Two hundred years ago, being a security guard meant pacing through an air-conditioned shopping centre, watching a swarm of ant-like people pass in and out of sight and being the scarecrow to deter the rare spider in ant's clothing who might otherwise disrupt the flow. Now it meant acting the sniper, staring almost unblinkingly into land that had expelled humankind but allowed some species of animal to adapt and build new niches there. It meant having a hand on her weapon at all times, ready to aim and shoot before the animal came close enough to attack itself. And they were quick devils. Nelly Mason had shot a few in her career and the first of them had cost her an arm.
They'd regenerated it, of course. One of the plusses of science. One downside was, according to popular opinion, the wasteland she stared at. Another was just barely out of sight: the cage that would swing with soft clangs when the wind picked up and the creature inside that would roar in pain. At least watching it wasn't her job, unless a researcher pressed the alarm. Hadn't ever happened on her watch, and that meant it wasn't very likely to ever happen. She'd been on the job twelve years now, and had seen pretty much every reincarnation of a day on the job. Still, she couldn't afford complacency. That had cost her a good chunk of her cheek and half the mandible before bullet number three had caught the charging wolger in the skull. Weren't a novelty by then and less so now, but still predators who were going for broke when they crossed the line into human society.
Of course, it was near suicide the other way around. And it didn't used to be security's job to make sure nobody was sneaking out into the wilderness. Wilderness hadn't really been their forte. But times had changed, and now it was.
And if a Security officer wanted something dangerous to come along, it was only for the excitement that came attached. Now the danger was a necessity: not excitement, but the meat it dragged along. Another reason for the diligence. She needed to be sharp to catch a dot on the horizon - and again closer up to drag the carcass back. She was all ready too, like a good security guard in this day and age: sitting on her hoverbike (parked of course, which meant it was on the ground) with her pistol in easy reach and her rifle steadied over the handlebars and ready to aim and shoot.
A quick breeze blew in, rattling the cage chains behind her and tossing the loose strands of her braid before passing her by. Nothing stirred in the wasteland. She watched until her eyes began to burn, then closed one. When the other blurred, she switched and gripped the rifle more carefully because her right eye was a little poorer and needed a little extra attention to back it up.
And, sure enough, she caught a speck of dark against the sun, moving down. She shot in its direction before she knew what it was and when it froze, she kicked off the brake and took off.
The hoverbike glided over the frost-dusted dirt, speed slicing up a cloud to follow her and splatter the carbon alloy frame and leather-clad legs. Her attention was split between the ground she glided over, her target she drew ever closer to and anything else potentially moving on the plain. But nothing did except her and, once she'd gotten close enough to see, the twitching berolf. She'd shot it in the gut. She shot it once more, through the head this time, when she was close enough to not miss.
The berolf twitched once more, then slumped. Dark blood left a kiss like lipstick on the wound and Nelly glared at the beast. Needing two bullets meant she'd slipped back in the races, and if Boris managed without a second shot on his next shift, then she'd owe him a drink that weekend.
Either way, the berolf was downed now, and she pulled out the anchor-like hoot and hopped off the bike and on to the beast. The berolf's ribs cracked under her feet but it was a sound as familiar as the wind and the howls of the animals who'd taken to the poisoned land like a fish to water and so she ignored it. Similarly, she ignored the fang-like teeth as she wedged the mouth open with the hook. The hook went through the roof of the mouth, and she gritted her teeth as she grinded it through the layers of muscle and connective tissue until it came out through the nose. And the berolf was dragged back by the maxilla, its speckled fur for generations immune to the poisoned soil in a way human skin would never be.
Boris Carter saw Nelly's hoverbike take off just when he came to begin his shift. She took off like a bullet towards her quandary, and the male took the time to set himself up while he waited. It was too far away to see the action, almost too far away to recognise Nelly when he'd gotten there but he'd caught sight of her straw-yellow braid and that was a dead giveaway. But then she was just a dot in a dust cloud, until she came back into view, her hoverbike dragging a modestly sized berolf behind her.
And by the time she was in yelling distance, he could make out the two bullet holes she'd left as well. "Lazy catch," he called.
"Shove it, Boris," was Nelly's reply. "Are you watching my catch or my back?"
"Don't have to do either till handover." Boris grinned at Nelly's scowl. Both her hands were occupied – one on the rifle and the other on the bike – and so gestures were out until she killed the engine.
And by then, she'd come up with her counter. "Here's your handover." She undid the hook from her bike. "Enjoy; I'm late for lunch already."
"Eat it out here," he suggested. "An extra pair of eyes won't hurt when mine are occupied."
"And there's maintenance to do as well." Nelly sighed. The scratches were barely visible, but ten years on the job had taught her the poison that pierced out of sight. "Wonder if we'd have gotten overtime in the old world. Would be nice to get a little reward for chasing after a wild animal a few secs before the shift's meant to end."
Boris shrugged. "We're lucky to be on this side of Russia."
"I guess." Chains rattled again. "Did you feed it on your way?"
"Nope. I'll do it at the end of my shift."
"Graveyard shift, huh." That phrase had another meaning two hundred years ago, or several. Graveyards didn't strictly exist in the current phase of the world. Nor did mining, and a few other things that involved digging into the earth. The poison rose faster that way and they'd learnt it. And, like good little species living on planet earth, they were, on the whole, out to survive.
Once Nelly had finished checking her bike over, Boris checked his, starting the engine and making sure the hoverbike was hovering above the security limit, and the rifle he slung over the handlebars was steadied, loaded and ready to fire.
"Go get lunch," he said. "I'm all set here. Unless you saw a herd of berolves following that one." He jerked a thumb at Nelly's kill.
Nelly shook her head, her braid avoiding each cheek through practice or habit, or both. "Nothing but the usual mess of dirt and snow. Someone should come up with a name for it. We've got cross-species animals relatively sorted."
"Take it up with the research folks," Boris said.
"Maybe after lunch." Nelly wandered off to fetch some for herself, and Boris swung himself onto the bike and took his turn at standing vigil. The horizon was unblinking, now that Nelly and her quandary were gone from it, and the sun at the top edge of it. It was a pale sun, yellow like pus and half the existence it had been two hundred years ago. They'd all read the old records at one point or another, the ones that claimed the earth would boil in an oven by 2200. It was 2250 now, and the earth was getting colder by the year. Spared them the threatened boiling in summer. Made them freeze in winter instead. They'd reached the temperatures of a 1900s Russian winter according to the records. Useless information for most of them, and whatever the council made of it, they kept to themselves.
Wasn't Boris' job anyway, or his concern. He just defended the place that was one of the three great research centres of the current world, and they did the research. They watched the wireless too, so if anything came through from the council, they'd let the rest of the city know with that cackling sound amplifier that sounded like it went backwards in quality with every use. But that was more the poison spreading than the technology experts going from bad to worse.
And it was something to look forward to, since the fingertips of summer meant a beast per shift was a given. And getting the hooks out, which were an easier job than getting them in around the maxilla.
Of course, Nelly had left the hard bit for him. He hauled the berolf up by the wire and steadied its carcass against his bike. It weighed modestly as well. Its pelt should dress a teen or small adult, but not for the Russian winter. They needed white-coated berolfs then, but they didn't come out in summer. Hibernated, was the theory. Curiosity wasn't a part of Boris' job description so he never thought more.
"Might have warned me,' said Nelly, coming back with a brown-wrapped package and a cup, which she sat on her hover bike.
"Where's the fun in that?' Boris smiled at the other's grimace as she unwrapped her package. "Honestly though. I'll take the cucumbers to the cabbage any day."
"If you had cabbage, I'd have traded you." Nelly took as big a bite as she could manage. The cucumber was warm and soggy between the bread and she swallowed it quickly. The taste stuck around less that way. "Cabbage doesn't get soggy like this."
"No, it only can't decide whether it should be soft or hard." Boris rolled his eyes, before firing his rifle. They both caught the dot when it fell.
"Early mark," said Nelly. "Go fetch. I'm going over to make my report when I'm done with this."
And by the time Boris dragged his catch, a wolger this time and rather on the small side, Nelly was gone.
Dina Wright was in charge of the food container, but she had to agree with Nelly on the cucumbers. They were everyone's lunch today but several generations of researchers hadn't managed to correct their inherent sogginess.
Then again, they'd been more concerned about hydroponic gardening and finding ways to counter or pause the poison, or at the very least protect themselves and their assets from it. The current researchers sought to further those accomplishments…and they were just reaching the stage where they could indulge themselves a little.
So if she wanted to cure the cucumbers of their sogginess, she was more than welcome to try in between raising their nutritional count for more effective distribution and their lasting time so they could be stored for longer. They tended to rot out in a few hours, which meant they didn't make good meals away from home.
And Claire was hoping there'd be a breakthrough on that front, and with the hoverbike's lack of hover ability when the engine was switched off. Success on both fronts would let them travel beyond their niche, would let exploration greater than the registry's tours occur. Dina was no traveller though. That was why she picked the food. Something necessary but also interesting. And something she could indulge herself with. Nothing better.
"Tell me you don't plan on feeding us cucumbers tomorrow too."
Dina turned and grinned at Nelly. The security guard was unlatching her helmet, which meant she didn't plan on going back outside. "Shift done?"
"I was done the first time," Nelly replied. "But done with lunch, yes."
"Cucumbers." Dina sympathised. Eating those soggy cucumbers was good motivation for trying to find a way to make them more palatable. Not that they weren't grateful for the hydroponic system their predecessors had set up. "Unfortunately. You know they're staggered growths, and we finished with the cabbage run yesterday."
"And next is watercress." Nelly sighed. "Lost track of the days. I really should have known…" She flicked her sweaty bangs from her forehead. "It does get tedious."
Dina shrugged. "You should have gone into research. It makes life interesting, trying to find answers that don't exist and listening to everyone else complain while fishing for pet projects."
"Don't have the head for it. I'm not the creative sort."
"But you have a strong stomach." Dina smiled, and contrasted with the foot in height difference and the look of fatigue on Nelly's face, she looked almost like a child. "And it's because of your hard work that we get to enjoy meat each day."
"Which is only good because it can be detoxified," said Nelly dismissively. "The world works well like that. Everyone does their little bit to make it go round." She paused. "I wonder, does it still go round?"
Dina shrugged. "Not the sort of research question I can do much about, I'm afraid. Access to space was destroyed in the 2060 wars. And we're lucky there's a couple of airworthy transports leftover from that since we lost the blueprints too."
"Which doesn't make sense to me at all." Nelly threw up her arms. "Why not pick them apart and work out the design that way. Instead, the registry flies around with the antiques."
"We did have more important things to do," Dina pointed out. "2060 was not long after the oceans drowned. People – or those who didn't denounce science anyway – were too busy trying to salvage at least some of the earth from being poisoned."
"You're lecturing," Nelly said flatly. "I know all this. And agree with it. Wouldn't be guarding the place otherwise."
"True, true." Dina clapped the blonde on the back. "Never mind me. Getting ready to train the newest generation so they can take the more tedious work off my hands."
"Oh." Nelly perked up at that. "Silvy and Val are ready to go?"
"Not ready in that I still need to teach them how to do this stuff, but they're ready to join, yes." Dina was excited too. For the security guards, it meant fresh faces to cycle through on their shifts. And to the researchers, it meant a redistribution of roles, and a little extra time to pursue something else: something important, or something interesting, or something that was a mix between the two. "More time to try and fix the cucumbers. And the other edibles." She grinned almost conspiringly. "And if I fix the cucumbers first, it was just because I was experimenting with them."
"Of course." Nelly laughed. "Your secret's safe with me. Especially from Boris. He actually favours the stuff."
Dina laughed as well. The security guards had a friendly rivalry when it came to bullets and catches, but the food preferences were more of a Nelly and Boris thing. "By the way, how's the bet going?"
Nelly grinned. "I was a shot behind, but Boris was unfortunate enough to land himself a pup wolger."
Dina winced. "Can't say I make it a habit to watch you lot do shooting practice, but it is a little depressing to think about all the same."
"Depressing." Nelly shook her head. The regeneration treatments left now scars nowadays, but she remembered anyway. "You learn pretty quickly when they take a bite or few out of you."
"Which I won't." And Dina pat Nelly's straw-yellow hair. "Because I've got these nice big security guards to catch them all and drag them back and throw them in the detox container so we can do the eating instead."
"It," Nelly corrected. "Only one catch this shift. Which means Tony and Boris are cleaning house." Tony Davies had the shift before hers. "Well, I'm going for a shower and some sleep."
"Jog first," Dina cautioned. "It's not healthy to sleep so soon after eating."
"Sure," said Nelly. "You only tell me this every time I try and go to bed. Just because I visit you in the hydroponic lab, it doesn't mean I just ate."
"Except you were here less than an hour ago to pick up your lunch," Dina grinned, "so I know this time you did."
Nelly had been right, as Boris picked up three more beasts his shift before the night and Louis's arrival ended it. Granted, one wolger seemed to be the parent of the child he'd caught first off, so perhaps he shouldn't have counted it in the unofficial tally. And he'd managed to fall behind Nelly in the bullet count as well. It had taken two shots to get the child-sized wolger down, and not unexpected. Louis might have been able to get it in one, but it was a bit of bad luck on his part.
Not that the tally was an important thing. Rather, it was a bit of internal competition. Something to keep things interesting, and less dry. Boris could sympathise with the sentiment, but he didn't hunger for excitement. Life was a balanced boat as it was, as far as he was concerned. Nelly, he thought sometimes, would rather be in the old world in its dynamic equilibrium – before it just wasn't balanced anymore.
And the main factor was the creature in the cage that, with the onset of night, had begun to scratch at the bars of its cage and roar.
Boris sighed as he heaved the tiber into the detox container as Louis set himself up. It landed with a splash in the liquid: pearly white in day but showing off the silver in it under the stars. Louis had an extra piece of equipment: a headlight, though it was off at the moment. High flaming torches lit the land, and inside were a different sort of light: the sort that ran with a huge battery pumped with the poison they figured they might as well recycle. But there weren't enough batteries to suck the chemicals out of all the earth's soil, and the soil left over once the batteries had taken their fill were still lethal when indigested. It was simply the difference between dying in hours and dying in weeks.
The researchers searched for ways to fix it, or better use it, or at least stop it from creeping further and further inland. Since his time as a security guard, the line between civilisation and the wasteland had been pushed back three times. "Third time's the charm," Dina had chirped. Then again, Dina didn't like the cucumbers. She was like Nelly in that. And as far as friends went, they were pretty good friends.
Boris and the fellow he was going to visit, however, were not friends in the least. He didn't think the creature even had a friend. Came from being over two hundred years old, he figured. And he might have felt more sympathetic if that sound wasn't so chilling.
The torches showcased blistered arms and legs. They seemed to be always like that, always blistered. One knee shown: bones and kneecap and cartilage and a little bit of blood as well, before the blood vessels had closed over. The researchers had all fancy words from the old earth, like 'angiogenesis' and 'callus formation' – but the old world hadn't mastered regeneration. They'd just left behind this imperfect product that had later led to the possibility becoming a reality.
And the teeth were pearly white, newly grown and a stark contrast to scabbed skin and mattered hair. No human's teeth were that white. Nor was any animal's – and Boris and the other security guards knew well. They pried open several jaws a day to force the hook into the maxilla after all.
But they wouldn't be white for long. He rarely saw them that colour, rarely saw them with fresh enamel. More common was skin in its many glories: bleeding raw, a flesh belly pink or like black coals as they were now. The researchers still didn't know why iron burned even when winter made the bars like icicles to touch. Nor did they care so much when it was clear the regeneration treatment they'd crafted didn't have that side-effect. It was one of the questions that people noted and wondered about from time to time but didn't bother answering.
He wondered when he'd relaxed enough to ask meaningless questions like that. Perhaps it was Nelly's influence. Likely, too. Nelly was full of such questions, such thoughts. She might have been an astronaut in the old world, searching for life in space that had no consequence to the people down on earth.
The creature wasn't wholly irrelevant, though. It was contained at the research institute's doorstep, for one. And part of the security's job was to keep it fed, if only because it was a potential hazard and it was their job to deal with all the dangerous stuff. Even if it was just throwing a meal through the bars.
He unwrapped the cucumber sandwich and lobbed it. Sometimes the creature – HeLa, they called it nowadays and what its original name was, no-one really knew and the records were lost – would catch it with its hands or some premature form thereof. Sometimes it was the mouth. Sometimes it slipped through the appendages and fell to the floor and it scrambled like a beast for scraps.
It missed this time, and Boris watched until the cucumber sandwich had been devoured before taking its leave. The guttural sounds still echoed in his ears; things were otherwise silent, except for the occasional breath of wind that rattled the hanging cage and HeLa's scrambling on its floor. But those were background noise, sounds that blended into the scene, in to their everyday lives. With enough 'graveyard shifts', as Nelly put them, he'd be used to the gorging as well. And then he'd be as weary as Nelly was getting, as weary as Tony always was… Louis was lucky though. He was still young. Still somewhat inexperienced and with the misfortune of coming last in their little inter-security competition because of it. Their current standings were, curiously, related to their experience and would stay like that till tomorrow. Tony had a hefty lead on all of them, and missing a straight-kill point in the dark wouldn't affect his score.
Claire Spence was on the researchers' records system when Boris came to clock off. "Graveyard shift?" she asked. At Boris' nod, she asked: "It ate?"
"Devoured more like," said Boris. "It's got new teeth."
"Knocked them out against the bars a few days ago,' Claire explained. "I've got them downstairs in my lab, though I doubt we'll learn anything new." She sounded tired of it too. "Hundreds of skin samples. Almost as much hair and nails and other keratinised structures. About fifty of the muscles, including a few whole specimens from the intrinsics in the hands and feet. Bits of visceral organs. Hell I've even got a right ventricle in the collection but how to replicate that for others still escapes me.' She shook her head, pale curls flopping as she did. "But the skin and muscles and bones? Unless we're going to start creating superhuman bodies, we've about done all the research we can on those bits and then the anti-science fractions might actually be right in that we're strolling across the line again, as happy as you please…"
Her prattle was slightly over Boris' head, but he followed the gist of it. And things didn't change rapidly. Claire's sentiments were ones she'd voiced many times in the past, and they'd slowly grown. Just like Nelly. Like Tony too, presumably, but Tony was so much older than them that they didn't remember a time in which he didn't look like he'd seen every scene the world had to offer.
"I'm going to eat dinner and then get some sleep," he said, when Claire stopped.
She glanced at him, before going back to the computer. "Eat here," she invited. "Unless you'd rather listen to Dina bounce ideas about that pet cucumber project of hers."
"Uurgh, no." Boris shook his head and took a seat gratefully. "I like the cucumbers the way they are."
"Give it a few more years," Claire adviced. "You'll find them as soggy as the rest of us. You're just a late bloomer."
Boris tore his sandwich as those words, and in afterthought considered himself lucky that he hadn't put food in his mouth by then. "Late bloomer?" he cried. "How did we even get on to the subject of hormones?"
Claire laughed, though this time she didn't take her eyes away from the computer screen, or her fingers from the keyboard. "But it's just like hormones," she said. "Nerves are hardwiring. It's the changes in chemical balances that dictate mood and play a role in interests. Just like interest in sex and babies and the like – " This time Boris did choke, and Claire rolled her eyes at him as he coughed. "How old are you, thirteen or twenty-five?"
"Twenty-seven," Boris corrected once he'd caught his breath. "Feels like my old man's telling me to hurry up and make a few grandkids for him. Like we have the resources to handle extra mouths to feed."
"We could manage a few extras." Claire's smile slid quickly off her face. "Babies add a bit of fresh air to life. But you don't quite need fresh air, do you. You're fine with the way life is at the moment, except the obvious problems. Poison spreading. Knots of people scattered around the globe denouncing science and those of us devoted to it, the world going backwards from global warming, etcetera etcetera…" Her voice trailed of.
Something grew a little heavier in Boris' stomach. "Claire, I – "
"You what? Have a mini-Boris wondering around that we don't know about?" She was back to teasing, now that she'd dropped her little philosophical speech on him.
He should be used to it. Used to her. But would being used to the little things like that make life dull? "I do not have a mini-Boris wandering around," he said in an affronted tone. "And I'm not planning on getting together with Nelly either, if that's your next comment."
"You two have the arguing down." Claire tilted her head, returning to her screen and her work. "Romance is refreshing as well, you know. It's sad when people have children simply because other people are dying. Even though that's the reality of it, in the end. We as humans are trying to survive and that means we can't afford a baby boom because too many mouths to feed and not enough space, and we can't afford no babies at all because then we'd just die out…" She trailed off again.
"I caught a child wolger," Boris volunteered. "Teenager-size, if we're going by human standards."
"Wolgers are old-school now," Claire sighed. "They've been around for a hundred and fifty years. Surely the animals have evolved further than that by now, if they created a host of new species in mere fifty. The wolgers, tibers and berolfs…and that's just here in Russia. Not that we see the other sorts of animals in anything but pictures on the shared network."
"The newer ones have probably learnt not to get in range of our guns." Boris shrugged. "I for one am kind of glad. Imagine if they evolved to resist our bullets! They already resist the poison in the land that makes our bare feet burn in seconds if we stand on it." He'd been idiot enough to do that in his childhood, but the pain had made him quickly run back, screaming, and the regeneration treatment had patched his skin up good as new. And he'd had worse pains since becoming a security guard, worse things fixed up. And plenty of time to see how the animals he shot down had no problems in the poison-soaked land that had killed every human, plant and structure that had once stood upon it.
"It's a shame." Claire seemed more disappointed than relieved. "I know we have a lot of unanswered questions still, unsolved problems like the poison, like our restricted sources, like the fact that we lost almost every advancement ever made with air travel and every word and line of it for space. Think about it. Living in space!"
"You sure you and Nelly aren't related?" Boris asked with a raised brow, polishing off the last of his sandwich. "If she ever gets her hands on a registry helicopter, she'll break it into pieces to work out its design, then make one for herself and fly it straight into the sky."
"Dina's mentioned something like that." Claire was amused. "I might tag along for the ride…if I'm not too old by then."
"You're not even fifty yet," Boris snorted.
"I do have a granddaughter though." Catching the rustling paper, she glanced up from her work. "You heading off now?"
"Yep," said Boris, "unless you want something."
Claire shook her head. "I'm fine,' she said, and waved him off with a "good night". She was still on duty herself. There wasn't a place on earth where every human was asleep at the same time – or, at least, not in this era. Maybe the old world did have places like that, were they didn't need a twenty-four watch, twenty-four hour monitoring. When there were more effective means than a shared network whose connection with other computers flapped like clothes hung to dry on a windy day.
And when there was a variety of animals, and plants they didn't grow and spend a good deal of time trying to modify themselves, and far more habitable land and an ease of travel as well. Theoretically, the security hoverbikes should be able to cross the wasteland to the next civilised cluster in Russia, but it hadn't been tried before. There had never been a need to try it. Though there were wants. She wasn't the only one, the only researcher, curious as to what life went on in the wastelands where humans didn't touch. She wasn't the only one who'd studied wolgers and tibers and berolfs until she could recite any of their genetic codes if demanded of her and that meant there wasn't much more knowledge to be gleaned off them. And the genetic codes of their predecessors – Russian bears and tigers and wolfs - were on file as well. Bits of the once vast ocean of information that hadn't been lost when the world suddenly changed. And other snippets of information that were, on the whole, irrelevant but far more interesting than the three species of animals they had constant run-ins with.
And the fact that they couldn't relax the guard and sleep a night away because then they'd come like a pack after meat and they might wake up too late. Incidents like that were recorded, where children and old man were dragged out into the poison-soaked soil, their flesh burning and postulating until the screams died and the animals seemed deaf to it all. But it had never happened in her lifetime, or Tony's lifetime, or Paulo's and Paulo was the oldest of all them, though all security guards had been mauled at some point or other. It was almost a passage of rites with them. A part of the experience, though she doubted any of them embraced that pain or that mutilation. Knowing regeneration treatment could replace a lost limb – or a lost cheek and jaw in Nelly's case, and unfortunately for her that hadn't healed up as nicely as missing limbs tended to – didn't mean humans were any friendlier with the concept of pain and injury.
HeLa was, of course, the exception. He'd knocked out his teeth barely yesterday, and that wasn't the first time either. She had quite a hefty record on him and once upon a time she'd observed him diligently, noting down every time he scraped off a bit of his own skin and keeping the specimen for further research. That was before she became disillusioned. Before, when she was sure they'd work out the secret of HeLa's visceral regeneration without the madness that came with it. And, at the long standing request of the council, work out how to reverse the immortality so that they didn't have to keep it in a swinging cage. It frightened the children and was hardly a comfortable presence otherwise. And the odd sounds it emitted – its screeches and its gurgling, throaty noises as though it was trying to keep his blood and intestines inside – was hardly music-worthy.
She listened to music sometimes, through the computer. Not now though, since she was working: scrolling through HeLa's records and seeing if any new points jumped out, any ideas for her to try. It spat out the occasional static, but unless she heard a voice she didn't worry. Warnings came like that. Warnings from the council – and if anything ground-breaking had been discovered by one of the other research facilities in the world: in Africa, or Canada. She'd hear it from the horse's mouth if it was Russia – though they didn't have horses, per say. A bit of bad luck, as horses could have carried them across the poisoned lands far more smoothly than a hoverbike and their hooves were hypothesised to be invulnerable. But horses died out before the world's drastic change, back when transport had become an entirely technological thing.
She yawned, then went back to scrolling through the records. The more recent ones were mostly written by her and she could recite them almost as well as a wolger's genetic code. The older ones she was less intimate with, but almost as familiar. From her predecessors mostly, but the reports stretched back almost as far as HeLa's creation and by some coincidence they'd survived to tell the tale. What hadn't survived was the records relating to the person it used to be. Or he, they should rather say – but it was near impossible to think of it as a human now, in the state they always saw it in. A research tool they couldn't dispose of. Really, that was all HeLa was by that point. One day, they'd probably stop feeding him and it might survive that too. It had survived everything else after all. Including dehydration. Including being reduced to almost ash.
She reached the end of the files and sighed. Nothing new… not that she had really expected something. That would have been too easy. Too convenient, and it would have meant the answer had been in their faces all this time. Over two hundred years had passed since HeLa's creation. It wasn't unfeasible to say they'd discovered everything there was to discover about it – except they hadn't. They hadn't managed any viable semblance of visceral regeneration. They hadn't managed immortality or the reversal thereof, or the production of another HeLa and not through lack of trying.
She sighed and switched over to the fauna files. The day's kills had been entered into the database by then and she skimmed them over, searching out little differences and noting them down, then running algorithms to catch any signs of evolution, or lack thereof, as they came. The work was even more boring than skimming over old records, but it had to be done. And in the meantime she could think of a new avenue to take with the regeneration research. The night would be quiet, aside from the background noise – the computer static and HeLa's cries – and there was plenty of time to come up with a plan for the next attempt.
Caught up in those sluggish thoughts, she almost missed the transmission as it came through, spitting through the static. "Potential earthquake precursor declared at fourty-one degrees parallel north, nineteen degrees meridian east. Earthquake alert for clusters in west Russia." Claire drew in a sharp breath, bringing a world map on screen. "Repeating. Potential earthquake precursor detected…"
The precursor tremor had taken place on the south-east border of the old Russia. They were a reasonable distance away, but not out of the danger zone. The night had quickly transformed from a boring one to one waiting with baited breath – at least for her. It wasn't worth raising the code red alert for, since the resulting earthquake would have to have a magnitude of seven or greater to damage them, or shift its epicentre from the precursor tremor. It might be a code orange… No. She calculated the distance and it fell just out of that range. Code yellow then. Which was essentially watch and wait, but not yet prey. An earthquake would likely damage nothing at all. The shifting soil might help them ultimately, pushing the poison deeper into the earth and slowing its spread.
HeLa screamed outside, but it was a sound in the background and ignored. Claire pulled up the electromagnetic chart and stared at it until the lines blurred.
2015 NaNo novel.
Written for the 30 Days, 30 Prompts Challenge (March 2015) at the Writer's Challenge Cafe, day 28 - write a novella or novel that's exactly eight chapters.
Cover design by Kage of RLyis from the Nano Artisans forum.
This story is meant to be geographically correct, so if there are any discreptencies on that front, let me know. I have a bad sense of direction.
Context wise, the "two hundred years ago" is around this time.