Synergy

Chapter One

He grinned. He thought of himself, sitting in his office motionless, a vidstill in his hands. It never ceased to amaze him how he felt himself move as if he'd taken his body along when he knew only his eyes and his mind did the walking.

Torver blinked then glanced behind him. Damn, he thought, I skipped five years. He did an about-turn and ran his eyes along the girl's lifepath to the place-time he wanted. He focused on it, felt the slight disorientation of his body catching up. Then, he was there.

The spot he'd selected expanded like a flat-screen vid to reveal the scene he'd glimpsed a few seconds before. Immediately, he saw the child, the only splash of color in the dining room. The walls were covered in white silk, the floors with white marble, the table and chairs were white plasmer. Even the woman, whom he almost failed to notice standing beside the child, wore a floor-length white caftan that blended with her white hair, making her face appear as if it floated above the little girl.

The child sat at the table in a higher chair made for her size, her blackhair shining blue against the white surroundings, wearing a dress-a pink combination of frills and lace-that, somehow, looked wrong on her. She swung her white shoes and pink socks, repeatedly hitting the underside of the table.

The woman beside her bent at the waist and intercepted a leg with a sharp shake of her head and pressure from her hand. The girl slid the woman aresentful glance and hooked her feet around the chair legs. She plunked her elbows on the table, laid her chin in her hands and glared at the pink-andwhite-frosted birthday cake in front of her. It had five unlit candles on it. The woman pulled the girl's elbows off the table, at the same time pushing against the girl's lower back with the flat of her hand.

"Sit up, for heaven's sake," the woman said. She had a slight Italian accent.

"I hate this stupid dress," the girl said. She yanked at the hem. "It's ugly."

"Daddy likes it when you wear your pink dress."

"He won't come."

"Of course, he will." The woman's face hardened. "He promised."

"He promised before and he didn't come. He likes his stupid subjects more than me."

A white-uniformed man appeared in the doorway. "Excuse me, ma'am."

"Now, darling," the woman said to the girl in a distracted tone, "you know that's not true." She straightened and turned towards the man. "Yes, Jakes?"

"Comm for you from the Philharmonic," Jakes said.

The woman's face cleared. "Darling, I won't be a minute. Please try not to get wrinkled." She rushed out of the room.

Torver shut off the scene and moved his eyes a fraction along the path. He'd become quite good at reading lifepaths, slowing the flow to a specific time then to a specific scene with barely a conscious effort; but he never had as much control as with this child. The images of her life were sharper, more detailed than any others-except maybe his parents'-and he could focus for several minutes without feeling he'd lose his own self if he stayed longer.

That sensation of fading invariably brought him out, sometimes gasping, as if he'd spent long minutes under water. With her, he sensed he could travel her lifepath for as long as he wanted.

He refocused on the thread at a place only a few minutes after the mother left. It expanded to reveal the girl still sitting at the table. She was back to rocking her feet. One of her shoes had fallen off. A woman-a maid by the uniform she wore-hovered in the background but didn't move to replace the shoe. The girl's aloneness hovered around her, a shroud ready to fall and smother her.

Like him, she was an abandoned child.

The mother came back into the room. She hesitated, then strode to her daughter and placed a hand on her shoulder. The girl looked up.

"It was Maestro Klausser," the mother said. "He wants me to play for him. What we call an audition."

"I know what an audition is. You explained it."

"Yes. You see, Mummy practiced a lot for this audition. It's very important to her."

"You have to go play for him now, don't you."

"Yes, darling."

The girl started her legs swinging again. Her other shoe dropped to the floor.

"Daddy will be here in a few minutes," the mother continued. She glanced at the maid, who still stood in the corner. "You'll be all right with Rita until then."

The girl's eyes remained fixed on the cake with its unlit candles. The mother hesitated for another moment then kissed the top of the child's head.She motioned for the maid to follow her. They left without looking back.

"Nuke rad," Torver said, consciously using his favorite childhood expression of disgust. "If it were me, little girl, I'd want to get even."

The girl's head jerked up. She tilted it slightly to the side, as if searching for something, then looked straight at him. After a few seconds, she gave hima broad smile. He smiled back. Then he frowned. "Stupid, she can't see you."

She slid from her chair. Carefully, a bit of her tongue sticking out between her lips, she slid the cake from the table and carefully set it on the white marble floor. She picked up her shoes and set them neatly under the chair, took off her socks and shoved them into her shoes. She tilted her head to the side in a repeat of her earlier gesture, scowled, circled the cake, backed away to study it from a distance. The result seemed to satisfy her, and she nodded decisively. Then, bare feet together, she whooped and jumped on the dessert. Chunks of it gushed to the sides. She stomped her feet a few times then spread icing and cake over the floor with her hands. With a laugh she rolled on the mess until her dress stuck to her body. She rose, smiled at her sticky self and the shambles she'd made, then up in Torver's direction. She giggled and clapped her hands. Torver shut down and stepped off. Immediately, he was back in his office, the girl's vidstill in his hand. He dropped it as if it had burned him, more shaken than he wanted to admit.

Impossible, he assured himself. He'd been witnessing events from twenty-five years ago. She couldn't have been aware of him. He shivered. But she looked straight at me, and she did exactly what I would have done.

He needed to know if what happened was simply a coincidence, or if the girl had seen him. He picked up the vidstill and prepared to re-enter her eyes. He'd replay the scene but this time keep his thoughts to himself. Surely, the child would jump on the cake all by herself.

He mulled over this idea for a moment. What if he'd influenced the events forever? How could he determine that she hadn't been conscious of his presence, and that the scene was now imprinted on her lifepath?

Unless I find her in real time and ask her if she saw me. That possibility sounded quite interesting. He wondered how he'd approach her.

A loud bang on his door jerked him from his thoughts.

"Dr. Lockwood, are you in there?" Barton's voice came through the thermoplastic door, sounding high and thin. Torver turned on the internal comm.

"What is it?"

"Open the door, Dr. Lockwood, unless you want me to do it."

Torver made a face. Barton probably saw it as a personal affront that someone had dared code-lock a door in his building. Torver wondered what color Barton was today.

He placed his right hand on his bionet reader's metal plaque and sent a mental pulse to the Identichip in his palm to uncode the door. The door glided open, and Dr. Barton, resentment and something like expectation plastered on his face, rushed inside.

The CEO of DyneMed wore brown-tinted hair piled high on his head and an expensive brown silk stretch-suit that matched his hair and the color of his brown-tinted irises. Although the unified color scheme was meant to make him appear taller, it made him look like a lump of mud. Torver's boss waved, and a man and a woman followed him in. The door glided shut behind them.

"Dr. Lockwood," Barton said with a smile, "these are Mundial Genetics Revision Committee Officers."

The woman was dressed in the black-and-white MGRC uniform. She was shaped like an inverted triangle on sticks topped with a gaunt, pointed face that gave her a permanent sour look.

The man, more than two meters tall, loomed over all of them. As opposed to the uniformed woman, he appeared casually at ease. The pale gray suit he wore intensified the ebony of his skin and gave him a quiet air of authority. He moved past Barton and extended long, graceful fingers. Torver stared at them for a moment before he rose to his feet, slipped the girl's vidstill into his coat pocket and shook the man's hand.

"Audit-Inspector Jethro Alim," the man said. He motioned to the woman as he walked over to the bionet reader. "This is Officer Martin." Alim placed his hand on the reader's metal plaque; his credentials appeared on the vidscreen. Officer Martin followed suit then inserted a disc in the bionet slot. A document bearing MGRC logo appeared on the vidscreen.

"Dr. Lockwood," she said in a rough voice, "your genetics license is hereby suspended until further notice."

Torver stared at the screen then back at Officer Martin. She gestured for him to acknowledge the summons. He shook his head and retreated from her until the edge of the seat hit him behind the knees. He sank onto the chair. Barton was grinning.

"Let me see," he said. He scanned the vidscreen. "Yes, you are suspended, Lockwood."

Torver ignored him. Jethro Alim frowned at Barton then at his colleague. "Dr. Lockwood," he said in the soft, melodious voice that contrasted with Officer Martin's harsh one, "your suspension is effective immediately. I am sorry."

Torver turned to Barton. "You called them?"

"No." Barton chuckled. "You're fired, by the way."

"I made you a lot of money in the past eight months."

"You're a renegade, Lockwood. We don't need your kind at DyneMed."

"Dr. Barton," Alim said, "Dr. Lockwood has not been accused of anything at this point, except maybe of bad judgment. A leave of absence-"

"The decision is final." Barton whipped up the clutch of plasteene he'd kept at his side until then. "Dr. Lockwood sent this request to MGRC without my knowledge. DyneMed is a law-abiding company and does not condone the kind of research Dr. Lockwood wishes to conduct." He shuddered theatrically before he turned to Torver. "The idea of mixing plant and animal genetic material in that manner is repulsive. You should be lobotomized."

Alim cleared his throat. "We will complete this interview without you, Dr. Barton."

Barton glared at Torver for a few more seconds then nodded once. "I want you out of here in an hour," he said to Torver. He shoved the plasteene pages into the recycler and left.

Alim sighed. "My apologies."

Torver stared at the document on his vidscreen. Suspended. He'd expected a reaction from MGRC when he'd sent his request, but not one that extreme. A wave of panic flooded his brain, making his body dissolve into sweat. His thoughts raced faster than he could catch them. An acrid smell rose from his skin like a noxious vapor.

Without his license, the only kind of work he'd be able to get would be doing chemical analyses for a biotech company. That was if MGRC even let him that close to anything related to genetics. And he had no recourse. No lawyer would take him on as a client, however wrongfully MGRC had treated him.

He lifted his eyes towards Alim, who still stood in the center of the room. "Do you really believe you can produce a living creature that can resist droughts and pollution?" Alim said, a speculative look in his eyes.

Torver saw the trap just before he was about to fall into it. "It's something I'd like to try, Inspector Alim."

Officer Martin moved to stand beside Alim. "You've gone against the system once too often, Dr. Lockwood."

"It's been forty-five years since the last bio-genetic terrorists were crushed. Haven't we earned a bit of latitude?"

Officer Martin gave him an incredulous look. "You can't be that out of touch. Haven't you been watching the news?"

"I know you've caught some group trying to replicate the old bio-genetic weapons." He shrugged. "They couldn't have the knowledge, let alone the facilities, to do much. You guys control everything."

"Even if that were true, you believe they were justified in trying it, Dr. Lockwood?" Officer Martin's voice was becoming harsher.

"I believe in finding solutions. Genetic diseases, mutations, are getting worse. Only a blind bureaucracy can continue to deny there's a problem." Torver swallowed the rest of his harangue. Martin was obviously trying to goad him into giving away incriminating evidence.

He rose from his chair and leaned against the counter. "Apart from this request, what else do you have against me?"

"Rumors, mainly," Alim said, "but it's our duty to investigate." "I have to work."

Alim shook his head. "MGRC doesn't want any surprises. Consider this just a break in your activities. A holiday."

"I don't need a holiday. I'll go nuts if I don't have a challenge facing me."

"And therein lies the problem," Alim murmured. "Our investigation will be based on facts, Dr. Lockwood. If we find no evidence of illegal activities, we will reactivate your license." He pointed to the screen. "Your acknowledgement, please." When Torver hesitated, he continued. "It doesn't make a difference. We'll go ahead even without your assent."

Torver placed his hand on the reader and sent the mental pulse for his Identic. "If you don't mind," he said, "I have to pack and get out of here."

Alim retrieved the disc and signaled to Officer Martin. "I'll request that they give you a few minutes by yourself. We'll keep in touch." The door swished closed on the officers' retreating backs.

Torver reached under his desk to retrieve the empty box he hadn't bothered to discard after he'd set up his office and began to put in it the few possessions he'd brought to DyneMed. The girl's vidstill jangled in his pocket when he knocked it against the desk. He retrieved the picture and stared at the serious face.

"I don't even know your name," he muttered. She only stared back. He remembered her glee after she'd squashed the cake. That's what he needed, a release. A bit of revenge. He grinned back at her. He'd never liked Barton anyway. Time to reveal a few secrets. He moved to his comm and requested a channel.

Torver left a short time later, followed closely by the security chief who'd searched his box to make sure he didn't carry company secrets with him. It was night outside, the June air hot and filled with the choking dust of unceasing pedestrian traffic. The security chief pushed him into the stream of people, and he began walking, afraid he'd be trampled if he stayed stationary. By sheer luck he'd turned in the direction of the right bus stop.

Thirty minutes later, he stood on a bus, the box with his possessions clutched against his ribs, unable to really believe he wouldn't be able to work. Genetics had been his anchor, his salvation, the world in which he had a purpose.

They wouldn't find anything, he assured himself. He'd been careful, more so since he'd lost access to the university holonets after he graduated. He'd scattered his data throughout countless protocols and banks. Alim wouldn't be able to link the research because he didn't know how it all fit together. At least, he hoped so.

"Hey, you! End of the line!"

Torver started and looked up. The driver stared at him from his rearview mirror, a frown on his face. Torver looked around and realized he'd not only overshot his stop, he'd ended up at the other end of the city in an empty bus. He'd been so lost in his thoughts and his panic he had noticed nothing.

"Are you going back downtown?"

The driver shook his head. "This baby's going to the garage. You'll have to take another bus." He tapped his vidscreen. "Next one's in forty-five minutes, unless you want to walk to the corner of Carp and Juanita. Buses run more regularly there."

"How far is it from here?"

"About half a klick."

Torver sighed. The day wasn't getting any better. The sun was going down, and he had no interest in waiting in a nearly isolated area. That meant he was walking.

"All right, thanks."

It took him another three hours and two bus changes. The sun had set an hour ago. He felt hot and filthy and pissed off.

His parents' house was dark; as usual, they hadn't thought to leave a light on for him. He fumbled to connect with the lock then made his way to the back of the house as quietly as he could. As he was about to unlock his bedroom door, he heard a shuffle behind him.

Torver turned the hall light on. His father hovered at the entrance to his room, blinking in the sudden glare.

"Some people came here to see you tonight," he said. Torver could feel the anticipation simmering in him. "MGRC officers."

"Really."

"Maybe they came to arrest you."

"Or you."

"Me?" His father paled. "What did you tell them?"

"Nothing. Relax."

His father stared at him. "As long as you live in my house-never." He turned on his heel and disappeared inside his bedroom.

Torver uncoded his door, deposited the box on his desk then recoded the lock with a new brain pulse. He thumped his head on the closed panel, thankful that no one, barring the dismantling of the house, could enter his room. If Alim and Martin searched it, they'd use the secrets contained in there to put him away forever.

He moved to the cage set on a small table. Its resident mouse sniffed the air.

Not for the first time, Torver told himself he lived in the wrong century. One hundred years ago, in the face of the incontrovertible proof in front of him, he'd have been celebrated as a genius, a miracle worker who'd achieved the impossible. Today, if it were discovered, he wouldn't survive this tiny mammal.

In all respects but one, his mouse-Family-Muridae, Species-Mus musculus-had developed normally to the adult stage. Psychomotor behavior, organs, nervous system and musculo-skeletal structure, all were standard. Torver picked up the mouse and caressed it with a finger. Unfortunately, its singular anomaly could never go unnoticed. The mouse had moss-green fur.

It had sprouted thick and cropped and felt velvety to the touch. It smelled wet and earthy, making Torver imagine shaded streams and dappled light. Up close he could see flecks of black and yellow in it, but from afar the fur was a rich, vibrant green that could never be reproduced artificially. Still, it was fur, although it had all the characteristics of moss.

Not that he would know what moss looked like, except from a vid. What did it matter? He'd searched DyneMed's gene banks for an extinct plant genome and happened first on the moss. The genetic code had served its purpose.

Torver let the mouse run up his arm. It lodged on his shoulder and squeaked in his ear, demanding food. Torver presented a pellet. It grabbed the food with its front paws and started munching.

"What am I going to do, mouse? I don't have a job and I don't have a license. I should get rid of you. You're evidence, you know."

The mouse squeaked and shuffled around his neck to his other shoulder. Its toes and tail tickled his bare skin.

His chest tightened. "I have to work, mouse, I just have to." Fatigue washed over him.

He secured the mouse back in its cage then flopped on his bed. Before he even thought about undressing, he was asleep.

©2007 M. D. Benoit

©2005 M. D. Benoit

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