Bzrk, p.5
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       Bzrk, p.5

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
 

  Vincent did not get that image this time. Not in candlelight and soft, yellow fluorescence. He just saw the pupil as a black, circular lake, growing wider as the snake muscles of the iris shortened themselves fractionally.

  The biot was 400 microns—less than half a millimeter—long and equally tall. But the m-sub feel of it—the image a biot runner experienced—how it felt to him, made it seem to be about seven feet long and almost that tall. To the twitcher it felt like something the size of a large SUV.

  In mack it was the size of a healthy dust mite. But when you’re a dust mite, you don’t feel tiny. You feel big.

  As the eyelid reached its apogee, V2 jumped off. The biot landed on the milky sea, then flattened itself down as the eyelid zoomed away, hesitated, then came sweeping back overhead like a gooey pink blanket.

  Vincent thought, Light, and Lo! There was light. Twin phosphorescing organs on the biot’s head spread ultraviolet light.

  He waited for the eyelid to come back up again, ate another bite of poppadom, jabbed a single leg into the underside of the eyelid and let it pull it up and over the slick eyeball, and sipped his water.

  It was quite a ride. And as Vincent watched the waiter refill his glass he felt a frisson, a sort of echo of what V2 felt, its back sliding along the slickery surface of the eyeball.

  The trick with entering the brain by way of the eye was to reach the hole at the back of the bony eye socket. It was possible for a biot to cut through bone, but it was never quick or safe. It was the kind of thing that would start a firestorm of bodily defenses.

  Reaching the hole—Vincent had forgotten the official name for it—was best done by circumnavigating the eyeball. In the m-sub it was a long walk. And all of it through the dragging wetness of tears and the vertiginous movements of the orb looking this way or that.

  The two other paths to the brain—through the ear or the nose—had bigger difficulties. Earwax and the distinct possibility of a watery blockage in the one, and unimaginable filth in the other: pollen, mucus, all manner of microfauna and microflora.

  This was better. For one thing you could, if you chose, sink a probe into the optic nerve and get some macro optics—see a bit of what the target was seeing, though it was usually very rough gray scale.

  The second greatest threat to a biot was getting lost. When you were the size of a mite, the human body was the equivalent of roughly five miles from end to end. So V2 dutifully made its way around the eyeball, squeezed between membranes, became a bit disoriented, before finally reaching the optic nerve just as Vincent’s dinner was being placed before him.

  And then, quite suddenly, he came across not the second greatest, but the single greatest threat to a biot.

  They attacked with blazing speed, wheels spinning but still getting traction on the eyeball. He saw three of them immediately as they raced around from behind the redwood tree of the optic nerve.

  Which answered the question of whether Professor Liselotte Osborne—leading expert on nanotechnology, consultant to MI5, the woman who could either push or derail the security agency’s investigation into nanotechnology—was free or infested.

  Two more nanobots were behind V2.

  Five to one odds. Although if he hung around for long, more would be on the way.

  Who was the twitcher? Vincent watched the way the nanobots moved in. Too reckless. And platooned into two packs, mixing relatively benign spinners and fighters. Not an experienced hand. Not Bug Man. Not Burnofsky. Not even the new one, what was it she called herself? One-Up. Yeah. Not her, either. All of them could run five nanobots as individuals, rather than two platoons.

  Vincent tasted the curry. Very hot.

  He chewed carefully. It was important to chew thoroughly. It helped digestion, and digestion was often a problem during these long trips across multiple time zones.

  And at the same time Vincent spun V2 toward the two nanobots he wasn’t supposed to have noticed.

  Vincent took no pleasure in the food, but he came as close to pleasure as he ever did when he stabbed a cutter claw into the nearest nanobot, right into its comm link, and spilled nanowire.

  Vincent’s phone pulsed.

  Only one person could ring him and always get through.

  He pulled his phone out and looked at the text. His concentration wavered, and he very nearly lost two of V2’s legs to a low scythe cut from a nanobot.

  Grey & Stone confirmed dead. Sadie injured/OK.

  Vincent was not good at experiencing pleasure. Unfortunately he was perfectly able to experience grief, loss, and rage.

  He had set aside the first news of the crash. He had stuck it in a compartment. He was on a mission, he had to focus, and from long experience he knew not to trust news reports. Maybe Grey McLure had not been on the plane. Maybe.

  This, however, came from Lear. If Lear said it, it was true.

  Vincent texted back, missing a couple of letters as he jammed a sharp leg into the vulnerable leg joint of the second nanobot and watched it crumple.

  But more nanobots were coming. A new platoon of six.

  Tgt LO infst. Engaged. Withdrfing.

  If he had two biots in this, he might fight this battle and win. With three he’d be confident. But this was a losing fight.

  A follow-up text from Lear: Carthage.

  Vincent stared at the word. No, no, no. This was not his thing. This was not what he did.

  A beam weapon cut one of his six legs. The cut didn’t go all the way through, but it snapped off. It wouldn’t slow him much, but it would throw off the biot’s equilibrium.

  This was not the time to stay and play smack-the-nanobot and maybe lose. It was time for extraction, and as quickly as possible.

  Carthage.

  Carthage. The Roman Empire’s great enemy. Until the Romans conquered it; murdered or enslaved every man, woman, and child; burned every building to the ground; then sowed the earth with salt so that nothing would ever grow there again.

  Carthago delenda est. It had been a slogan in Rome: Carthage must be destroyed.

  Vincent wiped his mouth with his napkin.

  He pushed back his chair.

  V2 turned and ran from the four near and many farther-off nanobots. More were scurrying down the optic nerve. They weren’t a problem: using their four legs, the nanobots were slower than a biot. Only when they had a fairly smooth surface could the nanobots switch to their single wheel and outrun a biot.

  Unfortunately the eyeball was perhaps the ultimate smooth surface.

  V2 motored its legs at full speed. Back around the eyeball.

  Vincent made his way slowly across the room toward Liselotte Osborne.

  V2 waited until two of the nanobots were close enough to open fire. Their fléchettes ate a second leg away.

  Vincent felt the echo of the pain in his own leg.

  V2 sprayed sulfuric acid to the left and right simultaneously. It wouldn’t kill the nanobots, but it would slow them, bog them down in puddles of melting flesh. And even on just four legs and dragging stumps he could maybe outrun the remaining nanobots.

  Liselotte Osborne cried out suddenly.

  “Oh! Oh!”

  She pressed fingers over her eye.

  “What is it?” one of the men asked, alarmed.

  V2 was nearly crushed by the pressure, but Osborne’s fingers were to the north of it now, blocking the nanobots, and V2 had a clear path ahead.

  “My eye! Something is in my eye. It’s rather painful.”

  Vincent moved smoothly forward. “I’m a doctor; it could be a stroke. We need to lay this woman down.”

  Funny how effective the phrase “I’m a doctor” can be.

  Vincent eased Osborne from her chair and laid her flat on her back. He crouched over her, pushed her hand gently away from her face, and touched the surface of her eye with his finger.

  Through V2’s optics he saw the massive wall of ridged flesh descending from the sky and ran to meet it.

  Vincent’s free hand w
ent into his pocket and came out, unnoticed, holding something black that might have been an expensive pen. He pressed the end of it against the base of Osborne’s skull.

  V2 leapt onto the finger just as two nanobots emerged in the clear from the acid cloud.

  Vincent pressed the clip on the pen and springs pushed three inches of tungsten-steel blade into Osborne’s medulla.

  Vincent gave the blade a half-twist then pressed the clip again and withdrew what looked for all the world exactly like a nice Mont Blanc.

  “This woman needs help,” Vincent said.

  V2 ran up the length of his finger and dug barbs into his flesh.

  Vincent stood up abruptly. “I’m going to summon an ambulance.” He turned and walked toward the exit.

  It would be ten minutes before Liselotte Osborne’s friends and coworkers realized the doctor had not summoned anyone or anything at all. And by then the pool of blood beneath her head had grown quite large, and she was no longer complaining of pain in her eye.

  SIX

  Vincent was already in the air on his way back to the States, Nijinsky was relaxing with a drink at his London hotel and betting that Noah would show up for testing the next day, and Burnofsky was halfway through a bottle of vodka and thinking about his pipe, by the time Bug Man arrived home and found Jessica waiting for him.

  She was standing three steps up on the stoop, bouncing a little to keep warm. She was two years older than he was, eighteen, from one of those East African countries, Ethiopia or Somalia, he could never remember which.

  She had possibly the longest legs he had ever seen. She was taller than he was. And all parts of her were perfect. Crazy full lips and big, light brown eyes, and skin like warm silk, and hair in sort of loose, curly dreads that dangled down over her forehead and tickled Bug Man’s face when she was on top and kissing him.

  “Hi, babe,” Bug Man said. “You must be freezing.”

  “You’ll warm me up,” she teased, stepped down the stairs and held her arms open for him.

  A kiss. A really good kiss, with steam coming from their lips and all her body heat transferring straight to his body, warming him through and through.

  “You could have gone in to wait for me,” he said.

  “Your mother doesn’t like me much,” Jessica said, not complaining.

  He shrugged.

  The Bug Man lived with his mother and her sister, Aunt Benicia, in Park Slope, up closer to Flatbush. The neighborhood was mostly white, well-off, infested by people in what was left of the publishing business. Writers and editors and so on. People who would go out of their way to smile at the black teenager with the strangely Asian eyes and the wide smile. They wanted him to know he was welcome. Despite, you know, being a black teenager in an upscale white neighborhood.

  Bug Man didn’t live in one of the three-story townhomes the latte creatures spent small fortunes decorating. He and his little family had a nice three-bedroom, second floor, with too few windows and an inconvenient single bathroom. They’d lived there since moving to the States from London eight years ago. After Bug Man’s father had died of a stroke.

  Aunt Benicia had some style, and Bug Man’s mother, Vallie Elder, had been careful investing the money from his father’s life insurance. And of course Bug Man kicked in a bit from his well-paying job in the city.

  He was a video-game tester for the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation. That’s what he told people. And how was anyone to know any different? Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation, you could Google it. They’d been in business since, like, the Civil War. You could go into one of their stores in malls or airport shopping areas. Bug Man could point out some of the games he had tested. There they were in the store or on the Web site.

  Bug Man led Jessica inside. “It’s me,” he yelled. Preoccupied, his mother called back something from the direction of the kitchen. If Aunt Benicia was home, she said nothing.

  “You want anything to eat?” Bug Man asked.

  “Mmm-hmm,” Jessica said, breathing into his neck.

  Oh, yeah, that worked for Bug Man. That still made his heart miss a couple of beats. It had been a lot of complicated spinner work, hundreds of hours twitching his spinner-bots, identifying and cauterizing her inhibition centers. And then implanting images of the Bug Man in her visual memory and tying them with wire or pulse transmitters to her pleasure centers.

  Exhausting work, since he had had to do it all on his own time. But so worth it. The girl was his. If Bug Man was honest, he’d admit he was maybe a six or seven on the looks scale. Jessica was off the scale. People on the street would see them together, and their jaws would drop and they’d get that “Life isn’t fair,” look, or maybe begin to form that “Man, what has that guy got going on?” question.

  That was why his mum didn’t really like Jessica. She figured Jessica had to be after his money. As much as she loved her son, she knew better than to think it was his charm or his body.

  Bug Man had an encrypted transmitter in his pocket, an innocuous key chain. He squeezed it and unlocked the door of his room.

  With what he made at his job, the Bug Man’s room could have been a high-tech haven—plasma TVs and the latest electronic toys. But Bug Man got plenty of that at work. His room was a Zen sanctuary. A simple double bed, white sheets and a white headboard, the mattress centered on an ebony platform that seemed almost to float in the center of the room.

  There was a cozy seating area with two black-leather-and-chrome armchairs angled in on a small tea table.

  His desk, really just a simple table of elegant proportions, bore the weight of his somewhat old-fashioned computer—he couldn’t very well be completely cut off from the world—but was concealed from view by a mahogany windowpane shoji screen.

  The real high tech in the room was all concealed from view. A sensor bar was imbedded in the edges of his door. It scanned the floor and doorjamb at a very high refresh rate, looking for anything at the nano level. The same technology was embedded in the window and in the walls around the electrical sockets.

  The nanoscan technology wasn’t very good—lots of false positives. People who lived their whole lives in the macro didn’t know a tenth of what was crawling around down there in the floor dust.

  And in any case, at the nano level the walls and baseboards were like sieves. But in Bug Man’s experience a twitcher would take the easy way in if possible—door, window, or riding on a biological. A “biological” being a human or a cat or dog, which explained why Bug Man didn’t let Aunt Benicia’s yappy little dog into his room.

  The big weakness of nanobot technology was the need for a control station. Biots could be controlled brain to bot, but nanobots needed computer-assist and gamma-ray communication. Close and direct was best. Via repeaters if necessary, though the repeaters were notoriously glitchy.

  Which meant that Bug Man took some risks being here in an insecure place. The alternative was having another twitcher running security on him day and night. That was not happening. Damned if he was letting one of those guys tap his optics and watch while he and Jessica were going at it.

  Bug Man gave up enough for his job. He wasn’t giving up Jessica. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Those legs? Those lips? The things she did?

  The work he had invested in her?

  No, there were limits to what he’d do for the Twins. And there were limits to what the Twins could demand, because when it came down to battle in some pumping artery or up in someone’s brain, throwing down in desperate battle with Kerouac or Vincent—wait. He’d forgotten: Kerouac was out. Kind of a shame, really. Kerouac had serious game.

  Well, as long as Vincent was still twitching and still undefeated, the Twins couldn’t say shit to Bug Man.

  So, no, the Bug Man was not going to let some other newbie nanobot handler crawl up inside him while Jessica was crawling all over him. Sorry. Not happening.

  Jessica shivered a little but shed her coat.

  Bug Man locked the doo
r.

  “What do you want today, baby?” Bug Man asked, pulling her toward him.

  “Whatever you want,” she whispered.

  “Yeah. I thought you might say that.”

  A soft trilling sound came from behind the shoji screen. Bug Man hesitated. “No,” he said.

  The tone sounded again, louder.

  “Hell, no,” he snapped.

  “Don’t go,” Jessica said.

  “Believe me when I say I don’t want to,” Bug Man said. “Believe that. Don’t move. I mean, you can move, but mostly in a way that involves your having less clothing on. Let me just go see what this is.”

 
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