Bzrk, p.22
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       Bzrk, p.22

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
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  Sugar Lebowski laughed, not a pretty sound. “Yeah, I’ll admit: that’s quick of you. Very quick. What are you, Chinese? Korean?”

  “I thought I was Italian.”

  “You know what won’t mess up your pretty face?”

  She hauled a child’s red wagon with an electrical charging unit inside into position in front of him. She ostentatiously plugged it into the wall. The dial lit up and a voltmeter needle jerked.

  A set of jumper cables ran from the transformer, and Sugar lifted them carefully. She was ready, Sugar was. Ready and just a little eager.

  The blond man spoke then. His accent was German, Nijinsky was pretty sure of that. “This is unnecessary. I can be—”

  “Seriously? A squeamish Kraut?” Sugar snapped at him.

  The German waved a hand at her and Nijinsky both. “Why am I here in the middle of the night? To watch you play games? Let me touch him, please, so I can begin my work.” He made a vague gesture toward the twitching chair.

  So, he was indeed a twitcher. Sent here to wire Nijinsky, turn him around, and use him as a Trojan horse. Nijinsky looked at him with interest. Older than a lot of twitchers. He wondered how many bugs he had on board. Not that there was much Nijinsky could do if the twitcher unloaded onto him. He had only one biot still on board. The other two were nearing the medial rectus, one of the major muscles controlling the movement of Sugar Lebowski’s eye.

  From where he sat the muscle looked a bit like one of the massive cables used to hold up a suspension bridge. It attached to the eye in a way that suggested an unsuccessful attempt to fuse steel wires into bloody ice.

  “Looks like you washed very carefully, lady,” Nijinsky said.

  “Call me Sugar,” she said, and stabbed at his chest with the clamps of the electrical charger. Nijinsky’s body jumped as far as it was able to without snapping ropes.

  He sagged, and it seemed to take a few seconds at the very least for his brain to begin to make sense of the world.

  “Okay, Sugar,” Nijinsky said. “That pissed me off. I’m releasing a bit of sulfuric acid onto the muscle that holds your right eye steady laterally. You know, side to—”

  “What?” She turned a horrified look on the German. “That’s a bluff.” It wasn’t quite a statement, and it wasn’t quite a question.

  The twitcher shrugged. “Some biots are equipped with—”

  Sugar pulled a gun and held it to Nijinsky’s head. “Stop it, right fucking now!”

  “It’s too late for the medial,” Nijinsky said. “You’ll probably start blurring pretty soon.”

  “I can feel it!” she cried, and slapped her free hand to her face.

  “Let me get him out of there,” the twitcher said, and moved toward her.

  “You want to put your filthy little bugs inside me?” she demanded of the German.

  “It’s not so bad being cross-eyed,” Nijinsky offered.

  He saw the acid working. It didn’t take much to melt through the first few strands of taut muscle. He used the tail spur of his biot to add a few more drops. The biot would eventually secrete more, but the acid bladder was quite small, and only a small amount could be used at any time.

  Of course Sugar wouldn’t know that. The twitcher might not, either.

  “I can feel it. It’s burning!”

  “Stupid woman, get out of my way.” The German slid his hand into one of the gloves at the makeshift station, drew Sugar to him with the other, and as she wriggled away, cursing, he brushed his free hand against her face.

  Then he slid the second glove into place and sat staring intently at the monitor.

  “Get out of me or I’ll shoot you now,” Sugar snarled at Nijinsky, doing her damned best to intimidate him. He had no doubt she meant it. It made him sad.

  The feeling surprised him a little. He’d never really expected to survive this war. But he’d always pictured his final moments as one of terror and defiance. Sadness, though. That was the feeling. So many things he would miss out on.

  The German’s nanobots were an unseen swarm, presumably heading into and eventually around Sugar’s right eye.

  And then, suddenly, the cable snapped. One second the muscles of Lebowski’s eye were stretched overhead, and the next second they were gone and only acid-melted stump ends were left.

  In the macro, Nijinsky saw Sugar’s eye jerk inward.

  Her left eye.

  The twitcher saw it, too. “You stupid woman, he’s in the other eye!”

  “But I felt it!”

  Nijinsky shrugged as well as he could. “Power of suggestion. And just so you know: what happens next you won’t feel at all because strangely enough the brain itself does not feel pain.”

  “What are you doing to me?” Cold terror now. Good. He was glad he could at least make her afraid. It seemed fair enough, since she would almost certainly make him dead.

  “That depends. You call off your boys outside and let me walk out of here, and nothing. Otherwise I dump all the acid I have deep inside your brain, where it will eat through until—”

  She jabbed the gun hard against him.

  “You have orders not to kill me, don’t you?” Stalling. No doubt she’d been ordered to deliver him wired. But she could always claim she had no choice. And she wasn’t looking as if rational calculation was dominating her thinking.

  She tried to manage the jumper cables with just her free hand, but it sent up a shower of sparks, so she set the gun down in the wagon.

  Well, Nijinsky thought: better than a bullet.

  She jabbed the cables against the bare flesh of his neck.

  The pain was awful. But brief. There was a popping sound and the garage went dark.

  Typical suburban homes are really not wired for performing electrical torture. A breaker had blown.

  Nijinsky had worked one leg free of the rope. He kicked it straight out. With all his strength. And he felt the satisfying impact with Lebowski’s knee.

  She fell into him. He wrapped his one free leg around her and held her tight, willing himself to get his face close enough to hers to retrieve his biots, who were already far from the center of her brain, having left no dripping acid behind there, and were rushing to—

  The lights came back on.

  And at the same time Nijinsky saw something far worse than the enraged face of Sugar Lebowski. There, waiting for him, just off her lower eyelid, as though they had anticipated his every move, were two dozen nanobots.

  The German had read the bluff.

  Whatever fragile moment Nijinsky had had was over now. Lebowski wormed free.

  His biots waited as the nanobots encircled them.

  “Now, I believe we shall do this my way, yes?” the German said. “Our berserk friend here will cause you no further harm, Fraulein Lebowski.”

  “How does it look?” she asked the German, and spread her eyelids apart with one hand so he could see the eye that now very definitely looked inward at her surgically perfected nose.

  “Not so bad. It can be fixed,” he soothed.

  Then when she turned away, the German quickly, silently, slid out of the chair, freed his hands, picked up the golf club, and swung it hard against the back of her neck. She sank like a sack of wet gravel.

  Nijinsky felt the blow through his biots. He stared. At the German. At the nanobots surrounding his biots on the fallen woman’s face.

  “My name is Dietrich,” the German said in an urgent whisper, and a great deal less accent. “And I will tell you that saving you was not an order from Lear. Which means I may soon be visited by Caligula unless you and I cook up some story that does not involve me blowing my cover to save your life.”


  Bug Man had to fly down to Washington to put some of his troops aboard the deputy director of the FBI. That part was easy. The FBI guy was owned.

  He had already installed Jessica at the Sofitel Hotel, where she sat pouting prettily, ordering room service, and watching movies. A TFD had been sent d
own with Bug Man to act as his “adult.” Bug Man might rule the twitcherverse but still a sixteen-year-old black kid—even one with an English accent—checking into a hotel with a stunningly beautiful young lady didn’t happen without a responsible adult.

  The next transfer was quite easy. Again, the FBI guy—his name might have been Patrick, Bug Man could never remember—was following instructions, after all. It took place during a squash game at the University Club. An accidental bump, a tumble to the polished floor, a jab of knuckle in the ear, hold for three seconds, and ta-da!

  Bug Man had decided on an ear entry after seeing that the Secret Service agent target—whose name, he believed, was an implausible John Smith—wore soft contact lenses. It wasn’t that lenses were a major obstacle but rather that people who wore them were forever dropping in waterfalls of saline, or suddenly having to take out a wrinkled lens. Bug Man did not want to find his boys trapped inside a dark contact-lens holder.

  So in through the ear it was.

  Ears were iffy. If someone had been swimming or showering or, worse yet, had an inner-ear infection, there was no getting through. But if you knew the way and the ear canal was clear, you could make it.

  The ear canal was like a cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites and whatever you would call something that grew horizontally. The hairs came from every direction: up, down and in between. They were tiny compared to eyelashes.

  The cave felt quite large down at the nano. Earwax was a constant issue, with clumps of it along the “floor” and other bits of it hanging from above. And the entire cave was pockmarked here and there with holes like a sort of tiny, slow-motion geyser. Like the holes in Yellowstone that would burp up a glob of hot mud. Only in this case the hot mud was earwax.

  Up in the macro, Bug Man was installed in a van parked just around the corner on M Street. No repeater necessary, straight signal.

  He moved twenty-four fighter nanobots and four spinnerbots into the ear canal, marched them over the earwax down to the eardrum. An eardrum at the nano was a hell of a thing to see. Kind of like the skin of a bass drum if that bass drum was five stories tall m-sub, and anchored not by a fitted ring but by a tiny bone behind.

  Bug Man waited until the squash game was over because the effect of that squash ball hitting the wall at high speed, that thwock! sound, hit the eardrum like a rock drummer smashing it with a stick.

  The whole damned thing, that five-story-tall disk of what looked a bit like bleached, translucent liver, vibrated, and down in the nano that vibration was huge.

  So he waited until John Smith—could that possibly be his real name?—was done smacking hard rubber balls. But next would come a shower, and that was potentially hazardous. He picked a relatively quiet moment and sent his nanobots scurrying beneath the now-moderately vibrating membrane.

  Here at least they were safe.

  But the next bit of the trip would involve climbing up the back side of the eardrum—something best done when the agent was asleep.

  The van would be moved to just outside the Secret Service man’s Fairfax home. And during the night Bug Man would enter his brain and put his spinners to work.

  Somewhere in that man’s brain was a picture of his mentor and friend, agent Francine Petrash, attached to the presidential detail. It would be a tough wire job. Bug Man would have to convince John Smith to touch Agent Petrash’s face. He had some ideas about that. But it would mean an all-night wire job.

  So, for now, Bug Man headed back to the Sofitel for some sleep.

  Roughly three hundred miles away Dr. Anya Violet looked at Vincent and said, “I know you’re doing something to me.”

  At that moment Vincent was sitting with his feet up on the windowsill. He was gazing out over a gray, overcast Atlantic. Down on the beach, his two new recruits were walking and talking. Obviously relaxed in each other’s company. Leaving footprints on pristine, damp sand.

  “I’m just watching the waves,” Vincent said.

  “I feel differently about you,” Anya said.

  “Do you?”

  “Goddamnit it, Vincent. I didn’t betray you. I was used. I was set up. They must have guessed you’d come through me. They knew you’d need access to the lab.”

  “That’s right,” Vincent said. He was half listening. Watching Plath and Keats down on the beach. Thinking that Nijinsky had told him only part of a story, that Jin didn’t trust Vincent—or want to burden him—with more.

  Vincent and Wilkes and Ophelia, the three of them, had swarmed over Jin’s brain. There was no sign of nanobot infestation. No wire. They had checked eyes, ears, even nose. They had sent biots crawling across his skin and deep into his brain and found nothing at all.

  Nijinsky was clean.

  But he wasn’t telling the whole truth about his encounter with Sugar Lebowski. He was telling only what he had to tell. Concealing something.

  And all the while, Vincent’s two injured biots were stringing wire deep inside Anya’s brain. It would be some time before they were capable of battle. His two healthy biots were in his own head. Waiting.

  “I know you’re wiring me,” Anya said. The sound of her voice was a stab in the heart because it was her voice, but no longer entirely her own tone or emotion. She was speaking as someone would to a loved one. There was a sense of hurt. Of betrayal. Like you’d feel if someone you cared about was treating you badly.

  Wire. It stretched from her memories of him to memories of everything she cared for, believed in, admired. Loved. Already Vincent was entwined with her mother, with her sister, with her favorite sushi restaurant, with her childhood teacher—who had told her she had a special ability—to her favorite scents.

  She was being hard-wired to trust Vincent.

  And maybe more than trust.

  But she was still doubtful. Suspicious, because she was a very smart woman, and very self-aware, and he liked that in her. And soon he would wire all of that suspicion away.

  “I do what I do because I have no choice,” Vincent whispered.

  I am not Scipio. I do not slaughter women and children and boast of it before the Roman Senate.

  I will save your life, Anya, he thought. You don’t understand: Lear will send the Carthage message unless I make you one of us.

  I will save your life, Anya, by destroying your will.

  “I want you to make love to me,” Anya said. Her voice cracked with need.

  “This isn’t the night for—”

  She rose, came to him, knelt, took his legs down from the sill, and touched him.

  Vincent pushed her away, gently but decisively. “No, Anya. I’ll do what I have to do to save your life. But I won’t let you lower yourself.”

  Vincent knew about Bug Man and Jessica, the beauty he had turned into a living slave. He was not Bug Man.

  Anya’s eyes flashed furiously. “You make me need you and then give me nothing? That’s your act of charity, Vincent? Wire me to be hungry and then let me starve?”

  “I have to live with myself,” he said. He stood up and she followed him as he rose, still very close, so close they touched and where they didn’t touch they wanted to.

  “You want me,” she said. “You may not take any pleasure from it, but you want me, your body betrays you. And whether or not it’s real, Vincent, whether it’s my true desires or something you’ve done to me, in the end there’s no difference.”

  “There is to me,” he said.

  He pushed past her, his throat tight, blood pounding through him.

  I am not Scipio. And I am not Bug Man.

  So many things I’m not, he thought bitterly. And so few things I am.

  Later Keats and Plath cooked pasta. It wasn’t an old family recipe, just some sauce from a jar. Plath used the massive pot her mother had once used to boil crabs, right here, right absolutely here in this very kitchen in a very different world.

  And they had a dinner, all of them, Vincent and Anya, Nijinsky, Ophelia, Wilkes, Keats, and Plath. They drank a
nice Barolo. They passed around the freshly grated Parmesan. And it was normal if by normal you meant a horrible parody of normality.

  Nijinsky had somehow found enough clothing of Plath’s father to look quite modelish again. And Wilkes kept her sudden digressions into hostility under control. And Anya looked at Vincent with loving eyes while he ate mechanically. And Ophelia somehow found her repertoire of smiles that made them all feel better.

  And still it was the most desperately sad meal Plath had ever had.

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