Techno-Witch: The Birth of Magic – (working title) Preview page

Here’s a sample of my wip (8/9/2017). I’m now nearly finished, but I’d still love feedback. Please keep in mind that this is the first draft and totally unedited. Also, needless to say, it’s (c) Copyright 2017 Eric S. Martell.

In other news, I’m moving my books to IngramSpark for POD, although they will also remain on CreateSpace and Amazon. I’ve also formed my own publishing brand: Second Initiative Press. That’s the imprint my POD books will have from this point on.

Chapter 1: A ROUGH DAY

The sudden rain was icy cold and so heavy that she was soaked instantly. Sophie continued down the street until she could shelter under the overhang of a closed shop. There were no other people out in the gathering dusk. No one else was desperate enough.

She pushed her dripping hair out of her face, wincing as she inadvertently brushed her contused temple. Her left eye was swollen so badly it was nearly closed. Raul might be good looking, but he wasn’t a good man. He was just a mistake that she’d made and now had to live through.

She fumbled in her pocket. Not there; where? The other hip pocket came up empty. God! She hadn’t lost them, had she? Her memory wasn’t always this bad, but she hurt so much right now, that she couldn’t seem to pull herself together. She looked at her feet. Her boots were scuffed and shabby, but at least they were holding out the water.

Boots! That’s where she’d put the package. Heedlessly, she knelt in a puddle to roll her tight jeans up. There it was! The plastic bag stuck slightly out of the top of her boot. Her fingers shook as she worked at opening the package. She wanted two of the white pills; maybe three, but best to try to conserve them. One would ease her aches enough to get her through for the moment. She swallowed it dry, then licked some rain from her hand. Now, if she could just make it to her sister’s place.

She hadn’t talked to Rachael for weeks after their last fight. Rachael wanted her to straighten out and concentrate on classes and definitely disapproved of Raul. Well, Big-Sis had been right about him. What few possessions she still had would have to stay at his place. She wasn’t going back. In fact, the…Ahhhh; Ahhhh. Oh, that felt better. Now she was human again. The pain still throbbed behind her eyes and in her knotted shoulder and back muscles, but it had lost its intensity. The relative relief made her smile a little.

The rain picked up, coming down even harder. It was difficult to see across the street now. Sophie was soaked and shivering. A sudden wave of self-pity washed over her. She began to cry. Not hard at first, but sustained sobs that gradually lengthened until she was gasping for breath. Maybe another pill would help.

She worked the package open a second time, fumbled out another Oxy, but dropped it as she tried to transfer it to her mouth. Horrified, she watched it melt into a tiny pool of rainwater. She couldn’t lose it; couldn’t afford to waste it. Her supply sources were nearly gone, and she couldn’t count on obtaining more without…without taking a step that she’d been dreading.

She shoved the package down into her boot and threw herself flat, sucking at the slurry of water and the semi-dissolved pill. She licked the concrete, trying to get every last bit of the pain-killer, disregarding the filth in the water.

That was it; she had it all. She raised her eyes and looked at two rounded, black objects. Her mind refused to work for what seemed an eternity, then she recognized them as boot toes. She pushed back and looked up. And, up. He was taller than normal. Taller than she’d expected.

She glimpsed what might have been a concerned expression, but didn’t meet his eyes long enough to decide if that was what it was. A sense of shame, something that she’d thought had died, forced her to look first down and then away, directing her vision down the street.

“You’re a mess, girl,” he said.

She wished he’d leave. Nothing good could come from a strange man out here in the rain in this rotten part of town. This was what she’d feared; some encounter like this. There was no defense. She bit her lower lip in the way she always did when trouble loomed. Maybe he’d go away if she didn’t answer.

She gasped as he caught her under both arms and lifted her to her feet. He was strong, and there was no argument in her. Once she was up, she looked in his eyes. Might as well see who was going to victimize her.

She didn’t know what to think of him. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but he was very masculine, and not unattractive. He used his fingers to move her hair back off of her face, pausing as he uncovered the blackened eye.

“God, girl. Someone hasn’t been treating you well, have they?” he said.

Sophie shrugged defiantly, then thought better about it.

“I haven’t been treating myself very well,” she said. Then she asked, “How about you? Will you treat me well?”

The instant it was out, she realized how it sounded; a druggie asking to be…treated well. She shook her head in denial. “No, that’s not what I meant. I…I…uh…are you going to let me go, or?”

Her voice tapered off, leaving the rest of the question unasked.

He shook his head negatively, then said, “No. I don’t think you have anywhere to go. Certainly nowhere in this rain. Most of the places along this street are locked up, so you’re just going to end up trying to shelter in a doorway somewhere, and you’ll probably freeze to death. It’s going to get cold later tonight.”

“No. I’m going to my sister’s. She’ll uh…” She couldn’t think what she was going to say. The second pill had taken over and her mind shut down for a moment. She began to cry again.

He sighed a deep, heartfelt sigh. “I don’t know how I get myself into these kinds of things. Must be because I’ve got a thing about helpless, defenseless creatures.” He paused then said, “Look, you’re coming upstairs with me. This is my doorway you’re standing in, and the least I can do is to give you some shelter from the rain. Maybe a cup of soup, too?”

Sophie wondered, vaguely, what else was going to be involved. She’d heard of girls found in dumpsters, their bodies beaten so badly that their parents couldn’t recognize them. She wanted to argue, but her will power had evaporated. It hadn’t even been strong enough to keep her from licking the sidewalk. She just stood there, her mouth partly open, making an occasional sobbing sound.

He shook his head again. “I must be crazy.”

He held her arm while he unlocked the door, then pulled her inside. It was a vacant storefront. Barren shelves formed litter strewn aisles.

“This part isn’t mine. I lease an apartment upstairs, in the back. Come on,” he said, pulling her through the dim room.

He had to help her up the stairs. She couldn’t seem to walk well enough on her own. Her feet kept missing the steps.

Another door, a jingling of keys, and then he switched on a light, revealing a space filled with books, computers, and electronics.

She stared around, dazed. “What? What is all of this?” she murmured.

“Never mind that now. Follow me back here to the bathroom. We’ve got to get you warmed up.”

She didn’t know what to do, so she followed obediently.

He turned on the shower, then started on her clothes, discarding her dripping hoodie on the floor where it made a sodden lump of black, slowly leaking water across the clean, shiny tiles.

She grew alarmed and pushed at his hands. “I can do it. Just let me take care of myself,” she protested.

He stepped back, evaluating her ability. “Okay. Get everything off and get into the shower. I’m going to get some dry clothes for you.”

He watched as she tried to remove her boots, then bent to grab her knee with one hand and pull her boot off with the other. The package of pills flipped out and landed on the floor. They both stared at it for an instant, but then he snagged it before she could move.

“That’s mine! Give it to me,” she said.

He grinned. “No. I’ll just be keeping these safe for you. What are they? Opiates?” he asked.

“They’re mine. Don’t take them away from me, please,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears.

“My God, Girl. You’re really bad, aren’t you?” he said.

“It’s just that I’ve got all of this pain. My neck and back always kill me. I’ve got spots that are painful to touch, and I can’t get any sleep without help,” she said, thinking of the fibromyalgia diagnosis that had started her down this dark path. He didn’t need to know about the death of her parents, her bad romantic judgment, the bullying, or her dropping out of school.

He shook his head, not disbelieving, but not agreeing either. “I don’t want your stash. I don’t believe in that stuff. I am going to take it, though.”

She started to protest, but he put his finger on her lips and said, “No use complaining. I’m going to put out one pill at midnight for you and one in the morning. I don’t want you o-d’ing on me, by accident. I’ll ration them while you’re here.”

She wanted to scream. In her experience, people that took her drugs never gave them back. She couldn’t get through the night without at least one more. Maybe if he gave her one at midnight, she’d make it. She started to beg, but he used his finger on her lips again.

“You get yourself in that shower. It’s hot now. Once you’re warm and clean, I’ll have some other clothes over there on that hook by the door for you. You get dressed and come out. We’ll talk and see what we’re going to do about you.”

He turned to leave the small bathroom, his broad shoulders just clearing the door. Sophie noticed that he had to duck slightly to exit.

The door shut, she stood for a few seconds, but then began to strip off the sodden garments.

He was right. The shower was wonderful. The heat soaked in, relaxing the knotted muscles of her back and shoulders in a way that almost made the Oxy unneeded.

Sometime during her shower, he must have reached through the door and hung up a robe on the hook. She hadn’t seen him, but her eyes had been shut almost the entire time, so that wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was that the robe was more or less in her size as was the tee shirt and panties.

Sophie didn’t know what price she was going to have to pay for this treatment, but so far, it had been far better than she’d expected. Or, had any reason to deserve. The robe was warm and soft and had been freshly washed. The smell of the clean cloth brought tears to her eyes again. It had been a long time since she’d smelled that detergent odor.

The wave of self-pity that the robe occasioned led to the thought that another pill would be a good thing. She felt bad, so obviously something should be done about it. She thought of begging, but that wasn’t going to work; at least, not yet. There was nothing for it but to use one of her two emergency pills.

She sat on the toilet and carefully extracted the plastic bag she’d hidden in her nether regions. The two pills were intact, and she considered taking both, but that would leave her with no back-up. She took one with a bit of water from the sink, then toyed with the other for a moment before putting it back in the plastic bag and rolling it up into a tight package.

She inserted it back into her hiding place, praying that he’d leave her alone or would be minimally demanding on her physical self. The man was certainly strong enough to force her into any number of exploitative acts, but so far he hadn’t shown any tendency to act in that fashion. She was momentarily a little hurt. Was she that undesirable?

That thought was forgotten in the sweet rush as the drug hit. She was already high, so the rush wasn’t intense, but it still left her feeling warm and content. Maybe she’d make it through the night without having to suffer the miserable feeling of coming down. She always felt like her body developed additional aches and pain during such times.

Sophie made sure the robe covered her and then ventured out of the bathroom. The light was off in the hall, but the room at the end was lighted. The dark passage opened into a plain, but functional kitchen. He was seated at a table tapping on a computer keyboard, apparently engrossed in some esoteric and geeky coding.

He stopped typing and turned to face her. “Now, do you feel better?” he asked.

She thought about it, then slowly answered, “Yes. I think I do.”

Something about the way she said it apparently aroused his suspicions. He looked closely at her and then shook his head negatively.

“Damn, I forgot to check. You had an emergency pill hidden somewhere didn’t you?”

She shook her head in denial, trying to act innocent. If he thought she had one, he’d search her for another, and she couldn’t lose that one too. “No, I didn’t. Are you going to give my bag back to me? Those are my pills, and I need them.”

He smiled. “I’m going to do what I told you, but with an exception. I was going to give you a pill at midnight and another in the morning. Now that you’ve taken one, you’re going to have to wait until morning. The one you took counts as the midnight pill.”

She tried to pretend that she was hurt, but the drug had her feeling good, and she couldn’t act like she cared at the moment. She gave up, shrugged and sat at the table opposite him.

“So, what are you going to do with me?” she asked, tacitly admitting that she was under his control.

He shrugged in return. “We’ll see. I could help you, or I could just kick you out. Depends on you. If I think you’re worth helping that’s one thing, but if not, well.” He left the alternative unsaid, then apparently thought of something else.

“You don’t have any resistance, do you? Why not? I thought all you people got an anti-addiction injection in the hospital.”

Sophie looked down. “My…uh…my Mother didn’t believe in those things. She was a Neo-Nietzschite and so was Dad. They wouldn’t let the doctors give a blocking shot to me. They said such things are my responsibility to avoid. I…I guess I’m not so good at avoiding drugs. Anyway, I’ve been sick a lot and I have these awful pains in my back and neck muscles. That’s why the Oxy.”

His teeth shown in his dark face. “Look, kid. I didn’t mean anything by it. Whether or not you want to recognize it, there’s still a lot of crap that goes down in this world. I didn’t have the anti shot either. Course, I’m older than you, but no one in my whole family was even offered it. Just as well, too. I don’t want that kind of help. I want to be in complete control of myself, kind of like what your folks wanted for you,” he said. He looked at her and shook his head. “You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

Sophie hadn’t been trying to follow him. She shook her head. “No. I don’t know. What you said, about the blocking shot, I mean. How can that hurt? I thought it just kept you from being addicted.”

He nodded, “Well. That’s the idea. You wouldn’t be able to be addicted if you had it.”

She’d lost track of what was happening again and her head slumped to the table. Sophie was vaguely aware of the hard surface, but it didn’t seem to matter at the moment.

He came around the table and pulled at her arm. She stood, staggering a little. He frowned and then easily picked her up. “It’s bedtime for you, girl. You’re all in. I’ll have breakfast in the morning for you,” he said as he started through the door.

He walked down the hall carrying her and turned into a bedroom, then deposited her on the bed, pulled up a blanket and covered her in as gentle a manner as she could remember her Mother ever doing it.

He turned out the light, then turned to say, “I’ve decided to help you. How much depends on you. Don’t worry about your pills. I’m not going to take them. I’m going to give them to you, but on my schedule, understand. No use begging. I’ll give them to you when I decide. You don’t need to be trying to find them either. You won’t be able to steal them back. I’ve got them locked up, so don’t even think about it.”

She lifted her head a little, “What do you want from me?” The as yet unspoken idea of a quid pro quo had been bothering her. No one every got anything for nothing. She had never experienced that in her life. She was sure that something was going to be expected from her in return for his help.

He said, “Nothing. I don’t want nothing. Just to help you. How much I help you will depend on you. If you decide to try, I’ll help a lot. If you don’t care about yourself and have given up, then I probably won’t help too much. It’s up to you. Anyways, I ain’t going to abuse you in any way. Don’t do that sort of stuff.”

She tried to get comfortable, then said, “Okay. G’night, uh…I…what should I call you?”

He grinned again; a wide, engaging grin that showed his white teeth. “Cal. That’s all the name I got now. It’s Cal, since I was originally from California.”

He turned away before she could reply and pulled the door closed. She could hear his footsteps fade down the hall.

She lay back wondering vaguely, just what had she gotten herself into. It didn’t matter at the moment, though. She was warm and cozy. The blanket was soft, and she felt like she was floating over the bed. There were no aches and pains, and she felt fine for the moment. She closed her eyes and drifted on the drug.

Morning wasn’t so nice. She’d come down off her high, and her neck ached abominably. She lay there trying to decide if maybe she had the flu. She might, but she always hurt like this when she ran low on Oxy. He was going to give her another pill. He. Cal. She experimentally turned his name over in her mind. It couldn’t be his real name if it were just a shortened form of his origin. It didn’t matter much. Thinking about it kept her mind off how badly she hurt. When would he give her the pill? What time was it and how long would she have to wait?

Sophie stirred, then slowly moved to sit on the edge of the bed. There were no windows in the room and no clock. She couldn’t tell what time it was, and that was suddenly of critical importance. There was a muffled sound coming from outside the room. That meant Cal was up doing something. She’d beg him for the morning pill. It must be morning now. She couldn’t wait any longer. She hurt so badly. Tears watered out of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She was a mess. Why had she ever started taking these damned things? It had been easy.

She felt good when she took one, and the feeling made up for the emptiness in her life. She’d made so many mistakes. She stopped, horrified. What would Raul do to her when he found her? It wasn’t like he owned her or anything. She’d stayed at his place a few times in exchange for some pills. He was more interested in money than he was in her, though.

She fingered her temple. Still sore. He’d slugged her when she had shown up with less cash than he had told her to bring. He’d relented a little and given her the bag of pills that Cal now had. There weren’t very many, though. How would she get more? Her mind whirled through possibilities, none of them hopeful. She thought that she’d have to ask Cal for help, but maybe he wouldn’t get more pills for her. She admitted to herself that she’d do anything he wanted if he promised to help her get more.

She tentatively got to her feet, staggered a little, but reached the door without falling. This was bad. Maybe the three pills had been too much, considering that she’d had three more about two hours prior. She tried to control her craving for them, but it was too hard most of the time.

Cal was in the kitchen, making some noise with a skillet and the stove. She sat quietly at the table and watched his economical moves as he fried eggs and cooked some bacon. Midway through the bacon, he turned to look at her. He apparently didn’t like what he saw and turned back immediately. She could see his shoulders rise and fall in a sigh.

He took the skillet off the range and turned back. “You don’t look too good this morning. Just a minute.”

He walked out of the room. She was tempted to follow, but couldn’t muster the strength. It didn’t matter. He returned shortly and placed a single pill in front of her. She tried to restrain herself, but her hand betrayed her mind and reached for it. Her fingers shook as she picked it up.

“Here’s some water,” he said, placing a glass in front of her. “Now, here’s the thing. I’ll give you another one at noon, but don’t go begging between now and then. It won’t do any good. I’ll be working on a coding project that I’ve got, and I won’t give one to you. Maybe if you were smart, you’d break it in half and save half until about ten. That way you wouldn’t start to feel so bad at eleven. But, that’s just a suggestion. You take it all now if you want.”

He turned back to the skillet and dished the scrambled eggs and bacon onto two plates.

Sophie thought his words over. She maybe could break the pill in half, but she still had one for emergency use that he didn’t know about. If she needed it, she could take it, and that would get her through to noon. She slipped the pill between her lips and sipped the water. It would take a few minutes, but she almost felt better now.

The smell of bacon seemed to stir her stomach somehow. Now that she’d taken the pill, she could afford to feel hungry. At least a little bit.

“Is some of that for me?” she asked, diffidently.

He glanced at her, saw she’d taken the whole pill and sighed again. “Yes. If you can eat, you should. I can’t help you if you starve. A little food will be good for you, I think.”

She kept her head down and ate as much of the eggs and bacon as she could. When she was done, there was a half of a strip of bacon left. He waved his fork at it and said, “Go on. Finish it. It won’t kill you to eat that last bite. Go on.”

She had a flash of fear. She didn’t want to make him angry. Someone else, Raul, for instance, would hit her, if she didn’t do as he asked. Cal didn’t seem like that sort, but she was afraid to provoke him. She picked the half piece up and shoved it in her mouth. It wouldn’t go down, though.

Cal watched her, his eyes narrowed. He abruptly stood and refilled her water. “Here. Take a drink and wash it down. I’m going to get to work. Part of what I do is freelancing. Do you know anything about computers?”

Sophie took a drink and then said, “Some. I was studying computer science in school. Uh, until I dropped out. No money and I couldn’t continue.”

He snorted. “You mean you spent your tuition on drugs, don’t you?”

She looked down. Was she that transparent?

Cal saved her thinking up an excuse. “No matter. If you already know some things, then I can teach you more.”

He turned towards the counter and said, “Hey, Ralph. Play Suicide Dogs and start my system.”

There was a brief pause, then a voice said, “OK. System started. Here’s your music.”

A speaker on the refrigerator started playing some heavy metal music. Sophie hadn’t heard it before but immediately classified it as too intense for her taste. She looked at Cal and asked, “Ralph?”

He chuckled and said, “I name my own devices. I like Ralph. I don’t know anybody named Ralph, and I’m not likely to use the name by accident. You probably know how devices are sometimes activated by the TV? That’ isn’t likely to happen with old Ralph, there.”

She noticed the anomaly. “You just said, Ralph, several times and it didn’t respond.”

He smiled. “You’re observant. You gotta say, ‘Hey,’ first.”

Sophie smiled back. “Oh. That’s smart.”

Cal suddenly stood, caught her hand and pulled her out of the chair. She inadvertently flinched, equating his helpfulness with the attack that she still expected. Maybe she’d said something wrong.

He noticed the flinch and gently put his hand under her chin, raising it, so she looked upward at his face. He looked into her eyes and said, “I’m not that sort of man. I’m not going to hurt you now or later, so you can quit worrying about it.”

He released her, and she looked down.

“It…it’s just that I’ve been hit before. I’m sorry. I don’t want you to be angry with me. I…” she stuttered.

He swore softly, then said, “I’m serious. I’m going to help you. If you can learn to code, you can start to control your destiny a little. I’ll teach you how to find clients who need apps. It’s not too hard. You just got to concentrate a little. The pills you’re on won’t keep you from doing that. Now, let’s go in the workroom and get started.”

Chapter 2: SANCTUARY WITH CAL

Cal was as good as his word. He doled her pills out to her on a strict schedule. Sophie found that she was able to control her craving for the drug to a certain extent. The knowledge that she wouldn’t get another pill until a set time enabled her to hold back and not automatically take the pill the instant he gave it to her. If she waited an hour, then she’d have one less to wait as the drug wore off. That discipline enabled her to realize that while she lived for the rush as the opiate took effect, she dreaded the time when it wore off even more. Waiting to take the drug seemed to keep the low period shorter. She didn’t realize that she was gradually regaining a degree of control that she’d willingly forfeited at the inception of her addiction.

Demonstrating that she had even a small amount of choice encouraged her to pay more attention to the world. She found that she was interested in and seemed to have an aptitude for app development. It helped that Cal was a consummate teacher.

She gradually became more adept at helping him until the day came that he gave her a project to do by herself. True, it was a simple app and didn’t require much thought. The client was a high-end divorce attorney who wanted to provide her clients with a branded child-custody calendar. The attorney’s name would be on the app and every time the parents referred to the calendar, they’d remember who had handled their divorce and who set up the child-visitation schedule.

Sophie thought that relying on the app for advertising might backfire to a certain extent. The parent who had received the proverbial short-end-of-the-stick wouldn’t necessarily view the attorney positively and might resent seeing their advert in the app, but apparently the attorney was pleased with the end result. He immediately requested that she set the app up so that he could sell it to other attorneys. She took a day to write the module that allowed the display ad to be changed to the contact information of any attorney. Then she spent some time setting up an online storefront for her consulting client so that other attorneys could download the app and install their information for a fee.

Her client didn’t want to provide any support, but that wasn’t a big issue. The basic app was so simple that it didn’t require anything and the information customization was robust enough that it headed off almost all problems. The end users paid through an online wallet system and the whole thing worked like a little cash cow for her client.

It was highly informative for Sophie. She’d never thought about anything like this. The idea that an app could generate money without supervision was a new thought. At the end of the developmental period, she realized that she had reduced her pill intake by a third. This was a surprise also.

When she mentioned it to Cal, he smiled his big, glowing smile and said, “I’ve been keeping count. I know you’ve tapered off a little. You see, you can do it if you have something to occupy your mind.”

She smiled back. His smile was infectious and she couldn’t help it, but the thought of running out of pills popped back into her head.

“Uh, how am I doing with the pills? I, uh, mean are there many left?” she asked.

Cal’s smile faded. “You still have plenty left. Don’t worry about them. I’ve got them under control for you.” His voice admitted of no argument.

Sophie shrugged, trying to pass her question off as unimportant. She knew she wasn’t fooling him, but he let it pass without comment.

During the days that had passed, she’d stayed in the upstairs part of Cal’s residence. She hadn’t even gone to the first floor. There was nothing there of interest, but she thought she might eventually explore in the old retail store, just out of boredom if nothing else.

Their next project was to begin work on modifying Ralph’s interface. The voice recognition system was almost flawless and needed no work, but the task analysis module and execution modules were in need of expansion and updating.

Cal said, “Old Ralph is good, but there’s always more that he could do and, thanks to the Internet, every day there are more ways for him to do things. The big problem is to figure out a way to allow him to find methods of request fulfillment on his own. The process really requires an artificial intelligence module. He has one, but it’s very basic. I want you to help me rewrite it.”

Sophie threw herself into this effort. It was a lot more complex than app creation, but fulfilling in its own way. The intellectual thrill she got from finding a way to solve a sticky problem was almost as intense as the relief she got from a pill. Together they worked through the AI module until Ralph was more responsive. His contextual interpretation allowed him to figure out what they wanted from general cues. He was able to anticipate their requests and often had things arranged even before they asked.

Sophie was aware of the various devices Cal had installed in his apartment. The refrigerator and thermostat were connected as was the water heater and doorbell. There was a video system that she’d not noticed for the first two weeks and it had its own program that captured motion. She reflected that it had been a good thing she’d never tried to steal her stash back from Cal. He would have known. Her timidity and unwillingness to trespass on his space had stood her in good stead.

Midway through that project Cal told her she had taken her last pill. There were no more.

Sophie tried to act as if this were of no import, but she found herself in her room within the first hour. She sat on her bed trembling and wondering how she’d make it through the night. She still had the emergency pill. It was now stored under the mattress. She thought longingly of it, but didn’t dare even look to see if it was still there. If she took it now, then she wouldn’t have it when she really needed it.

Eventually she returned to work, but was unable to devote more than passing attention to the job. Cal noticed, but didn’t say anything.

When it was suppertime, he fixed food then told her he was going out to get more groceries. This was usual. He went to the grocery store a couple of times a week and it was time for him to go again. They were low on milk and eggs.

Sophie tried to amuse herself while he was gone. The work room had a large bookcase which was covered with books and technical manuals. She eventually found herself standing in front of the shelves, looking blankly at the titles. She had been reading them without paying attention, thinking of her emergency pill all the while.

When she began paying attention, she found that she was looking at a tech manual for a programming language. It looked odd. The title was “Crispr 3.7: Basic DNA Coding.”

She muttered to herself, “What the heck? What does that even mean?”

She pulled the manual off the shelf and sat at her work space to browse through it. The language was simple. It allowed the user to create their own words using built-in libraries of small routines. There was a minimum of syntax required. The system used a run-time compiler that was very robust. It practically guaranteed that the app, or program as the manual called it, was going to execute. She wasn’t sure what the subroutines did, however. They had esoteric names that seemed like they had originated more in biology than in computer science.

She was still reading the manual when Cal returned.

He stomped into the room, obviously in poor humor. Seeing her, he came over, saw what she was reading and sniffed. “Hmmp! That’s an interesting one. Can’t say much about it, though. The language is designed to manipulate DNA using a gene-splitting system. I don’t have the means to implement it, so I never paid much attention to the thing. More of a curiosity than anything in my mind.”

He looked to see if she had anything to say, then continued. “I saw somebody that you might know. Thin, dark guy with a short beard. Maybe six feet tall. He was standing on the street, looking around. When I walked by, he showed me a photo.”

She had a sinking sensation. She already knew before he finished.

“It was a picture of you, or of you, the way you looked before you got some weight back on your bones. He asked me if I’d seen you.” He stopped speaking and looked at her, obviously waiting for her to speak.

She tried a couple of times to get it out, finally she was able to say, “It was Raul. He can’t find me. He’s dangerous. You don’t know how dangerous. If he gets hold of me, he’ll…”

Sophie knew what she wanted to say, but a sob came out instead. “He’ll…”

She couldn’t continue. She bowed her head and shook, then gasped, “You shouldn’t have taken me in. I don’t want you to get hurt. That guy thinks he owns me somehow.”

Cal asked, “Are you his girlfriend?”

She shook her head violently. “No. I, uh, I mean, well, I stayed with him and he used me, uh, we had sex several times, but he was really only interested in me bringing him money. He was my supplier. That’s where I got the pills. Now I don’t even have any of them left–” She broke down completely and began to cry in great gasps.

When she got a little control back, she realized that Cal was massaging her neck and shoulders gently.

“Don’t you worry about him, Honey,” he said. “He won’t find you in here. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I scored some more pills. I figured that you’d need more before you were able to taper off entirely. You know you’re down to less than half what you were taking when you came in here. I’m not going to let you slide back, though, so don’t get the idea that just cause I have more means you can take more. That isn’t’ in the cards for you.”

Sophie raised her head and looked at his face. He smiled and nodded as if to reassure her.

Her anxiety made her nearly incoherent. She said, “But, what if he finds out where I am? What will you do? He has a lot of friends, I guess a gang or something. They all have tattoos on their chests. The same marks for all of them. They’re–”

He interrupted her. “Yeah, they’re MX-99. They do almost all of the dealing in this part of the city. I know who they are alright. And, don’t you worry, Sophie, I know how to stay away from them. I’ve done pretty well for myself and this place isn’t as easy to get into as you think.” He made an all-encompassing wave of his hand to indicate the part of the building where they lived.

That night, she couldn’t sleep until she’d taken a pill. She didn’t like the way it felt. Sure, she felt good, but it was so obviously…chemical…phony. For the first time, she thought that she could possibly learn to stay off the drug.

Chapter 3: BABY STEPS

Raul had seemingly gone elsewhere. Cal hadn’t seen him, or he was lying to her. Sophie had come to rely on Cal’s basic honesty. He was the least complicated person she had ever met. Life with him was easy. She didn’t have to second guess him. He always said exactly what he thought about every situation. Sometimes his bluntness had the potential to be hurtful, but she gradually learned that the hurt was in her, not in him. If something he said made her unhappy, it was because he was pointing out something that she didn’t want to deal with; something she’d been hiding from herself. Living with him was like constantly being in front of a mirror that always reflected the truth about her, whether she wanted to see it or not. It was sometimes uncomfortable, but she was gradually becoming acclimated to the uncompromising view.

There was one aspect of his life that Cal kept from her. At first she didn’t realize that he held any secrets whatsoever, but sleep came hard for her one night and she decided to get some milk. She thought he was in his room and walked quietly down the hall in the dark. Once in the kitchen, she heard Cal talking in the workroom. She moved over by the closed door and found that she could listen in to his side of a phone conversation.

He said, “Yes. I can get through their security. The problem isn’t hacking in, it’s erasing my tracks. It won’t be good if they discover they’ve been compromised.”

There was a pause as he listened, then he said, “Okay. I understand your objective.”

“Yeah, it’s clear. You’ll have to leave the ways and means to me. That’s what you’re paying me for, after all.”

“No. That’s no problem. We should have results in a week or less. I’ll send you an email through the encryption system, of course.”

“Yes. Payment through the Swiss account. The amount we’ve agreed on is fine, unless you require additional work.”

He paused, then said, “Yeah. Thanks.”

Sophie remained by the door, but now all she heard was the clicking of his keyboard. Thoughtfully, she returned to her room and drank her milk. She had taken a half of a pill earlier, but it had mostly worn off. The milk served as a substitute. It somehow alleviated her urge to take something even though it didn’t address her underlying addiction. Part of her problem, at least, lay in her personality. She had learned that consumption made her feel better. That element of her problem could be addressed with innocuous substances such as the glass of milk.

She fell asleep while thinking of how she could help Cal with his hacking. She was becoming good at app creation. This new skill had given her a degree of confidence that she’d been missing. It had bolstered her self-esteem and now she felt that she was possibly ready for an additional challenge. She resolved to ask him to teach her. With that, she rolled on her side and fell asleep.

They were sitting at the table in the kitchen. Cal was eating a bagel and Sophie was nibbling on a banana nut muffin. He took a sip of coffee and said, “That was good work yesterday. The app you created has more features than the client requested. That shows initiative, but you’ve got to be careful not to over-do it. The payment for the work is set and I can’t renegotiate. I don’t want you working for free.”

Sophie asked, “Yes, but don’t you think that giving clients a little bit more is good for business?”

He sighed. “Yes. Just don’t over do it, like I said.”

She gathered up her courage and continued. “Cal? I was in the kitchen last night getting milk. I overheard you. I, uh, will you teach me about hacking, too? I mean you’ve already taught me so much. That might be a useful skill for me to have, right?”

He stopped chewing and laid his bagel carefully on the plate. Then he arranged the plate and silverware so that the place setting was perfect. Sophie assumed that he was thinking her request over and the actions just gave him some time to think.

Finally, he looked up at her and said, “Look, girl, I’m not sure that I want you in on that kind of stuff. It’s dangerous. I’m careful and I can handle myself. I’m not so sure about you.”

“But, you can show me how to do it, right?” she asked, almost begging.

“Yeah. That ain’t the problem. The problem comes if you get caught and they trace your physical location. Alternately, the problem could come from the ones who hired you. They are usually up to no good and they don’t want any lose ends hanging around to cause them trouble later on. I’ve had a couple of groups get close to finding me in the past. It wasn’t pleasant.” He looked down at his big hands and flexed his fingers, thoughtfully.

She pressed the issue. It looked like he was wavering and might be convinced.

“Well, what if you guide me and I only work on minor projects at first? Do you have anything simple that I could do?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact, I do have one thing. I’ve got a corporate client who wants to install monitoring software in some IoT devices. It could give them an advantage over their competition. The project is a little one and I’ve had it on the back shelf while I work on a more lucrative job. I guess you can help on that one. There’s one condition, though.”

Sophie was ecstatic. “Anything. Just tell me. I’ll agree to anything. I really, really want to learn this, Cal!”

He grinned. “Look, I’m not sure I should be teaching this to you. You’re about at the point where you can earn enough to get buy just with apps. You’ve got to promise me, and this is the condition, that you won’t do anything without running it by me first. There’s a certain amount of danger involved in this.”

She laughed in triumph. “Oh, that’s a given. You check everything I do, anyway. I’m going to need a lot of help, though.”

He said, “Not so much help as you might think. Your coding skills are nearly up to the task already. You just need to know how to access things and how to cover your tracks. We’ll start with you writing a routine to interface with one of Ralph’s cousins. I’ve purchased a Reverb unit that we can use as a test system. It works like Ralph, but there’s no security. It’s totally controlled by the corporation that made it. It listens all of the time and stores anything of interest that it hears for later analysis. It contains all of the negative elements that I designed Ralph to avoid.”

Sophie shook her head in understanding. “Now that I understand what those things do, I’m a little nervous about having it around, even to use as a test device.”

He answered, “Well, yeah. Just be sure to turn it off when you’re done with it. I don’t want it to be monitoring any of our conversations.”

She nodded again.

Cal continued, “Your software will have to monitor what Reverb hears and then take over when a particular code word is spoken. We’ll stub out the task at that point so that it’ll send a message over the net. The type of message can be modified and that’s something I’ll do. You’ll have your hands full creating a routine and figuring out how to install it in the device memory without physically touching it. Got it?”

He stood and headed for the work room, but then turned back to her. “We’ll be using the new low-Earth orbit satellite web system as an intrusion route. You’d better do some research into back-door access protocols. Uh, also we’ll want to establish an unmonitored pathway through the sat system. We shouldn’t go through corporate or government controlled nodes. We can parasite on the existing system, but I like to set up my own nodes using bots. Sort of a P2P system that the owners of the computers don’t even know about.”

He considered for a moment and then added, “By the way, payment for most of these jobs is in the form of cryptocurrency. I haven’t told you, but I already set up a wallet for you on a server I own. It’s located offshore and it has a legitimate use. I just keep a couple of gigs open for private storage. Everything’s public key encrypted of course. I’ve already put some of the funds you’ve earned in your wallet. We’ll discuss access and converting them to physical cash or a credit balance later.”

She nodded a little ruefully. This wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought. First, she had a lot of research to do on the Reverb’s internals. All she knew at the moment was that the little device had some basic on-board processing ability paired with a limited memory space. Most of what it did happened in its back-end – the extensive software that resided on the net. That was where it parsed commands and linked up with other devices to fulfill them. She assumed that there was also some security and anti-intrusion measures involved in that part of the system. The limited aspect of the device that was contained in its physical case was probably a lot easier to hijack.

Sophie applied herself. She was feeling better about her life as a result of her work. That feeling made it easier to avoid the pills, or at least delay taking one until night. The darkness often brought old fears and doubts to life and she’d lie in bed suffering with self-induced pain until she couldn’t take it any longer. The drug always delivered and it was easy to forget her painful past in the initial wave of euphoria.

It was just that there was so much to forget. When she considered her life, it appeared in retrospect to be one long and drawn-out train-wreck. She’d been slow to mature and her classmates had often picked on her as a result. She was so small there was no way she could physically defend herself. Then they found out that she always got good grades and that was another thing they derided her for. Then when she became sexually mature there had been that aspect of things to complicate her life. The fact that her parents hadn’t been any help just made things worse.

She could see that the constant bullying and then sexual pressure had predisposed her to feel sorry for herself. Her attitude had become worse when her father died. That had been the start of her mother’s drinking.

As far as she knew, her mother had never touched alcohol before, but once her dad was gone, it was a nightly occurrence. She’d been a Freshman in high school when her mother had began her slide downwards.

Sophie had coped as best she could, but without parental support, she slipped into a series of increasingly toxic relationships culminating with her dependency on Raul for drugs. The occasional sex that he demanded of her was unloving, but she had worked hard at convincing herself that he cared. Deep inside, though, she knew that it wasn’t the case.

Her relationship with Cal was different. He provided a solid sense of stability that she found oddly arousing. She’d previously been attracted to men who were unpredictable and dangerous in their moods and whims. Cal was just…no drama Cal.

Cal was constantly kind to her. He took care of her and, even though he made it clear that he disapproved, he kept her supplied with Oxy. He’d helped her taper down, but then gave over control to her.

The sense of control was something that Sophie had generally had far too little of in her life. Unfortunately, it came with the obligation to manage her addiction by herself. She was now down to one pill a day and had been toying mentally with the idea of cutting the pill in half. After all, she told herself, it wasn’t like she really needed the things. Her daily resolve to cut always lasted until night, but then perished with the dying light of the sun. Something about going to bed made her feel intolerably sorry for herself.

Sophie felt she had plenty of time. She could always cut her dosage in half tomorrow. There was hope in the next day. Meanwhile, she found that she was replacing a considerable amount of her addiction with an intense desire to learn more about coding and hacking in particular.

She had toyed with the idea that her addiction or her propensity towards addictive behavior was a function of her genetic make-up. That seemed to excuse her behavior. If she wasn’t really responsible, but she rejected that thought. She knew that she always had a choice every time she picked up one of the little white pills.

The DNA manipulating language was something that she had started studying as an exercise. Certainly it seemed to have no application beyond student use in an advanced bio-lab. She had kept at it because it seemed so esoteric that it appealed to her sense of the absurd. Eventually she had come to the conclusion that it might prove useful. She wouldn’t allow herself to think that she could somehow change her genetics enough to free her from the addiction easily. On the other hand, she couldn’t see any practical opportunities for the language.

She applied herself to the research Cal needed in order to fulfill his new contract. Once she understood more fully, she recognized the job as what it actually was: industrial espionage. Cal was correct. It was going to involve a certain amount of danger. Hazelton BioMedical Corporation was one of the world’s largest and most profitable producers of drugs.

The two of them were going to plant monitoring software in one of Hazelton’s research labs. The client had specified a single lab located in Switzerland. The research there was a combination of biological and digital that apparently was of extreme interest to their client.

She’d asked Cal about the client, but he refused to tell her anything.

“The less you know about them, the better for everyone,” he said. His tone of voice admitted of no questioning. After a moment, he turned to her, obviously feeling guilty about being so curt.

“Look, Sophie, there’s a distinct chance we’ll get caught. I hope to minimize it, but it could happen. If there’s a criminal case that results, I want you to be able to say honestly that you didn’t know who you were working for and what their goals were.”

She hadn’t thought of the fact that what they were doing was probably illegal. It had seemed like some sort of chess game with willing players. The other side tried to secure its data and her side tried to figure ways around their firewalls. It was a game, that was all.

She started thinking about it as more than a simple exercise. Avoiding detection was critical. They could route through various IP addresses and countries using a Tor-like technique. Once the source of their attack was sufficiently obscured, the next step would be to access the Global Sat network.

Security there was high, but since the intent of the network was to provide high speed access to the Internet for anyone at any point on the globe, the system was easy to access. When she started studying the satellite system, she wondered why a billionaire would take the initiative to provide 1 Gbps bandwidth to some unknown villager in Southeast Asia.

A discussion over breakfast cleared that idea up.

He snorted and said, “It looks like a charity operation. Provide the benefits of Internet access to all of the poor folks across the world and they can better themselves. Right?”

She nodded, not knowing what was coming.

He continued. “That’s the published goal. I tend to look a little deeper and I don’t like what I see. You know that almost all political actions have unintended consequences, right?”

She nodded again.

“It always seems like the politicians and bureaucrats don’t bother to think to the second level. Their first level goals are adequate for them. They can always say that they meant well. However, it’s the second and deeper level results that always come around to bite them in the butt. In this case, the access to information will go a long way toward spreading ideas around. The human species will end up with the same pool of ideas and that will help standardize thinking. Groups that were culturally dissimilar in the past will inevitably move closer together. Can you see that?”

Sophie ventured, “Yes, but isn’t that a good thing?”

Cal snorted again. “Seems like it might be, but consider this: The demands of life vary in different places on the globe. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all culture. Different peoples have their own solutions to survival. What business have we in trying to mandate a centrally-planned type of approach. That’s never worked and can never work. Central control isn’t up to the task. People need local flexibility to allow them to deal with local problems. Central control just leads to what one might call a mono-culture and that’s my real fear.”

Sophie asked, “Yeah, but wouldn’t we all be better off, if we had no cultural arguments? There would be less reason for conflict.”

He paused, thinking, and then said, “You know that bananas are really expensive, right?”

She nodded in agreement, wondering what bananas had to do with culture. When he didn’t continue, she ventured, “They’ve always been expensive. I’ve only eaten a couple in my whole life.”

He said, “There was a time when they were common and cheap. The banana growers found it most profitable to only grow the Gros Michel. That was a particular type of banana that tasted good and sold well. They created a mono-culture, growing only this banana on thousands of acres of land. Then a fungus disease wiped out the Gros Michel totally. The growers had to grow a slightly less desirable banana that was immune to the disease. It’s called the Cavendish. The growers ignored the lesson the fungus had presented to them and created another mono-culture. Another type of fungus came along and pretty much wiped out all of the Cavendish bananas. That’s why they’re hard to get now. See?” He emphasized his story by nodding vigorously.

She couldn’t see how this related to culture or the Internet, but she could tell that he was passionate about his point. She nodded.

Cal continued. “So, bananas taught us a lesson, if we’d only pay attention to it. Mono-cultures are great until they are faced with an environmental challenge, then they fail disastrously. The same can be said for information cultures.”

Sophie shook her head slightly, not agreeing or really disagreeing.

“Here’s the basic problem. The Internet has become the single largest source of profit on the globe. It offers a free exchange of ideas…er, I should say, offered – past tense. Now it’s been captured by several giant corporations. They can easily suppress ideas that are at odds with their profit strategy. All they have to do is to throttle back a website by a little over two-hundred and forty-five milliseconds. People get disgusted by the delay and click-off the site. The corporations are forcing people into a narrower and narrower selection of ideas. There might be great ideas out there; world changing ideas; but how do you find out about them?”

She said, “Uh. Magazines? Scientific publications, maybe?”

Cal laughed, then said, “Maybe, but how many people read printed material these days? Only a few scientists read journals that are specific to their area of expertise and most of them are published digitally. There’s always going to be blogs and such that are outside the big corporations’ control, but as I said, the outsiders get repressed, throttled back a bit. The net effect is to funnel the consciousness of everyone through a narrower and narrower channel, creating a mono-culture of ideas. I’m against that. I don’t believe it’s healthy for humanity in the long run. When the species, our species runs up against a problem, we may not be able to adapt.”

Sophie asked, “What kind of a problem could there be? If everyone all agrees and there’s no conflict, how could we have trouble?”

He sighed, a deep and long exhalation. “The Gros Michel fungus was always present, but only became a problem when the large plantations made it easy for it to spread. Let’s say, for the sake of my point, that one of the big, global companies buy enough politicians to get regulations passed that force everyone to use their products. Maybe their products are harmful to human health and eventually kill people or change people so that our species doesn’t develop normally.”

She said, “I guess that could happen, but, if it’s such a bad thing, what can we do about it?

He laughed. “Now you’re back on track. We can work from within by hacking. That leads me to our current job..”

She laughed in return. “You want us to get back to work, right?”

He said, “Well, yes, we should get going, but I was going to say that the Hazelton Corporation is one of those big companies. I normally don’t take jobs that involve industrial espionage, but my client has evidence that Hazelton is up to something bad. Rather than turn the job down and let some other hacker help the client get an advantage over Hazelton, I took the job. If I can, I’ll screw up Hazelton’s idea so that neither they, nor my client can use it.”

Sophie asked, “You haven’t told me what we’re supposed to find in the lab we’re attacking. What is it? Could it be as bad as the banana fungus?”

He said, “That’s just it. The client didn’t know exactly what it was, just that Hazelton has been spending far more money on lobbying than they ever have. They’re trying to get the politicians lined up so that what they’re planning will have governmental approval. I do know that it’s a biological project involving DNA based nanomachines, but that’s all.”

Sophie thought about it and then said, “Nanomachines could be helpful or harmful depending on how they were programmed. Do you know what they’re supposed to do?”

He frowned and said, “No idea. That’s one of the first things we’re going to find out. The second thing will be how to stop the project, presuming that the nanites could be used to harm humans.”

Cal stood and headed towards the work room. “C’mon, let’s get going. Time is wasting.”

Sophie stood, started to follow him, but then lagged behind, staying in the kitchen to pour a glass of water. When Cal was safely down the hall, she took a white pill out of her pocket and broke it in half by pressing on it on the counter. She took half of the pill with a gulp of water, then toyed with the other half, thinking about taking it too.

After a few seconds, she raised the remaining half to her mouth, but then stopped, jerked convulsively and shoved the half pill back into her pocket. She took another drink from the glass, emptied it into the sink, and turned decisively towards the work room. She didn’t need the second half.

She walked down the hall thinking that the second half was in her pocket, easy to get, and ready, if she really needed it. It was a comforting thought, but she continually had to work to keep her hand from straying into her pocket.

It wouldn’t do to take it unless she really needed the relief.

Chapter 4: HACKING INTO TROUBLE

Once she started working on the Reverb, she quickly became alarmed. The free-standing, interface devices were common throughout society. Nearly every family had one. She had heard of the potential they had for intrusive data acquisition, but had believed the advertising.

The things were said to listen for the activating code word, usually the company name, then to analyze the following few seconds of speech for an executable order or request. The speech data was analyzed by a cloud-based, limited AI system, but was not stored beyond the order fulfillment. The system had been easy to hack in the early days and also had created problems when it accidentally interpreted television commercials or programs for commands.

Sophie came to the conclusion that the devices uploaded all speech in their vicinity to the cloud. Whether or not it was stored was a matter of choice, and not the choice of the user. Instead it was the choice of the corporation. Sophie suspected that the corporation would store everything and possibly trade it to the government.

She went to Cal with her suspicions. “That Reverb is a guaranteed snitch. What I want to know is how can we trust Ralph not to listen in on our discussions about hacking?”

He laughed. “So, you finally caught on to the magnitude of the problem, huh? Don’t worry. Ralph’s kin might be poorly behaved eavesdroppers and snitches, but he’s very polite. Like I told you before, I changed him. He’s got a little more to his basic firmware than the average device. I added code that keeps him from uploading anything until he hears his name. Also added a few lines that keep his original manufacturing company from remotely upgrading his firmware. That way they can’t overwrite my anti-surveillance code. The other thing is, he confines his searches to a search engine that doesn’t store personal information. Oh, that and he accesses everything through a VPN, but then all my systems do.”

Sophie had been relieved to hear this. The thought that their conversations might be subject to eavesdropping was frightening.

She went back to work on the Reverb with a vengeance. It turned out that the thing was ridiculously easy to co-opt. It wasn’t long before she had created a software update for it that ensured the collected speech data was routed to two locations.

The Reverb would send everything it heard to an IP address that Cal had given her, then it would forward its data load to its normal analysis channel in the way the manufacturer expected.

The address Cal had given her was for an overseas server that provided him with plenty of unmonitored storage on a anonymous basis. From there, the raw data would be routed to another IP that Cal also controlled. Once there, an AI system would comb it for references to the information that their client wanted. Neither of the two locations were easily traceable back to Cal.

She was a little nervous when Cal inspected her work, but he simply nodded approvingly.

“Looks like you got it. The only thing is that a company propagated software update will overwrite your code. See if you can have the Reverb send you an alert before it installs a company update. That way, we can reinstall your patch, provided we need to continue collecting data.”

She asked, “Why can’t I just disable the update system entirely? You know, just have it reject any updates?”

He shook his head. “That’s basically what I did to Ralph, but we don’t want to leave any long-term traces. If your stuff is automatically overwritten, then it won’t be lying around for anyone to find, should they get suspicious.”

Sophie must have looked dubious, because Cal added, “Look, the manufacturer updates those things about once a month. That should give us plenty of time for our work, and it will ensure your patch is wiped clean. I don’t like to leave clues around longer than I have to.”

The next phase of her research went well. The Hazelton system was largely cloud-based and, as such, had several access pathways. Their data was protected by an authentication system that was a little aggravating. Cal had already created a password breaking program for another use. It quickly turned up an active user name and password that got them through the first part of the security system.

The second part was considerably more difficult, since it involved selecting an image from an improbably large library of graphics. Apparently, each user had been allowed to upload their own preferred image into a database containing thousands of other images.

Since there were slightly over twenty-three hundred employees along with the dummy images, there were a lot of choices. This was compounded by the fact that the system would time-out for progressively longer and longer periods each time an entry attempt failed.

Not wanting to raise any alarms, Sophie tried a couple of times and then quit. She took her failure to Cal.

Once again, he was ahead of her.

“Look, kid, the user name limits the choices. I found an employee list that I downloaded from the company that handles their payroll. I had to hack them last year and they haven’t realized that their system was compromised, so it was easy to get in. Anyway, I took their employee list and cross-referenced it with the user name. The user name isn’t the actual employee name in this case, but, if we assume that part of the actual name was used, there are three possibilities.”

She interjected, “Yeah, but how does that make it easier to select the correct graphic? Seems like it could be anything.”

He held up a finger in an admonitory way. “It could, but running a search of social media on each of the three people would be a good step. People tend to have favorite images and sometimes reuse them. Why don’t you give it a try?’

She sighed. There was no way he was going to actually give her the correct information. It was irritating, since he probably already knew. She sighed again, then resigned herself to working hard enough to crack the problem.

The funny thing was, that once she got started, the answer was startlingly easy to find. One of the users owned a white poodle. They’d plastered their social media accounts with pictures of the pooch. When she looked at Hazelton’s security picture library, there he was, silly doggy grin and all.

She hesitated. She could get into the system, but should she? She wasn’t really experienced enough to avoid tripping any flags that she might encounter if she just snooped around. She went to Cal again.

He said, “That’s really good work. You got in easily. Some systems require other approaches like ratting, but you’ve got this one open for us. I suspect that they require password changes periodically, so we’ve got to move quickly. Now, what I’m going to do is to snoop a little, then upload some code that will sit in the system root. It will allow me to open a true back-door and I’ll use that entrance to do the majority of my snooping.”

“Wouldn’t that be visible, at least, if anyone looked at the root directory?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yes, it would, but they’d have to look carefully. I’ll attach it to the end of one of the larger system command files. Then I’ll install a few bytes of code that will jump from the front of the file to my code. My code will check for an activation sequence in an email to their corporate info mailbox. If it isn’t present, control will be returned to the system routine. If I’m entering the system, my code will be recognized in the email. My routine will take over and open the back door.”

He paused, looking at her carefully. He continued, when she nodded in understanding.

“If we’re lucky, they’ll never realize they’ve been hacked. The only clue will be the size of the system file. There’s a checksum on it, but I’ll overwrite that. They could still find us, if anyone does a system check or update, but in my experience, those kinds of things are done maybe once a quarter. That should give us enough time to get our dirty work done.”

Cal had a little work on another project to finish first, but that was done quickly. He started on Hazelton right after lunch. Sophie hung over his shoulder, watching the process.

Once into the system, he wasted no time uploading his back-door routine. He appended it to one of the system files, manually changed a couple of things, then exited the system. The entire operation took a little over two minutes. Sophie was impressed at his efficiency. He knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t have to waste time figuring out any of the steps. It would have taken her far longer.

He leaned back in his chair, stretched, interlaced his fingers and popped them, then leaned forward again.

“Now, I’m going to send Hazelton an email. I’m just a curious college student wondering if they are doing all they can to make their research environmentally friendly. In fact, I think my professor assigned the class to check with several companies about their environmental policies. Ya’ know, climate change is a happening thing right now.”

She snickered. “Yeah, it’s colder than normal this month. If I was still…” She paused in sudden realization. He’d pulled her off the street. If she wasn’t in here with him, she might be freezing in a cardboard box somewhere. Her breath caught in her chest, making her gasp.

Cal glanced over his shoulder at her, concern in his eyes. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, it was just a sudden thought. I, uh, thank you for taking me in.”

He grinned and said, “It was a good move on my part. You’ve been a help to me. I wasn’t sure whether or not you had it in you to take control of your life, but you’re working on it. I like to see that. Makes me feel good.”

He returned to the email without waiting for her response.

He sent the email, and then waited for a few seconds. Then he checked a specific Internet address.

“Yeah! It’s open,” he said. “Now their data belongs to me. I’m gonna download everything I can get, then check it over. Then we can plan our next step.”

A few keystrokes started the download. Sophie watched. It seemed to take forever. There was a lot of data.

She and Cal watched quietly as the Hazelton data flowed into their storage. He was going for a full dump. All of the research data was stored in a series of project directories. Cal systematically downloaded each folder.

They were halfway through the last, when the download paused. Sophie noticed and started to say something, but Cal was ahead of her. His hands were instantly on the keyboard entering commands. He exited Hazelton, then disconnected from the Internet.

“What was that?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Something happened. The file had a ways to go yet. Maybe…I dunno. Maybe we got caught somehow. Anyway, I disconnected fast. They probably couldn’t track us, even if they knew we were there. Could have been a system reset of some kind, but that’s not too likely at two in the afternoon. Well, we got most of their data. Let’s see what we can discover.”

He copied the downloaded data into a work folder, then told her to take the last fourteen files. He’d work on the rest.

By suppertime, Sophie was thoroughly tired. She was exhausted from poring through seemingly incomprehensible data about unidentifiable drug trials, odd experiments, and patient follow-ups. If she never saw any more of that kind of stuff, it would be just fine.

Cal had more luck. A few times in his investigation, he made small exclamations under his breath.

Chapter 5: THE HAZARDS OF HACKING

They compared notes over supper.

“Cal, what were you making those noises about?” Sophie asked. She was holding her loaded fork in her right hand, about to transfer food into her mouth. She’d been suppressing her curiosity, but it had finely boiled over and she couldn’t wait any longer for satisfaction.

He finished chewing his mouthful of pasta, then carefully placed his fork by the half-full plate.

“I found some hints that they were working with the government. Specifically with the CIA to create some kind of untraceable bio-weapon. At least I think it’s a bio-weapon. Biology and medicine isn’t my strong point. I’m much happier working with software than biology.”

He paused, then continued. “Uh, anyway, it looks like they’re about ready for field trials of whatever it is. Did you have any luck with your reading?”

Now it was Sophie’s turn to sigh. “No. Everything I’ve seen so far is either human resources data or accounting data. Somehow you gave me all of the boring files.”

He asked, “Have you had any trouble accessing any of them?”

“No. The accounting files are protected by a weak security algo, but I figured it out.”

She was proud of her understatement. It hadn’t been that easy, but she’d managed to obtain access without asking for help.

Cal nodded in approbation. “That’s good. You’re making progress. The painful job now is that we have to keep on sifting through what we got in the hope there will be something that is more informative than what I’ve found so far.”

She nodded, bent her head and concentrated on her meal.

Afterwards, they went back to work. Sophie had stopped in her room under the pretense of needing to change her shirt. She’d somehow gotten marinara sauce on the front, right between her breasts. Every time she looked down, she saw the reddish stain and flinched. It somehow reminded her of blood.

Once she’d changed her shirt, her pills summoned her over to the nightstand. She stood there indecisively, looking at the plastic bottle. Finally, the thought of having to sit and pore through files for hours longer seduced her into taking a full pill.

Once she’d swallowed it, she had instant regrets. She should have taken a half pill or just put it off until bedtime. She hoped that she wouldn’t appear too relaxed. She didn’t want Cal to know that she’d taken one. He wouldn’t say anything, but she was afraid that his look would convey that he thought she was a failure.

She hurried back to her seat and pulled up the next file. Best to get started before the drug hit her bloodstream. It was…it was…ahh! It hit and she felt the warmth and relaxation of its seductive effect. She sighed. At least she didn’t have to take more than one pill to feel good. That was a major benefit of restricting her intake. Maybe she’d be able to stop or, at least, cut down her intake to a half pill a day. Then when she really needed the drug, a single pill would be really good.

She caught Cal looking at her and leaned forward hastily to study her monitor. The file was some kind of scientific report that seemed to deal with both biology and software. The writing was complex, dense, and hard to follow.

Sophie started reading from the top again, paying careful attention this time. Halfway through the second page, she caught her breath. This was what they were searching for. Hazelton had been working on a biological nanomachine. It was constructed from biological molecules and could be programmed to perform…what? She re-read the section.

The nanomachines were able to manipulate DNA. The first thing they did, when injected into a human, was to create a metallic antenna, only microns in width. Iron molecules gathered from blood cells formed just under the surface of the skin, allowing direct reception of wireless signals. A tiny receiver located deeper in the underlying muscles interpreted the information and issued commands.

The nanites could be programmed using, and here she laughed aloud, the DNA programming language that she had been studying.

A sudden change in the overhead lighting cued her to the fact that Cal was leaning over, reading the monitor from just behind her right shoulder.

She turned slightly to look at him from inches away. He frowned causing the corners of his eyes to wrinkle up. His lips moved slightly as he read.

She asked, “Is this it?”

He swore softly. “Damn. Maybe.” He continued scanning, ignoring her proximity. Finally he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I think it is. This isn’t good, is it?”

Sophie had been thinking about that.

“Well, it might be used for something good. Maybe they intend to cure cancer or some genetic diseases.”

It was his turn to laugh. “Are you serious? You think the CIA is interested in curing people?”

Sophie flushed, then answered, “No. I guess they probably aren’t. They’re more likely to use the technique to do something bad to people, but what would something bad done by nanomachines look like?”

Cal dismissed her question with a wave of his hand. “Why don’t you read the rest and then brief me on what it says. I really should finish my part of the files. There might be something useful in there. No sense us duplicating efforts.”

She turned back to the monitor, stretched, and started to scan again. After a moment, she highlighted several pages of text and saved it to her desktop. She’d print it for later study.

An indeterminate time passed as she read. Finally, she pushed back from the screen. She needed a break. She was thirsty and needed to use the toilet. She stood and stretched, then looked at Cal. He was absorbed in his work, so she walked quietly out.

The pills in her room called out to her as she went past. She slowed, turned towards the door, but then wrenched herself about and continued on down the hall. There was a couple of cans of soda in the refrigerator. She got them both, intending to take the second one to Cal. Surely he needed something to drink. It had been hours since they’d eaten.

She walked through the door into the workroom and said, “Cal?” He didn’t answer. At first she thought that he was napping, but then she realized that he’d collapsed with his head on his keyboard. The screen was filled with random characters as a result.

Sophie repeated, “Cal!” Then, alarmed at his lack of response, she dropped the cans and rushed forward to shake his shoulders. He moved slightly then and groaned.

She put her hand on his head. It was red hot. He was burning with fever. She gasped at the heat and simultaneously waved her hand in irritation at something that buzzed past her eyes. Cal chose that moment to move a bit and her attention returned to him.

The quiet buzzing became louder and she brushed at her ear. Then she saw a small mosquito-like thing sitting on Cal’s neck. It was dark and difficult to see against his skin.

Sophie looked closer. It looked like a mosquito, but there were differences. Something about the insect-thing looked metallic. As she approached, she saw that it had extended a slender, needle-like proboscis and was biting Cal. Instinct took over and she slapped the creature.

There was a tiny snap. Sophie grabbed her hand and exclaimed. That had hurt. It was like she’d been shocked or stung. She bent to examine the mangled thing.

It was unmoving, but now that she’d flattened it, she could see that it wasn’t a mosquito after all. It was some kind of tiny machine. She exclaimed aloud, “A drone! A tiny drone like an insect, but who?”

It struck her just as she felt a light sensation on her own neck. Their intrusion into Hazelton’s system had been detected and they’d been traced. The mosquito drones had been sent to extract punishment for their transgression. She slapped at her neck instantly.

There was another snap and her hand stung, but that was all. She scrapped at her skin and removed the remains of a second machine. She didn’t think it had bitten her. A fearful cautious expression crossed her face. If there had been two, there were probably more. She looked around the room. How had the nasty little things gotten in?

The window! The window in the hall was opened a few inches to allow a cross-flow of cooler air. It had a screen, but she thought there was a hole that she’d noticed. She dashed into the hall and slammed the frame shut, trapping a swarm of the things that had not yet flown into the room. They buzzed back and forth between the screen and the glass.

Her head was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of buzzing fliers. She screamed and ran to the kitchen to get the broom. Swinging it wildly, she smashed as many as she could against the hall walls. They couldn’t fly very quickly, so she was able to kill the ones she saw.

She backed out of the hall into the workroom and shut the door. There was no way to tell if she’d gotten all of the things. Now she had to see about Cal.

He’d fallen to the floor and was lying by his chair. Sophie approached him, listening carefully for the slight buzzing sound of the tiny drones. It was quiet, so she bent to feel his head. He was still hot and now his breathing was ragged. She was on the verge of panic. It was obvious that the drones had injected him with something, but was it a chemical of some kind or a biological agent? That was the question.

She remembered the first-aid kit. Cal wasn’t a true prepper, but he did have lots of survival supplies and among them was a variety of antibiotics. They were stored in a cabinet in the closet at the end of the workroom. She took a few steps and yanked open the closet door.

Once the cabinet was open, it had a whole shelf of bottles and vials. Sophie indecisively fingered the bottles, wondering what each one was. It took her a few moments to get control of her panic. Then she realized they were labeled in Cal’s handwriting. She bent to inspect them, finally settling on one which was labeled ceftriaxone sodium.

Cal had written the words: “Broad Spectrum” on the bottle. She thought that sounded like it would be the best choice. The material inside the bottle was a yellowish-orange crystalline powder.

She shook her head negatively. He was in no shape to take something by mouth. Inspiration suddenly struck. She was back at her workstation in a second logging onto the search engine that Cal insisted they always use.

She recalled his sober expression as he’d told her, “Look, Sophie, use this one. It doesn’t track you and it deletes your search parameters immediately. The most popular ones are really ploys. They act as search engines, but they store and track your data in order to sell it for profit. I don’t want to have any searches linked to this address, especially ones that might be for addictive drugs.” He’d been referring to her habit, of course, and she’d instantly seen the utility of his rule.

She entered the chemical’s name and found that it was easily dissolved in water and was good for a wide variety of disease, including pneumonia. Cal’s breathing was labored and he sounded like his lungs were full of fluid, so that might be what she wanted.

Back to the cabinet. There was a gallon jug of distilled water on the bottom shelf. Her hands shook as she measured and mixed the yellow powder with the water. She ripped the cover off a disposable syringe and sucked the mixture up.

There were a few bubbles in the fluid. This was something she knew how to do. She’d never injected herself, but she had seen others do it often enough. She flicked the syringe with her fingernail until the bubbles were at the top, then squirted them out with a little of the mixture.

The needle went into Cal’s shoulder muscle and she slowly depressed the plunger, hoping that what she was doing would help. It would be cruel if she ended up giving him a drug that caused an allergic reaction and killed him.

He muttered a little at the sting, but then relaxed a little.

She tugged at his body, trying to straighten his posture into a more comfortable looking arrangement. It was no use. He was so large that she could barely move his arm, let alone drag him across the floor.

Sophie glanced around the room, looking for more of the miniature drones. Seeing nothing she looked back at Cal. His head was still hot. Perhaps the cabinet held a thermometer.

She returned with a forehead scanning thermometer and some rubbing alcohol. She sloshed the alcohol across his shirt. It would cool him a little. His temperature was a little over 105; definitely enough to put an adult into a coma. She poured some alcohol on her palm and rubbed it on his face.

His eyes opened and he made a croaking noise, then cleared his throat, gasped for breath, and whispered, “Something bit me then I felt bad. I…uh…I think I’m sick.”

She shushed him and said, “I gave you a shot of rocephin. You’ve got a high fever and your breathing sounds bad.”

His eyes shut, then opened to focus on her face. “That was a good choice. It should help if I’ve got a bacterial infection. Maybe I’d better get in bed.” He tried to sit up, but fell back with a groan.

Sophie was waving her hands in a vain effort to stop him, but he ignored her. He fell back a second time, but this time he was in a more comfortable position.

“It’s no use. I feel too bad to move much.”

She said, “I think we’re trapped in here. The things are probably in the rest of the house. I shut the window and swatted a bunch of them, but I’m sure I didn’t get them all.”

“What? What things?’ he whispered.

She took a deep breath, then explained, “They’re little, tiny drones. Like mosquitoes. One was on your neck. They tried to bite me, but I kept smashing them. They shock you a little when you swat them. That’s how I realized they’re machines.”

Cal shut his eyes, then said, “Hazelton tracked us. Those things are carrying some kind of bio-weapon. You can’t let them bite you. I…oh, God…I hurt like crazy.”

Her hand went to her pocket. The half pill was there, ready for her. If she took it, it might calm her a little and she’d be more effective. She took it out, raised it to her mouth, then hesitated.

Her hand shook wildly, then she bent and shoved the pill into Cal’s mouth.

“Hold that under your tongue. It’ll taste bad, but it will help the pain.”

He moved his mouth a little, then was silent.

She remembered the soft drinks. The cans had rolled under the edge of her desk. It took a second for her to retrieve one, open it, and hold it to his lips. He sipped a little, then a little more before he shook his head negatively and closed his lips firmly.

She set the can on his desk, then turned back to him. There was a slight buzzing noise that became louder. She jumped and swung around. One of the drones was coming right at her. She flung her arm out and, more by luck than skill, struck it, knocking it to the floor. It buzzed a bit, then started to regain its feet.

Sophie cried, “No you don’t!” She jumped forward and came down on the thing with her left foot. Without pausing, she ran on to the door. There were two more coming through the threshold crack. She stepped on both of them, then ripped off her sweater and shoved it as tightly as she could into the gap.

It didn’t plug the entire space, but some wastepaper worked just as well for the remainder of the opening.

She stood up, shaking in panic. The drones were in the house and they wouldn’t leave voluntarily. She’d have to smash them all. There was no way she could rid the place of potentially hundreds of tiny assassins.

When she turned around, Cal was sitting upright, leaning on his desk.

He moved his arm weakly and said, “I think that shot helped. I feel a little better now.”

Sophie rushed back to him. “I can’t kill all of them. They could be hiding anywhere to fly out and get us. I can’t get them all, they’re too little, they — ”

He interrupted her. “Calm down. The drones are most likely linked with a radio signal. Didn’t they seem to be coordinated—working together?”

She considered it for a moment. That might be the case. If so, they had to communicate some how. What if she used their equipment to…?

She sat at Cal’s workstation. His machine was linked to a modified blue-tooth transmitter that allowed him to control it as far away as the kitchen. She opened the driver and adjusted the transmission strength to the maximum. It was lucky he wrote most of his own software. The man was a prodigy in many ways. There was an interface program that linked to the transmitter/receiver so he could analyze every device’s signal.

Sophie sighed. She’d been aware that Cal didn’t trust any off-the-shelf equipment. His propensity to check everything before using it was handy. Now all she had to do was to scan the available frequencies.

There it was. There was a lot of data being exchanged at the high end of the spectrum. She stood and walked over to the door, carrying the empty syringe.

She pulled the plunger out, removed and discarded the needle, then bent to move some of the paper she’d shoved in the threshold crack. A drone crawled through the gap immediately.

Sophie exclaimed, “Got you,” and popped the open end of the syringe over it. It buzzed up into the empty tube. She plugged the crack again, then carefully shoved the plunger into the tube while the drone was exploring the tiny hole at the other end. It was trapped.

The syringe lay on the desk by the blue-tooth transmitter while she analyzed the signals.

Finally, she tapped some code into the interface software buffer, then hesitated, her finger over the enter key. She leaned to watch the drone and pressed the key.

It instantly stopped moving. She carefully pulled the plunger and tipped it out on the desk top. The thing was inert. She’d turned it off.

She walked to the door and pulled paper out of the gap. There was no activity.

She pulled her sweater out, noticing that it was covered with a line of the tiny machines, their legs caught in the fibers. None of them showed any action.

“Cal, I think I’ve turned them all off. I’ve got the transmitter on maximum. How far does it go?”

He replied, “You’d better scale it back. You’re probably messing with people’s computers and phones all over the neighborhood. It covers the whole house and more.”

The hallway floor was covered with inert drones. She swept them up and funneled them into an empty milk jug. The hall window had several thousand more jammed between the glass and the screen. It took two milk jugs to store them all. There were probably some that had fallen to the ground outside, but she wasn’t going to try to get them.

The drone invasion was over and she was safe, unless Hazelton or whoever it was sent more. If they did, she’d just turn them off too.

They’d probably have to move somewhere else. Their location was compromised. The first thing to worry about was Cal. He was better, but still running a 103 degree fever.

Chapter 6: BIO-WEAPON

Sophie rummaged around in the bathroom medicine cabinet, but didn’t find what she wanted. Her opiates were good at relieving pain, but what Cal really needed was something to reduce his fever.

There was nothing in the medicine cabinet and nothing in the vanity cabinet under the sink either. She stood up and frowned at her reflection in the mirror. Cal was always so prepared. He seemed to think of everything. Where would he have stored something like aspirin?

Inspiration struck her and she planted her left palm on her forehead in exasperation. She should have looked in the supply cabinet where she got the antibiotic. Turning, she dashed down the hall.

She fumbled through a couple of shelves, then found several bottles of over-the-counter NSAIDS. She selected one and ran back to where he was lying.

He didn’t look very good. His complexion had an odd yellowish tinge. She took out four of the pills and got him to take them. He struggled to swallow, coughing a little. Some of the water sprayed onto her hand and arm.

She brushed at it, ignoring her passing thought that she was almost certainly exposed to whatever it was that had made him sick. That didn’t matter. Without him, she wouldn’t know what to do. She’d be lost and the only thing she really knew to turn to was Oxy. She thought about going and taking a pill, but restrained herself.

Really! The drug had betrayed her, or to be fair, it had led her to betray herself. Couldn’t she just generate enough will-power to concentrate on helping Cal, rather than feeling sorry for herself?

She ran back to the bathroom and soaked a hand towel in cold water, then wrung it over the sink. She folded it as she walked back to him and carefully laid it on his forehead.

He moaned in response, but didn’t open his eyes.

She drew up her work chair and sat watching him.

An interminable time later, Cal opened his eyes and struggled to sit up.

Sophie had thought she was watching, but she must have been drowsing. The noise he made startled her and she jumped to her feet in alarm.

He held his hand out to her for help and she pulled as hard as she could. He slowly sat upright in response.

“Sophie, I need to get to bed. I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck, but what you gave me helps a little. I think I can make it to my bedroom, if you help. Okay?”

He grabbed the edge of his desk and levered himself to his knees. Then he tried to stand, but failed. He leaned against the desk, breathing hard.

Sophie shoved his chair against the back of his legs and said, “Sit down. I’ll roll you to your bedroom.”

He was difficult to push. His feet kept dragging the chair off-course. He didn’t have enough strength to control them.

Once they had reached the bedroom, she heaved him forward onto his bed. She tried to think how best to move him. He wasn’t helping at all now.

Finally, she hauled his legs onto the mattress and then dragged at him until he was roughly straight on the bed. She covered him with a blanket and then sat down in his chair, trying to regain her breath.

She stood back up and walked quickly down the hall to get the thermometer. He was running a higher fever again. Maybe if she gave him more of the antibiotic? She didn’t know if it was possible to overdose on the stuff. He was heavy, so maybe she hadn’t given him a very large dose for his size.

She mixed up another syringe of the yellowish-orange powder and injected it into his other shoulder. Then she got out more of the anti-pyretic pills. That was no good, however, he was unconscious and she couldn’t get him to wake up to take the things.

This was just no good. Cal was going to need hospitalization. She couldn’t do anything for him with her limited knowledge. On the other hand, she knew that going to the hospital was something that he wouldn’t want to do. He was careful about his identity and she didn’t even know if he had insurance. She was fairly sure that they wouldn’t treat him, if he didn’t have any.

What to do? She walked down the hall again, intending to go to the bathroom and then on to the kitchen for some food. It was strange, but she was hungry. Ravenous, in fact. A thought struck her as she passed her bedroom.

Could her hunger be the result of whatever it was? She must have been exposed to it just by helping him, even though the drones hadn’t bitten her.

They hadn’t had a chance to bite her, had they? She thought about it. She wasn’t sure. They’d been right against her neck and hand. Was it possible that she’d gotten some of the stuff inside her when she’d swatted the things?

Somehow she found herself standing in front of her dresser. She’d moved into the bedroom as she worried. Now the pill bottle was in her hand. She moved to set it back down, but then hesitated.

One more couldn’t hurt, surely?

There was a pill in her hand. Sophie couldn’t remember opening the bottle, but there it was. She swallowed it dry, then quickly opened the bottle and took two more out. They somehow ended up in her mouth also.

She set the bottle down and shakily walked to the kitchen. There were some energy bars in the cabinet. She pulled out the box and started to open them.

The pills hit her like a ton of bricks. She found herself sitting on the floor with a silly smile on her face. She didn’t feel bad. Everything was nice and warm and fuzzy. It had been so long since she’d felt like this. Why hadn’t she been taking more of the little beauties all along? Cal would understand. Cal was a great guy…No! Cal was sick. What was she doing here while he was sick on his bed?

She climbed to her feet and carefully walked back to his bedroom. The walls seemed to slide by in an odd sort of way, but she reached his door and turned the corner into the room.

She was standing by his bed. Cal didn’t look well. There was something about his face…She leaned over, bracing herself on the mattress with her hands.

His face was bloody! There was blood leaking from his eyes and nose.

“God!” she said. “What can I do? Cal? Cal, how can I help?”

He didn’t answer. She took the damp towel and wiped at his face, swiping at the blood. It didn’t stop leaking.

He coughed and blood came from his mouth. It looked like a lot of blood.

Sophie grabbed the thermometer and held it on his head. It beeped and she gathered her courage to look at it. The display was bright red. His temperature was 107.

She fell backwards into the chair. One hundred and seven! She tried to think. That was way too high. He couldn’t live with that temperature. It would cause brain damage if he had it very long.

What could she do? She stood and stumbled towards the kitchen. Maybe some ice…

She came back with a bowl full of ice and water.

Cal wasn’t moving. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. There was more blood on the bed.

She pulled at him, trying to get him onto his side. That way, the blood would clear his mouth when he coughed.

When she’d gotten him onto his side, there was a wave of odor and she noticed the blanket was stained. She lowered her head and sniffed to make sure, then jerked back. The smell was awful. His bowels had emptied and the mess had leaked through his pants.

She tried to listen to his chest. There was nothing. Desperate, she grabbed the bowl of ice water and poured it over his head and torso.

He didn’t respond. There was no movement, not even a slight flinch.

She stood there, her eyes wide in horror. It couldn’t be! He’d been so big; so vital and full of life. He must still be alive.

She put her ear against his chest, listening.

Silence.

Cal was dead.

Sophie collapsed into the chair, shaking. She was too horrified to cry. The only thing that kept her together was the heavy dose of oxy. She sat there in a daze.

After a long time, she began to think. The disease or whatever it was had killed him as surely as a bullet. She hadn’t had any symptoms, or had she?

A sudden suspicion caused her to place the thermometer on her own forehead. She had to force herself to look at it when it beeped.

She had it! Her temperature was one hundred and four. But…but, she didn’t feel bad. She hadn’t lost consciousness and she wasn’t bleeding from her eyes or nose.

She stood and covered Cal’s body with the blanket, then walked slowly to her room. The pill bottle beckoned and she took two more, then laid down on her bed to wait for the deadly symptoms.

After a few minutes, she sat up. She couldn’t relax while whatever it was killed her. She’d have to try something. Perhaps if she took a mega-dose of the antibiotic that had seemed to help Cal, it would stop the illness.

She stood up slowly. The room was a little fuzzy. Maybe another pill would help. She wasn’t in much pain, but then she didn’t want to suffer the way Cal had.

After she’d swallowed the pill, she stuck the bottle in her pocket. If things got really bad, when she was sure she was dying, she’d just take all of them. That would stop her breathing and she’d check out without having to suffer so much.

Walking was difficult. Her goal was the medical supplies, but the hallway seemed to have gotten much longer. A couple of times she found herself leaning against the wall trying to remember what she was doing.

She finally got to the workroom and started across. Things got blurry then. When she refocused, she was somehow sitting in Cal’s chair.

She squinted at the monitor. His wifi-sniffer program was still running. She’d disabled the drones with it. She remembered that. She must have forgotten to stop it.

The funny thing was, the sniffer was still showing some kind of wifi activity. It was on a different frequency than the drones, but it was actively sending and receiving data, although at a slow rate.

She leaned forward, trying to think. If she captured some of the data and looked at it in an editor, perhaps she could tell what was happening.

The transmissions were fairly simple, she thought, looking at a string of hex-codes. The code almost looked like it was parsed from a language. She’d seen something like it before.

She laid her head down on the desk. She felt hot and her nose was running. She wiped at it absently, then looked at her fingers. They were covered with blood. The sight galvanized her.

She sat up and concentrated again. The data was undoubtedly a language, it was…then it clicked. She gasped in surprise. It was the Crispr control language or a variant of it. She’d studied it enough to recognize some of the hex commands.

If that was what it was, and she was relatively sure she was correct, then it maybe was the Hazelton bio-nanomachine. She was infected with the nanites and they were making her sick. She didn’t know what they were trying to do to her, but Cal’s symptoms had been similar to some fast-acting hemorrhagic fever.

She looked around in panic. The thermometer was in her pocket. With shaking hands she applied it to her forehead.

The display was bright red. She was now running a hundred and five degrees. Judging from Cal, she didn’t have much time. She started to take more pills, but then stopped.

She had turned the drones off by broadcasting a control sequence. What about the nanites? They were receiving command signals from somewhere and transmitting some data back in return.

The Crispr language had a stand-by command that would idle the system. She switched the sniffer program to broadcast and keyed in the sequence, then waited.

She couldn’t tell that anything had happened. Her head still hurt. Perhaps it hadn’t worked.

She checked the sniffer’s data analysis mode. The transmissions were now one-sided. What did that mean?

She decided that maybe she’d put the nanites in stand-by mode, but the controlling data stream was still coming. What if it reactivated the tiny machines in her bloodstream?

Sophie stood and headed over to her workstation. The Reverb unit was sitting there. She looked at it with suspicion. She’d turned it off when she had finished showing her work to Cal. She was sure of it.

What if the switch wasn’t really connected? What if the thing was designed to be on permanently?

With a sudden surge of hatred, she slammed it on the floor. The case cracked. She grabbed the monitor from her desk and pounded the Reverb with the heavy, flat screen. Both devices broke open and pieces slid across the tile.

She kept pounding until the Reverb unit was nothing but broken bits. The monitor was in almost as bad a shape. She dropped it and straightened up, noticing that she’d cut her hand somehow.

Back to Cal’s desk. The data flow had stopped. She checked the sniffer’s display twice to make sure. The Reverb had been the source of the control signal. Somehow Hazelton had located them, sent the micro-drones to infect them with the nanites, then broadcast the signal through the Reverb unit to control the tiny machines.

When she got that far in her thinking, she rechecked the sniffer. Still no activity, however, the nanites were still inside her. They could be reactivated. She’d have to either get rid of them or live her life in fear that she’d come in signal range of another device. What if Hazelton was broadcasting the activation signal from every Reverb unit out there? The damned things were in nearly every household.

She’d just have to figure out how to get rid of the nanites, or, a sudden idea struck her, maybe she could co-opt them with her own code.

She wanted to start coding immediately, but then the practicality of the situation struck her. She might be able to send commands to the things using the Crispr language, but she had no idea what that would do to her body.

Her hands stole up to the keyboard of Cal’s computer, but she pulled them back. Instead, she applied the thermometer to her forehead again. Her temperature was down to one hundred and two. She took careful stock of her physical condition. Her nose seemed to have stopped bleeding. She was still fuzzy from the opiates, but she’d been there before. She hadn’t taken a fatal dose and she knew she would survive until the effect wore off.

She slowly stood, hesitated, then walked back to her room and lay down. She’d sleep for awhile and maybe this would turn out to have been a bad dream.

Chapter 6: ALONE

Sophie sat up. Her nose wasn’t bloody and she didn’t feel feverish. The Oxy had mostly worn off, so it had been some hours. Now she needed to go to work. Then she remembered Cal.

What was she to do? He was too large for her to remove his body by herself. She couldn’t just call the ambulance. There would be no possible explanation the authorities would accept. Even the truth was pretty much unbelievable.

She’d have to do something, though. She couldn’t just leave him where he was. Her mind raced, then she remembered the dumpster in the alley. It would be awful to just stick him in there, but there wouldn’t be anyone to see and if his body were found, people would assume that he was one of the many homeless that wandered the streets.

The only problem was getting him down there. She decided to let that issue sit in the back of her mind for awhile. Meanwhile, she needed to figure out how to rid herself of the nanite threat.

A few hours later, she had made progress. She was sitting in front of Cal’s machine using the sniffer program to interface with the invasive machines. She’d activated the ones in her body, then turned them off again. They weren’t automatically harmful. With no ill-intentioned instructions, the things just seemed to broadcast a periodic status that indicated they were simply awaiting a command.

Sophie had found the language manual and was trying to figure out a way to deactivate the things. They were capable of self-movement along with being able to manipulate proteins in her body. She found the scale of the machines difficult to imagine. They were tiny, almost molecular in size.

In desperation, she’d started reading the Hazelton files that Cal had on his machine. He had only gotten through half of them before he’d died. She scanned as quickly as she could, looking for information on the nanites.

It was a little after midnight when she found what she was looking for. It was in the next to last folder. The nanites had their own version of the Crispr control language. The Crispr language was designed to split and splice genes. The nanite version had additional commands.

The interesting thing was that the devices had been designed to keep a human healthy by default. They were only dangerous when they received certain commands.

She returned to bed, exhausted. The idea that she was close to a solution made her want to keep reading, but the words were blurring on the screen.

Sophie was so tired that she forgot to even think about her pills. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

As she slept, her mind worked overtime. Visions of tiny nanites working in her body haunted her dreams. If they could keep her healthy, they could be a benefit, but like any technology, they were a double-edged sword. They could kill. She’d had that demonstrated to her in a horrible manner. She dreamed about finding some form of revenge for Cal. The people who had come up with this horror needed to pay.

The place was quiet when she woke up. Cal was usually around, either making noise in the kitchen or tapping on his keyboard. Sophie missed the sounds.

She cleaned up in the bathroom and got dressed before going to the kitchen. Somehow during the night, she’d come up with a possible solution to her nanite problem, but she still hadn’t figured out how to move Cal’s body.

Down the hall to the workroom, trying to ignore Cal’s door. She straightened up the mess, sweeping up the remains of the Reverb unit and the monitor, then sat in front of Cal’s computer.

Her nanites were still in stand-by mode, awaiting instructions. Now, with the Hazelton manual, she fed them commands with a greater sense of security. The tiny machines went to work on her body, helping to flush out the damage of the previous day. She felt better minute by minute.

The manual was detailed about their abilities and command structure. Sophie read through it, stopping to make notes and study individual commands. By mid-afternoon, she was ready to try some things.

The first thing for her to do was to change the nanites’ activation sequence. When that was done, only she could activate them. They didn’t have a very complex sequence, so it could eventually be hacked, but she wasn’t planning on giving anyone the chance to keep sending commands to her nanites until they stumbled on the correct sequence to take them over.

The second thing she did was to place them in a defensive mode. They would automatically eliminate other nanites that invaded her body, unless the newcomers were programmed with her new activation sequence. She hoped that would keep her safe. Hazelton couldn’t simply re-infect her now.

Feeling good about her progress, Sophie decided she was hungry and headed towards the kitchen. When she passed Cal’s door, there was a faint noise. She froze, listening with horror rising up her spine.

There it was again. A faint groan.

She ripped his door open.

Cal, or what had been Cal was partly off the bed. His body was lumpy and misshapen. He barely looked human. One eye was gone; there was a odd growth of flesh in its place. His arms looked as if the bones had been dissolved and his legs were shorter than they had been, although they looked relatively normal.

He looked at Sophie and made an incoherent noise.

She screamed. He couldn’t speak and when he opened his lips, his tongue flopped out, hanging down in a misshapen point several inches below his chin.

She couldn’t comprehend the changes. He’d been dead. Definitely, but now he was moving. The damned nanites had turned him into some kind of monster.

She stepped back, preparing to slam his door, but he held up one hand with a floppy motion and made a noise that sounded like a distorted, “Sophie.”

She stopped then.

“Cal, do you understand me?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Oh, God! What am I going to do?” She had no idea how to help him. Perhaps she could reprogram the nanites to convert him back, but, not knowing what they’d done to him, it seemed as if it would be impossible to reverse the process.