Double Helix Ch. 05byFelHarper©
Author's note: Special thanks to my editor, literknight, for finding all those stupid little mistakes that slip past me.
"Don't yank the trigger back," Sasha shouted to be heard through my ear protection. "Keep the sights on your target and put steady, increasing pressure on the trigger until it breaks."
I tried to do as she asked, but when the gun went off, my shot kicked up a cloud of dust ten feet in front of the target. I looked around self-consciously to see if anyone else at the range had been watching.
"Don't do that," Sasha yelled. "No one cares what you are doing as long as you aren't being stupid. Your feet are too close together. Adjust your stance and try again."
The next shot hit the ground nearer the target, but off to the left.
"You are flinching. Relax. Take a deep breath if you have to. Don't think about the recoil. Try again."
The next shot struck the earthen mound at the far end of the range, passing just a few feet to the left of the target.
"Better, but keep your eyes open."
"They were open!" I shouted back.
Sasha chuckled. "No, Mr. Winston. They were not. Finish out the magazine, please, then pass me your weapon."
I was Mark Winston today, at least while we were out of the house. A week had gone by since finishing the new rooms in the basement, and with the waiting period up, Sasha had taken me directly to the store to get my weapon, then here to the shooting range.
I fired the remaining four shots, which flew frustratingly wide and short of the target. Holding the empty gun, I thought about it for a moment, recalling the lessons from the firearms safety course I had completed less than an hour ago. I engaged the thumb safety, removed the magazine and opened the bolt. Pausing for a moment to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything, I held the pistol out, pointed downrange and angled so that Sasha could see that it was empty.
"Thank you," she said, taking the weapon and examining it carefully herself. She replaced the empty magazine. "You will do this," she said, cocking back the hammer with her thumb. She sighted on the target. When she pulled the trigger, the gun gave a click, barely audible through the hearing protection. "Do this until I say to stop."
I did as she told me, sighting the target, cocking back the hammer, and dry-firing the Colt, over and over. My thumb and trigger finger began to tire after a few dozen repetitions.
"Getting bored?" Sasha asked, checking her watch.
I shrugged. "A little."
"Good. You have to make your body think that nothing special is about to happen when you go to fire your weapon. I see that you've stopped closing your eyes. Are you keeping the sights on target?"
I had noticed that it was impossible to keep the gun perfectly still. "I'm trying, but it moves around a lot."
"That is normal, especially when you are under stress. Find the center of that drift and hold that on the target. Let the gun wander a bit. Don't try to force it to hold still."
I tried a few more dry fires. "That really helps," I said, surprised.
"Good, now to try with bullets." She stepped back to watch me.
I loaded the spare magazine from the table in front of me and sighted on the target. The first two shots zinged past, but the third and fourth were hits. "Good, good," Sasha said, after two satisfying holes appeared in the paper target, one right of and above center and the other just to the left. Another miss, then a hit. Hit, miss, hit.
"Much better," Sasha said, as I set the empty Colt down on the table. "Reload and try again, please."
I reloaded and set up to shoot again. Only three of the nine shots struck the target this time. I could feel the flinch trying to creep back in. "Can we take a break?" I asked, when I had finished.
Sasha nodded, so I holstered the pistol and we moved back from the range, finding a bench near the parking lot. Once we were seated, I removed the bulky earmuffs and wiped the sweat from my brow.
"You are not too bad for a beginner," Sasha said, "but we'll need to come out here every Saturday for a few hours until you can hit the target consistently. After that, one hour a week."
"What is on your mind, Mark?" Sasha said, frowning. "I can tell you are not thinking about shooting."
"Well, I've been meaning to ask you, can I get a job?"
Her brows raised. "Aside from the one you have now?"
"Well, yes. I want to earn some extra money. Nothing that would interfere with my normal duties at home, of course."
"I have a feeling you already have plans for this extra money. More of your projects?"
"Maybe," I said with a chuckle.
"Part-time," she said. "No more than 25 hours a week and I need you all day Saturday and on Tuesday and Friday mornings."
"I'll work evenings," I said, trying not to smile too obviously. Knowing Sasha, the negotiations were not over yet.
"And you'll use part of your money to buy a car. I don't have time to drive you and I won't to risk putting you on my insurance."
"I'll get a bike."
:"What if it rains?"
"I'll take the bus."
"And your work with Tilly?"
"I'll figure that out. I'm sure I'll still have time."
She waved her hand. "Alright. Fine. But I'll have you know, I'm not telling the agency what you're doing. There's no way they would allow it."
She stood. "Break time's over. You need to put in more time with your Colt."
By the time we left, my arms ached from my shoulders all the way down to my fingers.
"So where were you thinking of getting a job?" Sasha asked, as we drove back home.
"At the hospital," I said.
"Not as a doctor?"
I smiled. "No, I'm not quite qualified for that. They're looking for a nurse's assistant, though. Mark Winston got his degree in English Lit, the poor sod, so I figure it's a good fit. Can I put you down for a reference? I won't use your real name."
"Sure. Give me some details and I'll spin a good tale for them if they call."
A warbling came from the car's speakers. Sasha thumbed a button on the wheel to answer. "Yes, mamka?"
"Aleksandra, have you seen the news?" Sasha's mother spoke with a thick accent, so it took me a few seconds to puzzle out the words. I could hear the anxiety in her words, though. I had never heard her call her daughter by her full given name.
"No, mamka. I will turn it on."
She hung up and tuned the stereo to a local news station. "--joint operation of federal agents and municipal and county police departments constitutes the largest and most successful organized crime bust ever conducted on US soil. Twenty-two members of the Himura syndicate were taken into federal custody and are facing multiple criminal charges, including illicit goods trafficking, arson, tax evasion, extortion, and conspiracy."
Sasha and I looked at each other. "Shit," she said. The Himura-kai yakuza syndicate was one of the agency's chief suppliers of food and medical supplies. I had learned about that connection within a few months of going to work for the safe house in LA, and it had bothered me for a while, knowing that the same agency that helped genemods did business with a criminal organization. We listened to the details for a few more minutes, until the newscaster began to rehash the facts.
"The crafty bastards," Sasha said. "First the strikes on smuggling boats, now this. They're sending another message, hoping to scare the other black marketeers off from dealing with the agency."
"Do you think it will work?"
Sasha frowned. "Probably it will do some damage. Maybe shortages and disruptions in our supplies. It will certainly raise the price of doing business. How are you coming with the greenhouse CO2?"
I had done some research in the last few weeks, but this was the first time since her initial query that Sasha had asked about it. "It's pretty simple, really. We need to get a generator. They run off of natural gas or propane and cost several hundred dollars. If we do it right, it should boost output by a third, maybe more."
"Good. Find one for me and I'll buy it. That won't keep us from starving if we have to rely on it completely, but it might help me stockpile faster."
When we got home, the others were all talking about the news and what it would mean for us. I gave them Sasha's opinion as well as my own, which was a bit more optimistic. To my surprise, Tilly was seated on the couch, in the middle of everyone. She didn't speak, just watched the television intently. She had her shoes on, which was her signal to me that she was ready to go out and work. It looked like she had put on five pounds just in the last week, but she had needed it. She was looking healthier than I had ever seen her.
I was exhausted from my time on the range, but couldn't quite bring myself to skip out on Tilly. Sasha probably would have understood if I skipped a day of work in the greenhouse, but Tilly's sessions were important, to her and to me. Besides, I didn't feel like sitting around while the others debated just how much worse things were going to get for us.
The work today was light, mostly harvesting, so I tried to use the time we had as much as possible. I spoke to her as we did a walkthrough, checking for ripe fruits and vegetables. "When I bring you out here, you seem so different," I said to Tilly over my shoulder. "You open up to me. Is it because of how the others treat you?"
She nodded. "I see it every time they look at me. Wendy pities me, which is almost bearable, but the rest feel little but disgust. Nissi and Stan just try to ignore me. I don't blame them. They don't understand what h-happened--" She cut off, pressing a hand to her stomach and doubling over as if in sudden pain.
"Here," I said, quickly, "I think some of these onions are about ready. Grab a couple of hand spades, would you?"
She went for the tools, returning just a moment later. "I've been wondering something," I said, as we checked the onions for ripe bulbs. "Last week you told me you knew I was lying, that you could see it. Do you have enhanced senses like Nock?"
She nodded slowly. "It's more than that, though. Have you ever heard of mirror neurons?"
"Right, that paper from McNally mentioned them. What are they, exactly?"
Tilly drew a deep breath. "They were discovered decades ago. When you do something, reach out for that onion, for example, neurons in your brain fire to initiate that action. Researchers discovered that when you observe someone else taking that same action, some of those same neurons fire. Your brain echoes what you are seeing, relating it to your own experience of taking the same action."
"So you have more of these mirror neurons?"
Tilly nodded and smiled faintly. "I have the same compact neurons and enhanced neo-cortex that your sister had, and a greater proportion of them are mirror neurons. My brain can intuit the physical sensations and emotional states of about five people at once with maximum resolution, or dozens at lower resolution. The simulations become more effortless and accurate, the longer I am exposed to someone. Right now I can feel your concern for me, but also pride and the beginnings of excitement." She pressed a hand below her breasts. "It puts a bit of a tingle right here in my chest."
It was eerie how precisely she had just described how I was feeling, right down to physical sensations. "It sounds like telepathy," I said. "How do you deal with all of that, when you are around multiple people?"
"It isn't telepathy, Norm. And how do you pick out a single conversation among many? I can pick one simulation out from the noise whenever I want to, then its just a matter of focusing on it. Or, I can put my mind on something else entirely and it fades to the background. If I focus on one, I feel everything that person feels, within the limits of how well I know their emotional and physiological responses. That knowledge gets better and better with time and experience."
"So what's the point of it all? I mean, it's an impressive ability, but why?"
"Well, if I know how the people around me feel, I can influence them. The whole point of it was to give me natural, automatic incentive to want to make others happy. That's the other part of it. Most people naturally feel good themselves when they have helped someone else. For me, not only do I want to make other people happy for the joy of the act, but I get to share directly in the experience of it."
The implications of what Kelly McNally and the others in her team had done, or at least had tried to do, was fascinating. "What would you do right now to make me happier?"
"Well, I told you it isn't telepathy. I can gauge reactions and recall past experience, though. Right now I can sense that this conversation is making you happy, so I have a strong urge to continue. In fact, normally it takes effort for me to not act on the that kind of impulse. And I wouldn't even notice it unless I thought about it."
"That's. . . astounding," I said, and went on more quickly in my excitement. "If there were more of your model, and you were living together, your happiness would just continue to feed back on each other, wouldn't it?"
"That's what Kelly and the others imagined. I think she hoped that one day the whole of humanity would choose to be like me. There would be no war, no crime. No one would want for anything. Every moment of every day would be one of pure joy."
My skeptic's impulse wanted to reject what she said as utopian nonsense, but I couldn't see a flaw in the reasoning. Human misery was partly a consequence of scarcity, and partly due to human nature. McNally and her team had hacked human nature itself. When I realized that, the implications were a little frightening. Her model was not just an enhancement. She was an entirely new species, one that could simply dispense with sadness. But where had she gone wrong? "This is a lot to take in," I said. Trying to reconcile what Tilly was designed to be, versus what she was now, I hit upon a thought. "Tell me, why did you get upset with me that first week when I got you to eat a bite of cookie?"
She continued working, as though she hadn't heard. I noticed that she was chewing at her lip. Finally she spoke. "There's this problem," she said. "Pleasure, happiness, a little is fine, but too much of it and I. . . something happened." Her hands began to tremble and she shook her head. She blinked a few times and returned to digging up onions in a slow, mechanical fashion.
It was so frustrating, feeling like I was close to something important, only to have her shrink back into herself. I decided to press on, taking a risk. "I know what happened to you in Cleveland," I said. I had expected that to have an effect on her, but she went on working as though I hadn't spoken. "I know that you were raped." Saying those words took made my heart ache, just like when I had read about it last week, but I went on. "But it's okay. What was done to you was unforgivable, but you are strong enough to get through it. You can heal, if you just--"
"Just what the fuck do you know?!"
Tilly's sudden scream shocked me to silence. I looked at her and shrank back at what I saw, dropping the onion in my hand. Rage and pain warred for dominance, contorting her face, as she stood. There was a tick, tick, tick and then a sharp crack as the plastic handle of the little spade in her hand shattered. I backed away more quickly, my terror of her growing by the second.
"You. . . you pretentious fuck!" She took a step towards me, shaking away bits of sharp plastic that had embedded themselves in her hand. "What do you know about me?"
"Please, Tilly," I said. My back hitched up against the glass wall of the greenhouse. "Please calm down."
She stared at me for a moment more, her chest rising and falling visibly with the violence of her breathing. She looked around, as if suddenly remembering where she was, then looked down at herself. She stared at the cuts on her hand. Slowly, she sank to the ground, sitting down on the dirt path. She laid her arms across her knees and bent her head to rest against them. She began to shake.
My heart was still beating hard in my ears as I stepped away from the glass, careful to avoid crushing more of the lettuce that I had stepped on in trying to get away from her. I wanted to run, to make for the door and get back inside the house with the others, to safety. Instead, I forced myself forward, towards the petite, sobbing woman who, just moments before, I had thought was going to attack me.
I dropped to one knee in the dirt in front of her. Tentatively, I reached out a hand to touch her arm. She jerked at the contact, but didn't pull away. I held my hand there, just letting her feel that I was present. "I'm sorry," I said.
"What's wrong with you?" Tilly said softly, still crying. "Why won't you leave me alone? Don't you see what I almost did to you?"
"I want to help you," I said.
"You can't. I'm--"
"You're not broken," I snapped, surprised by my own sudden anger.
"You don't know anything."
"So tell me," I said, almost pleading. "Tell me what's wrong."
Tilly's sobs had begun to ebb, but she would not look up at me. "Take me back in, Norm. I need to lie down."
I stood and helped her to her feet. She rubbed her face with the back of her arm as I led her outside. I felt just as drained as she seemed to be, and walked with her all the way to her room. She dropped onto the bed, still dressed in the work clothes from the greenhouse, and stared at the ceiling. I hesitated at the doorway, but I couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't sound trite and false. I closed the door and left her there alone.
"You okay?" Wendy said, as I emerged. She and Nissi had gotten up from her spot by the television and stood waiting near the last row of rooms.
I nodded, thought better of it, then shook my head.
Nissi looked over at Wendy, then at me. "Want to talk?"
I came forward and put my arms around her. She did the same, cradling my head on her shoulder. I pulled away so that I could speak to both of them. "I think I just made a big mistake," I said.
"With Tilly?" Wendy asked.
"Yes. She was doing so much better. You saw it. But I think I made things worse." I considered taking Wendy away to speak to her in private, but decided that there was no point keeping this a secret from Nissi. Where she had mostly ignored Tilly in the past, in the last week, she had made an effort to try talking to her. I told both of them everything that had happened.
"Damn, I really wish we knew more about her," Nissi said. "And Norm, I don't know if you should keep going out there alone with her. The way you make it sound, she almost attacked you."
I sighed, looking over my shoulder at the closed door. "I'm not even sure she will go out to the greenhouse anymore."
Both of them protested, of course, but my words turned out to be truer than even I thought. Tilly stayed in her room the rest of the day and all of the next. I tried to bring her food that day, but she refused to eat it and turned to stare at the wall when I tried to talk to her. The following day, our next day to work in the greenhouse, I found her still lying in bed, unresponsive to my promptings. I checked in on her every day or two after that, but nothing I could say or do would make her acknowledge me. Wendy took over feeding her, and had more success than I had. She told me in a concerned whisper that Tilly still wasn't getting enough to eat.
For that matter, none of us were. After the Himura-kai arrests, our next food delivery was shorter by almost half while the prices for black market food shot up. We weren't starving, exactly, but every meal left us all feeling a little hungry. The next three weekly food shipments was missed entirely, and the one to follow wasn't much better than the first. Coffee looked to be a luxury we might soon be doing without. Sasha told me in no uncertain terms that she would not dip into her hidden stockpile until it became absolutely necessary.