Chapter 37: Hiding
If anyone enjoys having the wind in her hair more, I don’t know who it would be.
Luther watched her run through the trees, getting her itchy feet moving. From the time she had put on the helmet to when they had arrived in the Sequoia National Forest, her red hair had lengthened two feet. It billowed out behind her as she ran.
I need to caution her on that stuff. While he was grateful for the nanobots bringing her back from the dead, he had no confidence that alien machines knew exactly how to build healthy human cells.
He stirred the campfire and frowned at the camping gear he had bought. There wasn’t room for much on the bike. The two sleeping bags were laid out, fluffing up from being compressed down to a fraction of their size in the tote bags.
It would have been nicer with just one. But she would object, I’m sure.
There was a tarp to keep the dew off them, but there hadn’t been room for sleeping cushions or any of the other comforts.
No ice chest, so food would have to be purchased each day, and cooked without pots.
How long will she put up with roughing it?
They hadn’t really discussed the future. Did she really want to ride with him, or should she convert back to brown-haired Deena and get back to Crescent City in time to graduate.
I just wish I had that option.
He counted the cash again. It was down to nine hundred plus. I miss the gold.
“Hey, Luther! Look what I caught!”
She ran up to him, holding a large hare by the ears. It was struggling, kicking, but she had it secure.
She looks like a dog that has brought its prey to its master for approval.
He leaned forward.
“Deena. Put the rabbit down. Let it go.”
She was disappointed, but she did it. The rabbit was on its feet in an instant, rounding the trees and out of sight.
He took her hand. “Deena. Sit here beside me.”
By the flicker of the fire, he asked her softly, “Deena, tell me about Ruben.”
“So, when he came back to me, he was convinced I was friendly, part of his pack. I fed him more nanobots. I gave him a radio link with hooks into his senses. I also added the urge and the means to seed destruction throughout the buildings.”
She smiled at the memory.
“He loved being touched. Only his master ever treated him kindly. He loved the man.”
“Drye?” Luther seemed surprised.
Deena nodded, “With Ruben, he was good. They had bonded.” Her smile saddened. “Ruben died trying to save him. I just hope he never quite realized his part in the destruction.”
Luther rotated his kabob skewer at the edge of the fire so the meat wouldn’t char.
“So with the radio, you could see through his eyes?”
“Right. Only it was weird. It wasn’t like video. More like the memory of seeing, if you know what I mean?”
He shrugged, “Maybe.”
“Anyway, it wasn’t clear. Hearing was better, although words didn’t make sense. Smelling was really sharp.”
“You were getting his processed memories then,” Luther guessed. “Sight, scent, hearing, already processed through a dog’s brain.
“Tell me. Did you get his emotions, too?”
She turned her face and picked up her kabob stick. By the flickering reddish glow, Luther wasn’t sure if she was blushing.
She bit the first chunk of beef off the stick.
“Yes.” It was chewy. “I felt his love for Drye. I felt his pride of territory. I felt his joy at tearing into a guard’s arm.”
He didn’t comment, pulling his stick from the fire too.
After a moment, she said, “It felt good, being an animal, acting on emotion.”
“What did Ruben think about you?”
She smiled. “He considered me one of the pack. An alpha-female, if you want the science term. His thoughts were simpler, more basic.”
Luther nodded, “You got his processed senses. How did you look to him?”
She shook her head. “You’re asking for memories of memories. It’s not too clear.”
“Come on, give it a try. Go back to your face-to-face with him, after all the nanobots had been added. Ruben looked at you, and saw...?”
She looked off into the fire. “He saw me, only I was smaller, maybe, longer. More hair. My teeth were sharp.”
Luther waited, then said, “I had lots of chances to look at Ruben. He was a big massive Rottweiler—black with reddish brown legs.
“Tell me, when did you decide to become a dangerous looking redhead?”
She sat up, startled. “You think Ruben programmed me!”
“I don’t know. I’m just trying to make sense of you. You are different. Whether it was the trauma of your ‘death’, or the emotional tie to Ruben, or some back-channel thing in the nanobots, I think we need to know.”
“That’s ridiculous! Ruben couldn’t have programmed me. I was directing him!” But there was a frown on her face.
“Is there a way to tell? Can you ask the nanobots?”
“They don’t tell me anything.”
“You say that, but they give you radio signals, answers to calculations, element assay on demand—there’s definitely two-way communication between them and you. They don’t speak English—I’d be surprised if they did—but Ruben didn’t either. Yet, you got detailed information from him.
“It may be,” he suggested cautiously, “that if you are being influenced by them, that the safest thing would be for you to get rid of the nanobots.”
“What?” She seemed startled by the idea.
“You said you released Ruben. You said you had programmed Katy’s nanobots to self-destruct once they had finished their task. Can’t you order the ones in you to turn themselves off? They’re just machines. They’ll do that, won’t they?”
She nodded, then shook her head. “But what will happen to me?”
“Hopefully, if they did their job as well as you seem to think, then your hair would grow out brown. Over time, your eyes would change back to gray. This fake-muscle padding would fade away. Normal muscle tissue would gradually replace what you have now.
“In short, you could have yourself back.”
She sat still, with crossed arms.
“You don’t like the changes?”
“It’s not that. Hey, I like the cute blonde, the sultry Latina, the hot biker chick. I’m a guy. I could get used to the idea of a rotating harem...”
“Hey! Don’t get any ideas.”
“...but just maybe I’d like to have a chance to get to know the girl with the brown hair and gray eyes a little better.
“Is it even possible that you can ever get back to her, free of nanobot programming?”
“Coming to bed?” he asked.
Deena stirred the coals, the tip of her stick bursting into a brief flame. “Not yet.”
She had been like that since their talk. Whether he had made her mad, or whether she just had a lot to think about, he didn’t want to disturb her.
However, he was only human. He needed his sleep.
But he couldn’t just leave her like that.
He unzipped his sleeping bag and carried hers over to where she sat. She looked up, with a question in her eyes as he unzipped the bag and draped it over her shoulders.
“I don’t really need it, you know.”
Luther arranged it as well as he could. “Yes, you do. There is more to a blanket than warmth.”
He crawled back into his bag and was asleep in minutes.
Deena woke up to the smell of bacon grease dripping into the fire. Luther was sitting on a rock, tending the cooking.
“Three strips apiece, two milk cartons and a cold muffin. Are you ready for breakfast?”
She nodded, unwilling to climb out of the comfort of her cocoon. The air on her face was comfortably cool, but when she moved, the dew on her bag shook droplets onto her skin.
I should have moved the bag under the tarp. But she had been too embarrassed to pull her bed next to his in the middle of the night. Suppose he had woken up. Suppose he had gotten ideas?
Don’t kid yourself, Deena. I’m the one with ideas. And they scare me.
And like the key to a lock, she remembered her dream, a surrealistic mélange of dark fantasy images and great moving powers.
Click. Click. Click. Ideas came together—jigsaw puzzle pieces.
She unzipped the bag and began to shake it dry.
“Luther. We need to talk.”
“I could rid myself of the nanobots. There might be an adjustment time while my body settled back into a natural balance, but I would survive it.”
Luther was listening quietly, intently, sitting beside her. She wished he reacted more.
“Remember after they left me in San Francisco? Nanobots in my body weren’t doing a thing then. They had essentially gone into hibernation.
“They’re good at what they do. And one of those things is hiding within a host. They are microscopic machines, trying to do a job in the macroscopic world. For that they need healthy hosts. It’s easier for them working in a host body that is already in balance with itself.”
He nodded. “That’s a relief. So what’s the problem?”
Deena let out a sigh. “You’re always ahead of me aren’t you. Do you know how aggravating that is?”
Luther raised his eyebrows in mock innocence. “Me? I’m just sitting here, waiting for enlightenment.”
She grumbled low to herself. “Okay, getting back on track here.
“I can’t afford to tell my nanobots to self-destruct. You can’t afford it. Especially San Francisco can’t afford for me to bail out now.”
He frowned, “I was worried about that. What are they going to do?”
“It’s earthquakes, obviously. Otherwise why use me to get to the fault line and then sink into the ground.”
“You are sure they’re evil?” It wasn’t really a question.
Deena nodded. “I’ve been trying to ignore it, but my little critters have a talent for destruction. I just wanted to go into Drye’s compound, lock up the gunmen, shake things up a bit for a distraction, and then escape with you and Katy.
“It was their elaboration to completely destroy the place. They’re very good at it.
“Last night, I dreamed. At least I think it was a dream. Nanobots are on some kind of holy crusade. I am supposed to be a warrior in their struggle.”
Solemnly, he stared at the ground.
He looked away. “When I was trapped, waiting to die, I had hours alone to fret about things. I wondered why they wanted you to transport them to the San Andreas Fault. Why would an alien species send complex machines across light-years of space to cause earthquakes?”
Deena said, “They can do other things. They can corrode structures, cause fires, freeze up moving parts. And of course, they can manipulate living things. They could convert a harmless bacteria or virus into a lethal disease. They could even be a disease themselves.
“They’re attacking us, Luther. And I was a weapons delivery system. I just don’t know why.”
Luther nodded. “Only one thing makes sense to me.
“It’s our technology. Deena. That’s what they’re attacking. I don’t think they are trying to wipe us out. I think they just want to keep us as primitives.”
“I don’t understand.”
He took her hand in his. He searched her eyes.
“Suppose they had arrived a thousand years ago. Given a few hundred years to spread all over the Earth by hitchhiking on animals, they could have been well established when the first steam engines were developed.
“If they could have detected the by-products of technology and zeroed in on the area with earthquakes and fires and simple mechanical failures, they could have stopped the industrial revolution cold.
“Because of these ‘random acts of god’, we would have stagnated at the age of sword and sail. And no one would have ever suspected the true cause.
“Perhaps they want to keep us from ever becoming space travelers ourselves. With spaceships and nuclear weapons, maybe we are too threatening to them.
“Remove our technology and we can’t wield dangerous forces. Remove our technology and we stay safely down in the dirt.”
Deena struggled to find a weakness in his argument as he talked. Unfortunately, it rang true.
“They set up house in the redwoods, and began to sense heavy technology south—by pollution in the wind, radio signals, who knows—they targeted it for destruction.”
Deena felt her insides knot up, “So when they accidentally infected me, I became the chosen warrior—the only host animal who could travel the great distances necessary to plant the earthquake bugs.”
He squeezed her hand. “We’ll stop them. You’ll give them the order to stop.”
She shook her head, “Luther, you don’t understand something about nanobots.
“They can only ‘do’. They don’t understand ‘don’t’. I can’t tell them to stop doing something. They are already tunneling down into the fault line. Even if they could hear me, they already have their orders.
“There’s nothing I can do to stop them.”
Luther asked quietly, “What if...what if you radioed an order to all nanobots everywhere to self-destruct? That’s a positive new order. Would they do it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t really know. It seems like they would. Let me think.”
She felt his hand holding hers. She had to concentrate. Closing her eyes and pulling her hand free, she tried to get back to that place, that strange place of great moving forces.
The grove of redwoods was there, their massive radio installation—she was close enough to feel it. She had enough of the radio nanobots in her to make a weak connection.
Like an oracle in some ancient temple, or the modern Internet, it was a massive store of information, quiet and unconcerned. Yet, if she asked the right way, it could provide the answers.
It was quiet in the forest for several minutes. Luther waited patiently.
Then, she started screaming.