Double Helix Ch. 06byFelHarper©
Note: Thanks once again to literknight for editing. The sex takes a backseat to the storyline in this chapter, and chapter 7 is currently in the works.
"I've been on suicide watch, haven't I? That's what all of this has been about." It had been six days since Tilly's attempt to take her own life. In that time, she had hardly been left alone for more than two minutes except late at night. Everyone had come to visit her, singly or in groups, even Sasha's mother Nonna, who had taken a liking to Tilly immediately, despite having only spoken to her once before, when she had first arrived at the house. For the late night hours, I had gotten Nock's promise to monitor her for me. Even with her walls to muffle the noise, Nock would hear if she woke and would come check on her if she did not come out or go right back to sleep.
I waited to answer until I had finished counting Tilly's pulse. "So, do you mean to say you aren't contemplating suicide any more?" I asked.
Tilly shrugged and looked away.
"All of your vitals look good. It's been six days now. I'd say you are fully recovered. So you need to come join us for lunch." The others were already gathering in the main room.
She looked at me and shook her head slowly. "No, I'd rather not. Can you just send Wendy in with my food?"
"Tilly," I said, exasperated, "why do you insist on trying to go back to what you were before? You aren't that same dull, lifeless person you used to be, not even when you try."
"I know," she said. "But it was a mistake. It's better if I just—just keep to myself, you know?"
"Or you can let me help you get past it."
"Norm, there's a dark place," she said haltingly. "A place in the back of my mind. What's in there, I don't dare let out. I don't dare to even look at it. Don't try to make me. I can't do it."
"What if that's what you need? What if that's the only way to heal?"
She shook her head. "No, you don't get it. There's no healing there. There's only. . . what you saw that day. That. . . that rage. I think I might have killed you if I hadn't come to my senses."
"Hello," Nissi said through the open door. "Nock couldn't help overhearing that Tilly doesn't feel like coming out to have lunch." She stepped into the room holding two bowls of soup, one of which she gave to Tilly. "So, we're having lunch in here with you."
When she said it, everyone else filed into the room one by one, filling the tiny room to overflowing. Stan brought me a bowl along with his own. They all began to converse at once, just as we would have if we were having lunch at the table, and the noise became almost uncomfortable. Tilly looked visibly perturbed at first, but the mood must have started to infect her and she sat up in bed with a faint smile on her face, watching everyone talking and laughing.
Stansy went over to sit next to Tilly, speaking earnestly with her for a few minutes. When she was done, Stansy wiped tears from her eyes, a gesture that Tilly mimicked almost perfectly just a moment later. "So Tilly," Wendy said loudly, which cued the others to quiet down. "If you don't come out and sit with us for dinner, we're going to come back in here and spill food all over your things again." She pointed to a wet spot where soup had dripped from Stan's spoon onto Tilly's dresser, making an irregular orange circle in the dust there. "That's not a warning. That's a promise."
A laugh went up at that, and the conversations resumed. After a bit, Stan and Stansy left, followed a few minutes later by Nock, Wendy, and Nissi. I shook my head in amusement, wondering whose idea it had been for this little stunt. "Do you mind me asking what Stansy said to you?" I said to Tilly, once we were alone.
One corner of Tilly's mouth twitched in a smile. "She said you told all of them about how I sense and absorb the emotions of those around me, and how she and Nock were sorry that their feelings toward me helped to keep me isolated from all of you. I told her that I forgave them, that it really wasn't their fault since they didn't know."
"How did that make her feel?" I asked.
She took a deep breath. "Really good," she said. "It made Stansy feel a lot better to know that. Nock, too."
"It was easier to hide away in here when no one liked you, wasn't it?"
She looked down, her good mood dissipating. When she spoke, the fear in her words was palpable. "You aren't going to let this go, are you, Norm?"
"You can't go back to what you were. That's no way to live."
She sat there in silence for some time, ignoring my presence, so I stood and let myself out.
Heading into the main room, I caught sight of Stan and Stansy seated together at the computer. Stansy looked upset, alternately shaking her head in disbelief and propping her chin up with a hand while she read the screen. I stood there until I made eye contact with Stansy and she waved me over. "Hey, Norm," she said, and cleared her throat gently. "I emailed my son, just like you suggested."
"Wow, that's great," I said carefully. "So Stan helped you set up a proxy and helped you hide your tracks, right?"
"Yeah," she said. "Oh, yeah, Stan was great." She gave his hand a squeeze, possibly the first open sign of affection I had ever seen her give him. It was hard to believe that these two had a sexual relationship. "No problem there. And Chris even got it. And he even responded. Maybe um, maybe you want to have a look?"
I came around the desk and crouched behind it where I could get a look at the screen. Stansy moved the page up so that I could read from the top.
You know, this is really screwed up. It's been SEVEN YEARS since Dad and I have heard anything from you. NOW you want to write me and tell me how much you 'love' me and hope one day that we can see each other again? Guess your conscience finally caught up with you, huh? Well, guess what? It's too late. You should have thought of that BEFORE you ran off. If Dad and I really meant anything to you, you would have stayed. Instead, you thought your precious genes were more important than us.
Dad held out hope for a long time that you'd come back. Whenever I asked him about you, he kept saying that maybe you'd change your mind and come home to us. I finally figured out that you weren't coming home, though I think it took Dad longer. He's got a girlfriend now, by the way, so he did stop waiting for you, in case you were wondering.
If you're really serious about wanting to see me, why don't you do the world a favor and revert your mod already? It's people like you that have turned this country into a hell hole. If you do, don't bother showing up here, though. I'm still pissed at you, especially now that you're writing me, trying to weasel your way back into my life. Maybe I'll forgive you someday. Yeah, fat chance.
"That bastard," Stansy said, shaking in her anger. "My husband filed for divorce after one week, but it looks like he never told Chris that. He's made me out to be some kind of heartless bitch."
"He's poisoned the well," Stan said. "Pretty natural thing to do, really, not that it's excusable."
"Now I wish I'd never written him. He was such a sweet kid. That's how I'd like to remember him. Not like this."
"And now he's a teenager," I said, "not a little kid. You have to keep that in mind. Look, one good thing. It doesn't look like he talked to your ex-husband. Seems like he decided to tell you off himself and save Dad the trouble."
"Yeah, that is something," Stansy agreed. "So what should I do now?"
"What do you think you should do?" I said.
Stansy snorted at my throwing the question back at her. "Okay, then. I think I should write him again. Maybe try to explain myself and why I felt I had to leave."
"Tell me why you left," I prompted.
She thought for a moment. "I left because they wanted to change me. They wanted to put things in my body and destroy who I was. I wouldn't have been the same person when they finished."
"That's a good start. Maybe work on some of that purist prejudice, too. It sounds like he's had his head filled up with a lot of nonsense, not just from his father, but probably from his education too. If he's a smart kid, he'll start to realize the contradictions in the things he's been taught."
She sighed. "I don't know. I'm afraid that whatever I say is just going to push him further away. I'd like to tell him what a lying asshole his father is, but I do know enough to realize that won't help. I'll think about it."
I needed to take the laundry upstairs, so I gathered the bags and started up, but paused when I saw a red "X" flashing on the bottom right of the monitor mounted near the door. Moving more quietly, I climbed to the top. The pinhole camera looking in on the pantry showed only a fuzzy streak of light on darkness, so used the panel there to send commands to the house's CCTV system, cycling through the cameras in and around the house. The camera that looked from the front porch toward the driveway showed an unfamiliar vehicle parked there, a large black SUV. I slowly cycled through the house's interior until I came to the living room, where Sasha was speaking to a man and a woman in business attire. I could hear their voices very faintly coming through the door, but couldn't make out anything they were saying.
"Nock," I whispered. "Can you come up here?" He appeared a few moments later, peering up at me quizzically from the landing. "Quietly," I said. "There's people in the house I don't know. I want you to listen."
Nock came softly up the stairs to stand next to me, watching the monitor. He cocked his head slightly. "The man is asking about the greenhouse and how much it produces." He frowned. "Miss Gray isn't being very forthcoming. She said she isn't sure. The woman just said that they need to leave here with an estimate, or they'll be sending a team in to do a survey. Miss Gray is telling them that she can't risk oomycete contamination and the woman just told her that they have procedures to prevent that. Norm, this is some weird shit. Who are these people?"
"I don't know," I said. "Agency, maybe?"
"Government," Nock answered himself. "The guy just said something about the Emergency Food Distribution Act of 2006. Norm, what the hell is going on here?"
The Emergency Food Distribution Act had nationalized food production and distribution nationwide. All farms in the US had been declared government property and every shipping company, grocery store and food processing plant had been put under strict government control. Food service establishments were technically able to continue operating independently, but effectively, that industry ceased to exist when the supply dried up unless the government intervened directly, as was the case for the dining facility in the hospital where I worked.
"I don't know. I'll find out from Sasha once these people leave. You can go back down. I don't think we're in any danger right now."
They moved to Sasha's office and she began to flip through some records, jotting down figures on a scrap of paper. The man took it when Sasha offered and studied it carefully. It seemed to satisfy him and the woman, and they left a few minutes later. I waited for the SUV to drive off and for the "X" to disappear from the monitor before I came out to find Sasha.
"Norm!" she said when I walked into her office. "We have a bit of a problem."
"Who were those people?" I asked.
"'Independent farm assessors', whatever the hell that means. They are from the Department of Agriculture. Someone has been coming up with new ways to interpret the mandates in the Emergency Food Distribution Act. My backyard has been reclassified as a 'farm' and my greenhouse and everything in it is now the property of the United States government. All food produced above a certain minimum is to be seized for redistribution.."
"That's crazy," I said. "They expect you to work to produce food just to have them take it from you?"
"Apparently, if I produce less than they require of me, I could be fined and even imprisoned. Slavery, in other words."
The audacity of it, combined with the sheer inefficiency of collecting food from probably thousands of greenhouses throughout the city, made me furious. They would be lucky to fill up more than a truck or two in any given week. "They can't do this!"
"Oh, yes. Yes, they can, Norm. The paperwork is right here." She handed me a stack of papers a half-inch thick. "I could have refused to sign, demanded to consult my attorney but they would have sent a survey team to perform a thorough inspection of the property the moment I showed any resistance. You and I both know we can't have that."
"But this is insane! We're already barely getting enough to eat as it is. How can they justify this?"
"Because, on paper, mamka and I have everything we need, plus a lot more to spare. To their way of thinking, we're taking an unfair share of the available food. It needs to go to those less fortunate than us." She said something in Russian that sounded like a curse. "They are no better than the Marxists. Does history teach them nothing?"
"What are you going to do?"
Sasha cursed again in Russian. "The estimate I gave those parasites is understated by about 60%. That is not an unreasonable amount for amateur growers. They will take half of that amount, reducing our harvest by about 20%. I am hoping that our CO2 generator can make up the shortfall."
"Do you think that will satisfy them?"
Sasha sighed. "Possibly not. My hope is that if we hand over our quota without complaint, they will see no reason to scrutinize us further."
I could only hope that she was right. It seemed like things were getting more and more dangerous for all of us. "Should I let the others know?" I asked.
"Well, I suppose it will be more trouble hiding this then it is worth. Let everyone know this. Pickup is on Thursday mornings between eight and twelve, starting next week, so the noise must stay low and no one can be out of the basement, not even you."
I went back downstairs to deliver the news, being sure to reassure everyone that the dip in our harvest should be more than offset by the CO2 generator, which had already yielded a good crop of tomatoes, onions, and squash at least a week earlier than usual. Everyone was still troubled by the news, as it meant that once a week, a government worker would be right here on the property to collect the food.
Stansy took me aside after to let me know that she was going to wait to write her son back. She needed time to think through her response carefully. I nodded my understanding of her concern.
"Hey," Stan said. "You got anyone you'd like to look up?"
The thought really hadn't occurred to me. Who would I contact? My parents? They might be happy to know I was alive, but I didn't know what to say to them. My sister? That thought brought an unexpected rush of anger. No, definitely not her. Then I realized who I needed to speak to more than anyone. "Can you just look someone up?" I asked.
Stan shrugged. "You can search through social media, personal web sites, that kind of thing. All the traffic gets encrypted and routed through a server in Thailand. You can pretty much go wild."
I took a seat at the computer and found the launch link for Stan's encryption hack. With a connection established, I started searching various social media for the name "Kelly McNally". A professional networking site named Career Connect listed about thirty. I dismissed the first several that I found that were obviously too young or in the wrong profession. I couldn't be certain that she was even still in the country, but it was likely. When the Ban was passed, one of its provisions prevented genetic engineers and researchers from emigrating.
The reason for that became clear soon enough. There were about fifteen popular genemods that accounted for about 90% of their share of the population, but that remaining 9-10% was a mixed bag of close to thirty more obscure models that had simply never caught on in any great numbers. That presented a problem for reverting them. Where procedures had already been developed by the time of the Ban to remove enhancements from those top fifteen models, geneticists were still needed to unravel the genomes of many of the other models, which often had little surviving documentation from which to work. That work had taken a few years to complete. No one was really sure what the geneticists did after that, except that they remained under the government's employ, mainly in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Further down the page were two Kelly's with nothing in the preview. I clicked through. One of them listed their current city as Bethesda, Maryland, which I knew to be the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health. It was as close a match as I was likely to find. I quickly created a profile using a fake name and sent a request, with the text, "Interested in your thoughts about uTility."
I hoped that the odd spelling would be enough to catch her attention but slip the notice of anyone who might be monitoring her communications. I went to my room to read for an hour, and when I came back, there was a message waiting for my profile. "If you are for real, sign in at 10 PM eastern to the address provided and enter the chat room 'Cheshire' using the same profile name you have here." I wrote back, promising to meet her.
It seemed that our good-natured threat had the desired effect, because Tilly came out for dinner that night to sit on my left, and even stayed to listen to the conversation. I was surprised to see that Sasha had come down as well. Stan said he had a presentation for us, but he made us wait until everyone was finished eating first. "So here's how this got started," he said, standing up and walking to the head of the table so everyone could see him. Behind him was Stansy's easel with a cloth draped over whatever was on it. "You all know that I've done a lot of research into securing our communications so that some of you can talk to the people on the outside. That got me to thinking about ways we might be able to harness those secure connections." He reached behind him to pull off the cloth, revealing a large pad of paper.
"Oh sweet baby Jesus, he brought schematic diagrams," Nissi said, leaning close to my ear. "He's a bigger geek than you are."
"This is a virtual private network," Stan said, pointing to a set of three circles connected by a triangle of lines. A big circle surrounded it with the words "internet". The words "tunneling protocol" were written above each line of the triangle. "A network is established that is encapsulated in, yet separate from, the internet. Each node is connected to every other node with an encrypted channel. It's not too different from the connections we use to hide our web traffic on this terminal, except that the connections persist. That's what makes the network private. Any traffic that gets intercepted is unreadable to anyone who isn't part of the network."
"It's very pretty, Stan," Nissi said, "but what good does it do us?"
"Stay with me," he said. He flipped the page back, revealing the next diagram. Several dots were written on the map along with city names. "Tokyo", "Mumbai", "Bangkok", "Santiago" were all well known genemod havens, but then "Seattle", "Dallas" and "New York" were there as well. Lines connected every city to every other one.
Stan let us look it over for a moment and then went on. "I want to establish a network that connects genemods from around the world. The government declared us non-citizens, and ever since, that's what I've felt like, cut off from everyone in the outside world. The agency could benefit from this arrangement as well, maybe even start to work on the infrastructure that could move our traffic out of the regular internet entirely, making it completely undetectable."