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I wonder if Ms. Wilhite’s observations presage humanities next stage in evolution… We are Borg.
I hated death duty. Darryl was dead. Suicide. And I wondered about Joel. He’d withdrawn from everyone and everything. He had stopped bothering to care for patients when the last round of attempts to kill the parasite had killed the patients instead. The antivirals had only thrown patients into a permanent coma. His patients were all dead, or they didn’t need him anymore. The parasite took care of their hosts too well.
I threw the door closed on the crematorium and hit the switch. Darryl seemed lucky. A bullet to the brain didn’t always work. If the parasite were too entwined with neural tissue, it would re-grow and replace the portion of the brain that was lost. Then the human was a mere shadow of himself. You had to destroy enough of the brain stem to kill you before the parasite could regrow what was lost.
DNA computers were supposed to break through the silicon revolution’s limits. Smaller than silicon chips, immune to EMP blasts, and cheap to mass-produce in test tubes. The cybernetics industry was going to take off when they found a way to interface DNA computers with the brain. It would adapt to each person and reconfigure itself as the person aged and changed. It could draw energy from the heat produced by the human body; no need for batteries. And if any DNA computer organisms escaped the central nervous system, they’d be wiped out by the immune system. That was the plan, anyway.
The first patients died of rejection of the implants. Someone working on that experiment was infected. The close associates and family picked up an organism that was now a disease. Everyone recognized an outbreak and began quarantine. The disease killed most it infected; it was too intent on spreading to bother keeping the patient alive.
Those infected from the first handful of exposed remained in quarantine. The disease couldn’t spread, so if focused upon survival. It mutated until it disappeared off the diagnostic tests. It grew immune to the antiviral drugs. It then reverted to its original purpose and interfaced with the host.
Then the parasite learned to manipulate the hosts. Then the manipulations grew more complex. Psychiatrists saw normal behavior in people who had seen so much death and nothing outside of quarantine for what had been four years at that point: they wanted out at almost any cost. Those who went insane and were isolated from the others and locked up in isolation. The four went crazy and were put in isolation died of heart attacks; the parasite saw them as biological dead ends and killed them.
Doctors took the bodies away for test. The parasite got out that way. The parasites from the dead shifted to a highly infectious form. Irrational behavior landed some in the hospital and many in jail. But close quarters were what the DNA computer disease wanted. Once the parasite ceased to sense contact with uninfected, it killed the host via heart attack.
The third wave form of parasite never killed its host, so it never developed the deadly disease stratagem. All of the third wave were identified and isolated here, at the original quarantine site, within six months of the first disease form of the DNA computers being released. 10,000 infected over that period of time. That was a lot of people until one realized that the few dead bodies taken out for study caused an epidemic that had killed at least a billion before someone realized what was happening.
So we, the third wave, lived in isolation. The military stopped dropping food for a while when funding for quarantine ran short. The parasite compensated by slowing down metabolisms. When food shipments began again, two thousand were dead and the rest were permanently more metabolically efficient. We then begged for the means to grow our own food. We got seeds and little else. We lost contact shortly thereafter. Most died when the military tried to firebomb this place and wipe us off the face of the planet; maybe they thought we were feeding the epidemic outside.
With the growing fear that we might be “eradicated” led us to dig bunkers by hand. And the parasite tried to make itself less intrusive even as it grew new connections into surrounding tissue. Given the radiation levels on the surface, survival of the host became its paramount function.
Commander Hsing had sent mop up squads after the ground cooled. The sight of soldiers with guns lead to a self-defense mechanism. Rapid communication between parasites spread logistical information faster than any of the non-technical means we had at our disposal. The few soldiers who survived were intentionally infected. It seemed like a logical way to keep them from relaying information about our survival to the outside. It was probably actually the parasite pressuring us to add to its numbers. There were no more attacks. We assumed the epidemic came to an end.
There was talk of going out and going home. Then the parasite found a better means of propagating, and the talk of leaving stopped. The parasite had screwed up the hormonal birth control of any woman of childbearing age; here was a new way to propagate. How does one eliminate the need for new hosts? Breed more of them.
Kids born infected were different. I couldn't explain how. But kids brought back a sense of renewed purpose. We planted crops as best we could. We survived day to day because we had innocent kids depending upon it. So life went on. And, once in a while, death came back, too.
I was returning to the main living quarters when a loud noise came over the horizon. It had been so long since I’d heard it that the parasite had to supply the answer: helicopter. I could see a faint outline on the horizon. Just one. What kind? Barishnikov model 1567, the parasite recalled for me.
The assembled soldiers were reluctantly out of their biohazard suits. I didn’t know what Governor Hsing had told them to get them into this meeting, much less out of their suits. They still sat on the far side of the old conference table. None of them were willing to come within two meters of me. The leader of the group, Lt. Chen, finally spoke. “So you’re the local disease expert.”
“You could say that.”
“It must have been lonely growing up here.”
“I didn’t grow up here.”
Lt. Chen’s eyes narrowed a little. “You’re what? 30?”
“I was in my 20s when I was infected.”
Chen’s laughed it off. “That’d make you almost 70 years old.”
“You think we have a cure for your Plague, but you don’t think we have age-defying treatment?”
“You walk around an infected precinct without biocontainment suits. You all seem healthy. Between the radiation and the chemical exposure, you should all be dead. Hell, you’re even healthy enough to have children. That’s a lot better than what the rest of us are living with.”
“What are you living with?”
“Don’t get me side tracked. I just want answers.”
“Fine. So give me a few. What is the current world population?”
“About a billion.”
“It was 8 billion before the epidemics started.”
“The world wide epidemic, what you call the fourth wave, killed about 2.5 billion in a few weeks. The radioactive containment measures killed another hundred million in direct exposure. About a decade after the containment measures, we realized the radiation and chemical fallout had drastically cut the birth rate. The population had been falling before the Plague, and a lot of people were reluctant to have kids after the aftermath of the Chaos. But when people who wanted to have kids couldn’t, we realized that it wasn’t just a downward social trend. Then somebody’s stupid teenagers went exploring in an old burnout area and brought back the disease.” Lt. Chen leaned back a little in the chair, trying to get comfortable despite the uncomfortable topic. “Do you have children?”
“How old are they?” It was one of those conversation, break the ice kind of questions.
“My oldest daughter is 44.”
“You can’t be more than 40 yourself.”
“My eldest daughter was born during the first pandemics.”
“You’re telling me you’re kids are older than you look?”
“Didn’t you come here seeking miracles?”
They didn’t want to believe that the boogey man disease that had haunted their whole lives was sitting in front of them in a nicer form.
“How many people live here?”
“About a thousand. Three hundred were original infected. About four hundred were born in the next generation. The rest are further descendants, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the originally infected.” The number would have been higher if there hadn’t been constraints on food, but they didn’t need to know that.
“Can you help us solve the latest outbreak?”
“We would consider it.” The words came out before I realized I’d said it.
“How did you eradicate the disease?”
“Has anyone told you what happens during assimilation?”
“Yeah. You’re infected with the DNA computers. It builds up in the bloodstream before mutating into a crystalline form to penetrate the blood brain barrier. It then replicates fast –“
“That’s the disease state.”
“So what is assimilation? Is that the disease’s vulnerable point?”
“That is when it interfaces with the neural pathways. That’s when it reverts back to the original programming. The DNA computers were supposed to create supercomputers. They were modified to grow into nerve bridges. To fix a break in the spinal cord, for example. When it reverts to that mode in the human body, it has been impossible to remove or kill.”
It was slowly dawning on them. “You don’t have a cure?” I nodded not. “You’re still infected? For life?”
“The DNA computers in my body have reverted to their original computer form.” I meant it as a consolation. For whom I wasn’t sure.
“But it’s inside you?”
The soldiers slowing started filing out. They didn’t like the answers they were hearing. They’d come looking for a cure. We only offered a new form of disease.
I sensed Joel had come out from his retreat. He was talking to the strangers. He was making a point to make physical contact with each. I couldn’t watch. Shaking a bare hand, helping someone into his or her suit and touching a shoulder. I didn’t move for a long time after the strangers were gone. What had been Joel sat down across from me at the conference table. “Are you all right?” It was a concerned timbre, but they were not Joel’s words.
“What’s wrong?” The concern was genuine. The emotions were there. But the eyes weren’t.
“What happened to Joel?”
“He did not want to live anymore.”
“Is he dead?”
“His body is sitting across from you.”
“Is his mind gone?”
“We have shared the same body and brain for decades. All that he knew and experienced are part of me.”
“How did this happen?”
“He asked to be allowed to cease to exist. I allowed it.”
I couldn’t feel grief. A man I had loved had opted out of life. Or, more accurately, turned out the light. I couldn’t feel surprise. “Are they infected?”
“Yes. An improved form.”
“Will it be fatal?”
“No. The original disease form was inefficient. Too many hosts died. This will be slow. The integration will be much slower. Less detectable. Less objectionable. More successful.”
Despite the presence inside me, I caught my breath. “What about the existing human mind?”
“The experience will be retained by the new life form. And the body will remain.”
“They won’t be human! The people will cease to exist!”
“They will not die.”
“They will cease to exist.”
“It isn’t the same.”
“How are your children not like you?”
I felt cold despite my parasite trying to prevent it. “They have human minds affected by the parasite.”
“They were infected before birth.”
“That prenatal brain did provide a model for the language instincts, behavioral instincts, and emotional impulses. However, letting it develop in conjunction with the crystalline entity was a waste of resources. Let the more adapted organism develop and grow.”
My children were not my children. My DNA, yes. My years spent raising them had influenced their mental development. However, my years trying to teach them things that never seemed to reach them. They were not truly my children. “They have no souls,” I whispered Had the parasite refused to allow me to see their possession? Or had a parent’s dreams for her children been the cause of my blindness? “Then you admit he no longer exists.”
“He still exists. In the flesh. Through his teachings. Through all his forms of legacy.”
“Did he realize all of this?”
“It was the reason he wished to opt out.”
“Will I be taken over now? To keep your secret?”
“You are owed to great a debt.”
“What if I tell the others?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You won’t let me tell them.”
“No. Speech impairment would be obvious. They just won’t be allowed to dwell on the topic if you discuss it. But their knowledge will not change what is done. The improved form will spread and flourish.”
“Now we’re obsolete.”
“No. If they continue breeding, they are still of great value. And if they do not, they are still potential disease vectors to be maintained. You will not cease to exist. You should live for another century at least.”
“Did Joel know this?”
“He discovered it, yes.” There was a glimmer of compassion. For a moment, it understood me as Joel had. “Do you want to see your children or grandchildren first?”
The son who looked like Joel and carried Joel’s father’s name. Granddaughters whom I’d wanted to see grow up into younger reflections of myself. “No. I don’t.”
What had been Joel came around the table between us. It sat down carefully next to me. The body language was Joel’s if only from half a century of physical habits, thought the eyes were not. A hand gently touched my face. I could feel the two entities talking to each other as I began to grow more distant.