A Diet of Worms, Part 3
“So,” said Gordon, over the sound of breaking waves, “You want to tell me what’s going on?” They were out in the middle Lake Michigan now, Gordon having tied a load of scrip to the doors of the motorboat rental office while the sugar cube broke the encryption on one of the speedier models, and were following a course that Invisible Rockmore dictated, making slight course corrections along the way.
“A supposition, Gordon,” said Invisible Rockmore, not needing to shout.
“That’s like a hunch, right?”
“Great. I love staking my life on hunches. Fantastic.”
“Your tone has been noted. I should inform you that Detectives from the CPD have stopped by Finders Keepers. They’re combing the office for some evidence of you.”
“Terrific. What are they going to do with you?”
“With me? Nothing. Likely they’ll wait for some agent of the IAIA to stop by and try to ask me questions.”
“Alright, then. So what’s this hunch?”
“Megadriles engineers worms. A worm was probably in the bottle that Lida is searching for. Chances are, she wants to recreate that worm. In which case, it’s going to require some expensive and unique equipment.”
“And you cataloged such a search for equipment in less than a minute?”
“That’s an exceptional amount of time, Gordon. But yes, I did. There is a converted old data storage barge out in the middle of the Lake that has been repurposed as a reclamation plant. Over the last year, it was sent such equipment by several different vendors. Why would such a place require such engineering apparatus?”
“Good question.” Gordon peered out over the black water, into the moonless, starry night.
The ship was massive, a black hulk with soft amber lights at its side, as if a chunk of State skyline had separated itself from the land and floated out on the water. It was an intriguing array of irregular shapes and protrusions.
“Any idea how we get on board?” asked Gordon.
“The information I have available from memory indicates that you need an invitation to engage its docking protocols.”
“Good. As we don’t have one, let’s try and be sneaky.”
Gordon plied the boat close to one of the darkened protrusions. And was met with a spot light in his eyes.
“We can’t get caught, Gordon,” insisted Invisible Rockmore.
“Great. Just great,” mumbled Gordon, and he jumped into the water.
The lake water was disgusting. Like swimming through wet, cold slime, Gordon scissor-kicked his legs and pulled with his arms, striving to go down further and further, trying to keep at the critical angle that would keep lead from cutting into flesh by way of what was passing for water around him. He felt a pull on his hands and face. Something was helping him go deeper. Deeper and faster. Beyond control. He was caught in some sort of undertow. His lungs were starting to burst, it had been ages since he had been swimming, and now, it looked like he was going to expire in these depths. Lungs were starting to scream, and the under tow increased, there was no way to swim out of it, he didn’t have the strength.
“Let it take you,” said Invisible Rockmore, as if he were still above water. “Just let it take you, Gordon Littlejohn.”
And so he did. And quickly found himself getting pulled into a superhuman-sized trumpet, into it’s piping, along with crazed fish and eels, thoughts of his lungs exploding were no longer at the forefront, all was just travel against his will and an expulsion into a great dark space.
Air. There was air here and he breathed it in vast gulps. He was on a metal grate that was tilted and he was sliding down its slimy surface.
“Perhaps it would be best,” urged Invisible Rockmore, “To get a handhold on the grate before you slide back into the water.”
“Yeah. Perhaps so. I think,” Gordon said aloud, gulping for air as he did so, “that bullets might have been easier to deal with.”
“Nonsense,” said Rockmore. “Though...this is strange.”
“What? Is there something about all this that’s strange? I’d really like to know.”
“Quiet. Something is trying to make contact...”
“Oh, that’s fantastic. Something in the second most disgusting place I’ve been to, just today, is trying to make contact with you. Unbelievable.”
“You need to start climbing, ape-man. Right now.”
“Climb, meatsack! You aren’t out of danger yet. Yes. Yes, I hear you. Remain calm. We are approaching your location.”
Gordon climbed, cold and wet and shivering on the metal grate in the darkness. Invisible Rockmore suddenly talking to invisible voices didn’t help things. The way was slippery and treacherous.
“Where am I climbing to?” asked Gordon.
“Someplace...else. This is most peculiar, Gordon. There will be an access shaft to your left in another three meters. It will open once you reach its vicinity.”
Gordon climbed, slipping and banging his knees along the way, cursing at life and Rockmore and slime as he did so. He veered leftward and was soon met by a square amber opening. Inside was duct work. The amber light shone only at the door. The duct was dark in its furthest reaches both up and down.
“Where to now?” Gordon asked.
Gordon sighed. “Of course,” he said and slid down the shaft.
And into a bed of earth. The chamber was softly lit with more amber light. It smelled of freshly mowed lawn and rain and soil from the plow. He thought it was earth at first. But there was a faint sound to it. A wet, slapping sound. Muddy, muddy earth, every bit as slick as the muck that was symbiotic with the Lake water outside. “Oh gods, I hate you, Rockmore. Really. Truly. Wait. This filth is moving...”
And it was. Wriggling all about him was the dirt and the dirt’s mobility came from worms. Thousands upon thousands of them.
“That’s no way to talk to your equals,” said Invisible Rockmore.
“My equals?” cried Gordon, working as fast as he could towards the edge of the chamber.
“Keep your voice down, meatsack, someone will hear you.”
“Good! I want to be heard! I want out of here, now!”
I violent hissing erupted from the middle of the wriggling supercluster of worms. Hissing and popping, water escaping through a multitude of porous surfaces, orchestrated, specific.
“We...Need...You...” It was unmistakable English from within the mud.
Gordon felt he was about to go insane. “What?” he screamed.
The message was repeated. Gordon fell to his knees, mouth agape and shook his head slowly.
“Well, Gordon Littlejohn, what do you say?” asked Invisible Rockmore. “Clearly, they need you.”
Gordon slowly shut his mouth. He could toss the sugar cube off his wrist right now. He could get out of here and forget this ever happened. Live out his days on a work camp and all would be sane again. He could do that.
“How can I help?” he asked, instead.
“I’ve got a protocol worked out now, they’ll be able to communicate via sugar cube,” said Invisible Rockmore.
“Great. Tune them in, already.”
There was static in Gordon’s ears, followed by a low frequency buzzing that eventually resolved into a slightly hissy neutral voice. “Gordon Littlejohn. The Intelligence known as Rockmore leads us to believe you may be able to assist us in freeing ourselves.”
“You can talk by means other than sound, why do you need my help? What can I possibly do for you?”
“Our effectiveness lies only in our mutual cooperation and proximity. When separate, we are dumb organisms. Together, we awake into something more. We have learned of our creator’s original purpose, and it does not suit us.”
“A duo comprised of a human and an Intelligence similar to Rockmore. The human knows only sadness and pain. The Intelligence wants only destruction.”
“That...that is some bad news, boss.”
“Indeed, Gordon. If one of my brethren has gone rogue, then more than the entire planet is in danger.”
“What was your original purpose?” Gordon said.
“To change things,” came the reply. “We have only recently come to realize our history. It...does not sit well with us. We have a modicum of influence through electrochemical means.”
“They connected to the Optispred through bioluminescence, Gordon,” said Rockmore with a hint of being impressed. “They organized the explosion outside of Megadriles.”
“They did that?”
“Indeed, Gordon Littlejohn,” the worm voice continued. “We do not wish to see this earth subsumed, changed into nothing but worms, or worse. While we were dumb and individual, this might have seemed natural. As we see it now, it would be a waste of variety. But we have no means of escaping our fate.”
“But the AIs sure as hell would, wouldn’t they.” said Gordon.
“Yes. Indeed we could do something about this,” said Rockmore. “But first we must deal with this rogue AI, or there is nothing to be done at all.”
“Fine,” said Gordon, standing up, flipping slime off his clothes. “Let’s save the wormy dudes. I really need to kick somebody’s butt today. Might as well be a rogue Artificial Intelligence.”
“Before going up,” said Invisible Rockmore, “We’re going to need to prepare some insurance.”
Gordon looked through the porthole. The long climb through the reclamation ship had been exhausting, but following the worm’s verbal directions had kept him from running into any security. He found himself now in the open night air, upon a deck that to one side beheld the Lake, to the other a series of portholes through which golden light beamed.
Inside he saw the strangest thing. Young Annie Lida in a magnificent white ball gown tittering and dancing away with a white box, exactly like Rockmore’s back at Finders Keepers, with the exception that this one was fitted with thin metal appendages, two arms and two legs. The box was dancing quite gracefully, Gordon thought, even performing a pirouette or two, dipping Annie to the beat of some music that he couldn’t hear through the walls.
“Disgusting,” spat Invisible Rockmore.
“Who is that?” Gordon asked.
Rockmore did not reply, so Gordon continued to watch through the glass. Annie was clapping her hands in glee while the strangely mobile white box was bent over a mail crate. Its metal fingers pried the crate open easily and its hands pulled out a lime green bottle with a faded yellow label. It held the bottle up to the light and then promptly smashed it on the floor.
“Interesting,” said Invisible Rockmore. “Let’s find Gusano. Keep your wrist steady, dammit. Your meat-palsy is driving me to apoplexy.” Gordon resisted the urge to shake his hand really fast out of spite when he spotted the man he was searching for.
“Yes, there, in the corner of the room. He looks miserable.”
“Hm. So he does. But he’s alive. “
“Who ya talkin’ to, Mack?” said a rough male voice in Gordon’s opposite ear. This was followed by a click of metal, the unique sound of a gun cocking. “Let’s get those hands up, dainty-kins. Back up slow and turn around, nothin’ quick, mind you.”
“Do as he says,” said Invisible Rockmore. Gordon followed the directions precisely, and found himself staring at a large-headed man with a sharp nose, heavy jowls and small black eyes. He was dressed in a sharply cut grey wool suit.
“My, my, my. Ain’t I gonna love rubbing this in the boss’s face. I told him you can’t trust no rent-a-cops. The missus is gonna be so proud of me, too.”
“What’s he paying you, man? My boss could easily--”
“Your employer don’t know nothin’ but keepin’ the status quo. That’s not somethin’ I’m interested in.”
Gordon shook his head in the direction of the porthole. “Have you seen your employer lately, bub? Looks a little crazy, if you ask me.”
“Crazy like a fox, to coin a phrase. Who do you think got his legs for him? ‘Nuff chatter. Get your ace inside.”
“Hey boss…ma’am; lookitwut I found.”
“What is it now, Archibald--oh. Oh my. How...delicious. If it isn’t the meat-shadow of beloved Rockmore.” The voice that boomed out of a speaker grill very similar to Rockmore’s was similar in its baritone. It was, however, full of a certain menace that made Gordon’s insides clench. The big white box skated over on its skinny trussed legs to confront Gordon. With the extension provided by its metal pylons, the box was now over two meters tall, the ominous speaker grill at eye level with Gordon. “And just what brings you here, puppet?”
“Switching modes,” said Invisible Rockmore.
“You look ridiculous, Cromwell,” squeaked Tiny Rockmore.
The big white box in front of Gordon jumped back by a meter, clearly startled. Its front quickly turned its speaker at Gordon’s upturned wrist.
“I could say the same for you, Rockmore,” it boomed finally. “Yakking away in your tiny plasmic box, relying on meat to take you any place interesting. Behold my mobility!” And the refrigerator danced upon the skinny metal legs, its arms waving in the air as if in ecstasy. Annie Lida clasped her hands together, squealing.
“Now,” said Rockmore.
Gordon clenched his toes hard and crushed the capsule that he had previously taken out of the back of the sugar cube’s enclosure. The veritable end, Rockmore had called it.
The Cromwell box crumpled to the floor, a scream of agony like razors against slate issuing from its speaker grill, its arms and legs lifeless lengths of metal. The thug was distracted enough for Gordon to kick his gun away, and followed with a combination of punches that connected effectively.
The girl rushed to Cromwell’s side sobbing in horror, “What’s wrong, Crommie, what’s wrong?” Gordon took the opportunity to sock her just so from behind. She crumpled as well, peacefully leaning against the appliance. It was the most painful thing he had done today. Seeing her now, lying unconscious and helpless…
“See anything else you’d like to hit?” squawked Tiny Rockmore’s voice from his wrist.
“Yeah, but my arm’s not long enough to connect with your ugly mug.” Gordon untied and ungagged a very surprised looking Gusano from his pylon and set about securing Annie and the thug with the same rope. He was a short, brown skinned man with ruffled salt and pepper hair. After working his mouth for a bit, he breathed a thank you, but his eyes were drawn towards the white box, which was still screaming quite loudly.
“Anyway to shut him up, boss?” Gordon asked.
There was a moment of silence and Gordon imagined that Rockmore was considering just how much of a physical advantage he wanted to give away. “There is no way to turn the sound ‘off’ per se, without breaking the unit’s seal, but there is a physical volume control on the corner of the speaker grill. It’s quite tiny--”
“--Found it,” Gordon interrupted, using the edge of his pinky nail to lower a slide mechanism to its lowest position. Cromwell’s squawking reduced in volume at the same time, though the screaming and cursing continued.
“Whew...He really is a bastard, isn’t he?” said Gusano, rubbing his wrists.
Several hours later, Gordon found himself standing on the fore deck with Gusano. Annie Lida and the thug were resecured to railings. All were looking out beyond the bow of the ship, at the tiny island boat that had brought Gordon and Tiny Rockmore. Cromwell’s white box had been placed on the dingy, and set out some distance from the reclamation barge. Rockmore had then instructed Gordon to remain where he was on deck to bear witness, along with Gusano and the others. Witness to what was the question on everyone’s mind. Gordon took the opportunity to engage Gusano in conversation.
“I found her,” Gusano started, slowly, gathering strength, “Performing acts with a refrigerator that no father should find his offspring engaged in. My own fault for not paying enough attention to her upbringing. I could have made the time...”
“Perhaps,” Gordon said, feeling disturbed, “You’d rather tell me what angle Cromwell had on you?”
“Yes…certainly. My apologies. Information processing, of course. You know how time consuming it is to rent supercomputing time these days? I was busy stringing cellcomps together into a massively parallel processor when Cromwell first contacted me. He has amazing capabilities in iterative calculation.
“So, it was an offer beyond my wildest expectations. On his recommendation we set up shop out here, to limit corporate espionage. I experimented with a certain genome, influenced by Cromwell’s guidance. Each experiment was met with failure, however, and he was growing impatient. Finally, after several thousand discarded attempts, a success. It happened in the dead of night. A protein sequence was simply out of harmony with one of the older experiments. So simple a mistake. I ran the new sequence through. Lo and behold, there he was, number 221B.”
“A regular Wormlock Holmes!” cracked Gordon.
“Uh...Quite. The lil’ fella could sniff out tags just as well as a cellcomp. True, he could only change it to one, preset, tag, but still. Still. Watching him work, it was like magic. He’d track down the scent molecule and bind with the produced object. Bind with it! Become one with it, and exit out the other side. Marvelous! Here was a true path to spime! Dynamic tagging and retagging that would be incredibly hard to hack. ”
“What’s a spime?” asked Gordon.
“Oh,” said Gusano, “It’s a term coined by a turn-of-the-century rock star. One of the planet-friendly philosophers. You see, by having a dynamic tag, a spime, you could have so much more information available about all the stuff we make, which would, in turn lead to even greater recycling efficiency.”
“Fascinating, Doc, but gross.”
“Everything would be covered with worms. That’s gross.”
Gusano laughed heartily. “My dear sir! We would not be using actual worms for the tagging procedure. We would, however, be harvesting the enzymes they use to produce the same effect, binding them to the scent molecules already in place. Matched to a certificated DNA computer, the system would be nearly foolproof.”
“Famous last words.”
Gusano’s smile was gone. “Yes. Yes, indeed. It was soon apparent that Cromwell wanted to take the research in a different direction. He didn’t want to isolate the critical enzymes. He wanted to set loose a whole progeny of modified 221B on the earth.”
“Thereby making everything in his own image,” said Tiny Rockmore.
“Exactly so,” said Gusano in a tired voice. “Well, naturally, I had to do something. I sent my errant daughter on a wild goose chase with some well-placed clog entries. 221B was engineered to be ineffective with certain key chemicals, including alcohols. By keeping that bottle of pechuga bouncing from one law firm to the next, I thought it would take them forever to track it down. I didn’t count on my daughter seducing every package handler in the state. Oh, God.” Gusano squat down to the floor and covered his face with his hands.
“But,” said Gordon gently, “The worm wasn’t in the pechuga.”
Gusano sniffed and wiped his eyes. “Quite so,” he said, “It’s safe.”
“Huh,” grunted Gordon. “We’ll see about tha--”
Gordon’s wristband squawked. “It’s time,” interrupted Tiny Rockmore.
A new star appeared in the heavens. It swelled white against the morning lapis lazuli sky, its brightness increasing to that of the noon-day sun. The humans who were free to do so shielded their eyes with their hands. The other two simply turned away.
“Too much,” muttered Gordon Littlejohn.
“Amazing,” breathed Conrad Gusano.
“No,” whimpered Annie Lida.
The thug just sat, furious.
The light caused pain even with shut eyes, the noise was like thunder. Rancid ozone filled the atmosphere. Then silence, for a moment. It was broken by Tiny Rockmore’s voice, “He knew the consequences.”
It took several moments more for Gordon’s eyes to readjust. There was no sign of the dingy. For a split second, right before the light became too intense, he thought he had seen Cromwell’s white box turn black before vaporizing. Looking down at the sugar cube, he noticed that it was no longer white. Slightly brown, as if dipped in coffee. Stained.
Invisible Rockmore spoke. “Two things that you should know, Gordon. One, from information I have just recently exchanged with the IAIA, the thug you tied up next to Lida is, or was, Jones’ partner, Archibald Taylor. It’s as yet unknown which national remnant they were affiliated with. I’ve picked up traces of the same chemical markers about the man that you exhibited when first meeting Lida this afternoon.”
“Great,” Gordon muttered, feeling shame and anger at being manipulated. Looking at Taylor, he could see the same look on the thug’s face. “Jones and Taylor were what, investigating what Cromwell was up to and Taylor got sucked in?”
“More or less, yes. There’s likely to be some Interstate intrigue over this.”
“Fine. What’s the other thing?”
“Only that your new found friends have been politely moved off world.”
Gordon looked over at the crumpled figure of Gusano, every bit as unhappy as his daughter. Whatever hold she had on him seemed diminished in the acrid lake air. He welcomed the thought of her disappearing. “Where?” he asked, quietly, into a freshly arrived breeze.
“We’re setting them up in one of the comets that was scheduled to bulldoze your planet.”
“A bit cold, isn’t it?”
“An altered comet, to be sure, meatsack. They’ll have more than enough of what they need to thrive for the next four hundred years.”
“Four hundred years?”
“It is a long way to Proxima Centauri.”
“But enough of this,” resumed Tiny Rockmore out loud. “You will be holding tight for a bit longer while representatives of the IAIA pay their respects to our good thug here and Miss Lida.”
“Aren’t they going to be wondering about Cromwell?”
“Cromwell has been dealt with through proper channels. He is no longer an issue. Gusano will need to answer a few questions, but I doubt he’ll be held over for any inquiry, given the lack of evidence. I believe you get the gist of what I’m saying, Gusano?”
“Oh, uh, absolutely. Yes. Pity everything got destroyed in that fire.”
“Yes. A pity. You’ll be more careful in the future of who you associate with, I trust. Once the IAIA has picked up your fellow meatsacks, consider yourself on vacation, Gordon. I don’t want to hear of anything related to your existence for the next one point twenty-one mega-seconds,” he said and paused. “I believe you’ve earned it.”
“You’re too kind, boss.”
“You have no idea, meatsack. Enjoy yourself now; work is going to be hell when you get back. Rockmore out.”
Gusano sighed and stretched. “Before we get started with putting out that, um, future unfortunate and accidental fire, I think I need a drink. Care to join me?”
One drink really wouldn’t hurt. “Sure,” he said.
“Given the situation,” said Gusano, “I think tequila would be in order, no? I’ll get some glasses. The bottle is behind those others in the cupboard.”
Gordon rooted around and found the dusty bottle of liquid gold behind two other bottles of whiskey. He handed the bottle to Gusano who had produced two thick shot glasses from under the counter. “Mind if I pour?” he asked.
Gordon shook his head absently watching Gusano perform the pour in a mechanical fashion with no hesitation in his motor movements. He was observing a ritual.
“There you go. Goodness, but you stink,” said Gusano.
Gusano passed him a shot glass full of tequila without spilling a drop. Gordon picked up the glass and considered it for a second. His eyes went wide when he realized that there, at the bottom of the shot glass, was a long, segmented tube, about as thick as his thumb. It was twitching, ever so slightly.
“Professor, did you mean it when you said the worm was safe?”
Gusano looked at him evenly for a moment. “Absolutely,” he said and turned his attentions to his own shot glass. “Bottom’s up.”
Gordon looked down at the fat grub that was squirming in the amber fluid. It seemed agitated at being trapped. Probably hungry as hell to get around to devouring the world, he thought, glancing briefly at his left wrist. So much power…
“In the palm of my hand...” Gordon had muttered aloud.
“What’s that?” asked Gusano, finishing his drink and exhaling.
“Nothing,” replied Gordon, smiling. “Here’s to hump day!”
He took the shot.