Thursday, January 11, 2018


By Andrew Darlington

‘You remember Southern California?’ On the screen above the bar there’s a football game no-one is watching.

‘You mean, before the great quake?’ A bored response, Johnny Donne is no more interested in Southern California than he is in the game.

‘That’s what they tell you, that’s what they say. Strange the way these stories get around, they get accepted, and no-one even cares to question it any more. Why do you think those lagoons and archipelagoes are radioactive? What about the scrattlecrabs and aquabugs? They say it’s due to leakage from buried plutonium waste. Do you really buy that? I guess you do. I know better. I was there.’

Johnny Donne glances across in a half-amused mocking tone. Paying slight attention to the weird old guy slumped on the barstool for the first time. ‘So tell us. What is it you know that we don’t?’

Jagen looks up, attention leveling at the younger man, appraising him. Then shrugs. ‘Nothing. Nothing at all. You don’t want to know. Forget it.’

He rolls the glass slowly between the palms of his hands. ‘I’ve seen you here before. Jagen isn’t it, Mr Jagen. Well, I got nowhere to go tonight. The ballgame is shit. Tell you what, I’ll buy us another beer, you tell me about Southern California. Deal?’

He grins a creepy crooked grin. ‘Nothing better to do than hear the truth? I’m a regular jukebox full of hits. Pay the bar-bill, I’ll play you golden oldies. I was there, before Palo Alto was a gator pool. Bluer skies too, or maybe it just seems that way. I was in bioresearch back then. A fiercely competitive market, but after the Afghan debacle there were big profit options. We’re into doing limb regeneration, for victims of IED roadside ordnance, working on newts. Me and Hermie von Werner. He’s damned good, but impatient. Others are active in the same field, they may grab an edge. We got this chip, a neurosurgery implant into the brainstem with a suite of diagnostic and trouble-shooter tools that reprogram the body’s own reconstructive capability. There are exhaustive tests to comply with medical procedures. We get impatient, Hermie more so than me.’

‘This is Southern California?’ cuts in Johnny Donne, rapidly losing what little interest he had in the first place.

‘Isn’t this what I’m telling you? What the hell do you mean? Of course, it was Palo Alto.’

‘OK. I’m just asking. Nothing down there now. It’s not easy to conjecture.’

‘So listen. It’s a long story, and I don’t like telling it. But listen, just this once. This is where the hobo Lenny Greisman comes in. Nights he’s comatose in a sleeping-bag under the graffiti’d bridge arches, he shops afterhours looting from the skip behind the supermarket mall. He stinks of piss, has substance-dependency issues, intestinal symbiotic worms, carcinogenic tumors and as many parasites as the Manson Family. Which makes him the perfect subject. Our brainstem chip repair module not only regenerates scar-tissue, and re-grows missing limbs, but nudges evolutionary metabolic upgrades too. Clever stuff, ahead of the curve. He’s the extreme example. If it works on him, it’ll work on anyone. At least, that’s how the logic runs. There were bad storms coming. He was sick. He signs all the waivers, and he works cheap.

‘We plant the chip, the two of us, with Lewis and Connelly assisting. We have a sterile environ for him. And monitors. Most times he’s sedated, breathing pure oxygen in his pod. When we first take his EEG helmet off we see the calluses. In my reconstruction of those moments he wants secrecy so I make arrangements on his behalf. He can opaque the pod. Which is a mistake, as it turns out. Weeks pass, and nothing. Next time we lift the opacity the pod is crawling, alive with bugs. Six-legged crab-armoured nasties with hooked front claws. We key the quarantine shutters to contain them.

Greisman is sedated and oxy-masked, so we’re able to fumigate the chamber without harming him. The bugs are scooped up and incinerated, all but for a couple for analysis purposes. Von Werner does the do on them, dissecting, dicing and slicing bug-flesh. He says ‘they are Phthirus Pubis – pubic lice.’ At first it doesn’t compute. We check out Greisman, he’s kind-of OK. But there are unexpected changes. His hair is coming out. His skin flaking off, as though shedding snake-scales. Revealing new smooth epidermis beneath. Scans show that old skeletal fractures have healed. He’s shrugging off his old scarred damaged self, getting reborn anew.

I’m unsure about what we’re doing. Hermie’s more grounded. ‘The chip is working. The only unpredicted aspect is that it’s treating Greisman as a gestalt entity. It’s upgrading him, but it’s interpreting him as a walking self-contained ecosystem. He has pubic lice, so it’s acting on them too, accelerating their reproductive cycle, making them bigger and tougher.’

‘But Greisman has strange abdominal abnormalities. What’s causing his swollen deformation? We should extract and reset the chip’ I suggest. ‘Designate only his DNA.’

‘Too late to recalibrate’ he argues. ‘We just sit back, wait, and see where this takes us.’

Next time, when Connelly enters the pod, there are more bugs, bigger and nastier. And I swear they’re hiding, to ambush him. Big as scorpions. They shouldn’t be there, but they are. Two of them spring at his neck, decapitate him with hooked claws in one swift coordinated move, as he falls others snap off his fingers one by one, ripping him to shreds, burrowing inside the twitching corpse. We’re shocked with horror, rooted, can’t even get in there to rescue what’s left of his body. So we fumigate again, increasing toxicity. But they just won’t die.

Already he’s rationalizing. ‘There were subcutaneous eggs that escaped our previous dosing’ says Hermie.

The bugs are devouring Connelly. And Greisman looks decidedly odd, disproportionate in an unsettling alien way. What have we inflicted on him? Is there still anything human left in there? I’m sick with revulsion. ‘Is this what accelerated evolution does? Will humans look this way in a million years?’

‘No. You fail to understand. There’s no plan to evolution, it’s not preordained by some supernatural deity. It just happens, this way or that. Species react to environmental changes, adapt through the survival of those most suited. His tumors are metastasizing. We assumed they’d be edited out, but instead it’s utilizing their cellular plasticity. And the lice, they’re responding to our attack.’

Wearing contam-suits we prepare to go in. Then Greisman’s torso splits wide open, like a gaping-flesh vagina, with a nest of questing serpent tendrils wriggling and uncoiling from within, flexing and extending into tentacles. His head shocks backwards uselessly. His eyes glazed. No-one home. He’s barely human anymore.

This time I panic. Head for the destruct key. But what was once Greisman is quicker. The quarantine shutters slam down, excluding us. My head feels empty. No thoughts. No reactions. Just crawling terror. By the time we’ve worked out the overrides, he’s changed them. Sealing himself inside. ‘We can’t kill him. We did this to him. But we can’t allow this to go on.’

It’s Hermie again who thinks it through. ‘He had intestinal parasitic worms as well as crabs. Greisman’s no longer in control. He’s just the centre of the collective entity they’ve become. Simply the host organism on which they feed, with the skuttlebugs as linked out-riders. And it’s growing all the time.’

I’m for calling in the authorities and shutting the block down. As usual, Hermie goes for the contra-think option. Greisman had substance-abuse problems. That’s in there too. He’s hungry, once it’s eaten Connelly he’ll get hungrier. All we have to do is wait until he – until it, starves. We wind operations down. Give Lewis extended leave, until there’s just me and Hermie. We assemble a small arsenal, just in case. Set up a grenade-network wired into series. Cameras inside the pod have died. There’s no monitors or ways of knowing what’s going on in there… until it detonates.

I’m drowsing in an office chair. Hermie researching onscreen. The control-chip is still inside the thing that was once Greisman, there must be a way to turn it off, or short it… when the building shudders, the ceiling cracks and power-lines are sparking. The chamber has shattered. The operations centre is alive with bugs the size of Alsatians. And at its centre, a mass of weaving tentacles – each with sucking razor-tooth mouths, radiating out from a vast heaving protoplasmic blob. It’s lurching and pulsing in grotesque quivers. Greisman’s dead face still visible at its core, with huge salivating jaws. We can’t enter because of the predatory bugs. I grab extinguishers. Hermie gestures for me to get out, then sets the grenade timer, and follows me out into the auto lot.

We wait for the explosion that never comes. He’s neutralized, or absorbed the energies. The entire block erupts as we watch. Vampire-bugs and tentacles, slime and a landslide of gloopy flesh, heaving and shimmering into view. No hiding now. No hope of concealing what we’ve done. Cars on the highway swerve and back up, colliding into each other. It’s a mountain that moves, slithering in a way that gives quick-flash impressions of a wounded man crawling and shuffling in agony. There’s a truck-stop with fuelling pumps. Once he – once it envelops it all, he’s snorting on raw gasoline, as well as blood-sucking the unfortunate minimum-wagers inside, and growth accelerates.

We escape to a Welcome Inn, by morning the reception area is full of refugees camped out in every available space. People talk about an entity that grew from alien spores from a fallen meteorite. Those with longer memories blame long-term fall-out consequences from White Sands A-Bomb testing in the 1950s. Conspiracy theorists blame toxic dumping from Big Pharma, who must be held to account. No-one suspects us, and we’re happy for that situation to continue. No longer our concern.

When the police fail to contain the threat the army comes in, but they do no better. The mass is higher than towerblocks now, and getting bigger all the time. They use target-drones and drop incendiaries. While we get carried along by the fleeing horde, trucked out to temporary camps set up outside the perimeter zone. It was strange, living in the midst of a war. And it was a war now. I was taking medication. We watch terrifying updates onscreen. Can you imagine what that’s like, knowing what we’ve done? Of course you can’t.’

Johnny Donne cheers.

Jagen looks up, startled. As though coming alive, out of reverie. ‘What the hell…?’

‘They scored. The football game. Sorry to interrupt the story, but the game’s picking up, see? Anyways, it’s all an Indie direct-to-download movie isn’t it, amazing what they can do with zero-budget CGI, ain’t it?’

He slumps visibly. Takes a bite from the beer Johnny Donne bought him. ‘I remember. The only way to stop the thing, the thing that was once Greisman, before it eats all of Los Angeles, is strategic battlefield nukes. Which sets up seismic shockwaves. No more blob, but no Southern California either. All gone. That’s the guilt I carry.’

Donne looks down at the weird old guy slumped on the barstool. Feels a momentary stab of regret. ‘What about the other guy, your friend? What happened to him?’

‘Hermie von Werner? He felt no remorse. Got himself picked up by rival biotech and just rebuilt his career. Right now he’s working on the next generation Greisman chip. I’m scared. But what the fuck, I’m all talked out, yes, it’s just a movie. Now watch the damn football game...’

- - -

Help keep Farther Stars alive! Visit our sponsors! :)

- - -


The Thunderune Network:


Weirdyear Daily FictionYesteryear Daily FictionClassics that don't suck!Art expressed communally.Von Singer Aether and Steamworks.Resource for spiritual eclectics and independents.Pyrography on reclaimed woodartists featured weeklySmashed Cat MagazineLinguistic ErosionYesteryear Daily Fiction