Bzrk, p.30
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       Bzrk, p.30

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
 
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  He had to get to her. Had to. But his biots were racing toward what might be a table leg for all he knew.

  More men were coming in now. He could hear them in the macro. And far more important, he could feel the vibration in the nano. The vibrations. Coming from his right, from the door.

  Which meant … which meant the biots were moving toward the Twins. Or toward Sugar. Or toward any of the forest of legs that now rushed past him, over him, security guys, guns in hand.

  “We don’t need more of your thugs, Sugar, we need a goddamned twitcher!” Charles bellowed. The three feet pressed against the floor. The chair was pushed back. This time the Twins rose successfully.

  The biots were close now, close to a wall a hundred feet tall, a wall with a long, horizontal cave beneath it.

  It had to be a shoe. Or a table leg. No, a shoe.

  “We have Army Pete in the building,” Sugar said, desperately. “He’s downstairs. We need to get him up here to place his nanobots and then—”

  “He’s a third-rate hack!” Benjamin snarled.

  “Our best guys are—”

  “Get him!” Charles said.

  “You, you, and you: get Army Pete. Drag his ass up here and make sure he’s loaded up,” Sugar said, relieved to be snapping orders again.

  “The army was filled with communists in those days!” Benjamin ranted.

  The biots were in the open-sided cave formed by the shoe. Had to be that. Had to be a shoe, didn’t it?

  The ceiling above K1 and K2 was creepy in its normality. It looked like a vast quilt—plastic fibers woven together as if by a million tiny seamstresses. It had the look of basketwork, almost uniform, weird in its unnatural uniformity.

  And suddenly that ceiling was coming down fast. Keats made his biots leap and twist. Biot legs clutched strands of neoprene and scampered upside down toward light at the end of the toe.

  The shoe flattened as the Twins walked. It seemed as if the biots must be crushed, but there was a pattern in the sole and Keats sent his creatures diving into a long, straight channel, then forward again.

  He couldn’t help but stare as Charles and Benjamin walked. Left. Right. Drag a nearly limp middle leg. Left. Right. Drag.

  The center leg had some movement, but it was as if it was numb. It moved in a jerky sequence all its own, out of synch and thus hauled along, scraping toe across the floor.

  They were coming to Keats.

  The left foot stepped in Keats’s blood. Corpuscles surged up and around the biots, finding them even in the depths of the channel. The biots powered on through their creator’s own blood, red Frisbees clinging to spiky feet and clustering on biot bellies.

  “Make him sit up,” Charles ordered. “Remove the gag.”

  Instantly, rough hands grabbed Keats and hauled him almost to his feet before slamming him on his butt.

  The feet were immobile. The biots rushed over and through blood to the end of the channel and turned the corner onto the toe, and Benjamin said, “I don’t feel right, brother.”

  Keats stared up into the faces of the Twins.

  He knew better than to be horrified by mere deformity. He’d had a teacher once with paddle arms no more than twelve inches long, a birth defect, and so he knew not to stare, and he certainly knew better than to shudder and pull back and lose for a moment his ability to take a breath.

  But this was something out of a nightmare. This was no mere deformity. This was Satan playing with DNA.

  Charles’s eye glared pure hatred at him. Benjamin’s eye was filling with tears. And the third eye, soulless, dead, devoid of spark, wandered before at last focusing on him. He saw the brown iris contract.

  “You’ll tell me now where the girl is,” Charles said in a low voice.

  Keats should have said something pithy and defiant. He didn’t. His mouth wasn’t working.

  “You’re a handsome one, aren’t you?” Charles asked. “My brother and I have not had that particular advantage in life. Tell me, boy: What’s it like to have that face? What’s it like to have women look at you and admire you?”

  “Speak up!” Sugar said. Her voice betrayed her own fear. And someone, Keats didn’t see who, buried a toe in his kidney and made him cry out in pain.

  “Do you have a knife, Ms. Lebowski?” Charles asked.

  “A knife? I … No, sir.”

  “I do,” a male voice said. There came the snicker-snack sound of a Swiss Army knife opening.

  “Promote this one; I like a man who is prepared,” Charles said to Sugar. “Give the knife to Ms. Lebowski. Ms. Lebowski, what part of a man’s face attracts you?”

  “I … the … the eyes,” Sugar stammered.

  Biots were on top of the shoe now. Too far. They would never climb that towering body in time to do any good.

  “No, we can’t take his eyes, Ms. Lebowski. How would he be able to appreciate what had happened to his face if we took his eyes?” The faces, the eyes, scanned the surface of Keats’s face and focused at last on his nose.

  “Will the girls think he’s pretty with his nose cut off, Ms. Lebowski?”

  “Jesus … I,” she said.

  “Let him feel the blade,” Charles said, his voice guttural now.

  Sugar pressed the blade against the side of Keats’s nose. He could see it. He could feel it. His heart hammered in terror. He tried to twist away but powerful hands imprisoned his skull.

  “No, no, don’t do it, miss,” Keats begged.

  “Then tell me where to find the McLure,” Charles grated.

  The knife would slice through flesh. It would cut his nose and hesitate at the cartilage but it would cut and cut away and his nose would fall to the floor, a useless piece of dead flesh and he would forever—

  “Now!” Charles roared. “Tell me now!”

  “I don’t know where—”

  “Cut off his nose! Cut him! Do it!”

  “I—” Sugar said.

  “Cut off his nose or you’ll lose your own!”

  “He’s a kid!” Sugar begged.

  “I don’t know where she is!” Keats pleaded.

  “Don’t hit me, Granddad!” Benjamin cried.

  “Shut your mouth, Brother! Cut him now!”

  But even as Charles bellowed, his body was jerked away. The Twins stumbled back, and through eyes filled with tears, Keats saw Benjamin flailing madly, swatting at something no one but he could see.

  “Brother!” Charles cried.

  It was a lunatic dance, two halves of the joined body struggling, staggering, slipping in the blood.

  The Twins stumbled back into the desk, which scooted away so that they fell hard on their behind, and Keats felt the impact through his biots and the blade slid away from Keats’s nose, and Benjamin, in a child’s voice, kept saying, “Communists!”

  Then Charles roared in frustration. He swatted at his brother’s head but couldn’t reach. He swatted with arms too short to reach across the width of his own body and shouted, “Control yourself! Control yourself!” as he lost the last of his own control and now flailed, tried to pull himself up and ended in knocking the whole desk over.

  Pens and phone and dog treats and a soft-drink bottle all slid to the floor. The touch-screen desk lay on its side, still displaying the battle inside the president.

  Charles got his hand on the drink bottle, holding it awkwardly by the fat end, and jabbed it now, hit his brother’s face with it, and blood gushed suddenly from Benjamin’s mouth even as he kept yelling, “Communists! Communists!”

  “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

  Charles bashed his brother’s mouth. A tooth bent inward and gushed blood. The lips were jagged and red.

  “He’s going to hurt Benjamin,” Sugar said. “We have to stop it.”

  She moved fast, whipped out plastic ties, the same as the ones that held Keats, grabbed Charles’s hammering hand and using her full weight, pushed it down.

  “Get off me, you cow!”

  “Standing orders,
sir: we step into a fight between you two. Your own orders.”

  “He’s let them take him. They’re inside him, and he’s let them do it. He’s weak! He’s always been weak!”

  She put her knee on the hand, yanked the chair close, and fastened Charles’s hand to the crossbar.

  “Following your own orders, sir,” Sugar pleaded, but she didn’t look as if she believed it. She was darting glances at the door, like she was counting steps, like the elevator door a hundred feet away was the doorway to paradise.

  Benjamin was weeping now, blubbering like a baby.

  “He’s here!” one of the TFDs yelled, and Army Pete, a teenaged boy wearing a droopy army surplus jacket, was practically hurled into the room.

  Sugar said, “What the hell took so long? You, twitcher! You’re going in.”

  Army Pete was a mediocre twitcher and a first-rate smart-ass. But he knew enough as he surveyed the scene—the bloody boy on the floor and, far worse, the terrifying spectacle of a handcuffed Charles still trying to beat a raving Benjamin—to avoid favoring everyone with his wit.

  “Got a twitcher chair? I can’t do shit without my gear.”

  “Damn!” Sugar yelled. “Get a chair up here. Now!”

  Army Pete started to object, but no one heard him for the rush of TFDs racing to comply. Or at least racing to get the hell out of the Tulip.

  THIRTY

  “I’m with you, Vincent,” Nijinsky said.

  With him on the street, holding his friend, propping him against a wall.

  And with him now as his two fresh, undamaged biots ran to the rescue.

  “Too late,” Vincent whispered.

  Nijinsky stared across a half centimeter of space that felt like a city block, at Bug Man’s forces. Two of the nanobots were slowly, maliciously dismembering Vincent’s biot.

  Nijinsky felt each ripped limb through the shuddering form of his friend.

  Eleven of Bug Man’s nanobots.

  Two of Nijinsky’s biots.

  Maybe. Maybe. But Nijinsky was not Vincent. He would almost certainly lose, and if he lost, then he would be where Vincent was now: a shattered man, helpless and vulnerable.

  Bug Man did not attack. Bug Man did not want this battle, either. He didn’t need it. By now his spinners would be deep within the president’s brain.

  The two of them stared at each other through alien eyes, Bug Man and Nijinsky.

  Nijinsky made his lead biot open its arms in supplication.

  Bug Man’s nanobots stood still for a long minute, doing nothing at all.

  Then they lifted the body of Vincent’s second biot and shoved it through the fluid. It floated on the current, and Nijinsky was able to grab what was left.

  Carrying the legless, eyeless, mutilated body, he turned and ran away.

  Up in the world of streets and skyscrapers, Vincent said, “Jin … Jin …”

  “Yes, Vincent.”

  “Take me to Anya.”

  When they found her, Plath had two pins left, and no more than a single long strand of wire.

  She had built a cat’s cradle of pins and wires in Benjamin’s brain. It extended across roughly one square centimeter of the hippocampus. It would take an experienced nanobot twitcher no time to find her, but quite a while to actually reach her.

  But in the macro her time was up. Someone had finally had the sense to question the two bums who had flushed Keats. And some bright AmericaStrong thug had decided it was time to take a closer look at the Dumpster.

  The lid flew open and powerful hands dug down into the trash until one of those hands closed over an ankle.

  Then there were loud cries and warnings, and Plath was hauled bodily up and out, dropped onto the ground, and kicked once very hard in the stomach.

  In the elevator going up to the Tulip they decided she needed roughing up. She took a backhand to the face that split her lip. They didn’t want the bosses thinking they had gone soft.

  The elevator door opened onto a scene of wild contrasts. Within the soaring heights of the Tulip the Twins had built a world. Offset layers of platforms hung overhead—bedrooms, bathrooms, display rooms—each connected by a short, double-width escalator. The ground floor was thirty-six thousand square feet, most of it sunk in gloom. But she had glances of amazing things back in the unlit distance: what could only be a tank, an entire carousel, a Predator drone hanging from wires, large animal cages, a firing range.

  But the space directly before her, the corner of the cavernous room, was what fascinated. Half a dozen TFDs. A woman who looked as if she had just stepped out of the J. Crew catalog by way of a spa. A massive desk that had been overturned so that she could see the screens built into its surface, and see a nano battle raging, and an entire Christmas tree of police and fire department lights at the UN, and other things she didn’t recognize.

  She saw them, the Armstrong Twins, as broad as two men, tall, powerfully built, but fused together in a way that made the mind rebel.

  TFDs were manhandling a massive chair, like the world’s highest-tech La-Z-Boy. Others were hauling monitors, trailing wire, searching for an electrical outlet.

  Keats sat on the floor. The beagle sniffed at the pool of his blood.

  The TFDs threw her down beside Keats.

  “You didn’t have to bring the chair up here,” a kid in an army jacket objected. “I could have run it from downstairs.”

  “What?” the J. Crew woman demanded.

  Army Pete shrugged. “Dude, I just needed someone to act as a pathway. One of your guys could have come downstairs; I could have put my boys on him, right? And then—”

  He fell silent in the face of Sugar’s blazing fury. “You could have told me.”

  “I figured you understood how—”

  “Communists,” Benjamin wept as if it was the saddest word in the world.

  Keats, sitting in his own blood just a few inches from Plath, held her gaze, and then looked over his shoulder. Plath followed the direction of his eyes. She saw his hands, bound as hers were with a plastic tie.

  His wrists were red. He was using the gruesome lubrication to work his hands free. Plath saw cuts. The meat of one thumb was lacerated deeply. But his hands were almost free.

  Charles yanked at his own captured arm and almost hit himself with the chair. “You can let me up now, Ms. Lebowski,” he said. “I have control of myself. I won’t harm my brother.”

  Sugar Lebowski, Plath realized. Nijinsky had briefed them all on her. She almost smiled now recalling his description of: “a bleached, Botoxed, boob-jobbed suburban mommy with a stick up her ass and a gun in her purse.”

  “Yes, sir,” Sugar said. But Plath heard hesitation.

  Keats saw her. He tried to show nothing, but Keats didn’t have a poker face. He was afraid for her. He was sad to have failed in his brave effort to save her.

  She wanted to tell him that she would rather be here with him than alone. She wanted to tell him that she would share his fate. That she was no more afraid than he was.

  But the truth was that she was sick with fear. Her limbs were stiff. She couldn’t stop blinking. Her lungs were unable to draw enough breath, as though she were being squeezed in a vice. The corners of her mouth were weighted, her tongue was a foreign object, her hands trembled.

  She saw then the livid bruising and battered lips of the right half of the Armstrong Twins. Benjamin. She remembered that. He was the right half.

  He was shaking. He was yanking the shared head. His eye was wild, not with rage but with some unreadable emotion.

  Charles was straining to look complaisant, to seem normal. It was a sort of Janus mask, and like that mythical, two-faced Roman god, Charles and Benjamin were striving to look in different directions. They were facing the same way but seeing very different things.

  So she was in Benjamin’s brain.

  She had twisted enough circuits to push him to malfunction. She had knocked him off the rails. Her biots were like a computer virus, disrupting and
confusing, firing off synaptic signals that went to the wrong places.

  That knowledge did not make her less afraid.

  Charles looked past Sugar and her hesitation and saw Plath. “You would be Sadie,” he purred.

  Every eye turned. Except for Benjamin.

  “It will be a great pleasure to welcome you to our great work,” Charles said.

 
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