Chapter 25: Hair
The afternoon sun highlighted Deena’s hair. Luther tried to ignore it. She didn’t understand his feelings about the gold coins.
He was in a fight for his life. The other side had money and power, and the sleepless persistence of an organization. He was one person, and for two years the only thing that let him keep nimble and ahead of those who wanted him dead was his ability to turn gold into cash.
Money bought food and gas. Ready cash meant not having to get a job, a bank account—a routine.
Deena was just a naive kid, still wanting to play by school playground rules.
Her hair caught his attention again. Something wasn’t right.
Blushing, she asked. “What are you looking at?”
“Something’s different about your hair.”
She pulled down the sun visor, which in her family car had a mirror clipped to it. But not so on the Chevy.
Deena grabbed his center-mounted rear-view mirror, and before he could protest, twisted it around so she could see herself.
Luther twisted his head around, trying to check the traffic behind him. He moved to the right hand lane, grabbing the mirror back from her, straitening it back to where it was supposed to be.
“Don’t do that!” He looked for a place to pull over.
Deena was frantically looking for another mirror, tugging at her hair.
Finding a wide shoulder, he pulled to a stop.
“All right! What’s the problem?”
“Look! She tugged at her hair. Her brown hair was growing out blonde. Slightly less than an inch was the new color.
“Hmm,” he said. “I’ve heard of blonde’s hair growing dark at the roots, but this is the first I’ve heard it the other way around.”
Deena leaned over into his half of the seat, so she could see herself in the mirror.
“That’s because their blonde hair wasn’t their natural color. If they went too long without fresh coloring, their natural color grew back out.
“But I’m naturally brown haired. This is impossible.”
He laughed. “That’s my line.” He gently pushed her back to her side of the car. Not that having her in his lap was unpleasant, but he couldn’t drive that way.
“So, this isn’t a catastrophe? Not something worth crashing the car over?” he asked pointedly.
“Okay! I’ll leave your mirror alone. It’s just...startling.”
“But all you have to do is get some brown hair coloring and rinse it back to normal then?”
“Oh, no! I’ve wanted to be a blonde for years. I’m going with it! Let’s get to a store. I need a comb, scissors and a mirror.”
An hour later, Luther stood behind her at a picnic table in a city park. He grabbed some of her hair with the comb, following her detailed instructions. Pulling it out until the color changed, he snipped off the brown, leaving the lighter colored hair beneath.
“Let me look.”
They had two hand mirrors, so she could see behind her. “Take just a little more off here.” She fingered a tuft that was still brown tipped.
Snip. “That ought to do it. But don’t gripe about the cut. This is not my thing.”
He thought she looked a little punkish, with her head sheared so close, but she wanted all the brown gone.
His hand rested on her shoulder, marveling at how excited she was over a simple color change.
“Don’t you think I look like Bryony now?”
He didn’t see it. “Not until you lose about fifty IQ points.”
She slapped at his hand. “Bryony isn’t stupid at all. She’s very perceptive when it comes to people.”
Luther put his hands in his pocket. Deena combed at her new hairstyle.
“I’ll grant you she has great social instincts. But you—I can talk to you.”
Deena said, “It’s growing.”
They were getting closer to San Francisco, traveling the highway through hilly grasslands. The forest was long gone, except for a few protected stands deep in the ravines. The traffic was demanding more of his attention and he had to keep his eyes on the road. “What’s growing?”
“My hair. It’s longer now.”
“In just one hour? It has to be an illusion.”
“No. I thought so too, but I’ve been watching it.” She set aside the mirror.
He gave her a few, one-second examinations. It looked longer to him as well.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “The weirdness all started when that tree fell on me.”
“Tell me about it.”
She tried to put her mind back to that day.
“I was having a hard time keeping up with you guys.” She told about her shortness of breath and how the lightning flashed and the tree came down on her.
“I think the healing started right away after that. I had horrible bruises and bad pain in my back that first night, but they went away very quickly.”
“Okay,” he said, “then go back to the tree fall itself. Tell me every little thing about it.”
When she got to the tree sap, he stopped her.
“What tree sap? I don’t ever remember redwood tree sap. What was it like?”
“Well it came in droplets. Thick ones. I thought for sure it would stick and stain my skin and raincoat, but it seemed to melt away. I looked for signs of it later, but there were none.”
“No smell, that’s strange isn’t it? Redwood is so aromatic. It was gray. A thick sort of gray-goo.”
The Chevy swerved as he brought it back into his lane.
“Luther? What’s wrong?”
He found a drive-in where they could order burgers for Deena’s insatiable appetite and where he could think. These were particularly greasy. She devoured hers.
Luther stared vacantly out the windshield as he tried to remember.
“I had a theory you were psychic. Everyone from Charles Forte to Steven King tell stories about girls who manifest strange talents after an injury.”
Deena shrugged. “I could live with being psychic.”
He shook his head. “Now I think it’s something else.”
His forehead was wrinkled. “I’m trying to remember the title of the book. I read a lot of books on the road. Libraries were a comfortable place to relax out of sight.
“One of them was about nanotechnology.
“I’ve heard the word,” she said, popping a french fry into her mouth.
“It’s about building very small machines. Some of them could be so small that they could work inside living cells.”
She stopped still. “You mean, like going inside hair cells and turning off the pigmentation?”
“Right! Or locating damaged cells and repairing them. Muscles could be restructured for greater efficiency. Blood could be routed closer to the skin for greater cooling.”
Deena ate another fry. She stared off at nothing in particular. “Machines need energy. I had a lot of useless fat.”
Luther tapped the dashboard for emphasis. “And, these machines would need lots of trace elements to build more of themselves as they were needed.”
“Why not? Think Legos, only very tiny ones made of atoms instead of plastic bricks.
“A particularly sophisticated version might need one isotope over another. Working down at the atomic levels, a machine like that could easily sense which elements were which. They would have to, to manipulate them.”
Deena asked, “So, you’re saying that I’ve been invaded by an army of little machines that is changing my body?”
“I’m not saying anything. It’s too fantastic. But it’s the best theory yet. It explains so much.”
She tried to visualize it—zillions of tiny machines in her blood and throughout her cells, making changes. She shivered.
“Now in this book, there was a doomsday warning.”
She paused over the next fry. “Now you tell me!”
“Listen up, Blondie. The idea was that these machines, these ‘assemblers’ could get out of whack and start doing nothing but make more copies of themselves.
“With enough available energy and raw materials from the environment, these runaway assemblers could turn the whole planet—rock, forest, people—into gooey mass of themselves. It’s called the ‘gray goo’ problem.”
Deena put her words together carefully. “So, you think I could turn into a blob of these ‘assemblers’ and destroy the world?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t. What’s happening to you is too controlled, too precise. If you are infected with these nano-robots, then they are taking a great deal of care to protect your health.
“But just think. That great old redwood could have been infected. When the lightning struck, the nanobots bailed out in mass and rained down on you as your ‘tree sap’? They soaked into your skin and set up housekeeping.
“They trimmed the fat, made you sensitive to trace elements, and improved your body. Perhaps they’ve even activated a telepathic sense. Maybe that’s what they use to communicate with each other.”
Deena nodded. “That’s why I kept going back to that grove in the redwoods. Old home week. They wanted to talk to their family.”
“They are also communicating with you.”
“Sure. How else did they make you sleepwalk, or how else did they know you wanted blonde hair?”
“Well, they’re not very talkative.”
“Maybe you’re just not listening.”
She sipped on her chocolate malt. “I’m not listening to you anymore. I’ve got to think about this.”
“Good enough. It’s just a theory anyway. Without a powerful microscope, we have no way of knowing for sure.” He disposed of the trash and pulled back out on the highway.
“It’s not telepathy,” she said a couple of minutes later.
“They don’t use telepathy. Telepathy is used by living things; it is not bound by time and space. The nanobots use radio.”
The car slowed as Luther let pressure off the gas pedal. “So you think it is nanobots? How do you know this? And how do you know about the telepathy?”
Deena shrugged. “I just know it. It’s like the isotopes, or the calculations. I’m certain your nanobot idea is more than just a theory.”
She shook her head. “It’s strange. Now that I know what to call them, it all makes perfect sense. It’s like listening to a foreign language. Once you get the vocabulary words, a bunch of noise becomes sentences.
“I’m infected by nanobots. How strange.”
Luther was trying to put the pieces together himself.
“Radio? You are sensitive to radio?”
“Yes, but I knew that part already. It was the telepathy bit that just popped into my head.”
Luther was having trouble driving, and coping with the new information at the same time.
“Slow down. Calculations? Radio? Start from the beginning and tell me everything.”
Deena explained the instant calculator gift. He quizzed her with a few factorials.
“1,307,674,368,000, but that’s the last one!” She looked irritated. “Don’t think you can push my buttons just for entertainment.”
“Well, you can answer fast, but without a calculator, I can’t check your answers, but let’s just assume it works. Information flows pretty efficiently between you and the nanobots. At least numbers and math concepts. I’d guess machines would have no problems with those.
“What about the radio?”
She shook her head at the memory.
“Voices in your head can be scary.”
“You can just listen to radio, directly?”
“Yes, although I’ve gotten pretty good at tuning it out. It about drove me crazy.”
A piece of the puzzle dropped into place. He snapped his finger. “So you listened in on my cell phone calls!”
“Yes, only your side, though.” Defensively, she added, “I didn’t have any choice, at first. The signals came blasting in on me.”
Luther was greatly relieved. Biological radio he could handle, but having Deena able to read his mind was too uncomfortable. He had been feeling like he had to keep his every thought under control. He was free again.
But there was something odd.
“Wait a minute! When did you ask them about the telepathy?”
She shook her head, “I didn’t really. You mentioned telepathy back at the drive-in. I thought about it then.”
“And then you got your answer a couple of minutes later. Do you know what that means?”
She shook her head.
Luther kept his eyes on the road, but in his mind, they were far away.
“If the nanobots use radio to talk to each other, then your question went off to them at the speed of light. It took them two minutes to answer. Two minutes is too close for another planet, but way too far away for any place on Earth.”
Deena absorbed the idea.
“A spaceship? You mean they really are aliens? Alien machines inside me?”
“Don’t ask me. You’re the one they talk to.”
She was quiet for a little bit. “They’re not talking. But then, they never do.”