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I woke sprawled on the foamfloor, head throbbing like Krakatoa in an echo chamber. I ached. Ye gods, how I ached. Breathing heavily, I started to sit up, then gave up as the room wobbled. Someone moaned next to me. Evelyn.
I managed to turn my head enough to see her, sprawled as I was, her naked body bone dry. Mine, too, I realized. How long had we been out? An hour? "Shit," I said, realizing the headbands were still on.
With effort, I reached up and fumbled for the off switch. The nanoprobes retreated from my scalp, and instantly the throbbing subsided. I wiped away tiny beads of blood from my forehead. I tried sitting up, and Krakatoa reminded me it was still there. No echo chamber, though. Even so, the experiment was damn well worth it. Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, was it worth it. Total sensory feedback. Orgasmic feedback, between her and me. To feel as Evelyn on the receiving end. Affirmation of everything I've ever believed—known—about women. Four billion years. Four fucking billion years. I called it. Joy welled up in me so much I wanted to cry.
I'd do anything to shake the hand of the genius that came up with this contraption.
Evelyn sat up, swooning slightly. Then she gave me a grin. "Told you it was illegal. Pretty damn spiv, huh?"
I pulled her to me and kissed her deeply. Fucking her for the past four days had become a religious experience. Every time I entered her, I was communing with a higher power.
"I love you more than anything," I said, thinking of nothing but those holy headbands. I had to get back inside her. I licked a finger, and ran it across her breast. The nipple hardened, right on cue. I loved that about her.
"Love?" She curled her lip around the word. "Didn't anyone ever tell you it's dangerous for little boys to use four-letter words they don't understand?"
"Evelyn, I know all there is to know about love, and then some."
She laughed as if I'd said something terribly amusing. "You keep telling yourself that, stud." She patted my chest affectionately. She was an odd girl, that Evelyn. "I need something to drink. You want anything?"
"An apple'd be good," I said, examining the headband. The band was creamy yellow with pewter-gray edges, smooth on the inside as well as out. I couldn't tell where the nanoprobes emerged, or where the infrared emitters or receivers were. "Where did you find these? I've got to get me a set."
"Just some guy I used to date. He's working on his Ph.D. in cybernetics. Brainstorm stuff. And no, you can't get any. This is lab equipment, only. I've got to get it back to him tomorrow, or we're in deep shit."
"Such a shame." Reluctantly, I set the headband aside and took a bite of the apple she tossed me. I climbed onto the futon while Evelyn opted for a glass of passion fruit juice. With a couple of fingers of vodka for good measure.
"CNN-Houston," I ordered the flatwall. "Mayor: Illness."
"So, what do you think she's got?" Evelyn asked, snuggling in next to me as the familiar round, fatherly face of anchor Eric Stone coalesced before us. "Epilepsy, do you think? I mean, I've heard stories—"
"Ssh! I want to hear this." Something bad was going on at Medplex. That's where Stone was, I could tell now. And the entire medical complex was cordoned off.
"...no idea the nature of the contagion at this time, or how it is spread, Vicki," Stone said. "Again, we're getting conflicting reports of a chemical agent or biological attack. We do know that as many as a dozen people may be affected here, with similar cases confirmed in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The Medplex is under a state of quarantine, and... What? Vicki, I think they're moving us back, now—"
Suits. Biohazard suits moved in the background, going into the hospital. Holy shit.
"...no confirmation on the earlier report that Mayor Shiela Whitfield has died," Stone said. He didn't look like he wanted to be there anymore. "This is footage we accessed from Medplex's online monitors of Mayor Whitfield's room before the link was severed from inside the hospital, in violation of the Public Health Information Act..."
I dropped the apple. It hit the foamfloor with a wet thunk. It wasn't the Mayor on the vid. It was her, but it didn't look like her. At all. Even with all the breathing tubes and monitors on and in her, I could tell. She'd changed since I'd last seen her on the New Year's broadcast. Jesus H. Christ, she'd changed.
Her face was thin, gaunt. Not even starvation could cause that in such a short time. Her broad nose seemed narrower inside her oxygen mask, her brow tighter, her jaw pinched...
"Is that supposed to be the Mayor?" Evelyn asked, crinkling her eyes in disgust. "Shit, what's happened to her?"
I ignored Evelyn. I'd seen that face before. Eric Stone came back on. He looked scared. The bastard wasn't half as scared as I was. Fuck. Not even a hundredth.
I snatched my pants off the futon and pulled them on.
"Grant? Where are you going? I thought we were making a night of it."
"We are. Maybe. I don't know. Things've changed." I sealed on my shirt.
"Well, are you going to be back? I cancelled a study session for this, and I had to call in a lot of favors to get these." She waved a headband at me, and her breasts jiggled. I so desperately wanted to fuck her and forget what I'd seen in Whitfield's face. "They're going back tomorrow morning, Grant. I don't think I'll be able to get them again."
I turned to her, grabbing up my boots. "Stay here. I don't want you going out. I think...I think I know what's happening with the Mayor. It's impossible, but I don't know what the fuck else it could be. If I'm right—well, just hope I'm wrong."
She frowned as if to say something, then didn't. She looked at the headband in her hand, then at the flatwall, then at me. "I was just looking forward to spending tonight with you. That's all. Are you going to be gone long?"
"I don't know. Probably, yeah."
"Wake me when you get back?"
"We'll see. Maybe." I kissed her and was out the door.
I hated the lab at night. Actually, I hated it period, but at night it was even worse. No windows, just automatic airlocks and decontamination chambers. Security guards in penny suits that didn't know you and gave you suspicious stare-downs that no amount of biometric clearance could ease. The paneled lighting glared down from too-white ceilings, reflected from too-blue floors. It was always crowded during the day, but so late at night it was deserted, which was just as bad. Culture beds, nanosurgical stations, chemical and enzyme immersion baths, rows and rows of 3-Deep computer workstations. A vaguely iodine odor saturated everything.
We had well over twelve thousand individual human genetic samples stored in the Deep Freeze, chilled by liquid nitrogen to stave off degradation. The Deep Freeze was thirty meters underground, designed to dampen even residual background radiation. As an added precaution, virtual copies of each genome were stored off-site in a linked sequence of quantum hubs. Patients paid a lot for You-Gene's services, but they damn sure got value for their money.
I settled in to the closest workstation, the smart biometrics reading by fingerprints and retina as I brought the station online. I called up McIlvane's file, deleting the privacy warning the instant it appeared. McIlvane's record unfolded before me. Genome stock designation 7650, baseline sample archived four years ago. That'd make McIlvane's maint virus 7650.1, since he'd opted for no reconfigs. He'd gone through maint once since the baseline—twice, I corrected myself. The comparative samples from the two maints were cryogenically stored alongside the original baseline as an added precaution, although the You-Virus was only brewed from the original sample.
His first maint came off without any anomalies. So what went wrong this time? I ordered up sims of the baseline sample, along with the two comparatives.
McIlvane's baseline unfolded before me, exactly like every other cellular specimen I'd ever worked with. I zoomed down to the chromosomes, running a full transcript map diagnostic. Nothing.
Annoyed, I tabbed up the first comparative sample from two years back. Again, nothing unusual. I launched the diagnostic, but this time the system flagged something. Some things. Whatever they were, they were small. Maybe 15 nanometers. Small even for a virus. I zoomed in. What I saw stopped me short.
It was a viral protein sheath, sure enough, but it was synthetic. It was a simple little Lewis & Clark variant tagalong, the kind first-year grad students use to track viral disease vectors. With tailored protein receptors on their sheath, they'd lock onto specified viruses and ride them into the infected cell...
Mouth dry, I ran the sequencer on the contents of the tagalong. With a capacity that small, the tagalong couldn't hold much code, and the sequencing took only a couple of minutes.
The tagalong contained a modified reproduction sequence from an Influenza A virus.
Instantly I injected a Y.V. proxy into the sim and held my breath. Like the tagalong, the Y.V. was a synthetic virus, designed to appear benign to the auto-immune system. But it was much, much bigger. More than 400 nanometers across, it carried a compressed RNA transcript programmed to rebuild the recipient's DNA to our specifications. The Y.V. was sterile, though. It couldn't reproduce. If the tagalong added the Influenza A sequence to the Y.V. infection, though...
Nothing happened. I slowly exhaled. The tagalong wasn't mating with the Y.V.
But this wasn't McIlvane's most recent comparative.
I overlaid the second comparative, the one from New Year's Eve. This time, I knew what I was looking for. I found them immediately. More tagalongs. I didn't recognize the type, though, and that worried me. I integrated the Y.V. into the sim.
The tagalongs flocked to the Y.V. like lawyers to a train wreck.
I didn't watch. I already knew everything that came next. I'd seen the end result on the news feeds. I checked my watch. Three in the a.m. Damn. I wondered, vaguely, why I wasn't more angry. Or scared. All I felt was numb.
I grabbed my coat, leaving the workstation running. Maybe someone would find it and figure things out. Maybe not. I knew where I had to go. Shit, there was only one place left for me to go. I couldn't do any good here. This thing had progressed way beyond stopping.
The rain came down like bitter needles of ice. An evil, stinging kind of rain. Lightning flashed, the sharp glare silhouetting lazerwire fences guarding the brooding domes of the fusion reactors lining the road.
Pasadena. Why did McIlvane have to live in the deepest, dankest nuke-slum of Pasadena? A blast of wind hit, shaking my Dodge Darter before the stabilizers compensated. The nav beacon on the dash bleeped softly at me. I was there at McIlvane's house.
If you could call it that. It was a knobby wooden two-story, looking for all the world like it was ready to collapse into the encroaching bay. The next category six to hit the Gulf would reduce it to flotsam. Maybe it'd been white once. It was the color of dirt and rot now.
I set down the Darter onto the curb, wrapped my coat tightly about myself, and stepped into the storm. The door clamped shut behind me, the jets retracting into the tapering, steel-blue hull. Salty spray slapped at me, pushing me forward. I smelled sulfur and crude in the spray. Shit was leaking from the old refineries under Sunken Bay. The whole thing usually caught fire around August, burning until October.
I stumbled up the steps, half afraid they'd collapse under me. I stopped at the door, unsure what to do. Unsure what McIlvane's reaction would be to someone standing at his door at 5 in the a.m. It didn't matter. I had to see the monster again. Had to find out how. Find out why.
There was no security clamp on the door. The old access lock was busted, too. Eaten away by the salt, from the looks of the corrosion. I tried the latch, and the door creaked open loudly, audible even over the thunder and rain.
The house stank of shit and vomit. Piss, too. It was dark, except for what little light followed me in through the door, along with the wind and rain. I left the door open. The crude and sulphur smelled better.
I checked the first room, unsure of what I'd find. There were people-shapes on the floor. I reached out a hand and found the eyebeam, lighting up the room.
I shouted, stumbling back. They were lying there, three of them, naked and dead. No, one bastard was still alive. They were lying on pallets, clothes and filthy sheets knotted up between them. Two were—had been—women. They were dead. Contorted, like they died in agony, breasts sagging like deflated balloons. Between their legs—
I puked. Watery bile splatter against the wall, onto the floor. I gagged. Dry heaved.
Shit, shit and shit. They looked like him. The women's faces looked like Andrew McIlvane—drawn, pinched. Their bodies tried to follow suit. Didn't make it.
The other was a black man. It didn't look like he'd stay that way much longer. Black, I meant. Pale splotches mottled his skin, like an out-of-control case of Vitiligo. He looked like McIlvane, too.
I found a dozen more people scattered throughout the downstairs rooms. All on pallets, set up like they'd expected this. Five were dead, three women and two men. The other seven were still alive, becoming McIlvane. Two were women. Those two were a lot farther along than the others. Their contorted agony didn't disturb me so much anymore, or maybe I'd simply shut down. I didn't feel anything, not even numb.
McIlvane wasn't among them.
I should've left then and called the police. I should've told them what I'd seen and what I knew. Instead, I climbed the stairs. At the far end of the hall, soft light filtered through an open door. I walked to it, my shirt soaked with sweat beneath my coat, my breathing ragged. Damn, but I could've used a drink.
I smelled more shit and vomit as I passed the other doors in the hall. I didn't look in. I already knew what I'd see.
The room at the end of the hall was tiny, cramped. Ancient wallpaper peeled away from the cracked sheetrock. Lightning flashed beyond the salt-crusted window opposite the doorway. A meter-long crucifix, made of wood or bone or resin and draped in rosaries, hung on the wall to my left. A monstrous iron-frame bed filled half the room, and there he sat, Andrew McIlvane.
He was shirtless and barefoot, wearing only a ratty pair of jeans. He sat there, bathed in the glow of the flatwall, staring at it with a beatific look. Two naked neo-McIlvanes lay beside him on the bed. One might've been a woman, once. The other whimpered, and he stroked it absently.
"Why?" My voice came out as a strangled croak.
McIlvane turned with a start, then smiled broadly when he saw me. "Oh, it's you. I hadn't expected to see you. Actually, I hadn't expected to see anyone, not for a few days at any rate. You've been well, I trust, Doctor?"
I struggled for something to say. He seemed happy to see me.
"I had a feeling about you." He winked at me, then gestured to the flatwall. I glanced at it, and realized it was UniFOX International. A biohazard suit was reporting from Tokyo. "I hadn't expected it to be so lonely. Joyce and Stephen here said they would stay up with me. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Ha. That's funny. Sad, too. Just like the Mount of Olives."
I suddenly felt light-headed. I began to shake. I didn't know if it was the stink of the place, or my anger, or fear. I wanted to snap his scrawny neck, but my hands...I looked at my hands, impotent. My hands created beauty. They sculpted women and gave them pleasure. I didn't know how to use them for anything else. Instead, barely above a whisper, I asked, "Who did it for you? The tagalong?"
"All things are possible through the power of God."
"Who brewed the fucking tagalong?"
McIlvane frowned, disappointment clouding those spooky eyes of his. "I know you have more faith than that." He sighed, shaking his head. "His name's Peter. He is—was—a grad student at the University of Houston. He swore his faith was strong enough. Swore he was ready... He was one of the first ones lost. I had to send Tommy to Moscow, instead."
"You've killed off your own cult, is what you've done."
"Open your eyes, Doctor. Open your heart. This isn't a cult. This is the Truth. My return was foretold. The day is come. The hour is now."
"Foretold by who? What the fuck are you talking about?"
"You already know, you just won't admit it to yourself. The Second Coming. I am here, before you, God made Man. Judgment Day has arrived." McIlvane stroked the woman's shoulder as he talked. "The righteous will know God, become as one with the Lord. Be remade in My own image. The blight of the feminine will be erased from mankind, the sin of Eve purged. Those pure of soul will be raised up and granted manhood, those beyond redemption will plague us no more. The millennium is upon us."
My knees buckled under me, and I slumped to the floor, back to the wall, tears blurring my vision. "Oh, God, no."
"None were chosen among the twelve," McIlvane explained gently. "None were chosen then, and there can be no place for them now in the final plan."
He slid off the bed and offered me his hand. I jerked back, knocking my head against the bottom of the crucifix. I reached up at the stabbing pain, my hand finding blood.
"We're very much alike, you and I," he said. "We both change women, Doctor. The only difference is that when you remake women, you reduce them to crass objects of lust. When I remake them, I remake them in the holy image of God."
McIlvane offered me a smile. A pitying, condescending smile. "I'll help you through it, Doctor. I know you're a strong one—you just lack guidance. We'll greet the world to come together, and you will love—"
I pulled the crucifix down on top of him. He threw up a forearm, crying out when it hit him. Rosary beads flew everywhere, clattering on the floor, against the wall. McIlvane fell, cradling his hurt arm. I staggered up, hefting the crucifix in both hands. The damn thing was heavier than it looked. I swung it again, stumbling. He flailed with his good arm, scrambling back onto the bed, trying to get away from me. He was shouting wildly, calling for his disciples. But they couldn't come—they were too busy turning into him.
I hit him a third time, burying the crossbeam in his gut. He screamed, thrashing on the bed. I kept hitting him. Somewhere along the line, he stopped being anyone's Messiah. Then he stopped being alive.
I dropped the crucifix and collapsed against the bed frame, shaking uncontrollably. I looked at my crimson hands. His blood stained my coat and shirt and pants. There was a trail of bloody footprints beneath me. Rosary beads skittered away, kicked by my boots.
The enormity of what I'd done hit me then. Jesus H. Christ. I'd gotten the little cocksucker smeared all over me.
I was infected.
I stumbled out of the house, into the rain. It washed the blood from me, although I knew it made no difference. I was infected. I was becoming McIlvane. The psychosomatic symptoms kicked in. I could feel 7650.1 burrowing into my cells, supplanting my own DNA. Bullshit, I knew. My skin crawled all the same.
There was a crack in the clouds to the east, and a pink glow slipped through. Morning. Morning? With a start I realized I was standing in the You-Gene parking lot. I didn't remember driving there. I didn't remember anything after I'd stepped out into the rain. I knew why I was back, though.
I blew through the lobby so fast the penny-suit didn't know what had gotten into me. Same thing that'd soon be getting into him, the poor bastard.
Sally was probably dead by now. Maybe not, it could still be too soon. Maybe she'd live and turn into McIlvane. Second Coming, my ass.
I laid back in the bodymold couch, bringing the system up to speed with my comppad. When all the checks flashed green, I secured my arm in the clamp. It scanned my biochip. The ampule locked into place. Y.V. 4332.1.
Less than one percent of the world's population had genebank accounts. Maybe another one percent of the population had natural resistance to the synthetic Y.V., give or take. There was no telling how many millions—or billions—Y.V. 7650.1 would kill before it ran its course.
The clamp scanned for the tagagents. Match. The You-Virus —no, the Me-Virus—emptied into my vein.
"Fuck you, McIlvane," I shouted at the empty room. "I'm me for another day. How do you like that? Another maint, and I'll be me tomorrow, too. I'll maint every fucking day for the rest of my fucking life if I have to, but I'm never going to change!"
Then a thought struck me. I called up a comprehensive list of You-Gene's patients. I deleted the men, flagging the single women along with the married women whose husbands didn't maint. I marked Kris to the top of the queue. I was going to have to establish an entirely new network of relationships. Evelyn didn't maint. Melody, either, for that matter.
I felt a wave of sorrow at that. I grieved for them. I had loved them, both.
Then it passed.
Four billion years of evolution doesn't go down without a fight, after all. Women would survive, their perfection endure.
And I would love every single one of them.