Death seeped into The Garden, black and oily.
McAllister’s body, rotting in the pod where Jenny spent the last few days of her life, liquefied into a foul brew of flesh, marrow, and bile. Slowly worming through the smallest of gaps into the nourishment channel, his dark nectar infected the bloodstreams of thousands of souls.
Brenna bolted upright in her Chelsea apartment bed, a stabbing pain tearing through her left eye. The Garden signal was disrupted by a new darkness that brought with it a wash of unbearable agony. Swiping at her eyeball, Brenna struggled to remove the contact lens, anything to rid her of this new suffering.
Clinging to her cornea, the lens held fast, stuck as if burned to the surface. The stream flowed, pushing its message through her mind, ripping at her reality with the subtlety of a chainsaw. Blatant, primal, the communication surged through her with a pointed, unmistakable thrust.
She dug under the edges of the lens with her fingernail, scratching the surface of her eyeball. This new pain was a welcome distraction from the full body torture wracking her as the stream stretched her brain to bursting. She curled the edge of the lens up enough to grab it between her nails, blood trickling from her scratched cornea. With an anguished scream she ripped it away from her eye.
“Hal,” she called into the darkness, “Bring the Garden stream up on the display in my bedroom.”
Shaking, heart pounding, eye throbbing, hot and bloody with each beat, Brenna stared at the black lens in her hand. The screen lit up the room, a monochrome swirl of fractals, familiar patterns circling and closing in on each other. Nothing unusual.
“What the fuck was all that?”
The blood pooled in her eye, blurring her vision as she walked across the expanse of her Chelsea loft to the kitchen. Automatic lighting came up as she passed through the space, squinting at the brightness, the blood pushed out and down her cheek. She put the lens on the white marble-topped island and ran some cold water over a dishcloth. Her eye soothed by the cold of the cloth, she flipped the lens over. A red smear on the pure white marble was the only indication that anything out of the ordinary had happened.
“Put the stream on the kitchen screen, Hal.”
The same steady flow indicating all was normal.
“Run a diagnostic on the Garden subsystems and send the report to my sanctuary.”
Holding the cloth over her eye, Brenna headed to her hall of mirrors, the one place in this house where she could go to figure out what the hell was going on.
Harsh lighting jumped to attention as she passed through the sanctuary threshold. Reflecting pearlescent in the mirrors, her pale skin glowed, haloed by the pitiful, gauzy blur that her eyes could muster through the pain and the blood.
She stared into the glass, her right eye sharp and piercing, the emerald green she’d stared at every day for as long as she could remember. The left eye, twitching as she tried to keep it open, scratched, still bleeding, was barely recognizable to her. It had been weeks since she had removed the lens. Her left eye was milky green like cheap jade, bleeding and foreign. After spending much of her life staring into her own face, perfecting it in every way possible, this new visage frightened her.
“Ms. Patrick, the diagnostics are coming through now.”
A performance dashboard opened on the mirror before her.
All systems functioning, nothing out of the ordinary.
“Hal, run a deep scan on the nodes and give me a breakdown on anything that changed in the last eight hours.”
“On it, Ms. Patrick.”
With a last press of the towel, the cool replaced by the heat of her injury, she turned to another mirror. Her body reflected back, less blurry as her vision adjusted to the light and pain. The last weeks with the lens obscuring her vision had hidden from her the toll she paid. There was a dullness about her like the milky film that had grown over her left eye.
She shook her head, reaching for a brush. Sitting at the vanity, she brushed the sleep from her hair, scanning her face with the scrutiny of a PET scan, marking every flaw.
“There appears to be a foreign substance in the feeding system, Ms. Patrick.”
The Garden was a closed system. How could that be?
“The highest concentration is on the 77th floor.”
McAllister. Of course that arsehole would find a way to screw things up, even in death. She should have cleaned up his mess, but she had thought there was time. Making mistakes was not a familiar place for Brenna, but here she was.
The vanity stool screeched, echoing off the mirrored walls, high-pitched and nauseating as she thrust it backward.
“Get my driver downstairs immediately. I need to get to the office to fix this.”
“Yes, Ms. Patrick.”
Early morning city lights, empty streets, typically soothing, now scratched at her vision. Her eye burned, each throb of her heart lighting a new fire, making the quiet trip to the NeuralTech headquarters unpleasant. By the time she was on the 77th floor, the burn was a roaring blaze. Barely able to keep the eye open in the bright light of the server room, she grabbed a first aid kit from a wall outside the elevator and taped a gauze patch over her left eye.
“Let’s see what shit you’ve been up to, General McAllister,” she muttered to herself.
Passing through the rows of black servers, cold and efficient, she realized for the first time how much they looked like coffins. Who designed these things? She couldn’t remember. The last ten years had passed so quickly.
She stopped at the server pod where she’d left McAllister’s body. There was a pool of black, shimmering silver in the fluorescent glow from above. Syrupy, thick, it clung to the base of the pod, surrounding it like a sinister, oversized amoeba.
“Hal, how far has this spread?”
Since the whole incident with Jenny, Brenna had had to harden her systems to keep control from the DoD, and part of the new security was to eliminate as much of the weakness that came from human resources. Uplinking Hal to the HQ control center was just the first step, but having him here gave her the confidence and control required to lockdown the building and keep the government out of her business.
“There don’t appear to be any traces beyond this floor, Ms. Patrick.”
“Shunt the feeding system to bypass this floor.”
“Yes, Ms. Patrick.”
She would be kicking herself for years if they ended up losing these nodes because of that dripping knob of a man.
“This mess is going to require at least three cleanup units, Hal.”
“They will be here momentarily, Ms. Patrick.”
The black seepage smelled like rot, like hot garbage behind a Thai restaurant in summer. She fought back the urge to retch and stepped away from General McAllister’s leaking pod. As she waited for the cleanup droids, her thoughts strayed to Jenny. While she had no regrets about what she’d done to her, locking her in this very pod, she couldn’t help but wonder how their lives would have changed had she made different choices.
Droids swarmed from the elevator, buzzing around the pod. Two vacuumed the floor, black ooze filling their clear reservoirs. The other attached a hose to a port on the floor. The pod drained slowly, the filmy curtain of ooze clinging desperately to the walls, thinning as gravity pulled it downward.
McAllister’s body appeared as the tank drained. Half-preserved by the feeding fluid, he was much as she remembered him. He was dead with his throat ripped out, though the skin of his face had loosened, sloughing off in slimy sheets, collecting like a gruesome Victorian collar around his neck.
Why the fluid had turned from its usual blue to this sinister black filth was beyond her. As the last of the bile slimed down the drain, she tapped on the side of the pod. The front panel rose, dumping McAllister’s body on the deck below.
“What a god awful stench,” she said. Her eyes watered as she pulled her blouse up over her nose. The two droids scooped the body into a cart, plopping with a wet, drippy smack. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
When the server pods, and the support system to keep the nodes alive and healthy, had been designed, the engineers were told it was for a kelp farm. She always guessed they thought that was a bullshit story, but the pay was good and the work interesting. The system was built to flush out individual pods in the case of isolated blight, but not scaled for an entire floor. There was no place to store and keep the nodes alive while all the pods were flushed and sanitized.
“What do the vitals look like in the other pods, Hal?”
“Other than the anomalous disruption earlier, the system is operating normally. The nodes are all functioning and stable, Ms. Patrick.”
“Let’s keep the support system for this floor self-contained. Notify me immediately if there is any change.”
“Of course, Ms. Patrick.”
Brenna took the stairs up to her office on the 78th floor. With sunrise imminent, the sky lightened to a hazy gray, filling the full-floor office with an eerie glow like the inside of a receding shadow. Fluorescent lights killed the shade as she walked through the room. Sitting at her desk, she pulled a contact lens case from the top drawer.
Carefully, she lifted away the gauze from her left eye. It still stung like a bastard, but she could keep it open, even in this light. More importantly, she could see.
“I guess we’ll try this in the other eye,” she said, sliding a black lens onto her right eye.
The Garden flow streamed across her retina, her synapses syncing with the signal. She tapped into the system monitors, watching the ebb and flow of activity between the nodes. Everything checked out, even the isolated nodes. She kicked off a round of diagnostics on the 77th floor and watched the results stream by without incident.
Brenna toyed with the idea of integrating the closed floor back into the wider system, but the thought of that black ooze held her impulsive side at bay. If there was any way to save that floor of nodes, she wanted to find it, but it wasn’t worth risking the entire system. Finding the occasional replacement unit was no problem, but an entire floor would be a tall order, especially with NeuralTech being under a microspectrometer at both the DoD and every reputable journalistic institution in the world.
No, she needed a way to get this shit cleaned up. Fast.
“Hal, send a sample of the black fluid to a lab for a full chemical and DNA breakdown, and make it a top priority.”
“Should I use the DoD, Ms. Patrick?”
Vivid memories of McAllister surged back to Brenna in a rush; she felt the dripping meat of his throat in her hands, the gurgle and spew as his life drained away, the swell of vomit in her own throat.
“Well, since it is probably going to have some of the general in it, let’s not use their services for this one.”
“Right you are, Ms. Patrick.”