The Gathering Storm, Part 2

Posted: October 29, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Professor McGinnis jotted down a date on the whiteboard—1970—then underneath it the current year: 2010. He turned to his Sociology and Culture class, every one of the 25 students a senior, pointing the dry erase marker at them, waving it like a wand and saying, “Who can tell me what they think is the most important change in society to occur in this period?”

Zoe caught his eyes squarely even as she raised her hand—it was a trick she had learned long ago to ensure she didn’t get overlooked. Joe McGinnis was as often flustered by her as he was elated with her answers, so he sometimes had an inclination to ignore her at first. But the main reason Zoe did it was because when she had a thought to share, she was damned if anyone else was going to go first. It often came at the cost of getting in the final word, but it was a price she was typically willing to pay.

“Yes, Ms. Dawson.”

“Very rapid advances in microchip technology over what had been created in the early ‘60s, which ushered in the widespread use of personal computers in homes in the early 1980s and led in turn to widespread high-speed access to the web later that same decade thanks to fiber-optic advances as well as memory and data processing speed breakthroughs,” Zoe said.

“Interesting approach, Zoe,” the professor said. “I would have thought…”

“…that I’d pick the answer everyone else does?” she noted. “The emergence of the first documented and confirmed transhuman in the mid-1970s? No, that’s just a freak occurrence of nature that has become a more widespread occurrence of nature over the past 30 or 40 years. It’s a major evolutionary development, sure…but it doesn’t represent a fundamental altering of the way we live and work.”

“I beg to differ,” Prof. McGinnis said. “The rise of transhumanity has had widespread and fundamental impacts on our nation and the entire world. For example, it changed the nature of crime and forced police departments to include transhuman units in addition to SWAT units. It also forced the creation of special prisons, and the need to identify and keep separate so-called ‘heroes’ who violate anti-vigilante laws from ‘villains’ who are more identifiably evil. It also sharply altered media and entertainment, from comic books to mo…”

“All of those things are simply ramped up versions of things we already had,” Zoe interrupted him. “It didn’t change anything fundamentally, not like computer and web access have. Crime, punishment and incarceration have always been in flux. Entertainment is always shifting. I mean, look at the rise and fall and re-emergence of musicals in film…”

Interrupting her himself now, the professor cut in with, “Then what about social issues? Transhuman changes seem to sharply favor those of Asian or African descent. This is rapidly leading to global socioeconomic and sociopolitical shifts of staggering implications. And here in the U.S., it’s bringing race relations issues to a boiling point in many areas as Caucasians come to fear that their hold on wealth and power isn’t just at risk—but also wondering if they are going to be rendered extinct in the next century or so. Have you considered that?”

“Certainly I have, Prof. McGinnis, but shifts in power and the rise and fall of world powers is nothing new, either. Neither are race relations issues in this country or globally. China already owned so much of our debt—does it really make a big difference that they will have more transhumans and take a lead role as a world power? Or Africa, for that matter? It’s just their turn. On the other hand, widespread access to the Internet and the ability to process, send and store massive amounts of data instantly is truly transformative. Just for starters, widespread access to e-mail for going on nearly three decades now has made the U.S. Post Office a shadow of its former self. The way people meet and interact and what they are willing to share about themselves has changed in ways that are so deep and so broad they can’t even be compared to the impact of the telephone’s invention. The way news is disseminated has changed fundamentally.”

Zoe stopped to take a breath, but held up a finger and gave the professor a stern look to indicate she wasn’t done.

“The fact that you can store a terabyte of data on your pocket PC is transformative. You can store a huge library in your pants,” she said, earning a round of chuckles from her classmates, “which is something unimaginable for thousands of years of civilization. We have the first artificial intelligence computers emerging now. Internet access has enabled people to conduct research and share ideas in minutes—sometimes seconds—instead of having to hop a bus to the nearest library, hoping the books they need are there, and spending tons of time finding them. Scientific and healthcare breakthroughs we see now coming at us at geometric rates, and the rapid changes in science and the understanding of the world, too—and this all came about from microchip technology, not transhumans.”

The professor smiled.

“But, Ms. Dawson, what about the fact that the first ‘documented’ and ‘confirmed’—both your words, by the way—transhumans were in the 1970s? That means that likely transhuman genetic effects were in play before that and were simply unseen and unrecognized. Meaning that the microchip breakthroughs you note were probably the result of transhumans who would now be classified as ‘Brains.’ Check and mate, I believe.”

Zoe smiled in turn, but it was a bitter and rueful one. “Only if you base your conclusions on unproven assumptions, professor—which you have.”

After that, others in the class began to get their comments in, and the tide was overwhelmingly in favor of the professor’s view. A few other ideas were tossed out here and there about other major changes to society and culture from other sources, but it always ended up coming back to the transhumans.

Seething with frustration and simmering with unspent anger as well, Zoe literally stomped through the first half of her journey to her dorm after class. At one point, her emotions coming to a peak, she felt the cellular shift take hold, and winced slightly at the split-second pain as her nails and hair changed composition to become harder and sharper than any knife—and as her skin became tighter and more resilient. In a flash of anger, she struck the corner of one of the oldest buildings on the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut when no one was looking, raking four deep gouges in the bricks with her nails.

Then she calmed down, felt her body shift back to normal, and brushed the red-brown dust from her hand and the tiny hard chunks from under her fingernails. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, and when a passing student scowled at her like she was a leper for doing so, she smiled sweetly, blew a kiss as she exhaled her smoke, and then flipped him off.

We aren’t transformative, professor, Zoe thought bitterly. People like me are just the next logical step, I guess. Or maybe just freaks. We just complicate things; we aren’t that special in the end.

* * *

Query flexed his arm, and contemplated the scars that had been with him for three days now, and would soon enough fade away. Still plenty of internal damage to heal, though, so the arm was far from fully functional. Still, looking at it, no one would know that less than a week ago, it had been slashed and shot to a bloody pulp.

He looked at the clock. 4:17 a.m. A perfectly putrid time of day when he wasn’t in proper condition to patrol, investigate, capture or punish as Query.

So I guess that makes me Alan Millos right now…or is it Milo Phillips, since that’s the human face that most people see?

He was restless. How long had it been since he’d actually slept at all? Three or four years now? Even before then, increasingly sporadic sleep after the accidentally forced emergence of his transhuman powers. Not even the strongest anti-insomnia medications had done a thing for him. Anesthetics were equally useless. He’d forgotten what dreaming felt like—forgotten how it felt to drift off into slumber with his head resting on a soft and warm pillow. All because he had wanted to heal his spine—ruined that night so long ago as the victim of a hold-up. All because he had taken that drug that he himself had deemed too dangerous to bring to market. He’d gained so much in return—besides just the use of his legs again—but he’d lost so much as well.

Sleep.

And dreams.

Don’t become maudlin. Find something to do.

Got to feed the sleep-starved brain; or else I’ll fucking go insane.

Sadly, he had nothing to investigate—well, that wasn’t true, precisely. He just didn’t have any paying clients or specific pro-bono cases now that the Grimmond kidnapping had turned out to be a setup all along. What he should be investigating was why Janus had gone through all that trouble and sent a team of 18 hired killers to get rid of him.

Janus had been running a successful criminal empire out west. There wasn’t much reason to come out this far—all the way to the East Coast. The man’s network wasn’t solid enough to expand this far out—hell, he wasn’t even in a position to dominate the entire Pacific coastline yet, much less start expanding into Arizona or New Mexico or the plains states. Yet here he was, skipping all the way across the nation in one fell swoop.

Based on the interrogations of his two prisoners, along with some other probing, it seemed that Janus had essentially closed up shop in California, Tijuana and Nevada and was setting up a whole new network out here, centered either in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh or New Judah.

And since the New Judah and New York metro areas are where I spend most of my time—and he tried to have me killed, that helps me narrow it down to two choices.

What was harder for Query to figure out yet was why Janus would try to kill him specifically. He’d never had any reason to go head-to-head against any of the villain’s operations out west, so there was no grudge match in play, and Query certainly wasn’t the only hero here out east—nor even the most active. Yet as near as he could discern, no one else had been targeted but him.

It was just confusing him instead of inspiring his investigative instincts. Worse, his lack of interaction with the scene out west meant he didn’t have a good handle on Janus and what made him tick—aside from what he could glean from sketchy reports and profiles generated by others. Every time he tried to examine the angles on the situation, it gave him a headache.

Aside from the investigatory block he was suffering, the underground rap scene had been irritating him more than inspiring him for some days now, so he finally decided to compose a couple new jazz tunes. He hadn’t produced anything as part of his Nigel Roy identity in a few months, so it was a good choice. Melodies for a while, instead of rap lyrics. In fact, he hadn’t made an appearance in public as Nigel in more than six months, and that was too long. Disguising himself as a Caucasian was good for keeping up his skills with makeup and prosthetics—he hadn’t had to use those talents in a while. It would also give him a chance to go on stage and work the sax or the guitar a bit.

Can’t get rusty. Need to keep all my diverse balls in the air.

Distract myself from lack of dreams; or else be driven mad with screams.

He sighed. Maybe after getting a rough melody down, he could review some pharmaceutical journals and attend to some of his business affairs as Alan Millos, too. Sure, he couldn’t investigate or patrol right now, but there were plenty of other things to do as he lived each day 24 hours without a break.

Sometimes he wondered if four identities was enough anymore to keep him sane—enough to occupy a mind forever denied the restorative power of sleep and dreams.

* * *

The teeth, the bank executive thought. Oh, God, the teeth. Please don’t smile again.

Of course she smiled though, and the executive squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.

“That’s rude,” the woman told him in a voice that sounded like the husky, smoky intonation of Kathleen Turner with just an added hint of razor blades scraping together. “Open your eyes and look at me when I’m talking to you. Don’t make me ask again, or I’ll take another nibble.”

Sweating and shivering at the same time, he opened his eyes to look at that face. A face that looked so normal—just your average 30-something-year-old soccer mom—except for a set of teeth than was mix of oversized canines, needle-like fangs, curving fangs, jagged molars, blade-like teeth, and more. And then she smiled wider, and he saw a second set of equally horrific dentition just grow behind those teeth, and then vanish just as quickly. The smile faded. Then she lifted a hand, presented it palm-first, and the flesh peeled open like a gash until he realized a mouth was forming there, full of tiny needle-like teeth. Then it, too, retreated.

Somehow, through it all, he managed to keep his eyes open as she had ordered. He didn’t want her to nibble anymore. The ruin of the little finger and ring finger of his left hand wasn’t something he wanted repeated.

“Wha…wha…what do you want?” he managed. “Please just tell me what you want.”

She said nothing, instead pulling out a set of pliers, pushing him to the ground—not a difficult feat, since he was already on his buttocks on the floor—and then straddled his chest. Without preamble, and ignoring his screams, she reached in with the tool and yanked out a tooth, then slipped it into a pouch on her belt. Even through the pain, he couldn’t help but notice the gruesome jewelry she wore and wondered if his tooth was destined to be a new charm on her bracelet or a sixth earring to adorn her right ear. With a giddiness born of fear and dread, he even wondered if it might end up being a belly button piercing.

Moaning with pain and the metallic tang of blood in his mouth, he moaned, “Why? Why are you doing this?”

“To get your attention, silly,” the woman said. “Now, if you don’t want me to own all of your teeth, or nibble some more, or both, you will tell me the passwords to get into the mainframe, so that I can conduct a very quiet robbery of a lot of money. Well, quiet except for those moans and whimpers you keep making.”

“But…” he began, and she waved the pliers in a lazy arc in the air, and he said, “Yes. Fine. Yes. Yes. Whatever you want.”

“Good boy,” she said.

When he’d given her what she asked, and she’d made the necessary transfers 15 minutes later, she pushed him down again, and sat on his chest, and his eyes bulged with terror. “But you said…”

“I said if you didn’t give me the passwords, I’d own all your teeth,” she said, and shook her shoulders bit to loosen up. The bank exec noticed the short cape or whatever it was hanging from her neck, gauzy and fluttering almost like two wings. “Don’t worry; I’ll only take two or three more. Tooth Fairy needs her souvenirs.”

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s