, and not just at their breasts or bums or legs, worked wonders. Occasional glances at eyes and mouth and forehead, that was the ticket.

  Which was not to say that he wasn’t aware of the curve of Plath’s breasts as she leaned over to take the Band-Aid.

  The crèches slid into what looked very much like ancient CD drives.

  “There are many unique aspects to the biot process,” Anya said. “Gene splicing, of course. The basics of that are well established. But intra-species splicing at these speeds is new and unique to McLure. And very closely guarded.”

  “Why not get it out there?” Keats asked. “I mean, look, secrecy is the problem, isn’t it? If everyone just knew that this was possible …”

  Similar looks from Dr. Violet and Vincent silenced him.

  “It’s illegal,” Plath said. Not like she was guessing, or like she was just realizing it. But like this fact had long been known to her. “If the government ever learned that we … that they … were recombining DNA to make whole new life-forms? This place would be swarming with FBI, everyone involved would be in prison, and the company would be bankrupted.”

  Keats started to ask something else, but a flicker, just a slight, unspoken no from Vincent stopped him.

  What he’d been about to ask was this: Why doesn’t the other side, the bad guys, why don’t they tell the FBI?

  But the answer was clear enough, when he thought about it. It was a pact of silence. Both sides had incriminating evidence on the other. If one side went public, so would the other. If that happened, both sides would be hauled off to prison. And the technology would die.

  Except: no.

  No, that was wrong, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t die. It would be taken over by the government, weaponized even more than it already was.

  And what government could resist the opportunity to engage in a bit of nanowar with whatever enemies arose? Even if those enemies were their own people?

  Keats noticed Plath watching him. She knew all this. She was watching the thoughts revealed on his face. Timing him. Wondering how long it would take for him to put it all together.

  She seemed moderately impressed by what she saw.

  And I just realized who you must be, too, Keats thought. Oh, my God: you’re the daughter. The surviving McLure.

  He sat back in his chair. He’d been leering at a billionaire. That couldn’t possibly work out well.

  Still. They were just a wall apart back at the … what was it supposed to be called? BZRK headquarters? That sounded a bit melodramatic for a dump above a greasy deli.

  And she didn’t seem the snobbish—

  Keats put his hand to his forehead. Suddenly the room was spinning. He put his other hand on his chair, afraid he was going to be tilted out of it.

  “Do you have a bedpan or something?” Vincent asked Dr. Violet.

  She nodded, stood up, drew two enamel kidney-shaped pans from a drawer, and handed one each to Keats and Plath.

  Plath was actually the first to vomit.

  Keats found that fairly revolting, but a small triumph. A very small triumph since he hurled ten seconds later.

  The world was spinning around, and he was a scrap of nothing caught in a whirlpool.

  “What you’re experiencing now is normal,” Vincent said.

  It didn’t feel normal. Keats heaved again and this time missed the bowl. He fell forward. Vincent caught him before he could hit the floor.

  Renfield stepped in to do the same for Plath, who was cursing in between retching sounds, a very unhappy-sounding girl.

  “We call it childbirth,” Vincent said. His voice was matter-of-fact, calm, not like he was trying to soothe Noah’s panic but doing it, anyway. “It’s a kind of inside joke. Because what’s happening is that your biots are quickening. Becoming alive. You’re feeling the disorientation of being in your own bodies while simultaneously being somewhere else.”

  Keats had a sudden flash of a dark, flat plain stretching out beyond view.

  A flash of lightning.

  A series of flashbulb pops. Pop!Pop!Pop!

  An elephant. Crippled.

  No, a spider. Legs forming. But as big as an elephant.

  Forming as he watched. Writhing. Almost as if it was in pain. Crying out with the writhing of still-forming limbs since it lacked a mouth to scream.

  Beams of brilliant green light.

  A spray of mist.

  And suddenly a different view. A close-up in a flash of grainy light: a second creature, like the first, jerky movements, legs that ended in lobster claws, thrashing.

  Then, “Oh, God!” Plath cried. “I saw its face.”

  She tried to bolt from her seat, but Renfield held her in place with hands on her shoulders.

  “Biots often have a sort of eerie resemblance to the donor of their human DNA,” Dr. Violet said. “Each of you has two biots growing. You’re seeing one of them through the still-forming eyes of the other.”

  “Okay, okay, I don’t …” Keats said, and then whatever he’d been about to say was blown away by an image in flashing strobe light of the monstrous spider, turning, turning, and oh, God, oh, God, he was seeing through both sets of eyes, seeing himself seeing himself seeing himself as a sort of vile spider with no, no, noooo! Eyes! Blue eyes like his own eyes, oh, God.

  “It can be disturbing,” Vincent said from a million miles away.

  What were they doing to him?

  Keats saw his brother, shackled, screaming, screaming, and now his own head was filled with lunatic visions.

  He whimpered. He didn’t care that he whimpered.

  He didn’t care that he was crying aloud, howling like a mad thing. Howling. Like his poor, mad brother.

  Vincent felt sick inside. This was a dirty trick he was playing. They’d had no preparation. No training. He at least had seen films; he had seen micrographs. He’d been shown what to expect. By that cold bastard Caligula, yes, but shown, anyway. Better than the nightmare Keats and Plath were entering.

  These two, these straining, shrieking, sobbing teenagers were taking it all in one awful jolt of disorientation.

  He hadn’t just thrown them off the deep end and told them to swim. He’d thrown them into the ocean and told them to outswim the sharks.

  He closed his eyes, and the memories came rushing back. The violent nausea. The feeling of being twisted out of reality, like the hand of some malicious god had reached down to rip him out of the fabric of time and space.

  And they still had no idea. No idea. No way to understand that this transformation was permanent. No way to really understand that they had just bet their sanity. Their lives.

  But Lear needed them. Lear was right. No time for the usual niceties; here you are, kids: welcome to the asylum.

  Wait till they see the demodex. Wait until they see their first mite. Wait until they see the blood cells rushing around them like Frisbees.

  Wait until they stare out through another man’s eye.

  And wait … Vincent froze.

  All the while, V1 and V2 had been making their way along Dr. Violet’s optic nerve.

  Something. What was it? He’d seen something, something that made the hairs on the back of his head stand up, twitched by tiny muscles, a signal of fear. What did he have to fear?

  He backed V1 up.

  Sent V2 ahead cau

  What had he seen and not seen?

  And there it was. Just a few cells torn from the optic nerve when someone disconnected too quickly.



  “They’ve got the new repeater in place, Anthony.”

  Bug Man glared at Burnofsky, enjoying watching him sweat. Bloody old fart. He looked like that aging rocker who had just died. The old junkie. Bug Man would hate ever to have to infest Burnofsky, see that wrinkled old parchment skin up close, probably crawling with parasites with all his natural defenses weak. Those bushy eyebrows would be alive with vermin.

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