Bzrk, p.19
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       Bzrk, p.19

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
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  “All right then,” Bug Man said. “Everyone’s already heard I came real close to taking Vincent out. The only reason I didn’t was stuff up in the macro.” He glared at them, daring them to argue. One-up might have smirked a little. Maybe. And then, with an effort, he forced himself to meet the gaze of Sugar Lebowski.

  “Yeah. That’s right, Sugar, a fuckup in the macro.” He spit the words at her, defiant.

  She looked back at him like she was looking at one of her rumored three ex-husbands.

  “Seems like none of Sugar’s boys can handle the Top Hat Man, the BZRK macro hitter,” Bug Man said.

  Would she argue?

  No. She would not. Because in the end she was replaceable. And the people in this room—especially Bug Man—were not. The world was full of thugs. But a great twitcher?

  “Point is,” Bug Man allowed generously, “I probably still could have made a kill on Vincent. I had him. But I wasn’t focused. I wasn’t on my game, right?”

  Yeah, they were looking at him with respect. Yes, they were. All except Burnofsky, because Burnofsky knew what had gone down. And Sugar, whose complexion was darkening toward angry red.

  Well, time would take care of Burnofsky, time and the opium or the booze. Or maybe Bug Man would take care of him one day. And Sugar? He’d get in her head some fine day and wire her up. Maybe make her think she was itching night and day. Make her shred her own skin.

  Bug Man stood up because his legs hurt too much to keep sitting on this poorly padded chair. All eyes were on him, even Burnofsky, who seemed sleepily amused.

  “We all come from gaming, right? Every kind of platform. Games. So then we get the chance to play the ultimate game. Anybody here ever played anything half as good as twitching? Ever remember any game environment half as cool as being down in the meat?”

  Nods of agreement moderated by indifference and distraction, about as much close attention as you were ever going to get from this crowd.

  “Someone told me I needed to stop thinking about all the stuff up on that board like it’s just a game. It’s all serious now, all heavyweight. Real.”

  He looked right at Burnofsky, leaving no doubt who he was talking about. “Yeah, that’s all bullshit. We all came for the game. We win by remembering it’s a game. What happens up in the macro? Who gives a shit about that unless it gets in the way of the game?”

  He pointed at the board. “See that? It’s a game plan. Game, my brothers and sisters. Just a game.” He paused for dramatic effect. “But it’s one hell of a game. And we’re going to win it.”

  Plath washed herself very carefully. With a washcloth and a bar of soap while standing at a sink in the narrow, unpleasant little bathroom that had been designated for her and Keats.

  The eyes that stared back at her were crawling with vermin.

  Footballs of pollen, all bright as Skittles, and eerie green fungi clung to hairs that grew from a fallen-leaf forest floor of dead skin.

  She knew because she had seen all of that on him. On his face, his mouth, his eyes. She had seen him for what he was and knew that he had seen her in the same way.

  Up in the macro he might have a hard, smooth chest and strong shoulders. Up in the macro she might be able to imagine touching him in those places. Up in the macro she could imagine kissing lips that down there, down in the nano, looked like aged sepia-toned waxed paper, like a wall of yellow-tinged—

  She shuddered and closed her eyes, closed the lid tight, Oh, good, visiting time for demodex.

  “Aaaahhhhh,” she cried, and scrubbed with the washcloth. She scrubbed at her eyelashes, scrubbed her face, couldn’t even really think about the rest of her body because God only knew what monsters crawled and clanked around the rest of her square miles of dead-surfaced flesh.

  Think of yourself as an ecosystem.

  You’re a rain forest.

  You’re an environment. A world. A planet inhabited by life-forms more alien than anything invented in science fiction.

  She threw the washcloth down and had to resist the urge to use her fingernails to scrape every inch of her skin.

  It wouldn’t help. It would just create some new horror, ripping the trees from the soil, piling the dead skin in clumps, revealing blood-tinged undersoil, exciting the rise of lymphocytes rushing to close off contamination while bacteria propagated and viruses—thankfully they were too small to be seen even down at the nano—rushed to squeeze inside her, spread through her blood, and eat her alive.

  She was panting, holding on to the sink with both hands and then wondering what the hell was growing on that sink. How would the cracked porcelain look down there, up close?

  They’d retrieved her biot and put it back in cold storage. But she felt it still. Felt them both. Tiny windows would open in her field of vision, and she would see groggy biots barely moving, slowed by cold, on the pink plain of sterile medium.

  She would have thrown up, but the thought of what might come out of her mouth …

  Plath left the bathroom, shaky, mind turning back again and again and again, drawn back and never escaping the memories and the reality.

  She opened the door to her room. Her cell.

  She sat on the edge of her bed and tears came. She wanted to cry without thinking of giant waterfalls splashing over crawling demodex, of the tears briefly refreshing dead skin, carrying fungi and pollen and bacteria and—

  “Just cry, goddamnit!” she told herself.

  Cry for this miserable room.

  Cry for the trap she’d stepped into.

  Cry for the loss of simplicity, the loss of the simple notion that a boy’s blue eyes were blue because the sky wanted to be reflected in them, and not colorless and not a million miles deep through a dark tunnel ringed with spasming fibers and—

  “Stop it!”

  Suddenly she slapped herself. Hard. The fact that it hurt was almost a surprise. The giant hand with its agricultural furrows and bright beads of sweat had hurtled through the air to land on the surface of her face, and the result was a sting.

  Sensations shooting through nerve endings, twitch-twitch-twitch, and hello, there: brain says someone slapped us in the face.

  A knock. The door.

  She knew it was him. She didn’t want to see him. But she couldn’t say no. How did you say no to someone who had spent the day crawling through the folds of your brain?

  She opened the door. She didn’t try to hide the fact that she had been crying.

  He didn’t try to hide the fact that he’d seen things he would never be able to get out of his mind. The eyes were too wide, the mouth too shocked. Hours had passed, and he still looked like a near-miss victim in a horror movie.

  For a moment both of them seemed to forget that they had the power of speech. They just shared their trauma with a look.

  And then something simply irresistible took hold of Plath, and she grabbed his head and pulled him to her. Waxed-paper lips on waxed-paper lips. Eyes closed. Fierce. Breathing onto each other’s face. Who knew what horrors on tongues that found each other within a Carlsbad of mouth, a vast, dark cave guarded by tombstone teeth.

  And for a time measured only in seconds, they both forgot.

  Their hearts accelerated. The blood surged through arteries, delivering it to parts where it might be needed. Diaphragms tightened. Hormones flooded. Fingers searched through hair without thinking of mites or of Seussian forests.

  For those few seconds they forgot.

  And then, with a shock they were apart.

  They stood now with several feet between them. Panting. Staring at each other. Amazed. Bodies still telling them to take a step, to close that space again, to wrap an arm, touch, stroke, taste, stiffen, and open.

  Still they said nothing. Way beyond words, the words would only confuse what they both knew at that moment. They had found the way to shut out the horror, at least for a time. A few seconds of time that might be stretched into minutes.

  It was Plath who finally broke the silenc
e once her heart was back to something like a normal human rhythm. “How are we supposed to do this?”

  He might have made a leering joke of it, but that was not Keats. No, he wasn’t that guy. Not someone to miss a huge and terrifying truth or hide it behind evasions.

  “I’ve been inside your brain,” he said. “But I still don’t know you. And now here we are.”

  “Suddenly you’re all I have,” Plath said. “My family. My whole life. And now here we are.”

  “What are we to each other?”

  Plath shrugged. She shook her head, breaking contact with the gesture. She sat back down on her bed. Keats remained standing. “I’m probably not supposed to tell you this, but right now I don’t really give a damn. My whole family is dead. My mom from the usual: cancer. But my dad and my big brother, murdered. By them. By the other side.”

  Keats nodded. “I figured that out. I figured out who you are. I think I know your real name, even, I heard it on TV. But I’ll call you Plath, anyway. I don’t want to slip up.”

  She looked at him. Her eyes were dry. The demodex could stop trying to swim. The tears were being absorbed into dry flesh and evaporated into dry air.

  “It’s a reaction to trauma,” she said. “What just happened between us.”

  “We’ve just been yanked way out of reality. Away from our homes … violence … blood everywhere and scared pissless. And this. Things in my head, I feel them still, even when they’re supposedly asleep, I know they’re there.”

  She nodded.

  “And Jin says that’s it, they’ll be in our thoughts from now on,” Keats said.

  “Our little six-legged children.”

  That brought a completely unexpected laugh from him. She smiled in response.

  “They die, and we go mad,” Keats said. “Maybe … maybe I’m not supposed to tell you, but like you said, I don’t give a damn: my big brother is in a madhouse right now. Chained. Raving.”

  Plath narrowed her eyes. “He was part of this?”

  “They tell me he was very good. I imagine he was. He was the strong one. The brave one. Me, I was …” He trailed off, sighed, and sat down beside her.

  Their shoulders touched. That was all, but she wanted so badly to lean her head against him. This boy she didn’t really know.

  “I’m not a vulnerable person,” Plath said.

  “Everyone’s vulnerable. I’ve seen that up close.”

  “I don’t make friends that often,” Plath said. “I think I’m kind of a bitch.”

  He smiled and looked down in an unsuccessful effort to hide the smile from her. “I think that’s maybe not a bad thing when you’re with this crowd. In this situation.”

  “Listen to me,” she said. She looked straight at him until he returned the gaze. Their lips were inches apart. “I don’t fall in love. So don’t expect that.”

  “I guess I do. I have that inside me, I mean, falling in love. I’ve never been. But I feel it inside me. So I guess you’d better expect that from me.”

  She remembered his lips on hers, and they were not tea-stained wax paper. That memory was somewhere else, still there, but this was a new memory and even more real.

  He moved closer and she let him. He surprised her then, because his kiss was not the urgent, charged kiss of before. It was tender and infinitely gentle. He pulled away before she was ready for him to do so.

  Keats stood up. “The idea is not to hope. They want us to be focused. Under control. Maybe Jin and Vincent and the rest are good people. Maybe they’re trying to do what’s right. But they aren’t me, and they aren’t you. And maybe they can press us into this war of theirs, but they can’t tell us how to feel.”

  She locked eyes with him. And as if they were making a sacred pact, they nodded, and smiled sheepishly, and Keats left.


  Just hacked Swedish intel. Expected data on blondes in saunas, hah. Mostly looks like unencrypted junk. But there was something weird. I saw a posting by TinyTIMPO2 last week on nanotech and thought this might be interesting.

  So it’s this fragment. It was saved unencrypted, then they must have noticed and encrypted it and wiped the original. This fragment survived. Ran it through a Swedish-English translation program. The source is definitely MUST Militära underrättelse-och säkerhetstjänsten, and it’s def an internal memo.

  … scenario first advanced by Eric Dexler, a nanotech pioneer. Nanobots capable of self-replication could, due to a simple error in programming, in theory obliterate all life on Earth.

  Nanotech creatures could be programmed to clean up a chemical spill, perhaps an organic compound like benzene. But benzene contains carbon. All living things likewise contain carbon. An error in programming, even a slight one, could cause nanobots to begin consuming any and all carbon.

  The problem becomes acute if nanobots are built to self-replicate. If you began with your Adam and Eve nanobot reproducing themselves in one minute, and their progeny doing the same in another minute, and so on, the population of nanobots would increase geometrically at an astounding rate. In a matter of hours there would be billions. In days, trillions, enough nanobots to consume all carbon within Sweden, killing every living thing.

  Within a week the nanobots could obliterate all life on Earth.

  Dexler calls this phenomenon “the gray goo.” It is no more elegant a phrase in English than in Swedish. Obviously this is an unlikely scenario, but given our recent—

  Anyone interested?



  There followed days of training for Plath and Keats. Days in which they did not kiss, but thought about it, and did not make love, but thought about that, too.

  To no one’s great surprise Keats was the quicker study with biots. With his two uninjured biots Vincent took him down in the meat to stage mock battles. Vincent taught him how meaningless gravity could be, how to avoid immune responses, how to think in three dimensions not two, how to leap, stab, cut, carry weapons, and when all else failed, run away.

  And when Vincent was done with Keats, Ophelia took over and showed him the patient job of hauling Teflon fibers into place and weaving them into the basketwork around Plath’s pulsing aneurysm.

  Plath was not a prodigy, but Nijinsky allowed that she was really not bad, not bad at all. And in one area she beat Keats hands down. She was a born spinner. She easily learned to read the 3D holographic brain maps, to stab the probe and light up the far-flung connections of memory. To make sense of what she saw there.

  Those memories played as video loops, or still photos in Plath’s mind. Sometimes both more and less than that: not an image of anything real but a monster or a saint, glowing figures built by the mind itself to represent feelings.

  There was a core template of the brain that was a sort of overview, showing in general terms which parts had certain functions. She quickly became familiar with the centers of vision, hearing, smell, touch. She knew where to find the controls for hands and feet, fingers and toes, the centers of speech. Those were roughly the same in any human brain.

  But the essential job of a spinner was to rig connections between parts of the brain not normally connected. A spinner had to know how to find a visual image, or a scent, or a sound, a face, and wire it to a memory that would evoke a certain emotion.

  Pleasure. Pain. Fear. Hatred. They all had their locations. Wire—actually a filament much more complex than simple wire—oozed, spiderlike from the biot’s pseudo-proboscis. Electronic signals that might have found their way slowly from point A to point B along neurons, jumping synapses, now zoomed along the superhighway of the wire.

  “How much difference does it make if every time I see a face I also feel angry?” she asked Nijinsky.

  “The first time? Not much. But brains adapt and add new layers. So if you draw a connection between a face and, let’s say, desire, the brain begins to absorb that. The first connection is by wire, and the next hundred, maybe. But soon the brain builds reinforcing
structures. Backup pathways. So soon, you can’t see that face without also feeling desire.”

  “You can make someone want someone.”

  Nijinsky nodded. “We can make someone want someone.”

  “It’s … Never mind.”

  “You think it’s wrong.”

  “It is wrong.”

  Nijinsky nodded. “Yes. It’s wrong. We’re doing a very bad thing in what we believe is a very good cause.”

  “And the other side?”

  He made a face that acknowledged the truth of it. “Yes, they think exactly the same thing. That they are doing bad things in a good cause. At least many of them do.”

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