Bzrk, p.17
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       Bzrk, p.17

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
 
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  But the focal point of the room was a massive piece of glowing, white machinery with which Plath was all too familiar.

  “Is that an MRI machine?”

  Ophelia nodded. “With some very customized add-ons. Yes. I’m told it’s worth about five million dollars. So don’t put your coffee cups on it.”

  It was a bizarre anomaly. It was possible to accept the junky attic lab or the massive, humming hulk of technology, but the two didn’t seem as if they should share the same reality.

  “We usually take more time with training,” Ophelia said. “But time is short. The enemy is planning a major strike. It’s a winning move if they pull it off. So we have to stop them.”

  “What is the plan?” Keats asked.

  “United Nations General Assembly. Most of the world’s heads of state—our President Morales, your Prime Minister Bowen, Keats. AFGC is going to try to place nanobots in them and others. China. Japan. India. Maybe more.”

  Keats shot a look at Plath.

  “AFGC. What is that, anyway?” Plath asked.

  “The Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation.”

  “That doesn’t sound like an evil organization setting out to dominate the world,” Plath said.

  “That’s the idea,” Ophelia said. “If you try telling someone the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation is taking over the world, they’ll think you’re crazy.”

  “Would they be wrong?” Keats muttered under his breath.

  Ophelia leaned close to him. She had a smile for this occasion, too, and it was solid steel. “It’s good to have a sense of humor, Keats. But don’t be flip. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a game.”

  “No, miss,” he said, because Ophelia suddenly seemed much older than he.

  Ophelia tapped an oblong plastic case on the cluttered table. “Your babies are in here. They’re warming to room temperature. When I open this box, they’ll see light, which means you’ll see through their eyes.”

  Both Sadie and Keats looked nervously at the box.

  “Each of you has two biots. Each of those biots has two types of eye. A compound insect eye that is very good at detecting motion, and a quasi-human eye that is somewhat better at color and definition. But the human brain is not well suited for making sense of these disparate visuals. So each of you has been altered.”

  “Say what?” Keats snapped.

  “When we sent our biots in, we brought a package of altered stem cells and planted them in your visual cortexes. It’s not strictly necessary—a biot runner can see without them—but they’ll see the actual, not the enhanced, visuals. See, down at the nano level there’s no real color. Pigmentation is too spread out, not sufficiently concentrated to be seen. So with bare visual you’ll see shapes and edges, but all gray scale. With enhanced visual you get color as well.”

  “Do we want to see what’s down there in color?” Plath asked.

  “In a battle it’s very, very helpful.”

  “I guess we’ll just move right past the fact that you have no right to be planting anything in our brains,” Plath snapped.

  “Yes, we will,” Ophelia said. “We don’t have a lot of time. So let’s get to it, shall we? We’re going to activate one biot for each of you, and then place them. Down in the meat, as we say. I’ll have one of my own biots accompany yours, Keats. A guide.”

  “Wait. What? Now?” Keats asked.

  “Plath, you have the simpler task. Yours is a simple tour. But our friend Keats here is needed to take on an important job almost immediately.”

  “Important job? What job?” Keats demanded, as Plath tried to avoid feeling like she was being slighted.

  “Plath,” Ophelia said. “I have three biots working at the site of your aneurysm. The Teflon weave was dangerously weakened by multiple traumas last night. I’m like the boy in the story, the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. I’m holding it together, but I have other duties. And we need someone who can remain close to you.”

  Plath hated the look of shocked concern on Keats’s face. It looked a lot like pity.

  “And Wilkes will walk you through your own tour, Plath,” Ophelia said. “If she ever gets here.”

  “I’m here.” Wilkes climbed out from a dark corner, rubbed sleep from her eyes, did a simultaneous smile and yawn, stretched and said, “Just have to pee first.” They heard her clattering down the stairs.

  “Now listen to me, both of you,” Ophelia said, leaning in to them, clasping her hands like she was considering a prayer. “You’re going into a very, very strange world. What you see can be quite disturbing.”

  “I’m already disturbed,” Plath said. “I can feel that … that thing … in my head again.” Then seeing that Keats had misinterpreted her, she snapped, “No, not the damned aneurysm. The biot. Mine. My biot.”

  As though Plath had said nothing, Ophelia continued. “We all have this view of ourselves as a body and a mind. We think of our mind as a sort of thing outside ourselves, like a soul, a sort of essence of us. What it is, is a computer made out of synapses. A staggeringly sophisticated computer, but still in the end just a few pounds of slimy pink-and-gray tissue kept alive by oxygen and nitrogen carried there by superhighways of pumping blood.”

  “You don’t believe in a soul?” Keats asked.

  “I believe science is in this hand,” she held out her right, palm up, “and religion is in this hand.” She held out her left, but curled it to conceal the palm.

  “I’ve seen too many MRIs of my brain to doubt that it’s just an organ,” Plath said.

  “The greater surprise is the rest of the body,” Ophelia said. “We think of it as a body. A singular thing. Skin over organs and bones, but all of it ours. Human.” She shook her head slowly, dark brown eyes glowing. “We are not all human. We are closer to being an ecosystem. Like the rain forest. We are the home to thousands of life-forms. They live in us and on us. Like jaguars and frogs in the rain forest. In the human ecosystem there are viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites.

  “And we, even our human parts, the things that are us, often appear as if they are separate living things: and they are. Each blood cell is alive, independent of the rest of the ecosystem, at least somewhat. You’ll understand when you see a cell splitting right beneath your feet. Or someday if you end up in an artery, God forbid, when you see antibodies—they’ll look no bigger than pieces of gravel to you—flying to attach to a bacteria.”

  “Lovely,” Keats said.

  “Actually, it is lovely. Your body is under constant attack from microscopic enemies, and your—”

  “Tell them about the mites,” Wilkes said. They hadn’t heard her come back in. To Plath and Keats, in a conspiratorial tone, she said, “Ophelia loves the cells. Loves her some enzymes. But that’s not what will give you nightmares.”

  Wilkes sat on the table of the MRI machine and crossed her legs. This would have afforded an uncomfortable view but for the fact that beneath her skirt Wilkes had on bright green tights. “Yeah, see, you don’t go down into the blood highway unless you have screwed up bad. If you do, say to escape from nanobots, find yourself a teeny, tiny capillary to drill in, because a vein or an artery? That’s like diving into a crazy rockslide or something. That’s an avalanche, there. And who knows when or if you get back out. But. But that’s not the daily meat.”

  “She’s right,” Ophelia said. “We spend our time in eyes and ears, in the brain itself. In order to reach those targets we travel through hair, across faces, eyebrows, and eyelashes. And along the way—”

  “It’s like crossing a desert drawn by Dr. Seuss or Salvador Dalí,” Wilkes interrupted. “Wrinkles and crevices and hairs the size of trees.”

  “And parasites. The two you’ll encounter with some frequency are mites—dust mites and demodex. Dust mites are about the size of your biots, but taller. They’ll look quite large to you in m-sub. Micro-subjective. Demodex are smaller. They’ll look like alligators crawling.”

  “Jesus. Are they da
ngerous?” Keats asked.

  “Naw,” Wilkes said, and waved that suggestion off. “They eat dead skin cells. They aren’t lions. Or tigers. Or bears. Oh, my. Pretty fucking creepy, though.” The fact seemed to delight her.

  “The thing you need to understand is that you are visiting what might as well be an alien planet.” Ophelia tried out an encouraging smile. It didn’t work. So she sighed. “Plath, you and Wilkes will go walkies around Keats’s face and eye, and maybe the ear.”

  “I’m tired of ears,” Wilkes pouted.

  “Keats, you and I will do a little of that, and then we’ll go all the way in.”

  Plath said, “I don’t understand why I can’t be the one to take care of my own brain. Why is it everyone else’s job? Why does he have to do it?”

  “Plath, think about it. If the aneurysm ever does rupture, as your brain is dying and you’re wracked with migraines, hallucinating in all probability, who is going to run your biots in to fix the leak?” She leaned forward and took Plath’s hand in hers, held it until Plath had forced herself to relax into the touch. “You’re important to us. You have resources we will need, when you’re able to access them. And this boy … this young man … is going to keep you alive.”

  EIGHTEEN

  Plath placed her finger in the open flower of the crèche.

  It was the hand of God descending from the sky. Huge. Like someone stabbing a pink blimp into the pinkish soil of the culture medium.

  She saw her finger, both small and large, both a part of her hand and a giant pillar disappearing up into the sky.

  Both were in her head.

  She gasped.

  “Now make your biot move toward it,” Wilkes said.

  “How?”

  They sat in chairs next to each other. Two rickety chairs placed side by side but pointing in opposite directions so that Plath was face-to-face with Wilkes.

  A similar setup on the other side of the MRI machine. Plath could see Keats’s eyes. Her destination. Insane.

  “Think it,” Wilkes said with a shrug.

  She thought it. And yes, she could see the dimpled spongy surface of the medium flowing by beneath her as she ran. Hah-hah! It worked.

  “You have six legs,” Wilkes said. “Plus two arms.”

  “Uh-huh.” Plath wasn’t really listening. She was focusing on the sheer speed with which that window inside her brain was moving toward the finger. Zoom.

  She saw the swirls of fingerprint now. An object the size of a skyscraper, but curved, and covered in amazing whorls that soared up and away into the sky. It looked strangely like some stucco walls that are finished with a toothed trowel.

  But as she ran—as her biot ran—the giant became even more detailed, and close up the fingerprints began to look like farmland seen from an airplane, the prints like furrowed fields but where each row stood five or six feet high. And there, strangely atop the rows rather than down inside, were what might be holes drilled at regular distances.

  The flesh became less smooth and now seemed more like a desert of dry, baked earth.

  Anxiety hit her in a wave. She was meant to climb up onto that alien surface. Her finger twitched, scooted wildly across the surface, almost riding over the biot.

  “Aaaah!” Plath cried.

  “Don’t worry, you can’t crush it. Too small. You know how hard it is to squash a flea?”

  “It’s … It’s leaking! My … the … my finger!”

  And indeed from the holes a glistening liquid began to seep. A liquid that sat atop but did not soften the baked soil terrain. Little droplets that just sort of stayed there.

  “Sweat. You’re jumpy so your skin starts to sweat.”

  Plath stopped. The curve of the fingertip made what had seemed like a vertical pillar into a descending roof of dried, tilled soil now intermittently oozing small droplets of liquid. The drops should fall like rain, but they didn’t. It clung to the cracked, furrowed surface.

  “Freaky, huh?” Wilkes asked with a smirk.

  “I’m supposed to get up there?”

  “Yep. Jump. You can jump probably ten times your own body length. You jump up and grab on. Don’t worry about gravity. Gravity is nothing to the likes of us!”

  Plath held her breath, trying to calm her heart. She closed her eyes—her macro eyes—and leapt.

  The biot twisted expertly in midair and landed upside down. Her legs gripped, and she hung there like a fly on the ceiling; but it was no longer a ceiling, it was a vast farm field spread out before her. Vertical and horizontal had lost their usual definite meanings.

  “Hah!” Plath cried.

  “Yeah, hah!” Wilkes agreed. “Definitely: hah.”

  “I’m on my own finger.”

  “Heh-heh-heh,” Wilkes cackled. “Better than “’shrooms.”

  Plath wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but she was feeling the rush of this adventure now. She was freaking Spider-Man.

  “Now what?” Plath asked.

  “Now you stay put in the nano, and you go over and poke your boyfriend in the eye in the macro.”

  “He’s not my boyfriend,” Plath said automatically.

  “That’s good, because what you’ll see of him will probably deep-freeze your girl parts. If you know what I mean.”

  Wilkes was a strange girl, with her creepy, eye-dripping tattoo and her clothing that somehow split the difference between dominatrix and thrift-shop emo. But Wilkes was her Yoda on this trip, so Plath was inclined to be tolerant.

  Plath focused on the task of walking toward Keats. The boy’s face had an expression of mixed amazement and fear that was probably a pretty close facsimile of her own.

  They met at the foot of the MRI. Ophelia stood beside him. Her smile now was all about mystery and memory. She was remembering when she’d done this same thing, felt these same trembling fears.

  “You first, Keats,” Ophelia ordered. “You just put the tip of your finger as close to the eyeball as you can get without touching it. Then you hop off.”

  Keats’s finger trembled close to Plath’s eye. She couldn’t help herself blinking as he touched her.

  “Ahh!” he cried, and jerked back.

  “Eyeballs!” Wilkes said, and laughed her heh-heh-heh laugh. “They’re a trip.”

  Plath’s turn. She tried to touch his eye. She saw the vast white orb beneath her, like she was in orbit on an alien farm planet above an Earth of red-rivered ice and a distant …

  She jumped.

  But the eyeball, that sky-filling planet, drew suddenly away.

  “Sorry!” Keats said.

  There was nothing beneath Plath’s biot feet. She was falling.

  “Don’t move, moron!” Wilkes yelled at Keats.

  Plath fell, twisting. The “ground” zoomed past below her. Like she was flying a supersonic jet just inches off the ground. She saw no detail, not at this speed, not twisting madly like this.

  Sick fear welled up in her.

  “Grab anything you can grab!” Wilkes shouted. “Shit!”

  The ground was falling away, like she’d been flying low over a mesa and had the ground suddenly dip.

  Then she saw something gigantic on the horizon. It appeared first as a sort of ridgeline, a swelling rise stabbed with leafless tree trunks, each traumatized by something that had chopped it crudely off. Like someone had clear-cut a sparse forest of redwood trees.

  Then she was flying over those trees and seeing a huge chasm, like the Grand Canyon opening beneath/beside her biot as it fell. And within that terrifying dark canyon stood massive slabs of grainy, pearlescent—

  “I’m passing his mouth!” Plath cried out.

  Then she hit something she hadn’t even seen coming. An amazingly tall tree that sprouted from the flaked-flesh landscape below, rose high in the air, then veered away toward what was either down or ahead.

  The biot bounced away from this tree and now was falling through a forest of them, impossibly long palm trunks. One rushed up toward her and she
twisted, extended her six legs, hit it—with strangely little impact—and grabbed on tight.

  In the macro she panted, almost doubled over from the nauseating sensation of falling miles through the air.

  “I’m in … like trees.”

  “Short stubby trees or great big long ones?”

  “Really long ones!” She was shouting for no reason. Wilkes and Keats and Ophelia were all standing right there. “They look pink.”

  “That’s color enhancement. If you think about it, you can actually change the color.” Wilkes laughed her heh-heh-heh and added, “Of course maybe that’s another time. Let’s just get you back where you belong.”

 
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