A quirky little tale of bio-terrorism, set in the not too distant future. Warning: Strong language alert!
With jerky robot steps, he walks down the city street. Steps rather awkward, feet jar too heavy on the cement. Something wrong in the way his shoulders are swaying; his neck is stiff straight, his head held straight high like a starched flag riveted to a flagpole.
Out of the corner of his eye, he knows people are watching as they walk by. Not many, it's not that blatant. But maybe every tenth or twelfth narrows the eyes, head turns out of true to give him a glance, momentary frown plays over the lips. Behind him, just three blocks back, he heard the two teenage girls, walking behind him ten feet and laughing. And talking about him:
"Oh, God, look at that guy there, the way he's walking!"
"I'm glad I don't look like that."
"God, he looks weird!"
And then the laughter between them, first one, then the other: like a tennis ball played back and forth, with no words. Always the laughter, as if they think he doesn't hear.
Or doesn't count.
Everywhere that Cal Miller has ever gone, there's been that laughter. Or so it seems to him now, in these latter days; now, in his gray and narrow world.
"It's not that I don't like you, Cal!"
"Then what the hell is it? Don't play this twenty questions game with me, at least give me an explanation!"
In reply, Rita shrugs her shoulders and turns her head away, with that little twist in her lips. The way she does it, Cal can tell that she shut him out of her field of vision a moment before she even began turning away.
"Rita, what the hell's gotten into you?"
She talks, but she won't look at him. Her voice is strong, no quaver, but she talks as if by speaking she hopes to exorcise some disembodied voice that has begun speaking to her out of thin air: maybe if she replies to it, it will just go away.
"I just think we've gotten serious too quickly."
Cal's jaw hangs. All this sounds like lines out of some hack melodrama. Rita is the only girl who's ever consented to go with him, if you don't count Cynthia, who went with him for just three days when he and she were both thirteen, in the spring of 'oh-nine.
"Serious? Rita, we've been going together six weeks, and I haven't even touched you! I don't mean anything bad... There's something else, isn't there, Rita?" Deep inside, Cal wonders: Were those the right words? Is that the sort of thing a normal person would have said?
Several seconds of silence, as if Rita doesn't want to hurt the disembodied voice. Then: "It's the rhythm you give off, Cal. Sometimes, not always, when you're nervous, when you're around other people. It's your eyes then, it's the way you move, I don't know, like some joints are fluid and other are stiff. It's creepy, I don't know, not like a snake, like some creature from outer space imitating..."
"I'm sorry, Calvin." Now Rita is burying her face in her hands and sobbing. "I don't want to hurt you. In every other way you're a, a great guy... only I can't bear this, whatever it is, the way you come across that leaks out around the edges..."
That evening, Cal goes out amidst the headlights in the dark and the rain, and gets a twelve-pack of Budweiser.
Walking through the streets of the city, Cal breathes in and out, in and out: slow and steady. He tries to monitor his breathing. Cal tries to make himself cough every few minutes, even though he doesn't really have to.
Coming to a street corner, he sets foot off the curb without realizing that he's come to the edge yet. The jar of his foot hitting ground three inches later than expected carries up his spine and rattles his teeth.
Going up the next block, Cal tries to stop walking the way he's been doing. He thinks he's succeeded. Then, a girl passing by makes a remark about him to her companion.
He stops even trying to pretend. This jerky walk is the reality.
Standing outside the classroom after class, Professor Beyer is talking with Cal. He wraps up the conversation: "Proof by induction on the order of the matrix, you're a very bright student, Miller, you're a very bright student."
Cal tries to think of a reply that's appropriate. Then the professor is already gone. Then Cal realizes that, here, it doesn't matter.
Here, it doesn't matter that you use an elastic strap to hold your glasses on your head. Here, it doesn't matter that you walk into an upper-level class five minutes late, and sit there through lecture eating a mixture of yogurt and wheat germ out of a long green prune juice jar. Here, it doesn't matter that there's something about you that makes people mutter about you and drop remarks from out on the edge of earshot when they see you eating or on the street or studying in the library.
Calvin Miller is a senior in biology, with a grade point average of three point eight. And his professors don't care.
It's Cal's third day in the city. It's his third day walking in the shadows of the skyscrapers, beneath a hundred yards of mirrored glass. He keeps an eye out to watch the people, to see if there's anyone like him, but then concludes that he must be jumping the gun.
That third day, hardly anyone looks at Cal as he stalks like a Frankenstein through the streets of the city. He tells himself, ruefully, that it isn't really that obvious. Then he imagines that people here in Chicago have all caught on, and are all practicing a conspiracy of ignoring him. Finally, he realizes that it is just too soon yet.
Sooner or later though, Cal tells himself with a straight ramrod neck, the pattern will have to start spreading.
Sitting in the biology department lounge, Cal is drinking a cup of coffee, and going over last week's lecture notes for endocrinology. Around the corner, two faculty members are talking. Cal can hear their voices:
"And in writing it out, he made the mistake of confusing messenger RNA with transfer RNA. Can you believe we have a senior in this department who would do something like that?"
Cal's eyes go blurry, and it's only after a second that he knows that he's fighting back tears. Those professors are talking about him. That's a problem that he wrote on a recent exam.
Cal picks up the Tribune from beneath his elbow, and tries to calm the sickness in his heart by reading the headline story about the living conditions up on the lunar base in Aristarchus.
He can't read it through the watering veil.
"You want yer room fer another three nights?"
Cal can't bring himself to answer. The clerk in the seedy downtown hotel, a heavy balding man in his fifties, searches the rate table with great diligence, as if he were having to translate it out of some foreign language.
"That'll be thirty-nine fifty, uh..."
Cal thinks to himself that maybe the man is taking so long in an attempt to discourage Cal from staying here any longer. After all, this lobby bears testimony to the types who frequent this place: winos and derelicts and old men who didn't plan for retirement, and men who gibber to themselves as they walk down the narrow hallway to the shower. But Cal thinks to himself that he is going to have to economize, if he is going to bring off the master plan, and usher in these latter days.
Besides, thinks Cal, maybe it's all because I look white, middle class, a young fellow around twenty wearing decent clothes, and not bad looking even if it does show through. I can control it for short periods of time, you know, if I'm not too tired: maybe the clerk hasn't seen through me on that front at all yet.
Cal puts down two twenties on the desk. The clerk takes almost a minute to make change.
"You mean you have Irish Gaelic complete, all here in this ampoule?" Cal holds the three inches of glass tubing in his hand, and looks through it at the window, looking through the amber fluid.
"Och, much of it as I learned in school." Cavanagh worries with his pipe, trying to get it lit. "Y'see, my language center, in my brain, served as the template for that concoction."
"God," says Cal, "artificial memory-lectoscriptor, and it's selective enough that it 'copies' out of your brain only the information you're carrying that relates to the Gaelic language?"
Cavanagh's head is wreathed now in blue smoke. "Only the Gaelic. Not a word of the English or French or German, except as they've been taken over as loan words, or as I've used them often myself in ways my own brain associates with Gaelic. All the vocabulary, the grammar, the idioms, copied off and encoded holographically into the molecular structure of the lectoscriptor molecules, a bit here, a nuance there..."
"Jeez! And what would happen if I injected myself with this goop?"
Cavanagh's brows furrow. "'Thin a day or two, you'd be speakin' like an Irishman. You'd be speakin' Gaelic, the very poor limited way that I speak it. The same engrams that're on my brain would be transcribed onto yours."
"Huh." Wonder gazing into the flashing ampoule.
"Ye'd also have a federal watchdog agency on yuir doorstep if they found out. Reading off a volunteer's brain as a template, they've approved for research at universities like Iowa here. To transfer back onto a recipient's brain, 'less you're writin' from one chimp's brain onto another, naogh."
"But in China they've approved it for use in college-level instruction!"
Cavanagh's eyes gaze off into space. "That's the People's Republic. Hell, you know, the real story behind the International Chess Federation suspendin' tournaments till further notice, was that the Russians were usin' this technique on their grandmasters! Boost a fella's chess ability by givin' 'im an injection fro' some former world champ..."
Cavanagh dumps his pipe out into the sink of the lab counter and turns on the faucet. "Hell, Calvin, let's lock up. You look like ye could use a beer down at the Alley."
"Would you like some more coffee?"
"Yes, please." Cal's words have to them a grotesque crispness, and he realizes that it goes with the way he holds his neck. He notices that the waitress makes no response as she turns and walks away.
Cal has discovered that this restaurant is none too thorough in the washing of glasses and cups. The first time he ate here, when in Chicago almost a year ago, he was disgusted. Now he is intrigued.
There is a couple in the next booth, lovebirds like he could never have been with any woman. He takes care to cough in their general direction.
He drinks out of the coffee cup with great sloppiness, on purpose.
Afterwards, walking out the door, he farts, and doesn't even try to hold it back. In these latter days, a fart is worth a dozen coughs.
"Ye'll be all right, then, Cal?"
"Yah, Danny, I'll lock up when I'm done."
"'Kay then. See you tomorrow."
Cavanagh walks out the door of the lab. Cal is hard at work, sitting at the keyboard that serves as an interface with the batch of artificial memory lectoscriptor. He is busy narrowing the parameters of the type of information that he wants the memory lectoscriptor to seek out. At every "execute" command from the keyboard, complex artificial command-codons diffuse out into the solution, tailoring each molecule of lectoscriptor that they encounter, "programming" it step by step.
It's really very easy. As Cavanagh put it, when he was a freshman in biology back in the stone age, playing with biochemical software was like programming in machine language back in the days of vacuum tubes and transistors. Nowadays, though, manipulations even at a relatively sophisticated biochemical level can be handled by any upper class student in the department. The biotechnology has become much more user-friendly.
Cal is grateful to Danny for putting in a good word for him with Professor Scheider. Cal believes there is a great potential in some of the techniques he's being permitted to work with. It's a potential that might not even occur to someone who doesn't move like a jerky robot.
And without Scheider's approval, Cal doubts he would have been allowed to use this equipment to work on his senior project.
Cal drinks at the water fountain on the street. He is careful to suck his mouth up and down on the silver metal spout, and let the saliva run.
As he walks down the street now, Cal tries hard to walk straight like a normal human being. He really does. But it's harder when you feel nervous. It's always been harder for Cal, all these years now: harder when he feels nervous.
Out of the corner of his eye, Cal notices that a patrol car going down the street has slowed down to five miles an hour and is trolling along beside him. Panic in his chest, but Cal gives no sign, and after a short while, the car pulls away.
They can't really haul me in on anything, he thinks. It's not as if my fly is open or anything. You can't haul a fellow in for the awkward air of his gait as he walks uncertainly down the street.
It's two in the morning, late in the lab. At his side, Cal has a pile of books on psychology; also a stack of journals, The Journal of Neurobiochemistry, and so forth.
It's so simple, really: any bright senior here could have figured it. He's been reading now for three weeks on the work of the Chinese, and how they've been using lectoscriptors in psychiatric treatment. It's simple, a special case of the more general process: set the parameters to select for certain neuroses in the software of the brain, a simple job since Rashkolnikov gave a purely formal description of the nature of neurosis as it is encoded by the human brain. There are formal characteristics that allow one to select for reading off engrams associated with the patient's neuroses, and nothing else.
The Chinese have been interested in using the process for treatment, going in and overwriting the neurotic engrams with "healthy" brain-software, using memory lectoscriptor preparations made to order from scratch in the lab. It's a reliable way to handle recalcitrant cases which some in the West would call "dissidents."
Cal is interested in other ways the process might be applied. Cal is interested, in particular, in how it might be applied in reverse.
He has yet to tell anybody that this is what is on his mind. Long years of the stares, and laughter behind his back in all sorts of social situations, have taught Cal to play his cards close to his chest.
"He certainly isn't a very friendly type, think he'd at least watch where he's going."
Cal whirls on hearing the girl say this to her companion. The man is in his mid-twenties, muscular, looks as if he works out. The woman is hanging on his elbow; no girl ever did that with Cal.
"What did you say?" Cal talks loudly, and he knows that it comes across flat and robotic, without all the proper harmonics, like a voice over a loudspeaker. But he can't help it in a difficult situation, any more than he could help the jerkiness in his step that made him almost run into the fellow. Cal has tried, but for all these years he hasn't been able to control himself fully, no matter how he tries. And he knows that when he gets flustered, it only gets worse.
Cal can tell by the hot, flustered feeling that he is turning red in the face. The fellow turns on him. The girl looks dependent.
"Whatcha say, motherfucker? Whyn'tcha watch where you're going?"
"Why don't you tell your woman to watch her mouth?" Cal can tell that it's coming out overly-proper, like Mister Rogers, but when it goes this far he can no longer control it.
A mask of hate, the man's face twists. Cal can see the biceps knotting. Now he doesn't even hear. It's like a sequence out of a dream: Cal has a mouthful, and he spits square in the man's eyes.
He doesn't miss. The man doesn't even have time to blink.
The lightning that strikes in Cal's solar plexus a moment later is like an anticlimax. He doesn't even try to defend himself. The pain doesn't matter. Cal makes himself grow limp, and it's like letting go.
Afterward, when he can sort himself out of the scarlet haze again, Cal tastes salt in his mouth and is trying to focus on concrete from six inches away. From way up there, several feet behind his head, comes someone's voice:
"Is anything wrong, mister? Can I help you?"
"N-no, I'll be all right."
He's still trying to catch his breath. But somewhere in Cal is a soaring triumph.
He caught that goddam asshole full in the open eyes! The goddam bastard has no chance now, not a snowball's chance in hell. First time they French kiss, hell, first time he sweats too much while they're holding hands, the goddam bitch is gonna catch it too!
In the midst of pain, Cal feels satisfaction.
Lying there in his dorm room at night, lying in the dark, Cal can feel the fringe of damp hair around his forehead. It's hot for April.
Halfway asleep. Too many nights this past week, up to three or four at the lab, working on the goddam senior project. But now the lab work is done; hell, he could even write up a final draft of the research paper, if he thought it would make any difference at this stage in the game.
Programming the lectoscriptor was the hard part. Splicing it into a virus, a highly contagious viral strain, that was easy: the sort of thing he'd done half a dozen times in first semester genetic engineering. And culturing it and then injecting it into himself was child's play.
Cal can feel, in the dark, that he's running a slight fever. Good: that means that it's at work, this very instant, locking in on and reading off everything in his brain that falls under the carefully programmed definition of neurosis. Everything within him that has made him feel branded, with the mark of Cain, over all these years since childhood.
All those times when he was rejected, when he felt cut off from people around him... all those times when he wished he could just die...
All of it is being read off and recorded by the goddam memory-lectoscriptor in the virus. And the disease is catching. And it spreads by perspiration, or by saliva, or by semen, or even on breath exhaled to waft away on the breeze.
Down the hallway, out there, he can hear Bruce and Jim talking. Cal can't quite make out the words, but he thinks they might be saying something about him, and about how stupid he is to plan to go on to grad school, because that Miller is sure to flunk out anyway.
He can't quite tell, but it sounds as if that might be it.
Later in the night, about three in the morning, he is awakened by some of the fellows coming in from a party, shouting, "It's Miller Time!" Here, on this floor of the dorm, he knows that they must be making fun of him.
Let the bastards mock him. Four feet to the left of his shoulder, in the dark, are a Greyhound Ameripass and eight hundred dollars in traveler's checks lying in the desk drawer. The first bus for Chicago leaves at eight in the morning.
Now Cal is lying awake in the middle of the night in the seedy hotel room. He can hear somebody walking down the hall toward the bathroom; even after almost two weeks, every time he hears that, he hopes to himself that he remembered to lock the door to his room.
Lying awake in the night, Cal thinks back over the day with satisfaction. The latter days have come: Today, he counted at least twenty people on the street who showed symptoms of the same outward bodily awkwardness that has been the mark of his neuroses and insecurities for so many years. At three of the shops he frequents, the clerks showed the same nervousness, the same tongue-tied stammer, the same inappropriateness of speech, that afflicts Cal in such situations when he gets flustered. They have it down pat, even to the shading of mannerism, the personal nuance that has always been Cal's alone.
Cal grins in the dark: the inward pain of his soul is being graven by the memory lectoscriptor on the brain of each and every one of them. Each and every one of them is being overwritten from within with the personal afflictions of Cal Miller himself.
There must be hundreds of them in the city by now. And each of them, like Cal himself, is now a vector for the malady. Cal has it figured: this epidemic is going to spread, faster than AIDS did back in the eighties.
And they won't be able to crack it. Cal's seen to that. The viruses mutate at random intervals, according to a random pattern that alters the hardware but still preserves the bio-software intact under a transform, according to a simple biomolecular application of what the cryptographers call a "trapdoor" cipher.
Cal lies in the dark. Through the window, the neon hotel light flickers on and off from below. Cal lies there amazed at his own cleverness: none of the techniques he's used are original, even the "trapdoor" biocipher is something he picked up from a graduate-level course last semester...
What amazes Cal is that nobody has put all these pieces together before him... God knows, he may be pulling an "A" average, but that can't hide the fact that Cal is a goddam idiot, a misfit who can't ever do anything right, an outcast who isn't worth anything, who deserves the laughter and scorn of the people who always laugh at him behind his back...
Drifting off to sleep, Cal figures that he has enough left in traveler's checks to stay a night or two in a good hotel, and celebrate the way he's pulled off his master project, and ushered in these latter days...
Cal drifts off, and in his dreams he doesn't walk like a jerky robot, and people call him friend and mean it, and he wins the love and admiration of a dark-haired woman he knows but can't name.