The Quantum Suicides, first half
A Whateley Academy 2nd Generation Tale
The Quantum Suicides
--- Wednesday, August 10th, 2016, Washington D.C.
Dr. Derek Speers entered the chamber several minutes ahead of schedule, well before anyone else. He had a natural nervousness about new places, and that this one was an official government meeting hall did not calm him for an instant. A few minutes to familiarize himself, that was all he needed, and he took advantage of post-lunch tardiness to come to terms with his surroundings. The room was quiet, austere, with none of the grandeur or even largesse he'd come to expect of Congressional architecture. There was a wide arc of comfortable chairs placed behind a series of long tables. Those were for the committee members; he wouldn't have the luxury of sitting for the next few hours. His place was front and center, standing on display like some horrible parody of a university professor set to serve as a warning for all. His mother would have been quite comfortable here, but Dr. Speers the younger had no such experience to fall back on. His brand of science was not the sort that was taught in most reasonable universities. This was in fact the reason he was here, to stand and report before the Senate Committee on Public Use and Safety of Devises.
He set up his laptop computer and synced it with the display monitors. Everything had to be in order, had to work properly at the outset, or else they wouldn't take him or his work seriously. That was one of the dangers of working with devises, which by definition operated on the fringe of science as everyone understood it -- if the damned things didn't go completely over the edge. Speers couldn't control how the committee members thought about such things, whether they thought of them as useful oddities or dangerous mad science, but he did have some say in how they thought of him.
So it was that he'd groomed himself to a tee for this presentation, carefully shaving away the four-day stubble of his last bout of technomania and getting the shortest haircut he'd had in years. He had a new suit for the occasion, business-like but obviously modeled on a labcoat, white with black trim. It was probably the closest thing he'd worn to a costume since high school. When the senators filed in like tardy schoolboys, they found him ready, with black hair unruffled and pince-nez in place. Violet eyes swept across the assembled dignitaries, betraying no sign of their master's nerves.
"Thank you for your time, sirs," he began. "I am here to present the findings and results of DARPA project LIFELINE. Before we begin, has everyone had a chance to look over the precis which was sent to your offices?" he asked, knowing that most had not. Only Senator Larson nodded, out of the eight assembled. "Then, with your permission, let us start with a history of the project."
His slideshow was already set for this, and figure 1a appeared on the big screen. It was a mugshot of a man in his late forties, and less flattering than most. The face was dominated by a beaky nose and prominent Adam's apple, which between them seemed to split his head between two acute angles, keeping his mouth open and slightly adenoidal. It was topped with the sort of hairstyle usually received by sticking random digits in light sockets. The clothes were haggard and unkempt, with a dozen stains visible just around the collar. More than ever, Speers appreciated Myra's nagging on his appearance. The less he resembled this caricature of mad science, the better.
"Here we have Eusebius Feltch," he said as the slideshow cycled through various images of the same man, labeled 1b through 1g. "Awarded his first doctorate in physics from MIT at the age of twenty, he then promptly went off his meds and onto the rolls of mad science. Between 1986 and 2005, he was active under the pseudonym Schrodinger Maxwell, apparently as an homage to his two greatest inspirations. All of his devises involved some strange interpretation of quantum physics, such as the tunneler he used to phase through bank walls. What interests us today is this."
Figure 2a: a blueprint for a devise, looking like something a little more than a phone booth and a little less than a full TARDIS.
"Will the Doctor be visiting later?" asked Senator Larson, who'd also spotted the resemblance. Speers had met with him before on other matters, and this confirmed for him that at least one politician out there was someone he could work with.
"The doctor? Who is that?" The same could not be said for the good senator from Speers' home state of Ohio. Even the other senators, all somber elder statesmen, were looking askance at Senator Murtaugh for that one. Speers was happy to say he hadn't voted for the man.
"Who, indeed," was his reply, earning him a friendly wink from Sen. Larson. "Schrodinger Maxwell referred to this as his magic box, and true to form he never gave it a more official name."
"Why not call it Schrodinger's Box, then?" asked Sen. Murtaugh, trying to recover from his earlier faux pas. It was doubtful the man knew what his misstep had actually been, but he was savvy enough to realize it had happened.
"Partly because that would be too easy, and partly because it would be inaccurate," Speers replied. "Everyone knows of Schrodinger’s cat. It's one of the most famous thought experiments of the twentieth century, as well as one of the least well understood by laymen. However, this box is based around a different thought experiment." He tapped a key on his laptop, and figure 3a appeared. In it, the drawn figure of a woman was sitting on a stool across from a small box on a tripod, not unlike an old-fashioned camera.
"This thought experiment was conceived as a means of testing the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Inside the box is a gun, along with a device which measures the spin value of a random proton every ten seconds. This value has a fifty-fifty chance of being one or the other. If the measured value is in one direction, then it signals the gun to fire. Thus, in half of all possible worlds, the subject shall live, and in half she shall die. The experiment may continue for as long as the subject has the nerve, with one half of her possible selves dying every ten seconds. Statistically, if the subject should survive two minutes of this, it would more or less prove the many worlds interpretation as viable, if only to that universe."
"And what are the odds of that happening?" asked Sen. Huff from Wyoming.
"Incredibly small, which is why it remains an experiment in thought only. Commonly it is referred to as the quantum suicide experiment, and with good reason. No one in their right mind would ever try it, not even Schrodinger Maxwell. He was just mad enough, however, to think of testing it in reverse."
Figure 4a: the magic box, no longer a blueprint or diagram but the actual thing itself. If a vacuum tube could be crossed with a Tesla coil, and then the whole thing was turned inside out so that all the wires and filaments were external, and then compounded a dozen times over, that would look a little like this devise.
"The idea was the same: that in every instance of quick and sudden demise, under binary life/death circumstances, there would be a splitting of realities, a parting of ways between he who died and he who did not. Given the proper coordinates in time and space, the magic box would collect the quantum image of that survivor and make it real. In essence, a clone with all the memories and physical characteristics of the original."
"Ridiculous!" cried Sen. Murtaugh. "Are we supposed to believe this sort of, of mad science could actually work?"
"Simmer down, son," said Larson, staring the junior senator into submission. "You're new on this committee, so let me tell you that this is far from the weirdest devise we've reviewed. The fact that Dr. Speers here is involved is enough to tell me it has worked at least once in the past." The senior politician nodded his way. "Speers has built up a good reputation for working with other people's inventions. If he says it works, then it does."
"Hmph, trusting the word of a mutant." And right there was the reason why he'd not voted for Murtaugh -- the man was a rising star in the Rights of Man movement. Murtaugh had also been one of the first to use the refined metagene screenings to "prove" his baseline credentials with his constituency. That he was now on a secret Senate committee dedicated to mostly mutant-built oddities was a sign of how weird Washington politics could be. Speers would be worried about the outcome of this meeting if he weren't aiming to shut down the project himself.
"There's a reason my old codename was Retrofit," he said. "And there's also a reason why this project went through five different pairs of hands before mine. These reasons happen to dovetail neatly, and so I was given control of LIFELINE a year ago. DARPA received the magic box in 2006, not long after its creator's demise, and --"
"Wait a minute," interrupted Murtaugh, again. "How'd he die if the thing could keep bringing him back. Wouldn't that make him immortal?"
"An excellent question," he said, using the same tones his mother used to congratulate a particularly slow pupil. "Much like the original thought experiment, the box assumes -- requires, in fact -- a binary situation. Either the subject lives, or he dies. Lingering deaths, such as those caused by disease or other complications, result in error messages. Attempts to bypass this restriction proved to be... messy. The inventor himself succumbed to a variety of different cancers, possibly brought on by transcription errors during the process. Such errors," he hastened to add before Murtaugh could get another word in, "are the reason for these experiments. Early attempts to get the box working again resulted in much higher error rates, with correspondingly gruesome results. Even in the hands of its creator, the chances of error were small but definite, though you'd have to abuse the box the way Schrodinger Maxwell did to get the full effect. By the time he retired, the man was using this devise as a central part of his escape plans. With the aid of GPS tracking, he could let himself be killed, or even kill himself, in the middle of a robbery, then pop out of the box not long after with anything he might have been holding at the time. He made a killing selling industrial secrets, but when that happens every other week, then the errors begin piling up."
"Moving on," said Larson. "Now that we've covered the project history sufficiently for everyone to understand." The Senator from Wisconsin did not bother to hide his look of contempt towards Murtaugh. "How have the current round of trials fared?"
"It took a few months to get it to cooperate, but this summer we had three successful operations. Here," he said, bring up figure 5a: a yearbook photo of a young man, quite overweight and beridden by acne, but otherwise normal with brown hair and eyes. "Subject number one is Chester Ferris, age fourteen and a half. Committed suicide November 15, 2013. Chosen for his proximity to the labs, the fairly precise time of death in the official reports, and because we could retrieve all his personal effects from the police station for comparison. In fact, Chester turned out to be an excellent first run..."
--- Friday, November 15th, 2013
Chester had read somewhere that the prospect of death had a real clarifying effect on the brain. Like, it put things in perspective, what was important and what was not. Dad, the bullies, even her... all his problems receded into the background as at this particular moment in time, his brain had seized upon the most important fact of his life: that he should not be heading face-first into the pavement at near-terminal velocity.
But that's what you get for jumping off a water tower. Clarity of thought and no take-backs. His attention was firmly on that little patch of concrete down below that got bigger and bigger until --
--- Monday, June 20th, 2016
He woke up with a start. What had just happened? He shook his head back and forth, expecting to hear the jumble of broken glass or some other sound effect that fit the disconnected scramble between his ears. Something did not click, did not follow or connect properly. It was like some weird jump-cut in a movie, where the before and after bits didn't really match, and the audience was left wondering if something vital had been left out.
Okay, before and after. His brain sloshed around for a moment, then produced one singular memory: free-fall and impending doom. Yeah, that one was hard to forget. Looking around now, he had to wonder how he'd come from point omega to wherever here was. The "here" in question was a bedroom, or maybe a hospital room. It had that coldly generic vibe to it, all neutral colors and bare bones furniture. He didn't see any medical charts of other stuff lying around though. Nothing really screamed institutional besides the lack of decor. There wasn't even an IV drip by his bed, and he figured all hospitals were like constitutionally required to have those.
So maybe a hospital, maybe not. That didn't help much, especially since his own memory was giving him plenty of details as to why he should be dead now.
Oh, his clothes were different. Instead of the t-shirt, baggy jeans, and jacket of his last memories, he had on a medical gown of some sort. Score one point for the hospital theory. Quickly he felt all over for signs of pain, or bruising, or scars -- anything that would give some clue how he jumped from oh-God-gonna-die to here. Nothing, nada, zilch, zero. Even his hair seemed to be the same length. Nails looked the same, too, and there was that scab from where Marty Yunker had got him with a pencil last week, so he could probably count out being in a coma as well. Maybe.
"You're awake," came a voice from the door. He hadn't even noticed it open, but there was now a woman in the room, dressed sort of the way a nurse might look. Or so he guessed -- he didn't have much experience in hospitals, and the lady didn't have that little paper nurse's cap atop her blonde head, but she did have that no-nonsense look to her. "Good," she said, though her voice remained in neutral. "Dr. Speers shall be in shortly."
Doctor. The odds were in favor of a hospital stay once again. He wanted to get up and stretch his legs, but at the first hint of motion he was reminded that he was in a hospital gown, and the last thing he wanted was to show off his lard-ass to the world. So he kept his butt firmly planted in that bed under the stern gaze of the maybe-nurse.
"Thank you, Ms. Wilkins," the doctor said as he entered. At least, Chester assumed the man was the doctor, though he hoped he was mistaken. The man -- Dr. Speers, she'd said? -- was a beanpole, all skin, bones, and nerves by the look of him. His face was unevenly patched with beard, like he'd stopped in mid-shave on multiple occasions and forgotten to finish up later. His black hair looked like it had been cut with a weed-whacker, and there were so many stains on his white coat that it might as well have been plaid.
He really, really, really hoped this wasn't his doctor. Otherwise he'd have to talk to Dad about switching HMOs or something.
The doctor (?) pulled a computer tablet from his pocket, as well as a ... tricorder? The thing was the size of a makeup compact and folded out like a clam shell, and it really did resemble the famous Star Trek gizmo. As the doctor plugged it into the tablet and proceeded to examine him, he concluded it must work the same as well. It made a buzzing sound as it passed over his skin, making the hair on his arm tingle and stand on end.
It went on like this for maybe half an hour, with the maybe-doctor poking, prodding, and occasionally zapping him. Chester suffered the indignity with growing unease. Whoever this guy was, he'd yet to make any sound longer than a "hmm." If he hadn't greeted the maybe-nurse at the very beginning, Chester might've thought he was mute. Finally, curiosity won out over embarrassment and confusion, allowing him to ask, "What's going on here?"
The maybe-doctor jumped, dropping all his toys to clatter on the floor. Had he forgotten Chester could talk? Maybe. Or maybe he'd been lost in his own little world. Chester knew how that went. That's when the bullies got you, if you weren't careful.
"Er, yes, well, um," sputtered the man, increasing the number of syllables uttered directly towards Chester by a factor of four. "Yes, everything seems normal. No signs of bruising, breakage, or deceleration trauma. Blood pressure and pulse normal..." Chester realized that even now the guy wasn't talking to him, but into a recording mike clipped to his coat.
"Um, 'scuse me?" The guy had the worst bedside manner ever. "Why don't you just ask me how I'm feeling?"
The doctor looked him in the eyes for the first time, and now it was Chester's turn to be surprised. Behind those glasses, the eyes were a deep violet, a real imperial shade of purple. Could be contacts, he thought, except for the spectacles in front of them. Freak-eyes, his dad would call them. One more reason to suspect something weird was going on.
"This isn't a hospital, is it."
"Why, um, why do you say that?" asked the man.
"It's pretty obvious. Unless Dad was right all along about that government healthcare business."
"Actually, that turned out fairly well, once the emergent AI was removed from the..." the doctor began. "Ah, nevermind. Yes. Erm, no, this is not a hospital."
"Secret mad scientist lair, then." Really, that was the only alternative that made sense to him. His host certainly fit the part.
"Hardly mad." Dr. Speers looked hurt by the allegation. "And not so secret, either. We're DARPA funded."
"So the government took my clothes?" Again, this was starting to sound like one of Dad's better crazy rants.
"Your... oh, yes, we had those sent over for analysis and cataloging. Ms. Wilkins? Would you please bring in a change of clothes for young Mr. Ferris here? Thank you." The woman already had them on hand, apparently just waiting for the word.
"How'd you know my name?" Even as he said it, he realized it was a stupid thing to ask, but things were already strange enough that he felt the "no stupid questions" rule applied. What he didn't know -- or worse, what he assumed -- could come back to bite his fat ass.
"We know everything we need to know about you." Speers tapped his tablet a few times and began to read. "Chester William Ferris, son of Charles Walter Ferris (USMC, retired) and Silvia Ferris (deceased). Born May 9th, 1999, died November 15th, 2013. Freshman at Carter High School, Calumet City, Illinois. Even have your mid-term grades here," the man noted. "Passing English, failing algebra, borderline in biology. Some positive comments from your teachers."
"Wait, wait, what?" The flow of words continued on and on, in the same dispassionate tones of someone reading off a shopping list. The supposedly not-mad scientist had made it all the way to Chester's fourth-grade science fair project, the one with the potatoes, before he could get a word in edgewise. "That part at the beginning? Where you said 'died'? Y'know, past tense?"
"Oh dear, how much do you remember?"
"I certainly don't remember dying! Just..." Just falling. Just the ground rising up to meet him. "I remember everything up to when I'm pretty sure I was going to be street pizza."
"That you were. I saw the police photos. Quite messy." They might have been discussing the weather.
Chester wanted to get angry, at least he thought he did. Or should. But that clarity of near-death had followed him into his near-life, whatever it was, so he asked the only question that really made sense to ask: "How?"
That one word, one syllable, lit a lamp behind Speers' violet eyes. "I do suppose I owe you an explanation," he said, suddenly full of energy. "Come, come. Get your clothes on, and we'll have a tour."
His brain was going to dribble out his ears any moment now, Chester thought. He just knew it. Once Dr. Speers got started on something, the man didn't stop for the world to catch up. What he needed right now was a notepad. Scratch that, he needed a stenographer. There was no way he could match the scientist for speed, even if he could spell half the words now assailing his ignorance. The only one he really recognized was "quantum," and that was because it showed up so darn often. Quantum this, quantum that, quantum everything as far as the eye could see. Quantum toilet paper in the quantum men's room too, no doubt.
At least his fat ass wasn't hanging out all over the place. Speers had provided a pair of sweatpants, underwear, and a tent-sized t-shirt for him, all in the same ugly grey. It was an improvement, sort of. If he was getting odd looks from random people in the lab, it wasn't because of his fashion sense, though.
"And this is the machine itself!" announced Speers with a great deal of pride. The box of glass and circuitry lay surrounded by a maze of cables, looking for all the world like a cyberpunk vampire's coffin. "We pulled you out of there four hours ago," Speers continued. "You were passed out from the shock, of course. Amazing that the sensation of a sudden stop didn't affect you more, really. We were a little concerned how your senses would handle going from free-fall to at rest. By our calculations, you were pulled out a fraction of a second before impact.."
"Oh, is that all." Well then, he was practically undead now. Maybe he could change his name to Draculatron 2000 or something. "Why'd you take my clothes again?"
"Had to make sure what you had then was the same as what you had now, didn't we? Your case was really a lucky one for us, actually. Everything was still in the police evidence locker."
"You grabbed it before Dad did? That was kinda... mean? I mean, family should get it first, right?"
"He had two years and five months before we stepped in. Not our fault." The man walked him down the next corridor. "Oh, here's the analysis room," Speers continued, not seeing how hard his words hit. Dad hadn't wanted his things. Somehow, this didn't surprise Chester in the least, but maybe that was the clarity talking. Things had been cool between him and his old man for years, but that was just cold, even for him.
In the analysis room were two tables, mirror images of each other in height, length, width, and contents. His favorite t-shirt, the green one with the Triforce logo in yellow, lay centered on both of them, with his blue parka to one side and jeans to the other. Hat, socks, underwear, scarf, gloves, all were positioned in neat order, making a weird symmetry. His wallet was emptied twice over, with dollar bills, school ID, and assorted paper bits laid out in a row. Even his backpack was there twice over, with notebooks and school texts currently under scrutiny.
"This is my assistant, Carlos," said Speers. By Chester's count, this was the fifth assistant he'd been introduced to in the last half hour, but he nodded along. "He's in charge of comparison and analysis. How goes it?" the scientist asked.
"We're batting a thousand so far," said assistant #5. "The serial numbers on the bills are all the same, as are the dates on the coins. Aside from blood and other fluids, both sets of clothes have the same identifying marks. And so far all the books and notes have the exact same handwriting and graffiti."
"Um, could I have my stuff back later?" Chester asked.
"Of course. As soon as Carlos is finished. Which set would you like?"
"Er. The ones without bloodstains..." It was a test of his newfound clarity not to say that with a hitch in his voice. Even so, he could feel the shakes coming on, the little tremors in his fingers and toes that he often got when life started dogpiling on him. He'd lived with it long enough to know all the signs, and it was certainly time to change topics while there was still a chance. "Can I call my dad now?" he asked. A familiar voice would really help now.
"I'm afraid not right now," said Speers, leading him away. "Your father has yet to be apprised of your current not-dead status. We didn't want to get his hopes up beforehand, and we need to keep you under observation for a while longer to make sure there aren't any lingering side effects."
"Side effects?" Clarity demanded he ask; the rest of his brain just awaited the oncoming answer with horror.
"Internal hemorrhaging, brain tumors, spastic sphincter misfunction, complete prolapsis of the internal organs, spontaneous combustion..." Speers was doing his list-reading thing again. "Everything is fine so far, but we need another week or two to be sure."
"Yeah... right..." His brain was still catching up with the list, and even the words he did not know sounded ominous. "I think... I think I'm gonna have to lie down for a bit..." And for the second time in his recent memory, the ground rose up to meet him. He didn't really feel the impact this time, either.
--- Senate Committee Meeting, Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
"And as you can see..." he concluded, gesturing to figure 6c: the doubled personal effects of one Chester Ferris, recently unceased. "The devise was able to retrieve everything in immediate contact with the subject, with ninety-nine point nine-nine percent efficiency. An examination at the microscopic level was required to find any evidence of transcription error."
"A question, if I may." Senator Ashkettle raised a hand. In front of him, his notepad was filled with scribbled equations. The man had been an astronaut, Speers recalled, and a bird colonel in the Air Force before that. The senator's question did not come as a surprise: "How does the box account for the relative distances involved? If the, er, subject died thirty-one months ago, then his, ah, point of departure would now be on the other side of the solar system, almost two astronomical units." Ashkettle checked his equations again. "I mean, assuming that space-time coordinates means what I think it to mean, then the velocity from his fall should be the least of his problems. The velocity discrepancy just from the change of orbital location would be somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty kilometers per second. That sort of stress would vaporize damn near anything I can think of."
"First, Senator, if I may?" Speers clapped slowly and deliberately. "If you ever decide to go to the private sector, I would love to work with you. As to your question..." He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I wish I could tell you how it accounts for all that, but to understand the mathematics properly would be an effort of Sisyphean proportions, fit to drive men mad. At least one of my predecessors on the project left for just that reason," he added. "Personally, I now believe the box functions much like a very specialized teleporter, at least in the matter reconstitution aspects. What it receives does not possess mass, velocity, or any other aspect of physical matter, but is instead information which it processes to create the received subject. However, that is just my educated guess. The truth could be something completely different for all we actually know."
Murtaugh snorted. "So why are you even here if you can't understand it?" If there was a sound for a sneer, it could be heard in that man's voice.
"Because it's not my job to understand it completely. It's my job to get it working with our own systems."
"But you're a mad scientist..."
"No." He was very firm with that single syllable. "I am a scientist, yes, and a technician. My MID has Gadgeteer on it, if that means anything to you, but not Devisor. I don't make the truly impossible; I merely work with the impossible things that other people have made. That is why DARPA hired me."
"You mentioned proximity being a factor..." Ashkettle prompted, bringing them back on topic.
"Yes. That was more for out convenience than the box's, to be honest. It made it easier for us to retrieve the subject's personal effects for analysis, as well as get the exact coordinates from GPS. We wanted as close to pinpoint accuracy as possible for the first trial run."
"How accurate does it need to be?" asked Sen. Larson. "That sounds like a major limiting factor."
"You would be correct there, Senator. The box requires a precision of within two meters for the location of the target, by latitude, longitude, and altitude. For the temporal co-ordinations, it has a window of approximately two minutes. Obviously, if we know the precise details of a death, the process would be simpler, but as the project was begun with the intent of reversing assassinations or retrieving key intelligence agents who were killed in action, we needed multiple trial runs to see how rigid the box's required parameters actually are. Would it allow multiple attempts to retrieve the same quantum signature, for example, in the event that the moment of death was lost within a longer time frame? What if the location or the topography of the subject's demise were more variable? With these questions in mind, we decided to go fishing."
Figure 7a: A woman in her mid-thirties, her long brown hair showing hints of silver. She was dressed for a party in a sleek blue dress and matching jacket. A pair of lapis earrings matched her eyes. Figures 7b through 7f followed the progress of the woman throughout the party, which appeared to be on the deck of a boat of some sort. There was a quiet smile on her face, like a vision of the Madonna or the Mona Lisa, but which didn't quite reflect from her blue gaze.
"Myra Paget," he said. "Born April 9th, 1970, died January 1st, 2001. A junior high school English teacher from St. Louis, Missouri. She was a guest at a New Year's Eve celebration on one of those casino river boats which work the Mississippi. Witnesses state that she was upset over something, and she may have had too much to drink, as she fell over a railing during the big countdown. At the count of three, to be precise. The casino's security team pulled her in ten minutes later, but it was too late. Records of the incident give us a fair window to aim for, but no clear moment as the time of death. The boat's own GPS system helped us determine the general section of river where she must have fallen in, but the irregularities caused by the flow of water made extraction difficult. It took us three attempts to retrieve her, and there were one or two unfortunate complications."
--- December 31st, 2000
Five minutes to midnight, she finally had her chance. All evening she'd hung around the party, sipping her drink until she was fair unto sick of ginger ale and grenadine. The glass of syrup and fizz was her shield from the rest of the party-goers, though -- enough to keep up appearances, enough to maintain a sense of the normal. She smiled at the small talk without adding anything to it. These weren't her people; this wasn't her party. She was an intruder with a purpose, blending in as best she could.
"Johnathon?" Finally she'd got him alone. He had to have seen her as she made the rounds, but for the entire evening their orbits had not crossed even once. This would be her only chance tonight.
"Myra!" he said, acting surprised. Johnathon Green was a large man with nut-brown skin, short-cropped hair, and the widest, friendliest grin she'd ever known. That last was his stock in trade, and -- as she'd learned -- it was a finely honed tool which he never hesitated to use. "What brings you here tonight?"
"Did you get my message?" She knew he had; she just wanted to see him react now. Would he acknowledge it? Deny it?
"Yes," he said, surprising her with his serious mien. Without that winning smile, his face was hardly recognizable as his own. "I appreciate that you haven't brought it up in front of Eliza."
"Of course." A moment of silence passed before she realized he expected her to continue. "I'm, I'm leaving. Leaving the area entirely. I have some friends on the West Coast," she lied. "I'll stay with them until I can get everything sorted out."
"Good, good." The smile was back, but now that she'd see what lay beneath it, there was a lingering sense of falsehood to the expression. "Could I get you another drink? For old times' sake?"
"No, thank you. I've had too many tonight." Another lie; she'd been nursing the same Shirley Temple for almost an hour now. In the distance she heard the voice of the crowd, now gathered on the front deck where the glittery ball would drop. "I should go."
10 - 9 - 8.... came the chant.
She turned to run, to run away like Cinderella at the ball.
7 - 6....
Beneath the noise was the heavy pad of Johnathon's footsteps behind her.
5 - 4....
The boat lurched ever so slightly. Her heels were never intended for running, and her left foot slipped.
She hit the railing, and then something hit her, right in the back. The night sky was dark and impenetrable, coming so soon after the bright lights of the river boat. The water was darker still, cold and relentless as it closed in around her. She kept one arm around her belly as she fought to keep her head above water, but the wake from the boat caught her, dragged her down.
Her eyes played tricks on her, seeing sparks and light in the lightless abyss. Thin lines wavered, of a color so dark it broke through black to form the seed of a spectrum all its own. Where they converged, an outline formed, a box that surrounded her--
--- Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
And suddenly the box was real, actual glass and metal enclosing her in a sepulchral embrace. Her and the water. The box was filled to the brim, but outside it were bright lights and the faint outlines of people. She banged on the glass, the sudden appearance of the impossible lending her one last burst of strength.
Then the lid came off, and strong arms fished her out. She collapsed into those arms, trembling and retching. Her hands grabbed at her belly protectively, just as the first pain came. Everything hurt. Her lungs strained against the weight of the water invading them, her muscles spasmed from stress and exertion, and ... and...
"Damnit!" someone cried in the background. "Get her on the table right now! We need to clear her airways out fast!"
"She's bleeding," said another voice, a woman's. There was worry and empathy in that one.
"Must've caught herself on a branch in the current."
"No, sir. I mean she's bleeding from --"
The pain hit her then, coming in a sharp cascade of flaming edges that severed her mind from the rest of the world, so she never heard the end of that sentence. She didn't need to. The pain itself told her everything, and as she spiraled into yet another sort of darkness, she hoped she would never wake up again.
--- Friday, June 24th, 2016
But then she did. It was a subtle process, this waking up, and it was hard to tell when that all-devouring darkness gave way to the gentle velvet tones of dreaming, or when exactly the dullness of reality began to intrude on her consciousness. Many sensations came and went, hitting and bouncing off the wall of her mind like so many ping-pong balls. The first one to stick was the feeling of light constriction around her face and head, of a rope or cord pressing down against her hair while a bowl covered her mouth and nose. It was odd, alien, unwelcome, and she tried to remove it. This led to sensation number two: that her arms lay under a warm, heavy quilt, and they did not currently possess the strength to move it aside.
One eye somehow found itself open. The view was blurry, uneven, and the addition of her right eye's vantage point did not add much to that impression. There was a light somewhere above, and the dark expanse of quilt below. A blurry, translucent mass lay over her nose, which resolved itself into an oxygen mask. She turned her head -- or tried to. Everything felt so heavy right now.
"Oh, hey! You're awake!" The voice was young and male, not so different from her students. At the edge of her sight, a large mass moved, revealing itself as the source of the words. As he came closer, she could see he was young -- still in his early teens, if she were to guess -- and very overweight. His clothes were nondescript sweats, and in his hands was an old paperback. Something fantasy, to judge from the colors.
"I'm gonna get the doctor. You just sit tight, 'kay?"
What else was she going to do? The retort flashed across her mind, even if it never met her lips. That was the moment she knew she wasn't still dreaming. Irony and snark were the domain of reality. As the rest of her came to the same conclusion vis-a-vis wakefulness, she tried moving different body parts. The eyes were functioning normally after a few blinks, allowing her to see the quiet, undecorated blandness of the room. Her arms were more reluctant, and the quilt kept them well subdued for now. Her legs--
Pain wracked her belly, urged on by the motion of muscle and hip. Everything that was warm, fuzzy, and dull in her brain was purged in one hot instant of agony. She recalled that pain from the before time, and it did not bode well. She wasn't surprised when the doctors entered the room as if walking on eggshells. There were some types of news which no one wanted to have to give.
"She's gone, isn't she." If someone had to say the harsh words, it might as well be Myra Paget. Her momma hadn't raised her to shy away from the unpleasant.
The first doctor, a weedy looking guy with dark hair and surprisingly violet eyes, looked like he'd taken a whack to the head with a two-by-four. "There wasn't anything about this in the coroner's report..." she heard him mutter. The other doctor, a tall blonde woman with a severe haircut, just nodded. The boy, loitering by the door, looked confused.
"She-she... her name was going to be Melanie..." Her vision was blurring again as tears poured out. She let the flood carry her away.
--- Saturday, June 25th, 2016
"Why are you here?" she asked the boy, Chester. That was an unfortunate name, in this day and age; too many ways for bullies to turn it on a victim. Something in the way he moved, so careful and furtive, made her think he'd been on the receiving end of such malicious creativity before. She'd insisted on calling him Ches instead, much to his surprise and her amusement. Nicknames came easily to her, and it suited him.
"Someone's gotta keep you company," he replied with a shy smile. He'd been reading a Terry Pratchett novel out loud for her, one of the ones she'd missed while she was ... out. That was how she chose to think about it, when she thought about it at all. It was easier to focus on the perils of the Discworld postal service, with all its attendant insanity, than the even more insane reality of the here-and-now.
"Really. Why? Surely you've got better things to do than keep an invalid company." She'd been stuck in bed for two days now, and Ches had been around for much of it. The boy had to be bored. She knew she was.
"Well... we're in the same boat, y'know? Both 'out of time' and all that. No one knows we're here, so all we got's each other. So... I watch out for you, you watch out for me. Like family."
"Family..." She hadn't had one of those in a long time, nor would she have one for a longer one to come. Melanie... the thought pained her, but it was a metaphorical ache in her heart, and not a real one in her womb. "Does this mean I'm your big sister, then?" Because, dear Lord, if the boy had a crush on her...
"Hey, I'd be the big brother," Ches said in mock-protest. "I did pop out of the box three days before you."
"In your dreams, buster." Smiles were still difficult to muster up, but they came to her face more easily now that the worst effects of drowning and hypothermia were fading. The injuries to her heart, those were going to take much longer, perhaps even forever, but the boy's support was welcome. "... thanks," she said quietly when he went back to his lector duties. If he heard, he didn't show it.
"Shower time," Ms. Wilkins announced from outside. Myra had learned that the severe blonde woman was not in fact a doctor, but so far no one had explained what exactly she was. Certainly Ms. Wilkins had a presence in the lab, and apparently some level of medical training, but like most everything in this strange new life the woman was a cipher left unsolved.
"You heard the lady," Myra said to Ches. "Unless you're joining us, it's time for you to git, buster." The boy turned bright red and stuttered out something resembling an apology before bolting out the door.
"Now that was mean," said Ms. Wilkins. Her voice was neutral as always, but she winked as she said it.
Gingerly, Myra sat up as Ms. Wilkins brought in the wheelchair. She wasn't happy about using the thing, but her body currently had all the stamina of an asthmatic kitten, so she said not a word as the blonde wheeled her down the hall to the women's washroom. Once she got over the humiliation, it wasn't a bad way to travel. The spokes made a soothing rat-a-tat-a-tat sound all the way down the empty corridor. It was fairly late, so the labs were deserted except for the few souls unlucky enough to live there. As far as she knew, only Dr. Speers did so by choice.
The washroom was a large, public style facility not too different from a bath she'd been to once on a college trip to Japan in the early nineties. There was a long counter along one wall, neatly partitioned into separate wash stations, each with its own mirror, stool, and a shower head running off of a shared length of pipe. There were standing shower stalls along the other wall, as well as a large jacuzzi-style tub over in one corner, but she definitely wasn't feeling up to either of those options at the moment.
In the changing room, she made a point of standing up and disrobing on her own, without any help from the other woman. Such assistance had been necessary the evening before, much to her embarrassment. It was one thing to be an invalid, and another to actually feel like one. Still, she didn't resist when Wilkins took her arm to steady her on the way to the showers. Soap, shampoo, sponges, and a large plastic washbasin were already in place, and for a few minutes the two of them lathered and rinsed in silence.
"Do you need a razor?" the other woman asked as she applied shaving gel to her legs.
"No, not tonight I think," she replied, examining her skin. "It's only been sixteen and a half years since the last time I did, after all." That elicited a snort from the blonde.
"Good to see you're in better spirits today."
"Wouldn't call them 'better' so much as they're... coping? Resigned? I mean, there's not much I can do about the situation. I can't even ask your Dr. Speers to put me back where he found me, as much as I..."
"As you want to?" came the quiet query.
"Yes," she sighed. "I thought I'd been through the worst of the emotional hurricane, you know? I was pregnant, yes. Unwed, yes. Looking forward to social ostracism and the likely loss of my job, for that matter, but I was... prepared, I guess? I'd made my decisions, made my plans, so I felt like I had some measure of control over my life. And then I lose it all, and life's an even bigger mess than it was before. I..." She bit back a sob. "I didn't expect to lose her, or to miss her this much."
Myra paused for a moment to run the shower spray over her face and hide the tears. Wilkins wasn't fooled for a second, apparently, because the woman gave her a hug as soon as she resurfaced. "I'm so sorry," said the blonde. "We're sorry, actually, Dr. Speers and I. If we'd known about... about Melanie, maybe the box could have been made to accommodate..." she left the sentence unfinished, interrupted by her own tears.
"It's... it's alright," Myra said finally, extricating herself from the woman's embrace. "I think it's safe to say no one predicted this. The whole thing's straight out of a Heinlein novel."
"About par for the course, then," said Wilkins, dabbing at her eyes. "Welcome to life with Dr. Speers."
"Are you two an item?" she asked, desperate for a change of subject.
"Good heavens, no!" The older woman laughed out loud. "I'm his minder. It's up to me to make sure that he doesn't get too sidetracked on personal projects, doesn't get too obsessed with main projects, remembers to eat regularly, that sort of thing. A lot of professional gadgeteers and devisors have someone like me lurking in the wings to keep them safe and sane. Granted, I've yet to see him him interested in anybody to the degree he devotes to his work. No woman or man could compete with that. It's all I can do to keep up with him at times."
"Hm, well that explains a lot... er, what is your name, by the way? I can't keep calling you Ms. Wilkins."
"Ella." She passed a towel her way. "I suppose you'd prefer to be called Myra as well?"
"Why not? It's not like I'm here in a professional capacity."
Ella shook her head. "That's where you're wrong. For the moment, you're a professional guinea pig. You and the boy and whoever Dr. Speers pulls out next."
That was a downer of a thought, and Myra let it kill the conversation for the next few minutes as they dried off and got dressed. Or robed, in her case. The lab people had yet to find her any decent clothes. Because her dress had been a strapless model with a built-in bustier, she didn't even have a bra to her name.
"I'd let you borrow some of mine," said Ella once the topic was broached, "but you're a size or two up on me, I'm afraid."
Myra glared at her own breasts, still swollen and tender from months of hormonal overdrive. She'd gained a cup size recently -- to her perspective, at least -- and all the brassieres she recalled as having bought less than a month before would be old and worn out by now, if they weren't tossed in the landfill after she'd checked out. "I don't suppose there's any way I can get to a G-Mart or somewhere soon?" she sighed. "I had some money in purse. The box recovered that too, right?"
"Don't worry about it," said Ella. "I'll arrange something. We can get your measurements in the lab and phone it in tomorrow morning."
"Will we ever get out of here?"
"Eventually," the blonde woman said. They wheeled past by a half-opened door outlined by yellow sparks and actinic blue flashes. Occasionally a loud, electrical snap echoed down the corridor, followed by a muttered curse. "Whenever Derek lets himself out, most likely. He's so focused on that devise, he isn't even taking time off with his toy closet." She shook her head. "I worry about the man."
"Something big coming up?"
"The main event," said Ella. "You and the boy were test runs, with departure events under fairly peaceful, if tragic, circumstances. This next one's looking to be a lot more complicated. I'd pity whoever it is, except that wherever they're coming from had to be so much worse than here."
She'd pity the new person anyway. Her second life wasn't all it was cracked up to be, that was for sure. Myra'd hate to imagine someone else having it even worse.
--- August 10th, 2016, Senate Committee Hearing
"Why weren't you better prepared to receive your test subjects?" asked Senator Groves of New Jersey. A short, stout man with a round face, rounder glasses, and a comb-over crossing his scalp in broad arcs, the senator had a reputation as a defender of fiscal responsibility. "That seems to me like a major consideration to take into account."
"That was my fault, to be honest," Speers answered. "As I was primarily interested in the technical aspects of the operation, I delegated those preparations to a Mr. Thurgood, the senior management man that DARPA added to my staff for just that purpose. Unfortunately, he never believed the box would work, and thus saw no point in preparing for that eventuality. Instead, he found several devious means of using the funds allocated to his task to further the financing of his own retirement, which he took earlier this summer. We are currently pursuing litigation, but Thurgood chose a retirement village in Karedonia, so extradition is proving tricky.
"I wish I could say that was the only setback we encountered early on," he continued, "but the laws of unintended consequences were in full force. For example, Ms. Paget proved to be carrying an H1N4 variant, and within three days half the lab was sick with the so-called 'quantum flu.' Taking care of that necessitated a call to DARPA's PANACEA project and copious amounts of chicken soup. The third trial run had to be postponed four days, to June 30th."
"This would be the combat trial?" asked Larson, to clarify.
"Exactly. The point was to pull a subject out of a definitively hostile situation, where the location and time of death were narrowed down to a point where they were usable, but with specifics that might cause extra hazards when the box went into effect. The problem," Speers said, "is that combat situations are inherently unpredictable, and our experience with the quantum flu had already shown that we needed to be careful with what else we might pull out of the box. With that said, the heads of several governmental agencies were already apprised of LIFELINE, and we had our pick of potential test subjects."
Figure 8a: a soldier in combat fatigues, standing before a desert backdrop. "Sgt. Garrett was captured by insurgents early last year and forced to speak in videos for months, until one session where he snapped, attacked his handlers, and was summarily executed on camera. Last month, the Army took out that particular insurgent base and determined exactly where the sergeant was killed." He shook his head. "The box failed, unfortunately. A closer examination of the videos would reveal that the time-stamps had been altered, and that the sergeant was likely killed months earlier than reported."
Figure 8b: a man in paramilitary attire, with goggles on his head and a strange handgun on his hip. He appeared to be in the cargo hold of some sort of ship, however the sky outside was completely dark except for a blue-white sphere just visible through a port hole. "Agent Wozniak was a CIA mole in Dr. Diabolik's armed forces, and provided the government with some valuable intelligence over the years. He suffered a rather spectacular execution during Diabolik's attack on Fargo, North Dakota, two years ago, apparently serving as an object example of why one does not betray the doctor. In reality, Wozniak never died. He has since been identified as a double agent working for Diabolik all along. This was not known a month and a half ago, and of course that trial run was also a failure."
Figure 8c: a well-built blond man with a crew cut and a black suit. Unlike the first two, this man was not posing for the camera. Instead, he seemed to be in the act of attacking the cameraman. "Laurence von Groenwald, also known as Mauer, one of the Green Cross's empowered agents. Killed during an attack on her Wichita base in early June. This request was withdrawn due to the overly dangerous and adversarial nature of the subject, as well as the fact that Homeland Security has since found better, or at least more convenient, intel sources on that organization's activities."
Figure 8d: a dark man in a darker suit, his eyes completely hidden behind mirror shades. The background was either out of focus or incredibly similar to a lava lamp's insides. "Our fourth and final subject under consideration was an unnamed operative for the XVQW. Has anyone else heard of this organization before?" He nodded as Larson and Ashkettle raised their hands, while the rest looked puzzled. "Then you know as much as I about this group: that it exists. Beyond that, I have no hard information on its activities, only hints and rumors. Those were enough to make me very, very grateful the box refused to work. We even logged a new error message," he noted. "Division by zero, universe not found."
"So there was no successful third trial?" Groves asked. Speers could practically see the expenditure accounts tallying behind the man's eyes.
"No, we merely ran out of requests from other agencies," said Speers. "There were several other factors to test, such as the ratio of power usage to temporal distance. Ms. Paget's retrieval had taken more energy than young Mr. Ferris's, so it was likely there would be a hard limit to how far back we could reach. Of course, we kept the option of combat conditions under advisement as well. A few hours of internet searching provided us with a promising subject."
Figure 9a: a young man -- a boy, really -- just now come into puberty, to judge by the spatter of acne mixed in with the freckles on his face. Sandy brown hair stuck out in three directions, and a wide grin revealed some impressive metal work. Overall, it was a very normal picture of a twelve-year-old boy. "Marcus Billings, born January 7th, 1979, in Houston Texas. Later moved with his family to Newark, New Jersey. Died April 1st, 1991, while on a short spring holiday with his parents in New York City." He stopped there, waiting to see if anyone figured it out.
The senator from New Jersey was the first to make the connection. Quite likely, Sen. Groves had been working in the state government at some level twenty-five years ago, so this probably hit close to home. "Oh my God!" came the voice of epiphany. "The Fools Fight!"
"Yes, senator. Exactly." Figure 9b flashed onto the screen: an aerial view of the Brooklyn Bridge, time-stamped Apr.-1-91-17:30. It was a brief snapshot of a scene which would live in infamy, when the supervillain Entropy had his henchmen block all exit to the bridge, and then used the stranded motorists as hostages against the hero Battery and his First City Irregulars. A small red circle marked out one person standing near the edge. Figures 9c through 9f flipped past, each one closing in a little more upon the target, until the identity of the boy was obvious. "Young Marcus died on national television; one of several dozen, but more importantly, one whose exact position was confirmed within a few seconds of Entropy's final salvo." Figure 9g, the last in the set, appeared: a newspaper clipping, an obituary for Marcus Andrew Billings. "I must admit, this choice was rather personal. There is about six months between my birthdate and his, and seeing a boy my own age die was one of the most deeply traumatic events of my young life," Speers said softly. "I think I would have tried this retrieval anyway, regardless of the prior mishaps. Marcus deserved better."
"And it worked?" asked Larson. "After twenty-five years?"
"Amazingly, yes. Though that's not to say it wasn't a difficult transition."
--- Monday, April 1st, 1991
He couldn't breathe. Thought led to feeling led to thought like a broken record, and the panic and confusion of the moment pressed down on him. He didn't feel the huge gulps of air entering his body as he hyperventilated; only the crushing spell of breathlessness was real now.
Stay between the cars, Dad had said. Keep out of sight. Let the freaks finish. The words were lost within the jumble, easily drowned out by the roar of rockets passing overhead and the rat-a-rat-a-rat-a of machine gun fire, far away and yet alarmingly close. Sometimes smoke rolled through, stinging the eyes and choking the throat. There was hardly any space between the cars, the dead hulks of metal and plastic which clogged the bridge.
No way forward.
No way back.
No way to breathe. His lungs were aching and empty, his panicked gasps flushing air in and out too fast to be useful. He needed space, needed the wind, needed air! Needed to run, to break free of the awful, stinking smoke, and his feet met his needs, taking him away.
His mother cried out, grabbed for him, but she couldn't feel the awful smoke choking, or the awful noise hammering into his head. She couldn't get the terrible need, the wanting without thinking that drove him from her arms and out into the open.
There was a breeze coming off the open sea. It wended its way up the river, avoiding the smells of the big city to arrive upon his face fresh and pure. The smoke was driven back, his lungs were filled, his body relaxed.
He looked up just in time to see the missile coming for him.
And then the world went black.
--- Thursday, June 30th, 2016
The world went black, and he was lying down. When had that happened? He didn't remember lying down, or falling down, or any other variation of down there might be. But down he was, in this dark place. Where was he? Was he dead? That thing he saw, that was a missile, right? Someone shot a missile at him and now he was dead and all alone in the dark and no one else was around and--
"Dammit, someone get the lights working!" Those words filled the darkness. They weren't his. He wasn't alone? He wasn't alone. HE WASN'T ALONE! He sat up, to search the darkness for this other person, but cracked his head on something. Arms went up; hands felt around, found glass. Glass above, glass below, glass to all sides.
He was trapped! His lungs, powered by stress, began pumping like bellows until he was all panicked and choking again. Fists hammered at the glass. A voice shouted, screamed. He did not even recognize it as his own. How long was he in that box? Later, they'd tell him it was less than a minute, but it didn't feel like that. It felt like an eternity.
And then there was light. Not much, barely enough to give outlines to the room, but it was there. "It's about time!" he heard someone say, and he could see that someone now: a tall, thin man whose white lab coat was the brightest thing in the room's twilight. In one swift motion, the man moved to the glass coffin, popped the lid, and helped Marcus climb out. "Welcome back," the man said.
"I was gone?" What was that supposed to mean? One minute, he was in New York, and now he was not. If he'd been anywhere else, he didn't remember it.
"You were out." That didn't really help him any. "What do you recall?"
"I..." Smoke and fear and noise arose from some small corner of his brain, choking the words before they left his throat. His legs turned to rubber, and the lights were out once more for him, if not for everyone else.
The missile was coming straight at him. A thousand little details filled in that last millisecond, more than he should have, could have, noticed. A shark's grin curved beneath its nose, and mean, wicked eyes were painted along the top. The thing was practically inviting him to have a nice death--
He sat up, panting and shaking. His body was soaked with sweat, as were the sheets. When had he gone to bed? Wait, whose bed was it? Panicked eyes spun back and forth as he tried to make sense of the dull, dark room.
"Shhh... it's okay." The woman's voice was calm, gentle. Warm arms wrapped around him, and he only struggled a little as he was pulled into an embrace. His body was rocked back and forth, shaking away the darkness of nightmare bit by bit, until he finally drifted back to sleep.
--- Friday, July 1st, 2016
Awake again. The whole night had been one big yo-yo trip, down into dreams and then jolted back up into consciousness. Over and over and over again. He'd lost count of how many times it happened, or how many times that nameless voice had soothed and cuddled him back to sleep. That had been nice. So when it didn't happen, when he woke up and didn't get a hug, that was when it was time to really get up.
So, um, where was he? Hospital, maybe. Was he hurt? He slipped out of bed, stood up, and stretched. Nope, everything was working fine. He did the Snoopy dance for a moment, just to double check. Again, no problems. You're a good man, Marcus Billings. Or a well one, at least. He was dressed in a pair of blue pajamas that he was sure weren't his. Huh. His own clothes must've been too torn up after the --
-Missile-smoke-scream-panic!- blasted through his head just as somebody knocked on the door.
"Hello. You up yet?" she asked as she entered the room, carrying a large tray. Two bowls of cereal, two containers of yogurt, two glasses of milk, and some apple slices wobbled precariously as she went. "Hope your appetite's healthy, because we can always get more... huh?"
The bed was empty. Setting the tray down on the corner table, she scanned the room. It wasn't that difficult. Aside from the bed, the table, and a couple of chairs, there wasn't anything there at all. This was definitely up there on the list of worst possible spots to play hide-and-seek, but then again she doubted Marcus was playing. She'd been up half the night making sure he'd stay down the other half, and even secondhand the sound of his dreams was chilling.
Ella had been right. Pity the boy for the mess he'd arrived out of, and for the mess he was in now because of it.
"I know you're still in here, kiddo," she declared, slowly and gently. "I've got grub, but I'm going to wait for you to join me, okay?" She sat down and pulled a crossword puzzle book from her pocket. "Whenever you feel ready."
About a minute later, a red-faced Marcus Billings crawled out from under the bed. The boy was pale, huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf right before his brick-induced coronary. His freckles stood out like the night sky in negative. "Not gonna spew, are you?" she had to ask.
"N-no. I'm okay..." the boy replied. "Is that breakfast?"
"Sure is. Hope you like granola." She beckoned him over to the cereal bowls.
"I like Applejacks."
"Well, this is not only healthier and tastier, but it has actual apples to go with it," she said, guiding a spoon into his hand. "Milk or yogurt?"
"For your cereal. Personally, I like mixing yogurt with mine..." She dumped a cup of thick dairy goodness on her granola and mixed it up. "Yum. Good stuff."
"I, uh, guess I'll try that." The boy's eyes were all over the place, but they kept coming back to her. She just smiled her sweetest smile and dug into her breakfast, silently encouraging him to do the same. Eventually he got the hint, inhaling the mixture of dairy, fruit, and grain like a vacuum cleaner.
"I should probably introduce myself," she said. "Officially, I mean. You were pretty out of it last night. I'm Myra." She stuck her hand out for him to shake.
"Marcus," the boy mumbled around a mouthful of granola. "You work here? You a doctor?"
"Not at all, to both questions. I'm just a guinea pig, same as you."
Guinea pig? He didn't like the sound of that. Several long, slow chews of cereal helped cover for him as he thought. Guinea pigs meant experiments, which meant weird stuff, since there was no other way for things to be from what he'd seen so far. What kind of experiment, though? He didn't remember signing up for one, and in any case that didn't explain --
He bit down hard on his breakfast, killing the thought before he could finish it. No, no, no, no, NO! No more panics for today, please? he asked his brain. Instead of brooding over memories, his mind turned to his... host? Keeper? Fellow guinea pig, she'd said, but what sort of experiment would include the two of them? She was, well... kinda hot, his adolescent brain had to admit. A lot older than him, maybe even as old as Mrs. Crutchmeyer in English class, but much hotter. She had really dark hair like his mom's, with light skin and big blue eyes. And boobs. He tried not to stare at those, but part of him couldn't stop peeking at where she filled out her light blue shirt.
Okay, okay, time to switch gears again. "So, um, what are we supposed to do? As, er, guinea pigs?"
"Mostly sit around and occasionally talk to Ms. Kogata about how we feel and what we remember. You'll meet Renee eventually. She's a sweetheart. But really, kiddo, it's not about what we do, it's about what's been done to us."
"Huh?" Now she wasn't making sense.
"Dr. Speers was going to explain once you were awake and not screaming," Myra said, "but I convinced him to let me do the talking this time. Trust me, it's better this way. The man just goes on and on and on, until your head's about to pop. We don't want that, now do we?"
"Guess not, ma'am."
"Pft. No ma'am here, kiddo. Just me, Myra."
"So let's start with something you can get your head around. Ever watch Star Trek?"
He perked up at the sound of that. Last summer, he and his dad had sat down to marathon every episode of the original series as well as all five movies. He'd seen every episode of The Next Generation so far, too. There wasn't a thing he didn't like about it -- the stories, the aliens, the cool technology, nothing.
"Well okay, then. Tell me how a transporter beam works, Mr. Fanboy." A twinkle in Myra's eyes suggested she already knew the answer, maybe better than he did, but Marcus didn't care. Nobody at school ever wanted to talk about 'nerd shows' with him, and there was a dammed up reservoir of discussion just waiting for the floodgates to open.
"It's, like, all energy and information, right?" he said. "The transporter changes you into a pattern of coded data, transfers you down the beam of energy, and puts you back together on the other end." At least, that's how he'd always imagined it working. No one on the show ever said; they just took it for granted, like all the other cool stuff in the twenty-fourth century.
"Sounds about right," Myra agreed. "Now, remember the weird box from last night?" He nodded, shivering a bit at the other memories that tagged along. "That box is like the receiving end of a transporter. It catches a person's data... shadow, I guess is the best word, pulls it into the box, and out comes the person. But it needs the right conditions to work. Did you ever see the Next Generation episode with Mr. Scott?"
"Huh?" Mr. Scott, like on the original show? "When did that happen?"
"Must've been while you were out. Well, here's how it started...."
He really needed to learn what this 'out' business was all about. That guy last night had said the same thing, that Marcus had been 'out.' He knew a euphemism when he heard it, but until someone spelled it out for him, he could only guess.
"So in this episode," Myra was saying. "The crew of the Enterprise found a ship crashed on the surface of a Dyson sphere. Heard of those?" Marcus shook his head. "Well, that's a conversation for another time. Anyway, there's this wreck, and in it the transporters are still working, but there's something odd with them. A pattern's constantly bouncing around in the buffer, and when O'Brien pulls it out, he ends up with a reconstituted Mr. Scott, who'd uploaded himself as a last-ditch survival attempt."
"How long was he in there?"
"Decades. The point is, they had the pattern and a machine to read it, and so they got a Scott. The box grabs a pattern -- your pattern, my pattern, whomever's pattern it's aimed at -- and boom! We've got that person in the box. Okay, different episode. The time with the two Rikers."
What? Another episode he'd never heard of? Just how long had he been out? The Mr. Scott story was getting him worried, what with that 'decades' comment.
"In the two Rikers episode, Commander Riker went to check on a planet he'd been to eight years before as a lieutenant. The last time he was there, the planet's chronic ion storms nearly destroyed the expedition, and he was the last one beamed out. But things were so chancy that the transporter tech used two beams, just to be safe. One beam made it through safely, and Lt. Riker returned to the ship, but the other beam bounced off the ionosphere and deposited Lt. Riker back on the surface. And voila, we have two Rikers."
"Um, what's that got to do with us?" Actually, several possibilities were bubbling through his brain, but he didn't like what they were suggesting.
"You, me, Ches -- you'll meet him soon -- we're the people who got pulled out of the box, based on patterns taken from key moments in our lives. We got sent to the big receiver, but we also stayed where we were." She shook her head. "There's no good way to put this. We're the Rikers who made it safely to the ship. The other Rikers weren't so lucky."
"Then where are they?" he asked. Suddenly his stomach was shaking with nerves, and he was afraid all that granola was about to fight its way free.
"Well, Ches took a short trip off a tall tower," said Myra. "I had an unintended midnight swim in the Mississippi in the middle of winter. As for you... I think you already know."
That was true, he realized. It was the truth he'd been waiting for, bubbling somewhere in the back of his brain while the rest of him refused to notice. The big answer. The meaning of 'out.' Dead. They meant dead. The image of that grinning missile, never too far hidden in the background of his thoughts, poked its nose out and winked at his consciousness. He was sitting down, so it didn't matter so much if his legs turned to Jell-O, but his arms and spine followed suite, and he found himself sliding slowly to the floor.
Myra was there to catch him, to hold him close, to be there for him.
"And here are the showers," Ches announced. The teenager was a lot bigger than Marcus had imagined, and a lot bulkier, too. The older boy took his role as guinea pig number one very seriously though, and he'd made every opportunity to show Marcus around their corner of the DARPA facility, once the younger boy's time with the psychologist was finished. "Hope you don't mind that they're a bit open. Beggars can't be choosers, and all that. Right now, it's just the two of us and the Doc using them, at least."
"Um, it's okay. We had group showers at summer camp..." Though as he looked at the place, it was a lot nicer than old Camp Runnamuc's facilities by a long shot. Less moss and no lizards, for starters.
"Good to hear." The older boy's face was strangely calm beneath its mop of brown hair, he thought. All through the tour of the facilities, it had been dominated by a big smile that left no room for anything else. Ches and Myra had their ways of dealing with the craziness, he realized, but he didn't really get their methods. The teenager just gave off serene vibes like a light bulb gave photons. "Anyhoo, Myra gave orders to make sure you wash up right, but I won't bother you too much if you don't bother me, 'kay? Soap and shampoo, then we meet for dinner."
"Sounds good to me," he said, following Ches's lead. There were plenty of spare towels, so he wrapped one around his waist, pulled down his pants and shorts, then took his shirt off. The two of them sat far enough apart that they didn't have to look at each other, but close enough to keep the conversation going. "Um, you seem to be taking this guinea pig thing well."
Ches rinsed his hair, slicking it back with a comb. "Well, there's the thing. When I checked out the first time, it was a choice I made. Y'know, to let go of everything. Of course, I regretted it, like, ten seconds later, but the letting go part is what's important. It's... liberating, I guess. I got a second life to live, and it's mine to control -- not the bullies', not my dad's, but mine. So yeah, you could say I'm taking it well. Better than Myra."
"What's wrong with Myra?" She'd been alright, as far as he could see. Maybe a little smothering at times, but he'd really needed those hugs too.
"Prob'ly shouldn't say, but..." Ches shook his head, sending droplets all over. "She was like four and a half months pregnant when she checked out, and the baby didn't check back in with her. It was really rough on her, those first few days, physically and emotionally."
Marcus wasn't sure what to say. He had his own problems, but they seemed like nothing next to that. "I... she never said."
"She doesn't like to talk about it. Don't blame her, either. She didn't really perk up until you checked in, and then she all but throttled the doc so she'd be allowed to work with you. Helping us helps her, if that makes any sense. But," he added, "if you run into her in a side room and she's crying, don't be surprised. Just pay her back with a good hug, 'kay?"
"Okay. We gotta stick together, right?"
"Darn tootin'. It's the three of us 'gainst the world."
"What if they pull someone else out of the box?" They'd done it three times so far, right? There was no reason to think they wouldn't do it again.
"Well, they fried some important bits when they pulled you through," said Ches. "At least, so I heard. The whole lab blacked out from the power surge. I'm guessing too much strain from reaching back so far."
"That would be correct."
Ack! When had the doctor guy arrived? Marcus nearly fell off his stool, and he did lose his towel for a second before he could pull it back up. No one seemed to notice, or care if they did, much to his relief. The violet-eyed man was barely recognizable without his lab coat, though underneath it his skin was almost as pale. Speers took the space between them and absentmindedly applied shaving cream to his face.
"She finally nagged you into it, huh?" Ches teased.
"In the lady's own words, 'If you want me to stop calling you a mad scientist, then stop looking the part,'" quoted Speers. "And I must admit, she has a point."
"Myra usually does."
"How was your chat with Dr. Kogata?" the man asked, nodding to Marcus. "I know it's a lot to take in, but..."
"It's like I'm living in an episode of Star Trek," he admitted. "It's cool and all, but I wish the trip wasn't...."
"Yeah..." said Ches, adding his own set of triple-dots to the conversation.
"I mean, part of me still can't believe it, part of me is freaking out over all the cool stuff..." Like the portable computer Dr. Kogata had, the one the size of his social studies notebook. "... and part of me just wishes I could go home."
That killed the conversation faster than a fart at a funeral. They took the opportunity to lather, rinse, or shave in silence. He thought back to his conversation with the psychologist, mainly because it was safely recent. "Future shock" had been the big topic. Two and a half decades was a lot of time, and the world was changing so fast that it was hard to recognize anything in it. That awesome computer of hers, for example, could do things his dad's brand-new 386 could only dream of, and did it a zillion times faster. He really needed to get one so he could figure out what else you could do with it. The thing was a toy, but also a tool, a big one, and the more he focused on it, the less he had to think about...
Darnit! Not now! He could pretend the tears in his eyes were a reaction to errant bubbles of shampoo, but his nose was getting into the act, tingling in that funny way that always meant he was about to lose the war with his emotions. The shark-faced missile grazed his thoughts as a friendly reminder of its presence.
"Why don't they let dogs in the White House?" The question came out of left field, which was to say, out of Dr. Speers' mouth.
"Huh? What are you talking about?" he heard Ches, say, but the doc's violet eyes were on him. Was he supposed to know the answer to this? It sounded familiar.
"Because they'd chase the Quayle and pee on the Bush." Once Speers provided the punchline, he recognized the joke, and the tingling in his nose got fizzled out by a hiccupy giggle. That was not the sort of thing he'd expect the man to say.
"I don't get it..." On the other hand, he wasn't surprised to hear Ches say that.
"That would be because you are not a child of the Eighties, such as Marcus or myself," said the doctor.
Now that was a thought. "How old are you, Dr. Speers?" he asked.
"Thirty-six next month," came the reply. "We would have been in the same grade at school, most likely." The man wiped his face clean, adjusted his towel, and stood up. "If you ever need to talk about those days, come by whenever. I've got a few old game systems in the back office, including some stuff you might recognize. You too, Ches. As you said, the entire project is offline for a while, and we should socialize a bit more."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Speers said blankly. "Enjoy your evening, gentlemen."
At the other end of the shower stations, Ches waited a few beats before snickering. "Bingo."
Dried and dressed, he retired to his quarters. The main room was almost as spartan as the guest rooms, colorless and uncluttered save for the big metal desk piled high with paper. Behind it was the bedroom, which as usual looked like a wardrobe had exploded inside it. For Speers, the bedroom was simply a convenient place to store excess clothing between wash cycles, and occasionally to sleep -- which would explain why there was no wardrobe therein, nor a closet or dresser, for that matter. Out the other door lay his toy closet, as Ella preferred to call it. "Toy warehouse" would be more appropriate, as the room was twice as big as the other two combined. A dozen tables of various heights, lengths, and shapes fitted together across the floor like a drunken game of Tetris, each covered in assorted electronic bric-a-brac. When the mood hit him -- and it did so with alarming frequency these days -- he needed plenty of raw materiel.
This was his stress relief, this little act of creation in which he indulged again and again. There was nothing like the feeling of plunging his hands into a pile of high-tech scrap and letting go, putting his instincts in the driver seat while his ego rested and pondered.
-clink clink clink- went the tools in his hands. Things fit into other things, his fingers knowing precisely how to join them. Sometimes, he wished he were as good at fitting people together into a group as he was at reconfiguring old electronics. Circuit boards and diodes were easy. People were complicated, contrary, difficult. He did his best as a project leader, but in his heart he knew he held that position only because few could ever follow his work, and experience had taught the top management that light reins were best when dealing with his sort of genius. Every week he thanked God that he didn't suffer from Diedrick's Syndrome, that mutation-induced megalomania which struck so many gadgeteers and devisors, earning them the title of very mad scientist.
-bzzt- went the current, sending a sharp thrill through the meat of his thumb as it surged into life. Electronics were so simple, either on or off. When they broke down, the reasons were obvious -- to him, at least -- and easily remedied. The moment his project's focus shifted from the box to those who came out of it, the breakdowns became much harder to fathom. Breakdowns in communication, in research, in understanding, in trust, in emotions -- those messy emotions! -- plagued his life now. Why had Thurgood done what he did, looting the budget under the guise of making ready for their guests? Speers knew part of it, knew Thurgood hadn't believed in the project's success or trusted in the doctor's ability to make things work, had seized the day and the cash with the expectation that no one would ever need the fruits of the labor assigned to him. How then, how could he have convinced Thurgood that the project was feasible? How had he failed to realize the problem existed? Because he hadn't, and now his standing with the test subjects -- with Ches, Myra, and Marcus -- was abysmal. He'd saved them literally from death's door, but he couldn't get them to cooperate, couldn't understand their hangups and breakdowns. Why oh why did people have to be so hard?
-beep- went a button, a part of an interface his fingers were piecing together. Buttons... yes, people had their own sorts of buttons, emotions which one could press to create a reaction. He even knew a few of those buttons for his guests, but the underlying mechanics of the emotional response was such a mystery that he was afraid to try them. It wasn't enough to make them react; he had to gain their trust, and Sisyphus never had so steep a hill to go up as Speers did right now. All he could do was trust in Ella, trust that she at least had his interests as well as theirs in mind. He'd allowed Ches more freedom to move in and around the complex, given Myra more agency over her living schedule as well as Marcus's. He'd even done as he'd promised, and listened to the teacher's comments and half-veiled commands, finding in them good advice, just as Ella had predicted. Myra was in shock, heartbroken, and yet to recover physically, but she was at her best when put in charge of something, of anything.
-click- and it all fitted together. Thurgood was gone, but his job remained. A position needed to be filled, and he had on his hands a woman who desperately needed to feel in control of her own life. So give her the job. It was workable, almost elegant. The three of them already identified as a unit, as almost family, so let her take care of the household management. At least this way, when the funds were used for her own personal benefit, they'd be used correctly.
He sighed, shoulders rolled back and relaxed for the first time in days. Decisions like this never came naturally to him outside of the toy closet, but that was why he had Ella to send him in here when necessary. He looked down, sending an appraising eye over the objects in his hands.
A matched set of gadgets were nestled in his palms. The three round baubles were watches, or had been in a former life, though now they were so packed with circuitry that their weight and thickness had about doubled. No bands were attached to them, but they would not fit on a person's wrist comfortably in any case. Perhaps he would attach them to chains, like a pocket watch. He could probably improvise a flip-top...
No, that was an idea for another time. First, he needed to present these to their new owners.
He followed the ripples of conversation through the residential section of the lab. While joined to the rest of the complex by corridor and wall, this portion had originally been a separate building. When DARPA had furnished him with this space for his labwork, he'd wasted no time moving in. Until now, he'd had no neighbors except for Ella's professional presence, and the difference was palpable. There was a funny sort of energy which habitation lent to a building, and he felt it the way a fish might feel a strange new current in familiar waters.
The door stopped him. Not because it was locked -- in fact, it stood slightly ajar -- but because it marked the border between the neutral space of the corridor and the area claimed by Myra and the boys. What had been an extension of his labs only a few days ago was now foreign territory, and a part of him resisted intruding on the space of others, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be. He clutched the trio of gadgets, taking slow breaths. The aroma of pizza invaded his sinuses, tantalizing him. It was okay; he had a reason to visit, he told himself as he knocked.
Behind the door, the quiet susurrus of conversation ceased. "Who is it?" called Myra.
"Er, it's me," he said, feeling himself blush even in the absence of face-to-face contact. "Um, might I come in?"
"It's your lab," came the reply as the door jerked open completely. Just beyond the threshold, he could see the three of them sitting around a table, with three pizza boxes open upon it. Ella was the one who'd opened the door, and his minder gave him an encouraging smile now. He steeled himself and entered.
"Thank you. I, ah..."
"Want some pizza?" Ches asked, getting a clean paper plate.
"Oh. Yes, please. Supreme, if there's any."
"You and Myra," the young man said, shaking his head. "What is it with adults and awful toppings. Olives and peppers and mushrooms. Yuck."
"Uck," grimaced Marcus in sympathy.
"I'm telling you, buster, you don't know what you're missing," said Myra as she passed the laden plate to Speers. "We need to get you some real pizza, and not this Goodbrothers crap. That is, if we ever get out of here," she added, sending a pointed glare his way.
"Er, that's part of what I wished to discuss." He took a bite of pizza, chewed carefully, and swallowed. "You and Ches are past the immediate danger period, and our experiences as of date have allowed us to refine the examination procedures, which means Marcus should be cleared soon as well. That is, if you are all still feeling well?"
"The occasional splitting headache," said Myra. "However, I was prone to migraines before this."
"Feeling warm over here," admitted Ches, "but I still got a touch of the quantum flu."
"Yes, I understand." That damnable virus had knocked him out for half a day as well. "Then I do not see why we cannot let you roam a little more freely in a day or two."
"No more tests?" asked Myra.
"None, unless your physical condition takes a sudden turn for the worse," he answered. He lay the three gadgets on the table. "These are remote monitors. In the event something extreme happens, they will alert my computer. Otherwise, they do not log anything beyond what would be expected of a standard health monitoring device. Step count, heart rate, et cetera."
"A panic button?" the English teacher asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of sorts. They also serve as vocal communicators, but only between each other."
"What's that mean?" asked Marcus.
"Dick Tracy watches," said Ches.
"As well," he added as they examined their prizes. "There is a flea market a few miles from here that carries, er, vintage clothing, old books, music, that sort of thing. If you are interested, I can make arrangements to visit. I would like to make the test subject accommodation budget available to you, Ms. Paget, to use as you deem fit. You would know better than I in this matter."
"Didn't Thurgood gut that?" Ella commented.
"I've added money from my discretionary fund," he said. In fact, it had come from his private accounts, a fact which she certainly suspected. "I hold myself at fault for the disastrous welcome you have all experienced so far, and I hope this is a good start at fixing things."
He'd practiced the words in his head quite a bit on the way here, and now he winced at how flat his own voice sounded. It was one thing to sound like he was reading off a card when using a prompter, but quite another to sound like that anytime he felt nervous.
Myra treated him to one of her smiles, which was a rare experience for him. He felt it knock a little of the weight off his shoulders.
"On that note," he continued, "we must discuss reintegration into society. For Myra and Marcus, this will be tricky, but we already have someone in DARPA working on it. For you, Ches," he said to the teen, "we first need to contact your father. How would you prefer us to proceed?"
The smile slipped from Ches's round face for a brief instant. "Do we really have to?" the young man asked. "I was out for more than two years, and they already had the funeral and everything, right? Shouldn't tempt fate and my old man's ticker any more than necessary, right? We've got all the time in the world; no reason to rush, right?"
"I really must insist," he said. "For your personal benefit -- and yes, the benefit of this project -- we must work to reintegrate you into society, and that includes determining how best to inform your relatives of your condition. So please, let's get your father in to discuss--"
"Pardon?" He heard the words, yet failed to understand. Ches had requested a phone call on the very first day, which he'd had to turn down. No one had mentioned it since, but he'd assumed that it was still on the young man's list of priorities. This was family they were talking about, after all. He could understand having a strained relationship with one's parents -- oh so well, he could -- but in the end they were still blood, still a part of his life in ways that were hard for him to quantify properly. How did one measure the ties that bind? Certainly not in metric, much less imperial notation. It would never occur to him to simply cut the strings entirely.
"You heard me. I changed my mind about calling him. Like, over a week ago. I'm dead, and he's either gotten over it by now, or he never needed to in the first place."
"Chester Ferris, I am calling your father, whether you wish it or not. The man has a right to be informed that his son is alive."
"And I'm telling you right now," Ches said, suddenly out of his seat and in Speers' face. "I'm not talking with him. I'm not seeing him. Heck, I'm not even really his son, am I? You pulled me out of the box; that makes you more of a parent to me than he is. Sad thing is, you're still the better one, awful as you are at it. So don't call me Chester, and don't be calling that old idiot about anything, you hear?" The teenager stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him, onto empty silence.
"Go after him, Marcus," he heard Myra say. "Don't argue with him. Don't try to convince him of anything. Just find something for the two of you to do, and wait for me to come get you, okay?" The boy nodded and ran off, and Ella followed close behind.
"What... what just happened?" Speers' mind was still reeling from the emotions piled into those last few words. Everyone had buttons, he remembered. Push one, and you get a reaction. Sometimes, however, you didn't know what would happen until you pushed, and by then it would be too late. This was what happened when he pushed buttons blindly; somehow he'd hit the big red one marked "Do Not Touch" by mistake. After an emotional EMP like that, nothing was making sense. Ches was the calm, serene one, for God's sake! He'd never in a hundred years have expected the young man to react that way.
"Why do teenagers commit suicide?" Myra asked in return.
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Seriously. Why do teens do it?"
"I... I haven't the foggiest notion."
"No, and yet you're working with one such case right now. You pulled him away from his fate without really understanding the foundation for what he did, didn't you? Me, I'm easy in comparison. Whether my demise was accidental or not doesn't matter in the short run, in our time here. I didn't choose it, either way. Same goes for Marcus. As nasty as our experiences might be, we weren't convinced that we were leaving the worst of it behind us."
"What... Do you mean the bullies? I read about them in the paper, but surely..."
"People commit suicide to escape," Myra said flatly. "Teens especially. They're caught up in something, or several somethings, that they don't think they can handle. The world is ganging up on them. They've lost all control, or at least they think so. When caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, sometimes the final way out seems like the only way. Now ask yourself: if the bullies were Ches's rock, then what was the hard place? What else in his life might make him believe there was no way out, no safe place to find safety and comfort?"
His mouth was opening and closing; he could feel its movements, but nothing was coming out. Belatedly, he was coming to the conclusion that he should have paid more attention to what the young man was saying, or perhaps not saying, about his home life. He should have asked Dr. Kogata for advice before even broaching the subject of reintegration, for that matter. It was an easy assumption to make, that they would all be happy to rejoin the outside world, but they were people. Complicated and unpredictable by nature.
"Look, I'll talk it over with him," Myra promised. "Later. Not tonight. Don't call his dad without his say-so, understand?" He nodded. "Good. And remember, when it comes my turn for this sort of fiasco, you do not get to make any decisions for me." Her voice left nothing to the imagination. It was pure, cold steel. "Go back to your closet and think things over. We'll let you know when we're ready to talk."
And with that, he was left to his own devices. If only he had the barest inkling of what to do with them.
"Calling Dick Tracy. Calling Dick Tracy," she said into the little bauble in her hands, bemused by the whimsy of the moment. Now that she had the chance to examine it more closely, she saw that the watch-turned-communicator was a baroque little piece of work, all burnished metal with visible cogs sticking out for no real purpose. It was a lovely example of steampunk jewelry, and she had to wonder how a stick in the mud like Speers could make something with so much frippery in its outer appearance.
"That you, Myra?" The voice projection from the bauble was low and tinny, like one of those old-fashioned two-tone telephone receivers. Even so, Marcus was clear and understandable.
"Yup. What room are you in? Is Ches with you?"
"We're in 114 with Ella. Where's the doc?"
"He went back to his closet. Be with you in a sec." Room 114 was only a short ways down the hall. It was where she and Renee had most of their little chats; a small but comfortable chamber with a sofa and padded chairs. As she entered, she saw a machine in the middle of the room as well -- short and squat, but with long tubes running in multi-colored arcs through various planes on the outside. Marcus was bending down in front of it with a bowl in his hand.
"Um, what is this?" she asked.
"It's our ice-cream maker," said Ella, with a bowl of vanilla raspberry ripple in hand. "Just add milk in one end, type in a number, and the machine will pour you something." At her look of disbelief, the minder added, "Hey, not all devises have to be crazy mad science. Some are crazy food science. Don't question the font of lo-cal ice cream. Just enjoy it."
"We got a list of known codes here," Marcus said, pointing to a post-it note affixed to the devise's terminal. "Or we can put in something random and see what comes out." He sniffed his own bowl and crinkled his nose. "Um, I think I got tuna." He hastily poured the contents into the back of the machine and threw the paper bowl away.
"Gimme something random. I like living dangerously. At least when it's safe to do so," Myra said with a wink. She set herself down on the couch next to Ches, examining him carefully. The teen's face was red and puffy around the eyes, and he hardly looked up from his bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough. Pushing the bowl out of the way, she managed to clear enough space to get a hug in. "You going to be okay?" she asked.
Ches grunted. He must have been running down the halls, because he was a little too warm in her arms, and his breathing was a bit raspy. "Yeah, um, I'll be okay," he mumbled.
"Here you go," Marcus announced, handing her a bowl. "Code number 7-9-3-2-1-7. It's... purple."
Purple, indeed. It was only a shade or two lighter than Dr. Speers' eyes. She took a bite, letting the flavor fill her mouth a moment, and then swallowed. Heh, she thought it looked familiar. "Japanese sweet potato," she told Marcus, who scribbled this datum down on the post-it note. "I had this stuff all the time during my homestay in Chiba. Nice going."
"You went to Japan?" That seemed to rouse Ches from his funk just a little.
"Yup. The first time was just for a month in the summer, back in 1990. Their economy had just tanked, so it was surprisingly cheap to get around. Of course, I think I spent more time on the Nintendo with my host family's dad and son than anything else." She downed a few more spoonfuls of ice cream as the memories blew in. "Played straight through Dragon Quest IV, if I remember right. All in Japanese, of course; that was years before the English release happened. I couldn't get much of the story, not with my level of the language, but I memorized all the names of the characters and magic spells in katakana." She held up her spoon like a magic wand, waving it back and forth. "Mela! Gheelah! Hyado! Toordai... ay ay yai," she finished, rubbing her temples. "Think I gave myself an ice cream headache."
The thump-thump-thump within her head was uncomfortably familiar by now, though the bright little specks floating across her vision in time with the beat were a recent addition. She used to have two or three episodes like this a year, but since her arrival here they'd been coming at least once a day. Now it was Ches's turn to hold her until the ache subsided.
"Okay, you're a nice and comfy sofa, buster, but you really should consider dropping a few pounds."
"Aww... not you too..."
"Hey, I'm not saying you should go crazy about it or anything. Just a little for your health."
"She's right, you know," Ella chimed in. "How much do you weigh now?"
"Forty." Now the young man looked even more glum. "Guess I should stop eating this, huh?" he said, laying his ice cream down on the table.
"We can start you on a treadmill tomorrow," Myra said. "You've got a treadmill somewhere around here, right Ella?" At the blonde's nod, she continued. "Good. Then let's eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall diet!"
--- Sunday, July 3rd, 2016
Had he ever been so sore before in his life? Probably, almost certainly in fact, but at the moment he had a hard time recalling. Yesterday had been a battery of physical tests, supposedly for the sake of the project, though he knew Myra and Ella had conspired to make it so. They'd even gone pretty easy on him, now that his fatigue-addled brain thought about it. So why was he so stiff and achy, lying under the covers at... what was the time?
He raised his head just enough to grab the gadget from its spot under the pillow. A press of a button caused the digital display to light up.
9:30. Why was he so stiff and achy, lying under the covers at 9:30? Exercise ended almost eighteen hours ago, and he'd slept ten of those hours. Maybe his dad had been right; maybe he was a fat lazy slob and nothing more. The old man's face popped into his imagination, all red and blustery and angry at the world. Mr. Charles Ferris had lost a bit of himself -- specifically his left leg -- during Desert Storm, and a larger bit of his heart when his wife died eight years ago. Stuck in a chair all day, he took out his frustrations on his only child, who he felt was wasting the luxury of free movement.
Clarity told him that it was envy. His dad wanted to live vicariously through Ches, so the old man forced his son to do the sorts of things he'd wanted to do. Too bad Ches had never been good at sports. Or rather, at being on teams. Any sport his dad forced him to try, there were always a couple of jerks hanging around to make his life miserable. He'd tried his best, but never could get away from the jeers and the bullying. At least, not till he took the quick and dirty way out --
Which brought him back to here. In this bed, in this room, which still felt more like his than the one in his dad's house ever did. The mattress creaked beneath him as he tried to sit up, but his bulk was not cooperating. He was sweating like a pig, but felt cold where the soaked sheets cocooned around him. Every muscle in his body felt rubbery and powerless.
"Yoo-hoo! You awake there, buster?"
He tried to call back to Myra, but only managed a moan, followed by a series of loud hiccups, each stronger than the next. By the third, he was feeling it hard in the diaphragm.
"Whoa, there." He felt a hand press against his forehead. "You're burning up, Ches. Thought you had the quantum flu licked by now."
So had he, but the stupid virus kept staging comeback after comeback. "I'll... -hic-... be okay. -hic-" he said. "Just bad -hic- timing."
"You got that right, buster. Number Five's getting a car ready for us right now to go to market." He smiled at her use of the nickname he'd given Carlos, one of Dr. Speers' assistants. "Guess we'll have to cancel," she continued.
"N-hic-no!" he said. "I'll be okay!"
"Buster, I'm sure you will, but not in the next half-hour."
"I meant -hic- that you guys can go on -hic- without me."
"You sure? This was going to be our first big outing together..."
As a family, she meant. Or whatever their weird little triangle dynamic could be called. He could feel the tears leaking around his eyes, but whether it was from happiness for that consideration, or sadness at getting in the way of things, he couldn't say. He really didn't want to be the reason why Myra and Marcus couldn't have a good time today.
"-hic- yeah," he said. "Grab me some more books, maybe some D&D stuff if you find it, okay?"
"You're into that sort of thing, huh?"
"Yeah..." What could he say? The truth, for starters. "It was always great feeling, y'know, being someone besides myself. My little escape from life. Sometimes I really wanted to be my character, y'know?
"I understand, buster. Hopefully I'll find some old sourcebooks. The three of us can do a campaign together this weekend. That sound good to you?"
"Invite the doc. Four's a better number."
"You think he'd come?" Myra looked skeptical.
"C'mon, a big dork like him? I'm sur-hic-surprised he's not got a game going right now."
"Point." His adopted big sister shrugged. "I'll invite him then. Now," she said, kissing his forehead. "You get well soon. Seeya this afternoon."
"Seeya." He watched her quietly leave the room, closing the door behind her. Then he curled under the sheets and thought of his favorite adventures for a while before letting Morpheus take him again.
It was a nice, bright, sunny day outside. She savored the feel of the sun's rays against her skin, enjoying it the way a wine connoisseur might a good Merlot after a month of enforced teetotalry. Had it really been almost eleven days since she'd last been outside during the day? Nope, a snarky part of herself replied, it had been sixteen and a half years. She chose to ignore that part. What was important was the solar warmth and the fresh breeze against her face.
"All ready to go?" she asked Marcus as he padded out the front door of the lab.
"Roger that. Too bad Ches is feeling too sick to come along."
"We'll get him something nice." She twirled around, sending her long blue skirt spinning. When she stopped, she was facing the building. "Huh, doesn't look like a mad scientist's lair, now does it?" In fact, it looked like a regular old office complex in the middle of a suburban industrial park. It could have been an insurance agency, a travel bureau, or the Ministry of Funny Walks, for all she could see. The small placard near the door identified it as the "Speers Institute," which she thought was a little gauche. Named it after himself? Really?
A U-shaped bend of asphalt formed a cul-de-sac in front of the institute, with the employee parking lot lying a little farther down the way. A chunky Volkswagen microbus rolled smoothly along the pavement and up to where they waited. She eyed it with some suspicion. The thing's paint job had to be custom, because there was no way any self-respecting car dealer, new or used, would let that eye-searing combination of neon orange and deep violet sit on the lot for even a day. The bright orange swirled and twisted through the darker shade like colored oil in water, and she could almost swear the patterns were moving.
The driver's side window rolled down, and Carlos's head popped through the opening. "Blind yet?" he joked.
"Damn near," she responded. "Almost can't find the side door latch!" Well, not really. The door popped open readily, and Marcus clambered in. She took shotgun.
The inside of the Volkswagen wasn't quite so strange, though someone had had fun adding odd little technologies to the basic frame. Instead of a cigarette lighter, there was an electric socket with connections for every plug type she'd ever seen, plus a few that were new to her. Likewise, the glove compartment was now the hub of a media center that appeared to accept everything from 8-tracks to MDs. Yup, this was definitely Speers' vehicle.
"Someone was feeling optimistic," she commented, pointing to the speedometer. It too was custom-made, and marked a top speed of over two hundred miles per hour.
"You'd think that," said Carlos as he pulled out. "And if this baby had the original forty-five horsepower engine, you'd be right. But she's got the right internal connections and engine space for something stronger. A couple of engineers at VW once put a top of the line Porsche racing engine in a microbus just like this one, did one-fifty on the Autobahn."
"You're telling me that this thing has a Porsche motor in it?"
"Nah. This is Doc Speers we're talking about. He gadgeteered himself an even better one. Had to put in a limiter to make sure she won't exceed the safe structural speed for a VW bus. Otherwise, we might be able to hit Mach 1 with this baby."
"Sorry. Already checked out once. Not in the mood to try it again. Gotta admit, though," she added. "This would be fun to surprise hot-rodders with."
From the middle seats, Marcus piped up, stretching his voice to make the words extra long and slow: "Beeeeeeep beep. Beeeeeeeep beep. His horn went beeep-beep-beep...."
"While driving in my Cadillac..." Myra replied, keeping her syllables equally slow and syncopated.
"Much to my surprise...." came the next line.
"A little Nash Rambler came up behind...."
"I couldn't believe my eyes...."
"He must've thought his car had more guts as he kept on tootin' his horn...."
"I'll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn...."
"His horn went beeeep-beep-beep..." At the helm, Carlos drove on in bemused silence as she and Marcus motored through the rest of the song. He grinned as they hit the accelerando, and laughed out loud when they came to the conclusion of the great ballad of Caddy versus compact car.
"Hey buddy, how do you get this car out of second geeeeeear!?" crowed Marcus at the finale.
"Do you guys often start singing random songs?" their driver asked.
"Only when the opportunity presents itself," she replied primly. "I suppose you've never heard that one before?"
"It sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it."
"It was the rather appropriately titled 'Beep Beep' by the Playmates, circa 1958."
"We're gonna have to teach you about real music, you young whippersnapper," joked Marcus from the rear. "Kids these days, sheesh."
"Hey now," Carlos protested. "I'm..."
"Twenty-five, twenty-six at the most," countered Myra, grinning.
"Okay, that's just freaky."
"I worked a Guess Your Age booth at an amusement park one summer while I was in high school," she said. "But since we're talking about you now, what's a sane young man like yourself doing at the quote 'Speers Institute' unquote?" She'd been wondering about that for a while now. Carlos Ramirez, age twenty-five, was clean cut and serious looking when on the job, and at first glance he seemed like a square peg in one of Speers' irregularly isohedral holes. Of course, it was hard to imagine anyone fitting in properly with the doctor.
"It's part of my graduate studies program, actually. I'm going for my PhD."
"Sociology. Difficulties and breakdowns in communication between high technologists and the common manager."
"Da-yum. Speers must be giving you lots of material, then."
"Would you believe he's actually easier to work with than the last two doctors I was assigned to?"
"Nope," said Myra and Marcus in unison.
"It's the truth. A lot of the docs I've worked with through Project LONGSHOT are full-on Diedrick's types." At Myra's questioning look, he explained. "Diedrick's Syndrome is a neurological disorder that a lot of superpowered types get, but especially the brainy ones. Symptoms include megalomania, paranoid dementia, delusions of grandeur, a tendency to monologue, and -- unfortunately -- being extremely good at whatever it is they do, which is often weaponized. The ones at the lighter end of the spectrum are generally lucid with occasional embarrassing episodes, but way too many Diedrick's types get lost in their own manias if they don't take their meds."
"And Dr. Speers isn't like that?" Myra said doubtfully.
"Amazingly not. He isn't crazy; he's just socially inept."
"Here, here," his passengers agreed. "Which is why he's so sensitive about the 'mad scientist' thing?" she continued.
"Ayup. Most of the LONGSHOT participants are."
"What's this LONGSHOT thing?" she asked. "I thought you worked for LIFELINE."
"That I do, but only 'cuz I was assigned to Doc Speers via LONGSHOT. It's sort of an umbrella program. Back in the late eighties, the DoD and DARPA realized they were falling way behind some of the science heroes and villains, like Dr. Amazing or Dr. Diabolik. They tried hiring superbrains to work for them, but there were, uh, issues between the talent and the management."
"I can imagine," Myra said dryly.
"So DARPA finally reorganized the whole mess, giving each superbrain his or her own lab, a basic set of restrictions on research topics -- like, nothing intentionally world-threatening -- and a minder to keep them balanced. The docs got the nominal control they felt they deserved, and DARPA keeps a light hand on the reins through people like Ms. Wilkins. Most of the time it just keeps them busy and out of trouble, which is a plus in itself, and occasionally they get a real success. Doc Speers has a pretty good track record, actually. That's why they gave him LIFELINE after the last guy nearly blew it."
"Dare I ask?"
"He tried to bring back Schrodinger Maxwell, the inventor of the box, using coordinates from one of the guy's previous check-ins. Apparently you can't duplicate people like that. The box went into meltdown, and they had to evacuate a suburb of Milwaukee for a while. That was two years ago, and Doc Speers only got the thing up and running again last month."
"Are we there yet?" interrupted Marcus.
"Almost," Carlos replied. "Any other questions?"
"Are we there now?"
Myra rolled her eyes, but said nothing as Marcus and Number Five pestered each other for the rest of the trip. It was certainly a strange life they'd checked into, and there were layers upon layers she'd never thought existed. She had a lot of research of her own to do, she decided, if she were going to get this ersatz family unit of theirs safely out of the labs and into the real world -- whichever world that may actually be. There was the possibility that things would never be normal for them, ever again.
"Wow, you mean it can change color on the outside?"
At least one of them seemed to think it was a good thing, at least.
"So many people..." When they'd said 'market,' he'd thought it'd be something like a mall, a single big building with individual stores stacked like blocks inside. This place was more of a sprawl, a complex growth of walls, tents, and pathways that looped around in ways that couldn't conform to his middle school grasp of geometry. Instead of stores, there were squares, circles, triangles, and the occasional trapezoid filled with piles of old merchandise and people.
They were everywhere. The aisles between sales zones were packed even more densely than the spaces they separated. Going in there would be like surrendering himself to the tide in a sea of humanity, with no guarantee that he'd ever make it back to shore. He looked right and left, trying to get his bearings, but the clothing sections blended into the book sections, which merged with the coffee shops, which bled over into a food court... which was blowing smoke this way.
Smoke. No air. Nowhere to move. Panic...
But Myra was there beside him, holding his hand, anchoring him to the present. She squeezed his fingers gently to remind him of that, then gave him another brief moment to steady himself before asking: "So, what's first on the list?"
Oh, yeah. He was holding the list. It was a small notebook, actually, A6 size, with the title 'Stuff Marcus Missed' scribbled on the front. Myra had thought it up. Every time someone made a reference to something that he didn't get, most often because it'd been while he was out, his self-appointed big brother and big sister would scribble a note down. The list was already six double-sided pages long.
"Um, how about movies?" he said.
"Good idea," she replied, leading him towards a kiosk full of old VHS tapes and those video disc things that they used now. "There are a couple I've been curious about as well."
They sent Carlos back to the van twice with boxes from just that shop. Every Marvel comic book movie from the last decade and a half, a ton of action movies and comedies, a couple of romances (at Myra's insistence) as well as the entire Audrey Hepburn collection, plus some oddball VHS tapes that Myra recognized and insisted upon. The Boris and Natasha Movie looked interesting, at least. He'd seen enough Rocky and Bullwinkle Show reruns to get the jokes there, for sure.
By big sister decree, they had to alternate pleasure with business, so the next item to do was purchase a couple of rolling suitcases and fill them with all the essentials -- i.e. t-shirts, shorts, and pants. "We'll stock up on underwear someplace where it isn't all previously owned," Myra assured him as Carlos dragged the heavily laden luggage back to the VW. They'd hit upon a treasure trove of comic book and video game prints, so Marcus wasn't complaining. He had a new old Donkey Kong hat on his head.
And then, there were the video games....
"Wow..." he said, practically whispering, when they got to that section. A lot sure had happened in twenty-five years. There was so much to choose from, he didn't know where to start. He could feel his brain going into lockdown.
"Any favorite series?" Myra asked.
"Um... were there any more Mega Man games?" he said. He'd gotten Mega Man 3 for his last birthday.
"Oh, only about thirty or so." Myra laughed at his bugged-out expression. "Dear Lord, someone get this boy a Game Boy, stat!"
Which they did. Double-stat. Myra wouldn't buy the entire shop -- "There are limits even to Speers' back account" -- but he did walk out of there with a shiny green Game Boy SP. Talk about awesome! It was about the same length as his old Game Boy, but it actually folded up! And it had a built-in battery pack! And played all the old games he remembered, plus tons of new ones! In color! And Myra'd let him get all five Mega Man games for the Game Boy AND a new series called Battle Network, which she said was pretty cool too. There was also something in there with a weird name -- Poke-man? -- that he'd never heard of, but which big sis recommended. Four Zelda games, and they were finished for this area. For now. He was pretty sure Myra was sizing up some of those CD-based games for herself.
By the time Carlos caught up with them again, Myra was tearing through piles of used paperbacks like a piranha on a cow. Somehow he'd expected her to go after those ridiculous romance novels, like his mom used to -- he shook his head, refusing to complete the thought. Live in the present. Live in the now. Don't panic. Don't go crazy. Focus on what big sis is looking at, because odds are it's worth reading.
There was a pattern to her search, it seemed. She didn't discriminate between fantasy and science fiction, but there was a definite bias towards women authors. Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Alys Rasmussen, Kate Elliott, Terry Pratchett -- Terry was a girl's name, right? A couple of authors, like Tanith Lee, C.J. Cherryh, or J.K. Rowling, he wasn't sure about, though the book covers sure looked interesting. And it was hard to miss her cry of delight when she uncovered a paperback titled Villains by Necessity. "Been out of print for ages," she explained to him later. Finally, she pulled a couple of old D&D books from the shelves and added them to her personal pile.
"So, are we opening our own Barnes & Noble?" asked assistant Number Five as they carted the last of the book bonanza out to the VW.
"It's a major bookstore chain," Myra explained. "And you know what? I needed a new last name anyway. Barnes it is. That sound good to you, Marcus?"
Huh, he hadn't even thought about that. New lives meant new identities, which meant new names. He just smiled and shrugged for now, but in his head the wheels were turning. As much as he wanted to avoid it, he really needed to figure out how much of his old life was left.
The call to introspection was strong. The call to lunch, stronger. The call of the stomach, strongest. The gurgle that erupted out of his belly was so loud, he might well have been east of Java. They were east of the coffee and food courts, at least, and there was more than enough left in Myra's borrowed wallet for a bunch of chili dogs and cheese fries, with big cups of Dr. Pepper to wash them down with. It was enough to quell even the savage belly beast. He definitely approved. The food at the lab was good, and he'd been quick to thank Ella as soon as he'd learned she was the cook, but there was something about big, sloppy piles of meat and cheese, covered in so many toppings that every bite was a surprise.
Unfortunately, the bigger surprise was waiting for them in the parking lot.
It was a large group of men, all dressed sort of alike in camoflage pants and khaki shirts. The individual bits of clothing were too mismatched to be called uniforms, but that was certainly what they were intended to be. Altogether, they looked like rejects from a commando movie, but the guns they carried were certainly real. His palms turned cold and started to sweat.
"Greetings, citizens of Illinois!" called the leader of the group, a well muscled guy with black hair, through a megaphone. "We are the Defense of Humanity, Troop 32, here for your protection. In this ever more dangerous world in which we live, where mutants run amok and mad scientists threaten from the skies, we stand in defense of the rights of man...." There was more of this, going on and on about the 'mutant menace' and how not to be 'helpless before the onslaught,' but his brain tuned it out, focusing instead on how the roar of the megaphone rushed over his skin, and how the clicks of metal on metal pricked his thumbs. The bad man, the supervillain on the Brooklyn Bridge, he'd made big speeches too, and the guns...
"Stop it, please!" he heard Myra shout. "You're scaring him!"
"We should all be scared, ma'am." The leader actually got down on one knee in front of Marcus and tried to give him a brotherly pat on the shoulder. "Your boy's a smart one. He sees the terror in this world."
"No. I mean that you, specifically, are scaring him with that gun of yours." His big sis took the leader guy by the arm and pulled him away. "Now if you lot would just clear out, we need to get to our car."
"Sorry, ma'am, but we've got a permit to demonstrate for the next half hour, and our message must be heard." The man did not retreat, though he walked a ways before raising his megaphone again. Marcus wasn't paying attention to him now, though, because something small and green had just caught his eye.
It kind of looked like a leprechaun. It really looked like a leprechaun. It was, in fact, a leprechaun, just like the Lucky Charms mascot. About a foot tall, with bright orange hair and emerald green clothing, it darted around the feet of the assembled commando wannabes so lightly that they didn't seem to notice. It wasn't until they began a parade bit that they discovered their shoelaces were all tied together.
It looked like the invasion of the Lilliputians, with an assist from the Lollipop Guild. The paramilitary morons had been all prepared for the ceremonial substitute for phallus-waving when a little green man knocked them down like a bunch of impotent dominos. Then all his buddies came from the woodwork out, piling onto the stricken dickheads and stripping their weapons of ammo. Then, as a final insult, the miniscule marauders formed a big circle around their victims and sang a series of limericks, each one more insulting to the men's collective manhood than the last.
She couldn't help herself; she had to laugh.
"Glad you enjoyed the show," said the young man beside her. He'd been there the entire time, though she hadn't noticed till now. His grey hoodie was up, but beneath it was hair the same vibrant tang color as the little people. Unless her eyes were mistaken, his ears were pointed, too.
"You guys do dinner shows?" she asked.
"Only when these schmucks open for us," he said with a wink. "My card."
Unlike most business cards, this one was designed vertically. There was a simple stick figure illustration of a man in a cape saving another man from a falling boulder. The logo at the bottom said 'Evolution Rocks!' On the back, it was signed, 'Boggart.'
"I don't suppose we can go now?" she asked him.
"Feel free, feel free," said the man. "It is still a free country for all, no matter what those gene fascists" -- a thumb stabbed towards the camo-flubbed -- "might desire."
"Thank you." She grabbed Marcus by the hand and marched to the car. only one of the man's little friends stood in her way: a foot-tall lawn ornament made flesh, picking his nose and leering lasciviously. This one got the full brunt of her stare, a penetrating glare honed in countless junior high school showdowns. No student had ever withstood it, and the grungy little garden gnome was no different. "Leave," she said, and leave, he did.
"Urgh," she groaned as she slumped into the car seat. Her head was pounding to beat the band. "What was up with all that?"
"Rights of Man protest," Carlos said. "Sort of a political extension and evolution of the old Humanity First movement. A coalition of the crazy, swinging from die-hard conservatives to far-left control freaks who don't like that just anyone could develop superpowers without oversight. They popped up after the current prez got elected and started supporting laws they didn't agree with. Like equal rights for mutants."
"Great..." she mumbled. "Look, guys, my head's killing me. I'll just sleep the rest of the way back, okay?" She didn't bother to wait for their response.
She woke up just as Carlos pulled the VW into the lab's driveway. The short nap had helped, and her head felt almost normal. Still, she didn't protest when the guys insisted she needn't help with the unpacking. So instead, she went and opened the door for them. Speers was there, heading out just as she was heading in. For a wonder, he had the grace to blush and apologize for bumping into her. Perhaps there was hope for the man yet.
"Good, good, you're back," he said, not looking directly at her. That raised the hackles on her neck. No one talked like that unless they had bad news. "It's Ches. He's, ah..."
"'Worse' is relative. This... this you'll need to see for yourself.
A series of possible scenarios ran through her head, each weirder than the last. Ches couldn't be dead -- Speers would have mentioned that -- and if his case of the flu had turned life-threatening, then he'd have explained it upfront. So what was it? Which of the potential, gruesome side-effects on Speers' handy list could it be? Unlike Ches or Marcus, her vocabulary was wide enough to understand all the crazy words, like prolapse and sphincter dysfunction, and the few that were not immediately fatal certainly couldn't be qualified as 'relative'! No, whatever it was, it had to be something so out of the ordinary, out of the extra-ordinary even, that Speers hadn't accounted for it. That was a sobering thought.
So while she didn't go in with a single expectation, her brain was swallowed up by a vague, nebulous sense of dread. Her first instinct was to check the walls, just in case the poor teen, or some portion of him, had exploded. Seeing their dull, drab grey was a relief for once. Then she saw the bed.
"What in the world..."
"You see the problem with putting this into words?" asked Speers.
"Y-yes..." Ches was still in the bed -- or rather, the bed still held him, somehow. The enormous mass was barely recognizable as being perhaps human, following the same basic plan of four limbs and a central body, but everything was swollen, stretched, elephantine. His face was hidden, thankfully. She reached out to touch, but Speers grabbed her hand and pulled it away.
"Not a good idea, I'm afraid. There's a two-hundred volt charge running through his skin, though I can't fathom how. It's not exactly dangerous, but not exactly pleasant either. Here," he said, handing her a thick dowel rod. "If you must satisfy your curiosity, use this."
She poked Ches, aware of how rude it looked but still unable to stop herself. The young man's skin was surprisingly rigid, with little to no give when she pushed the dowel harder. Embarrassment made way for curiosity, and she whacked him twice along the backside. The wooden rod vibrated from shock, then snapped on the second hit.
"We tried to get a sample of his skin," Speers noted, "and a sample of whatever is beneath it, but it blunted our instruments. Ella's pulling an ultrasound machine out of storage as we speak."
"Why do you... nevermind," she said, shaking her head. "How did this happen so fast?"
Speers shrugged. "I do not know. It certainly seems that Ches is an emerging mutant, but I've never heard of anything like this. About half an hour after you left, his monitor beeped me to say his temperature was spiking beyond normal levels. When we arrived, his body was already beginning to bloat. We've monitored the rate of expansion, and noted where the skin on his limbs and torso appear to merge. We, ah, checked his orifices as well, but they've all sealed shut."
Mutation. Myra'd had the basic training allowed by the Missouri state board of education of sixteen years ago in regards to what to do if a student showed mutant powers in class. For the most part, it had consisted of "evacuate other students, call police, wait." She couldn't even say how many types of mutant there might be, an oversight she would have to correct. Ches was her little brother now, as surely as if they were actually blood. She'd sworn that, and she stood by it. "What will he become?" she asked. If anyone could say, it'd be Speers.
"An energizer, almost for certain," said the doctor. "We could power a computer off of what he's emitting right now. Other than that, he could be anything. Could look like anything, when this is all said and done. I don't doubt this is just the beginning."
Ella arrived at that moment with the ultrasound. Myra stood back to let Speers and his minder set up the machine and make it more resistant to electric shocks. The blonde woman applied the sensory gel to a section of Ches's body and pressed the head of the ultrasound against it, apparently heedless of the current -- though Myra noted that the minder kept one hand in her pocket at all times. An image appeared on the monitor, but it was strangely dark. Myra could remember her own sonogram, not that long ago with Melanie. All that black meant there was a large space of relative emptiness, perhaps full of fluid.
"The outer shell appears to end at the parietal mesothelium layer," Ella reported, moving to another section. "No sign of muscle or organ, however. Limbs appear to have retracted into the body... Derek, can we increase the reach of this thing?"
"Certainly," said the doctor, fiddling with the controls. The image on the screen appeared to zoom out, and a faint outline could be seen. Try as she might, Ella couldn't get that sonic shadow to resolve into anything more than the general shape of a human.
"He's still in there," Myra said with a sigh of relief. She'd been afraid he'd melted completely inside his own skin.
"So it appears," said the doctor. They watched the figure on the screen a while longer, looking for signs of life. Once or twice, Myra thought she saw Ches twitch, but she couldn't be sure.
"Once the skin separated, he must have curled naturally into a fetal position inside... whatever it is his skin's become," noted Ella.
"An incubator." The answer seemed obvious to her. "Ches is turning into someone new in there, and we won't know who or what until he hatches out of it."
"That seems like a reasonable guess. Would it be okay if I contacted a biodevisor colleague of mine in on this matter?"
It took her a moment to realize that she was the one being asked. "Of course, yes," she said. "Whatever is best for Ches. I'll stand in loco parentis if necessary."
"We would expect nothing less," said Ella. "We'll need to give you and Marcus another look-over to make sure nothing's wrong, though."
"I understand." Mutations were often triggered by stress, she recalled reading, and Lord knew that Ches had had his fill of that recently. It made sense to wonder what else may be involved, however, and the magic box was suspect number one. "Yes, we should cover all our bases, shouldn't we."
Testing lasted three and a half hours. He'd been poked and prodded, jabbed and stabbed, scanned and skinned -- literally; they'd taken three layers off his left arm -- only to start all over again when the Doc's friend arrived. Dr. Stapleton was a deceptively normal looking guy, when he should've looked more like a Frankenstein, in Marcus's opinion. Stapleton was everything Speers was not: talkative, outgoing, friendly, but there'd been something in his eyes, something that was always there, but even moreso when Marcus had said no to the last few tests he'd proposed. Then, it had flared up like a fire, and all that nice guy stuff had burned away like old newspaper. At least it was all done with now. Myra'd gotten into a flaming argument with the biology dude, and Stapleton had gone down raving and spitting before the nearest assistant could get the pills he needed. Marcus had the feeling that he'd just met his first genuinely potentially mad scientist, and Carlos was right; there was a world of difference between this guy and Speers.
"Seriously," his big sis sighed as she plopped down beside him. "I'm not going to complain about Speers ever again."
"How long an 'ever' are we talking about here?"
"Oh, a few hours at the least." She ruffled his hair. "How's the Game Boy working for you?"
"Great," he said, holding it up for her to see. It had charged up completely while they were acting as lab rats, and he was already past the first level in Mega Man. It wasn't the same game as the NES version, but it had all the same enemies. If anything, it was a little easier, but he didn't mind that. All he could ask for was a blaster cannon and some targets to shoot, right about now. Pixels were much easier than real life. "Um... thanks for getting that guy to stop, earlier."
"Hey, what are big sisters for, hmmm? And I must admit, I had my own reasons for wanting to clock him."
"Yeah. Maybe I'll tell you sometime." A sad look passed across her face. "Not now, though."
"Okay." He could probably guess on his own. Mad medical doctor plus Myra's recent history times emotional trauma, carry the one, and Stapleton was lucky she hadn't killed him, most likely. "Um..." There was one other thing, though. "I heard someone say Ches might be a mutant?"
"You heard right, kiddo. Speers is still hedging his bets, but if this isn't a mutation event then something really freaky must be going on. So yeah, Ches is a mutant at the least."
"What about us?"
"Jury's still out. Maybe it's the box's fault, or it could be something that would have happened to Ches anyway. Something might happen to us too, but nobody's sure on the what, how, why, or when." She gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Enjoy your game, and I'll keep track of the weird stuff, okay?"
"'Kay...." He let Myra watch over his shoulder for a bit before letting his real worries leak out. "W-will they come and take him away?"
"Th-the guys with guns. The m-mutant haters. If they find out he's here and, and that he's changing, will they try and take him away. And m-maybe us, too?" Myra caught the Game Boy as it fell from his fingers, hit the pause button, and set it down on the table. Then she wrapped him up in the biggest hug ever. It helped, but it wasn't enough. Visions of commandos stormed through his brain, running and gunning, sending off missiles with thick black trails of smoke. "How can... What can..." He couldn't even finish his own sentences, but she understood him anyway.
"Relax. This is Speers' lab, right? And what self-respecting mostly-sane scientist wouldn't have some sort of weird security system in place? Sure, he's not the type for rotating gun turrets, lava pits, or laser-guided sharks, but those are overrated anyway." He gave a hiccup of laughter at the thought. "See? Just wait here, enjoy your game, and I'll go ask Speers about his security plans."
"No problem, kiddo."
"Hey, you got a minute?" Myra whispered in his ear, right before she pulled him out of the room by his coat sleeve. Thankfully, Stapleton was far too busy dictating notes to Speers' own assistants for the man to notice. He'd known Jacob since high school, and trusted him on many things, but he now regretted bringing the biodevisor in. Yes, they needed the expertise, but no one had known Jacob was going off his pills for days at a time until he and Myra had come to blows. Even now, Ella was in the other room quietly conferring with her superiors at LONGSHOT to determine what needed to be done. For now, he needed to keep them separated.
"Not really, actu--"
"How much of that stuff in there is in your field of expertise?" she countered.
"That's not the--"
"Point. Yeah, yeah. You've got Stapleton in there, and a squad of assistants to keep him happily occupied, but out here I've got a job only you can do, Speers."
"Please, it's Derek."
"Sorry, but I'm not sure we're ready for a first-name basis as yet." The woman would not take her eyes off his, and her words were measured and slow. "It's Marcus. He's freaking out right now, and I need your help with him."
"What can I do?"
"Can you build a force-field thingie? A small one?"
He managed not to look insulted. "That was basic stuff in my freshman engineering class in high school, I'll have you know." Really, asking a gadgeteer if he could build a force-field projector? She might as well go ask Champion if he could fly.
"Y'know, we're going to have a talk about this school of yours sometime," said Myra. "But that's neither here or now. I need you to help Marcus make his own force-field doohickey."
"The technical term is PFP. Personal force-field projector. Now, why does he need one?"
"Because right now he's shaking and scared out of his wits because he thinks some Humanity First asshole battalion is going to break in here to get Ches, and this is the sort of thing that could help him feel safe."
He sighed. Human emotions, human complications... but he could understand how the boy felt. He'd been there. Most mutants had at some point. The chances of an H1 group attack were vanishingly small, but that meant little when one was scared. "Alright. I'll build him a small PFP and send it over."
"No." She shook her head. "Help him make one. He needs to trust in himself, and a defense he made with his own hands will be worth a lot more psychologically than one that's just given to him. I know, I know," she said, guessing his next objection, "he probably won't understand most of it. Show him the parts, help him put it together, and if you need to personally add a bit of your super-scientific hoo-doo to do it, that'll be okay. As long as he's directly involved. Is that workable?"
Part of him wanted to turn her down, to say 'no' out of spite, simply because he could. But he didn't. He looked right back into those blue eyes of hers, with their little flecks of gold, and saw someone who really and truly needed his help: Myra herself, as least as much as the boy. That section of his brain that normally worked best with machines clicked on, performing its powers of analysis for human feelings for once, and he could see that this was a problem which she could not deal with, which she didn't know how to begin dealing with.
Control kept her steady, he knew. The role of big sister gave her control over herself, over how she reacted. And now, as a big sister, she had to bite the bullet and reach out for help. Reach out to him. "Yes," he said. "I'll be there in ten. Send him over."
For a moment, he thought she might hug him. He had no idea how to react to that, and was thankful when she didn't, but as she turned and left, he regretted it as well. Out of all the events of the day, that realization was the most surprising to him.
"Paging Dr. Speers." Ella's voice was right in his ear, and he jumped. When had his minder returned? Surely he would have noticed that, even if Myra was dominating his attention. Yet there she was, standing there with that knowing smirk on her face.
"Yes, yes, Ella. You don't need to shout."
"You were just standing there, staring at the door, so yes, I did."
"What? No! I..." He sighed. "She gets under my skin. That is all."
"She reminds me of your mother."
"I suppose she does. Overbearing, commandeering, self-righteous..."
"No. Well yes, those things too," admitted Ella. "But I was thinking of the good bits."
"What are you implying?"
"Me? Nothing! Now, don't you have somewhere to be?" She gave him her best disarming smile as she pushed him down the hall towards his personal chambers. "Play nice. I want to hear all about how much you enjoyed yourself later." With that commandment made, she left him to wonder how he'd gotten into this situation.
Reading had always been one of her favorite ways to escape life. Now that she found herself alone for the first time that day, her every instinct was to curl up with a good book for a few hours, and the comfy sofa in room 114 seemed purpose-built for the task. The hard part was deciding what to read; she'd bought so many novels that morning. For the afternoon's delight, she settled on a Terry Pratchett novel, Monstrous Regiment, that she'd missed while she was out. That and a tall glass of tea kept her occupied for a while. It wasn't until Ella knocked on the door that she realized she'd already read through two-thirds of the book in perhaps three hours.
Heh, she hadn't finished a whole book in one day for years. Nice to see she still had it in her.
"Might I come in?" came Ella's voice, following the knock.
"Sure." What did the minder want this time? She tried not to growl as she spoke. "Here to talk, or here to tell?"
"A little of both, I suppose." The older woman seated herself. "Mostly to apologize for not talking with you sooner about some things."
"Like how you've got Melanie in a jar somewhere?" Ella winced at the tone in her voice, as sharp and cold as she could manage while not quite enough to match how she felt. "I'm sure you had your reasons, but I'd much rather have found out a week ago, rather than from the mouth of some ill-mannered mad scientist who'd see nothing wrong with discussing the dissection of my dead daughter like I wasn't there to hear it!" There, her mood was ruined once more. She had to put the paperback down, lest she start ripping pages. "If he's laid one finger on her...."
"Dr. Stapleton's already been escorted home," Ella informed her. "And no, we didn't let him near Melanie, so there's no need to saw off his ears with a rusty razor, puree them in a blender, then force-feed him the raw slurry via the Eustachian tubes. I read the transcript of the fight," she added. "Carlos took notes, very detailed ones. He seemed to approve of your creativity."
"So when were you planning on telling me? About Melanie?"
"Would you believe right about now?" Ella sighed. "That idiot Stapleton beat me to the punch. The truth is, we kept samples so we could help you prove paternity if you so desired..."
"Fat chance of that. I'd rather not see that bastard ever again."
"Fair enough. We also waited until certain details were finalized. Myra, what I was going to say tonight was that we've arranged a plot at the nearest children's cemetery, along with a nice marker. If that's alright with you. We also have the option to bury her next to your own grave in St. Louis."
"No, that's okay. As I understand it, she's already there." Myra sniffled, trying to hold back tears. "Thank you, Ella. For thinking about it."
"Thank Derek. He's the one who brought it up first. Paying for it personally too, so we don't have to worry about DARPA's accounting department getting too feisty with us."
"Really? I... I really don't know what to say. Should I go thank him now? Are he and Marcus finished up yet?"
"Not last I heard," said Ella. "And there's been plenty of noise coming from the toy closet."
"How long does it take to make a personal force field?" she wondered.
"For someone experienced like Derek, with the right materials and tools at hand, maybe half an hour."
"Huh." She checked her gadget again. Yup, it'd been almost four hours now. "What are they up to..."
"It could be anything," admitted Ella. "Once Derek gets side-tracked on something, he can be very single-minded."
"Guess I should check up on them." She'd set up this little play-date, so if it literally brought the house down, she'd have only herself to blame. Hopefully Speers hadn't talked the boy's ears off or anything.
She walked in on a game of catch. It could have been a perfectly banal picture of a father and son tossing a baseball around, if it weren't for the little details that gave it a true Speersian touch. Instead of gloves, Marcus and the doctor wielded clunky badminton racquets covered in wires and duct tape, but no strings within the hoop. Nevertheless, something was there, a shimmering plane which was only visible when the light hit it at the correct angle. The ball seemed to pass part of the way through the hoop, only to bounce back and then stick in mid-air until it was retrieved.
"Hey, Myra!" shouted Marcus, putting the game on hold. "Wanna give it a go?"
"Not yet!" said Speers, equally loudly. "We haven't finished the set yet. You're not getting out of this that easily!"
"Bite me, Dork!"
"In your dreams, Mucus!"
What on earth... She'd been about to call Marcus to task about the insult -- ultra mega super dork that Speers might be -- but the exchange was just too entertaining to interrupt. When had these two gotten on a nickname basis? Sometime in the last four hours, obviously. Derek Speers, of the violet eyes and moon-like pallor, was bright-eyed and flushed from exertion, apparently from the no-holds-barred nature of their home-brew rules. The two of them ran and jumped all over, chasing the ball when it skittered across the floor, with an intensity that made her wonder if the thing was rigged to explode if left unattended. That would fit all too well.
The lab room had been largely cleared of clutter, or at least of easily breakable items, so the ball had plenty of room to bound and ricochet. It passed right in front of her face on more than one occasion, and by the fourth time she'd grown tired of waiting. On the next pass, she plucked it neatly out of the air.
Not too surprisingly, the 'ball' was only called that because there was no other word to use. It took up the role of ball in this game, and thus a ball it was. The actual body of it, however, was a bundle of strange, mismatched electronic components the size of her thumb, surrounded by a shimmery bubble a little larger than a baseball. No matter how she shook or turned it, the core section remained stubbornly in the exact center of the bubble, without any visible means of support. It had a weight and heft in her palm that did not jive with what her eyes were telling her.
"It's a combination force-field and pressor beam generator," Speers explained. "It pushes outward at a constant three newtons of force, which is enough to simulate three hundred grams of mass as it presses down on your hand. The field keeps it contained, and since it pushes out in all directions it keeps itself centered. The only problem is the power source," he added as it began crackling and popping in her hands. "It gets boosts of energy from the fields in these racquets, which are connected to power packs on our belts. If you'd please..."
She gladly passed the 'ball,' which was now spitting blue sparks, to his waiting racquet. As soon as it was ensconced in the field, it settled down.
"Hey Myra! Check this out!"
Marcus was jumping up and down, bouncing on a trampoline that wasn't exactly there. Much like the racquets, the broad metal hoop had the thin shimmery visual effects of a force-field in action, and she could see it best as it distorted and stretched to absorb the kinetic energy of his jumps. The harder he came down, the stronger it sent him back up.
"Interesting toys you have here, Derek. Is it always like this?"
"Well, no. This is all a bit more physical than my usual. But after the regular PFP was finished, Marcus kept asking questions, and one thing led to another, and, well..." He shrugged, nodding to where the boy was trying to perfect his mid-air somersault on the ephemeral trampoline.
"I'm surprised you could come up with all this on such short notice." She wasn't even being polite here; this was far more than she'd expected to come out of her original half-baked plan.
"Oh, don't thank me," said Speers. The scientist took her by the arm, leading her to the far side of the room as if to show her something else, but instead leaned in close to whisper in her ear. "I provided the tools and a bit of knowledge, but Marcus made all of this on his own, and I don't think he realizes it yet."
"Okay, he's down for the night," Myra announced as she walked into room 114. Ella and Speers were there waiting for her, and the minder already had a bowl of ice cream in hand for her. Butter fudge ripple, yum. Thankfully the chill helped soothe the pounding of her temples, rather than exacerbate it.
"That was quick," said Speers. "He passed out so suddenly that his monitor sent me an alert. Was everything alright?"
"He was just worn out, I think. Lots of excitement today. I sat with him a bit and sang an old lullaby of mine. Worked like a charm. 'La-la-li-la-li-la-ho-ma...'" she hummed. "Heh, hadn't thought of it in years. I used to sing it to my host family's daughter, back in Chiba. Worked then, too." She had another bite of ice cream, suddenly pensive. "Wow, Rimi-chan's got to be like twenty-eight now. How time flies."
"What tune was that?" asked Ella.
"The opening theme to the Dragon Quest game series. Her brother and I made it up by taking the syllables in the game's sleep spell and jumbling them around. Tak-kun's thirty-six by now... wow, do I feel old..."
"You get used to it," said Ella with a wink. "So, on to the business at hand. Marcus. What's going on, Derek?"
"Only the obvious, I'm afraid. The boy's manifesting with all the mental traits associated with devisors and gadgeteers. Without access to his full records from twenty-five years ago, or even to anecdotal accounts from friends and family, I can't say whether this is a new development or something that was in the making before he originally checked out. We will have to keep an eye on him at all times when he's awake," he cautioned. "He'll be especially prone to monomania for a while, and his current lack of general scientific knowledge may cause him to take risks without realizing."
"Layman's question over here," Myra said, raising her hand. "Devisor and gadgeteer. What's the difference, and which should worry me more?"
"From the layman's point of view, there's not much of a difference," said Speers. "Both types work with science and technology to produce amazing results. The differences lie in the origins of the two abilities and in their respective results. This," he said, placing his handheld control pad on the table, " is a gadget. Its internal components are largely off the shelf, but put together in ways few could imagine on their own. It works better than anything on the market, but the market will eventually catch up. On the other hand," he continued, taking Marcus's force-ball out of his pocket. "This is a devise. The sum of its parts cannot account for the effects it produces, at least not enough to be in accordance with several sections of the laws of thermodynamics. It is solely the creation of Marcus, and while others may be able to duplicate the effect, no one will be able to copy its exact design or nature."
"So gadgets are things ahead of their time, but devises are out of this world?"
"Precisely," said Speers. "Well put. Now, the gadgeteer trait was originally associated with the ESP family of abilities, despite the fact that it very rarely coexists with any other ESP trait, and many theorists still place it with or near intuition and precognition on that spectrum. My own ability, for example, is all about understanding how systems work together, and then getting them to work the way I need them to. Devising is more problematic. In truth, anyone with sufficient scientific knowledge on a subject and an intense will to succeed has the potential to create a devise. When a baseline human does it, it's called the Schimmelhorn effect."
"Schimmelhorn..." said Myra. "That sounds familiar... Oh!" She tapped her head, willing her memory to sort through more quickly. "Wasn't that the oddball inventor from the story, 'The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out'?"
"Among other stories," said Ella.
"Read that one ages ago in one of my dad's anthology collections. Funny stuff."
"Would that it could be so funny in real life," said Speers, "but the problem with such devises is that unless their creator is on hand to maintain them, they become unstable and useless at best, and explosive at worst, which leads to much heartbreak and psychological issues. Most Schimmelhorn scientists end up marginalized and bitter, with a few going so far as active villainy in order to fund their research.
"Mutants with the devisor trait are a different matter. There are many theories as to how they break the laws of physics on a regular basis. Some class them in with the reality-warpers, while others make a case for a connection to the more mystical traits. The main fact here is that devisors create the impossible on a regular basis, and do it with stunning levels of object stability, while rigorously trained scientists and gadgeteers might only do so by accident, and with far less predictable results."
"So... the two types are coming from different directions, but use similar processes, and may occasionally make the same kinds of things?"
"Pretty much. A well-trained devisor may make reproducible gadgets, once the more problematic elements of the design are carefully pared away. Likewise, a gadgeteer may find that his newest invention harbors a literal miracle at its core, but the focus of each trait is still demonstrably different." Speers activated the force-ball and bounced it on the floor a few times before turning it off to continue. "When I watch another gadgeteer at work, it's like I'm seeing someone put together a large puzzle. The pieces may be scattered, but the way they fit is obvious. Watching a devisor, though... It's like seeing someone work with many disparate threads. I can see where they come from, and I can see where they end up, but in the middle there is an immense Gordian knot, and I simply cannot keep track of where it goes."
"And that's what Marcus is doing." She knew she should be worried about this, but her concerns were tempered by trust. Marcus was a good boy, and right now she could think of no one better than Speers to help him through this. Most of all, Ella was far more experienced than she, and if the older woman didn't worry yet, then neither would Myra.
"Yes. With surprising ease, I might add. He may have some gadgeteering intuition, or more likely he's exhibiting some of the exemplar mental package, with enhancements to how his brain retains and organizes information. We'll need to test him more thoroughly to be sure."
More tests. She almost groaned at that. At least Marcus would enjoy himself. "He's not going to start building death rays, is he?"
"Well..." Speers and Ella shared a look, which did nothing to make her feel better.
"Derek mentioned monomania," said Ella. "Most scientifically inclined mutants get caught up in a theme, which often goes back to their original breakthrough."
"My first act of gadgetry occurred a few months before my fourteenth birthday," said Speers. "Mother had canceled our cable, and then the TV burned out and she refused to replace it. Some misplaced theory about it being bad for my brain. The next weekend I took my allowance to the local junk shop, brought home a few cases of electronic parts, and built myself a home entertainment system, complete with cable descrambler."
"Which isn't to say there were no weapons," added Ella, with a smug look that told Myra that someone had peeked at Speers' juvenile records.
"Just that trebuchet incident, and after that I was at Whateley..." A shrug. "And pretty much anything goes when it comes to research there, as long as the teachers are kept up to date."
"So," said Myra. "We have to worry about environment, and then we have to worry about boys being boys."
"Exactly." Ella nodded.
"And Marcus is shell-shocked and scared that Humanity First will come and get him," Myra groaned. "I'm surprised he hasn't made a weapon already! Has he said anything to you?" she asked Derek.
"I'm not sure... er, what is a 'bubble lead'? Marcus did say that he wanted me to help him make one tomorrow."
Luckily she'd spent much of the day discussing video games with her adopted little brother, so her memory could provide the answer almost instantly. "It's an armament from Mega Man 2," she informed him. "I think it was supposed to be an acid bubble with high surface tension that could crush or bowl over enemies, but that force-ball of his looks a lot like a miniature version of it." She rubbed her temples. "Dear lord, this is going to be a mess."
Neither the gadgeteer nor his minder could contradict her, unfortunately.
It was half past midnight, and his eyes were stuck on the view of his mug through the dirty glass door of the microwave. 'CAUTION: COFFEE OF DOOM' was barely legible as it spun around clockwise on the turntable, slowly winding down the seconds until his hot milk and honey was properly irradiated. -ping- came the signal, and he removed the ceramic container gingerly, mindful of the heat trapped in its structure. A light dusting of cinnamon powder finished the concoction, and he settled down at the table to relax.
The lab's commissary was a holdover from whatever the building had been before he took it over. The kitchenette was Ella's personal province, but she kept the beat-up microwave, along with a mini-fridge and a water heater, on the countertop nearest the dining area as a sop to him and his lab assistants, most of whom gladly availed themselves of her cuisine when she was in the mood to cook. Right now, the place was abandoned except for himself, his mug of hot milk, and the box on the table.
He'd spent the last few hours since his meeting with Ella and Myra working on it. It needn't have taken quite so long, but he'd worried about appearances more than usual, and that ate into his time. He hoped it would be appreciated.
"Oh, you're still up." He was interrupted in mid-sip as Myra entered the commissary, wrapped in her bath robe with her hair still hanging damply. "Don't let me bother you. I'm just in for a cup of chamomile before bed."
"It's no bother at all," he said as she poured herself a cup from the water heater. "What's got you up so late?"
"Research. I borrowed Marcus's Game Boy SP and his set of Mega Man games. Spent the last two hours playing through them and taking notes." Cup in hand, she sat down at his table and presented him with a notepad. "Best I figure, there are forty-five different Robot Masters in the old Game Boy series alone, but he'll only be familiar with the bosses taken from the first three NES games for now, which adds up to twenty-two. Not counting sufficiently similar abilities, that's fourteen more possible weapons for him to dream up. The last three aren't likely, though," she added as he scanned the list.
"I'll say... The enhanced strength would require an exo-frame, for certain. The magnetic field effect is too impractical. As for the time-freeze weapon..." He shook his head. "Those never work right."
Myra sipped her chamomile and sighed. "Dad always did say that raising teenagers was a headache, but I doubt he'd've imagined something like this."
"What was he like, your father?" He'd often wondered, considering how frequently she mentioned the man.
"Dad? He was a massive nerd, way before it was cool. So was Mom -- they met at a fantasy convention -- but she fafiated when she started working real office hours after I turned two."
"I'm sorry, 'fafi...'?"
"It's based on an acronym: 'Forced Away From It All.' Used to describe anyone who no longer actively participates in nerd culture for outside reasons like work or family. For whatever reason, her office culture wasn't very nerd-friendly. Dad worked for IBM, and later as a freelance programmer, so he didn't have that problem. I got most of my nerdness from him. D&D, video games, speculative fiction of every stripe; you name it, I done it. I sort of fafiated when I began teaching, but by then the stigma was fading. I mean, when I was in high school, they were banning D&D for being Satanic." She snorted. "Morons."
"It was a different time."
"Don't I know it."
"Are they still...?"
She shook her head. "They got caught in a bio-terror attack back in the mid-90s. It was quick, at least."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
"It's okay, Speers. This world we live in, and all that."
"You called me Derek, earlier today."
"Did I?" She drained her cup, then got up to pour another. "A momentary lapse, I'm sure. And why are you up so late? Too much of that vile coffee?"
"Not tonight. I do need to get some sleep before Marcus wakes up, after all. But there was something I had to finish first." He gestured at the box on the table. "It could have waited till tomorrow, but since you're here now, why don't you open it?" He regretted not wrapping it, or at least tying it with a bow.
"What, it's for me?" Nestled within the cardboard cube was a long hairclip, an ornate half-crescent of silver circuitry disguised behind angular fractals. she tried it on, nodding as she examined herself in a darkened window. "Stylish. What's the occasion?"
"It's a precaution," he said. "We never really mentioned it, but your situation may be as volatile as Ches's or Marcus's. If the box did trigger their mutations, then the same might happen to you, and manifestation later in life is both rare and very dangerous. The gadgetry in that band is a more sophisticated version of the field monitors, so we can monitor your brain waves for early warning signs."
"So it's a goosegg."
"I'll assume that's some kind of reference?"
"Yeah. Anne McCaffrey. Still, it's lovely. Thank you, Derek." She patted him on the cheek, winked, and swept out of the room. "Now get some sleep!"
He rubbed his cheek, felt it bend as a grin stretched his face. She'd said his name again, and it sounded so nice that way. Suddenly he didn't even need the hot milk to sleep well that evening. Once he got to his own bed, his cares just melted away.
----Monday, July 4th, 2016
"Are you ready to see something cool!?" crowed Marcus. It was a little after noon, and those few people who were stuck in the lab over the holiday weekend -- namely herself, Derek, Ella, and for some reason Carlos -- were now gathered in the wide alley between the lab and its storage facility. It was perhaps a hundred feet from one blocked end to the other, and various strange scorch marks on the walls gave testament to its occasional use as a testing range. Marcus was at the one end, while a gaggle of dummy decoys stood in haphazard formation were waiting for him the opposite way. The bystanders were all watching from the relative safety of the commissary's wide windows.
The boy had found a pair of crazy looking goggles to fit over his Donkey Kong cap, most likely from under one of Derek's random piles, and she'd insisted he wear as much protective gear as could be cobbled together on short notice. So what if his welder's apron didn't match his electrician's gloves? It was better than nothing. After their little chat this morning, Marcus had been all for getting his own lab coat, but it had been Derek who'd put his foot down on that. Something about seniority and earning the privilege, though afterwards he'd confided to her that he simply didn't have one in the boy's size.
Marcus had taken this as a challenge, doubling his efforts to make his first solo work as awesome as possible. He struck a pose, like a pitcher on the mound, then threw the devise as hard as he could.
This model was larger than the last, and came in a round ceramic shell that Derek had provided. All by itself, it was the size of a baseball or a rotund lemon juice bottle -- or a hand grenade. Once it was en route, its surface shimmered for an instant before the force field billowed outwards like a self-inflating soap bubble. By the time it hit the ground, its effective size was double that of a beach ball, and it continued growing even as it accelerated down the alleyway towards the dummies. They collided, and suddenly the way was littered with random mannequin parts.
"A hit! A very palpable hit!" shouted Myra through the open window.
Marcus's hand rested on a small control panel set into his belt. At the press of a button, the bubble lead deflated, losing cohesion right before it would have busted through the wall at the end of the alley. The core devise snapped back, flying a beeline straight into the boy's waiting glove. He'd tried to explain how he could tie the devise to its charger in the glove's palm, but the technobabble would have been exceptionally dense even if he weren't making up half the words for lack of a better vocabulary.
Carlos, she'd noted, was careful to record the entire spiel.
"This is an excellent opportunity," the assistant had explained when cornered, right before the field demonstration. "One of the big questions in my field is, when does the descent into communicative dysphasia begin? Do the devisors and gadgeteers learn it as a shared culture, or are they naturally inclined to prattle on, even though no one can follow?" In the end, she'd given him limited permission to use recordings of Marcus, in conversations before and after yesterday evening, for use in his thesis work.
"Just remember to credit me," she growled comically.
"Will do, ma'am."
Back in the present moment, Derek and Ella were surveying the damage and congratulating Marcus, more or less at the same time. She didn't think she'd ever seen the boy look happier. For her part, she was paradoxically both relieved and more worried than ever. There'd be trouble, for certain. That was a part of any life, but Marcus was moving into a whole new realm of potential problems. On the other hand, pretty soon the boy's troubles would be having troubles with him.
The dummies were quickly reassembled, and they all took turns at the world's newest and strangest form of bowling. It was actually rather fun, once she got used to the way it snapped back to the charger in her palm each time. Perhaps an intermediate sized model could make for another type of game? She was about to suggest it to Derek, but was interrupted by the man's control pad. From its resting place on his belt, the gadget beeped once, twice, then in a continuous skreeeee that she could feel through her molars.
Derek didn't waste a word. He was through the commissary doors and down the hall before she could even ask. On the other hand, she didn't have to. He'd told her about that alert, and since both she and Marcus were demonstrably okay at the moment, that left only one alternative. She dashed after him.
He wasn't sure when he woke up, to be honest. Sleep had overcome him not long after Myra had left, so deeply that he didn't even dream. And then he wasn't sleeping, but wasn't awake, either. He was neither here nor there, now or then. There was just the weird sensation of being. It was similar to his feelings of clarity, this sensation. He couldn't really question its existence, or his own for that matter. He simply was. Everything around him was warm, dark, and comforting. In the absence of light, his brain supplied the illusion of it, turning the space dark red and orange at times, with strange threads of bright yellow criss-crossing like lightning in slow motion.
His body could move -- he could feel as much -- but did not. It was like those times he'd lain in bed late at night, not sleeping but not moving because his body felt too heavy, almost paralyzed. At those times, he could move if he really wanted, but he'd simply chosen not to. This was the same. When the time came to move, he would.
And then, all in a rush, that time came. How long had he waited? There was no way to tell. Time had no meaning here. All that mattered was that something inside him was screaming the need to quit this space. It wasn't a thought; more an instinct pulled him away from the center of his new place of being. The place had a border, he realized, a hard shell that kept everything contained and safe. Kept him safe. Kept him separated from everything that ever hurt him in his old life. No bullies. No threats. No dad. No negatives at all.
No positives, either. This was his place, but there was no space here for others. As long as he was here, there would be no big sister Myra or little brother Marcus. There'd be no Doc Speers to tease, or Number Five to crack jokes with. In here was safety. Out there was life.
Instinct had led him this far, and clarity helped inform his choice. Together, they guided his fist to the weakest point. He made his decision and broke the shell of the world.
Light, air, chill, gasp. The sensations overwhelmed him, even as the rush of fluid carried him out of his shell and into the cold world of reality. The waters of his rebirth flowed over his head and deposited him in a thick, sticky, yellow mess on the floor. He lay there, hacking and wheezing as his lungs filled with air for the first time in a small eternity. In came the sweet breath, and out went globs of yellow mucus, the same stuff that covered the rest of him like yolk from an egg.
The yolk-ish stuff gummed up his eyelids, so he had to blink several times before he could make out the details of the room. It was mostly as he remembered it, familiar in its grey dullness. His bags were still piled in the far corner, but a clunky machine had found a spot by the bed. It was definitely one of Doc Speers' designs, but he wasn't sure what it was for besides ringing loudly. That part he understood well, once he'd dug the gunk out of his ears. Maybe it was an alarm?
Definitely an alarm. He felt the pounding of feet through the floor a moment before his ears picked up the noise. By then, the door was thrown open, and everyone piled in. Speers, Myra, Marcus, Ella, even Number Five was suddenly there to welcome him back. Well, in his mind at least. In reality, they were staring. He'd wonder if he had something on his face, except that he knew that he did.
"Um, Ches?" said Myra uncertainly, raising the syllable to a question mark.
"Yeah?" he croaked. His voice was much like every other part of him right now, creaky with disuse and gunked up something awful. He hacked up another yellow loogie and added it to the mess on the floor.
"Oh, thank God..." She rushed up to hug him, but was put off by the mess. He could see her hesitate for a moment, and God only knew how bad he smelled right now. His nose hadn't started working yet. Then his big sis shrugged and wrapped her arms around him. "Marcus!" she called back. "Shut your mouth before a bug flies in, then go with Carlos to get some blankets or sheets!"
Marcus hadn't said a word yet, but his bugged-out eyes spoke volumes. Ches could already tell that his body had changed. It was pretty obvious with Myra holding him so tightly to tell that he'd definitely lost mass. Not just weight, and not just fat; his bones felt different, even. From the look on little bro's face, they weren't the only things that had changed.
"We need to get you warmed up," Myra was saying. She and Ella got him standing upright and wrapped in a sheet that Marcus had fetched for them. His legs were shaking and unsteady, and he walked like a newborn foal all the way to the showers. The two women were there to help, so he only came close to falling once, at the entrance to the bathing rooms. He tried to go left, to the men's showers, and the ladies led him right.
"I'm sorry, Ches," Myra said when he croaked in protest. "You don't have much of a choice here. Um, how should I put this.... eh, screw tact and politeness. Have you checked your junk lately?"
His...? They were peeling the filthy sheet off of him now, and the way the material clung to his body gave him some sense of what was coming. He was skinny now, thinner than he'd ever been in his life, but now he could feel the proportions better, notice how the sheets hugged his hips and chest differently from his waist. As for between the legs --
Ella had him seated and soaked before he could finish the thought. It took literal buckets of water and tons of scrubbing to remove the drying gunk from his skin, and then much more washing with sponges to complete the job. It was the passing of sponges over his thighs that made him realize that he was certainly missing something down there.
"Your skin turned into a shell," the minder explained. "All the holes sealed up, and everything that was outside separated from the stuff inside. And, well..."
Some things had remained outside permanently. Clarity urged him to remain calm, to conserve energy. He'd been through a lot, even if he couldn't recall most of it, and it wasn't like the old twig and berries had done him much good, right? Still, the thought set his legs to shaking and his eyes to tearing, though that may have been the shampoo's fault.
"You've got hair like wire now, buster," Myra commented as she rinsed. "Copper wire, from the color of it. We'll let it dry on its own for now. Normally I'd insist on a blow-dry, but if it really is metallic... well, I'd rather not risk it."
"Now, Ches," said Ella as she toweled him off. "We're going to go over to the mirror and have a look. I know this is going to take some getting used to, but please stay calm, okay?"
And then there he was. He couldn't deny that it was him in that mirror, especially not with Ella and Myra framing him on either side. The two women anchored that girl in the mirror to reality, and he had to accept it as true. Accept her as true. She was a little shorter than Myra now, this girl was, and her frame was a lot lighter than his. Well, that would be a given. Most of his bulk must have gone into... incubating was the best word he could think of. Her skin was pale and surprisingly hairless, except for the shock of coppery brown-yellow hair and a pair of eyebrows like tongues of yellow flame.
He looked herself in the eyes, saw the slit pupils in emerald green, and lost it. Not because he couldn't accept it. Not because he refused to believe it. Because he knew that face, and he'd never thought he'd see it whole again.
The crying, she was prepared for. It was a perfectly normal reaction -- as far as anything connected to waking up in a different body could be considered normal -- and she would've been more worried if Ches hadn't reacted this way. The shaking was more worrisome, or would be if the newly minted girl's body weren't completely drained from the experience. It had been a feat just to get Ches down the hall to the showers.
So when the former boy slipped out of her grasp and lit out of the bathroom like her tail was on fire, she wasn't at all ready. Knocked on her bum would be a better description, in fact. It only took a moment, but Ches was gone, and Ella was helping her to her feet. Grabbing a pile of towels, she and the other woman went scrambling after.
At least Ches wasn't going far. It was a straight line down the hall to her old room, where Derek and Carlos were busy cleaning and bagging what was left of... well, of Ches. That wasn't something she'd want anyone to see, but it never got to that point. The door to the room was shut, and all the bags were set in a line outside it. The girl was down on her knees, wet and dripping as she tore through a beaten green backpack. After a moment, the bag was upturned completely, dumping its contents on the floor. Files, notebooks, pencils and random bits of paper scattered everywhere as Ches pawed through them, until the prize was in hand.
It was a thin, clear file, with only a few pages inside. Through the front, Myra could see an image, a hand-drawn picture of a girl in fantasy-novel armor, with copper-brown hair and green eyes. Tears dripped down from Ches's face, hitting the file like salty rain. "She... she... I never..." The words barely escaped through the storm of sniffles and sobs.
Myra came up quietly behind, wrapping the new girl in a large towel. There was no protest; Ches was too absorbed in the picture to notice anything. The lines of the drawing were strangely irregular, like it had been ripped apart and reassembled at some point, she could now see as she peeked over Ches's shoulder. "Who is that?" she asked.
"N-na'chessa," came the reply. "My last gaming character. F-for Dungeons & Dragons. Dad-d-didn't... didn't..." The sniffles got the better of Ches's nose, forcing the girl's face to screw up in a sneeze. Myra expected another blast of the yellow mucus, and stayed well out of the way. This turned out to be a very good idea, if not for that reason.
"Ah-CHOO!" The bellowing sneeze was accompanied by a brief flash of light and a loud crack. The smell of ozone filled the corridor, and when her vision cleared, Myra could see a large scorch mark on the wall in front of Ches.
"What was that?" The door to Ches's room opened, and Derek stuck his head out to see. "Did something explode?"
"No..." Myra said slowly, holding the shivering girl close. Whatever had just happened, it was as much a surprise for Ches as it was for everyone else. Or... maybe not. There was something odd in the way the new girl stared at the scorch mark, something more akin to wonder and realization than shock. Myra had seen something similar in those green eyes a few minutes before, when they were looking in the mirror.
"Ches, could I see that file for a moment?" She plucked it out of the girl's limp hands and pulled out the paper. It was a character sheet, Dungeons & Dragons. She recognized the basic format, though it looked like someone had made personal alterations to accommodate some homebrew elements. Both it and the drawing had been ripped to shreds at some point, then carefully taped back together. So much cellophane tape had been used that the pages were practically laminated. "Hmm. Name, Na'Chessa Rakia Faroving, Human Fighter..." She skimmed over the basic stat and feat information, looking for any clues. On the back, she found her answer. "Secret trait: secondary class, Dragonblooded. Bronze dragon lineage." While she'd never had the chance to play a 3.5 game, since it hadn't even existed when she checked out, and it could just as well have been something homebrew, she could take a stab at what that meant. If it worked the way she thought it did, and if Ches had somehow got him-- herself a mutation based on it, well then...
"Oh. Crap." That really seemed like the only way to say it.
To Be Continued