Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Parasitic

by Roderick D. Turner




The walls of the room, dimly visible in the faint glow of my LifeLink, suddenly felt oppressive, threatening. Closing in on me from all sides.

'Selene,' I sent. The Link winked, my thoughts transcribed as text in the upper right of my Heads-Up Display--a virtual whisper, enough to channel the silent message. Her response was almost instant, flickering across my HUD.

'What now?'

Sometimes I thought she was just a little too confident. It was hard to evoke empathy from Selene, since she never seemed to feel fear.

'Just wanted to hear from you. I don't think I can stick this out much longer.'

'It's only been ten minutes, Andrew. We've got another full hour. Keep it together or we're both blown.'

'I know, but it really helps if you talk. How can you sit there in the dark without a word?'

'I'm busy, even if you aren't. Use the time to scan the system. See if you can find a way into the network. It would make our job a whole lot easier if we had it cracked before we got to Virio's office.'

'I suck at hacking, and you know it.'

'Then monitor the Com into and out of the place. Some of that's open channel.' A flash of coded gibberish scrolled down my HUD. 'And I just sent you the access codes to decrypt the main Com channels for Virio's secretary. I'm already listening in, but maybe your superior mind can spot something I miss.'

Suddenly there was a new feed, virtual audio screaming at me over the Link. I scrambled to find the right volume control.

'Selene?'

'Get busy Andrew. And quit pestering me.'

I tried to relax, sinking back into the comfort of the outrageously cosy office chair. Elaborate padding adjusted to my weight and shape, conforming to every contour. My thoughts slowly drifted into focus on our target, Doctor Carlos Virio. What was his secret? How did he keep himself and his privileged clients going for so many years? We estimated Virio's age at 140, give or take, some of his clients at over 100, and he'd been running his business more than 70 years, under different names, all below the radar. Until here. Until now.

I ramped up the volume on the secretary's feed, opened a visual on my HUD.

'…make it worth his while.' The secretary's signal was strong, bold green on my display. A friendly, helpful voice. 'He's got clients on every major continent. I know he currently accepts only the most dire cases. After all, he is only one man. Can't possibly help everyone.'

'I understand that.' This woman sounded desperate. Like she needed something really badly. And Virio was the only one who could give it to her. 'But my circumstances are exactly that. Dire. Please have Doctor Virio check the records I forwarded. I know he will make a special exception, and I appreciate all your help.' There was a garbled chirp, nonsense on the screen, and I knew a data transaction had gone through.

'You're welcome.' The secretary sounded pleased. 'I will certainly see what I can do.' Must have been a good bribe. A brief pause, then 'Good evening, Virio and Associates. How can I--'

This time it was real, not imagined. The walls had moved. No, I was wrong. It was the light, a sweeping scan down the wall diagonally opposite the door. Sequential hall lighting, on a floor that had already been put to sleep for the night.

'Selene?'

'I see it. Night patrol. They must be on a new schedule. Stay exactly where you are, and activate Camo. If they're just doing a normal sweep, they'll probably overlook you.'

'And if not?'

'Survival tactics. Use the desk. And I can be there in thirty seconds.'

The brightness swept across the window in the door, filled the corridor. I activated LifeLink Camouflage, slouched back in my chair in the hope that it might swallow me completely. The corridor was suddenly full of armoured security, a squad of four, two splitting off to check the room across the hall and a pair for my room. Well trained. One in the corridor for quick escape, control of the access, eyes on the hallway. The other into the room. We had selected our locations carefully based on proximity to Virio's floor, and obscurity of occupant. I had staked out Howard Oliver, a less than successful broker who struggled to afford the building's rent. The hope was that any security checks would be cursory.

I held my breath as the door slid aside.

The guard's features were difficult to make out behind the visor, but the black body armor was form-fitting; movements catlike. A panther on two legs. She palmed the lights and slid into the room, poised, alert. This was not a cursory scan. It was as if she knew I was here. Her visor slowly swept the office. I could almost feel the sensors cycling through all visual ranges. My cover was blown.

Stealth com might give me a few precious seconds. 'Selene?'

'On it.'

And the panther's gaze snapped to my chair. I rolled. Her pistol snapped up, fired all in one smooth motion, bathing the chair with lethal microwave energy. I watched, fascinated, from the floor beneath the desk. The chair's fabric smouldered, then smoked. The deadly beam found the desk itself, and I prayed that my field suit would deflect any energy that penetrated. Prayed that Selene would hurry. Saw through the corner of my eye the door guard go down in a blur of motion. Silent, dreamlike. Then the impact, the panther spinning, her back to me, and now was my chance. Not a fighter, but trusted with a sonic. I aimed and fired, narrowbeam, disabling low frequency. For a moment she stood, quivering, gaze swinging slowly back in my direction. Then she collapsed, a bundle of twitching nerves, moaning softly.

Selene stood alone in the passage, Camo field suit flickering grays, greens and blacks, head cocked to one side, listening. Eyes on me. "They found you."

I scrambled out from beneath the desk. "Why me and not you?" I glimpsed the other two guards, the ones assigned to the room across the hall, sprawled face down. Looked back at her. Gray eyes smouldering.

"It was the Secretary's Com. You didn't activate stealth. As soon as you tapped in, she started a search. Pinpointed you and called in the goons." She shook her head slowly, an exasperated smirk on her face. "I hope you'll be more useful once we're inside Andrew. 'cause so far, all you've done is make trouble."

I bent to examine the guard I'd felled, but Selene pushed me back. "Now, now," she said. "No sense in getting yourself incapacitated. I'm hoping I can still use you."

"Of course." I shook my head. "Sorry Selene, I'm pretty rattled. Forgot how the sonics affect the nerves."

"All I need is you twitching and jerking about the rest of the time we're here. Then for sure you'll be entirely useless."

"What do we do with the bodies?"

"Nothing. They know we're here now. It's time we moved. This just means you're going to have to be fast, when we get in there. I may be good, but I can't keep an entire security team at bay for long." She gave my cheek a gentle slap. "Pull yourself together, and follow me."

A second she was there, then she was gone. Smoothly into Camo, and completely invisible. I fumbled with my HUD controls, set visual for auto-sweep to see a flickering image of Selene as she loped soundlessly ahead of me down the corridor. A ghost, at best, but scary in every way. Then she stepped through a wall and was gone.

For a brief instant I panicked. Forgot all they'd taught me in mission prep. The suit, something about the suit. Molecular blending, reshaping, something like that. Brought up a map of the floor, scanned the area. Stairwell, four meters ahead on the right. She'd skipped the door access to avoid alarms. I stood in front of the location, pulled up the suit controls, toggled Blend while moving towards the wall. Dropped a full meter to the stairs as I passed through the wall. Stumbled, fell down the four steps to the next landing.

"Ouch."

"Be ready to use that, Andrew. Have the menu active, and be ready. It's our ticket in and out. Now on your feet, and keep up!"

She stood on the landing above, leaning against the railing, right hand on her hip. Intimidating. Then she sprang away, round the corner and up. How she moved so effortlessly, so silently, I had never been able to understand. I suppressed a groan and got up, aching. Then followed her as fast as I could.

Virio's floor was twenty-seven, three levels up. Selene warned me next time via Stealth com, moving through the wall at the back of the stairs a half level above twenty-seven. We landed on top of a cabinet in a janitor's room. Floor tap, mops, automated cleaning gear. Solvents. The non-biodegradable kind. A moment's inspection and Selene swept up a couple of dubious looking jugs of liquid, clipping them to her belt. 'Dead quiet,' she sent, looking me directly in the eye. Smiled. She moved through the wall into what my map told me was Virio's assistant's office, and I followed.

The door to this office was open and two guards stood in alert position, one inside, one outside. I could hear the secretary talking to someone in the next room, but of course Selene already had that on her Com. Another pair of guards walked past the entrance, weapons at the ready.

'Follow my lead, and stay close.'

Selene unscrewed the lid of one of the nasty chemical bottles, stepped up beside the door guard and poured a liberal amount down the back of his armor. Not enough to dribble on the floor, but enough to soak through to skin. She had just pulled back again when he gave a sudden shriek and began clawing at his legs, howling as he hopped around, knocking over chairs and tables in his agony. Selene was across the room and through the wall almost before I noticed. Into Virio's office. And it was unoccupied.

'Get what we need, and get it fast,' she sent. Another jumble of meaningless gibberish stuttered down my HUD. 'Virio's access codes. Use them. I'll be busy maintaining the distraction.'

I swept my hands across Virio's virtual desk, feeding the codes as I did so. Knew what I was looking for in the system. Plans. Schematics. Encrypted records. Design specs. The whole key to his scheme. Two sets of clients, not just one. And, as I scanned and absorbed, even in the two minutes it took, it finally dawned on me how he did it.

'Selene.'

'About time.' There had been a moment's pause, and I knew she was under duress. 'Out the window Andrew. Harness snaps in, free fall. Let the unit control you, it'll stop you in time. I'll meet you by the car.'

There was no time to delay. Probably the only way I could see myself actually doing this for real. Out the window I could see the harness latch dangling, ready. She was nothing if not prepared, that woman. Toggled Blend and stepped through the layers of glass, standing in the window, snapping the latch to my harness. Then falling, dropping like a stone, fear screaming for a voice but my throat clenched tight, watching the ground rush at me. And suddenly I felt the thrill. Not just paralyzing fear, as I'd always felt with heights, but the sheer exhilaration of the fall. Trust. In the system, in Selene. And I knew, then.

The unit braked perfectly at ground level, halting me as my feet touched. I was unhooked and on my way as soon as the tension was out of the line, my Camo suit signaling it was near depleted and would be shutting off momentarily. When it did shut off, I was already out of the building's range, in total darkness, weaving through the streets towards where we'd left the car. And Selene was there, waiting for me, leaning against it in the darkness. Smiling, I think.

"You made it." Sounded almost surprised. But also pleased.

"Selene--"

"I know. You can't take your eyes off me. Even when I'm in Camo."

I could feel the blood rush to my face. "I know I'm a bit of a buffoon when it comes to real Infiltration. It's not my thing. But--" I stammered, struggling to get the words out, "I think we make a good team."

She pulled open the passenger door, held it open for me. "Get in Andrew."

I did as I was told. She was not a woman to be ignored. Ten seconds later we were airborne, on our way to the OpenSource facility whose Investigation arm had seconded us for this mission. I began the transmission of my new data to the OpenSource database.

"So how does he do it, Andrew?"

"He's a parasite. The apparatus he built is like a Fate engine--we're all given a certain amount of time on the planet. Each our own Fate, our own predetermined lifeline."

Selene gave me a sideways look.

"I know, but it must be true, or he wouldn't have been able to make this work. One set of clients, the poorer ones, are the victims. They leave his clinics feeling like a million dollars. It's the drugs and hypnotics that make them feel so great, but he literally sucks the life out of them. At each visit, he takes about a year off their Fate lines. And the other clients, the richer ones…"

Selene absorbed it for a moment before she spoke. "…they get the extra years," she said at last. "Now I know what it was I felt, while we were on that floor."

It was my turn to be contemplative. "What do you mean?"

"They must have learned to aim the device remotely at a target. I think I lost a few years without the benefit of drugs to make me feel good about it."

I looked at her, horror-struck. She did not look a day older, but something in her eyes…

"Selene, we'll figure it out. The world will know now. It'll be easy enough to build other units. You'll get the years back."

"But at whose expense?" She set the autopilot, leaned across the car and kissed me. "No, I think I'd sooner just enjoy the years I have left. And we'll start with this."


THE END


2014 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Mr. Turner says, 'I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, [most recently The More Things Stay the Same in October 2013]. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com.'

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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