They were killing him. The grubs tore into his mind, crawling across his chest, leaving bloody trails along his thighs as he lay helpless on the steel table. The stench of his own fear mingled with the rust-blood in his mouth as he panted, struggling to move his lifeless limbs, his screams choking in his throat as terror unmanned him. They were stealing everything from him! And that voice – that calm, collected voice – mocking him from the shadows . . .
- - -
With a gasp, Jon wrenched himself back into consciousness. Clutching reflexively at his heart, he let out a small, animal moan of fright as the remnants of the dream reluctantly dissipated. Again with the nightmare! Though the dream had diminished in frequency over the past few years, it had lost nothing in potency.
Knowing full well that he would be unable to return to sleep for some time yet, Jon forced his quivering body out of bed and stumbled to the threadbare prayer mat in the corner of his tiny room. Bowing half-mockingly to the engraved icon of the Lady Divine (one of countless that adorned the rooms of the monastery), Jon knelt and began the relaxation disciplines taught to him by the Brothers shortly after the nightmares had started. That was three years ago, if one went by the Galactic Standard.
He remembered that day only too well; waking up in an unfamiliar room, his throat parched and every muscle in his body aching. The kind face of Brother Jonas bending over him as he tended to the shallow wounds that marred over half of Jon’s body. The shock and disorientation as he realized that he could remember little else – not his home, not how he came to be there, not even his name. The Brothers eventually designated him “Jon”.
Now that his breathing had finally returned to normal, he gave himself a small shake and rose to yet another early-morning start. Whatever else he had lost, Jon’s professional capacities had been left miraculously intact, prompting the monastery to offer him a new life within their “humanitarian research facility.” After days of fruitlessly searching for clues to his past, Jon had reluctantly accepted the Brotherhood’s offer. Not that he had had any real choice; without an identity, his access to the nets was strictly limited -- at least until the Brothers could sort through the sea of bureaucratic red tape that kept non-citizens safely in line, or so they told him. Sarchon's caste system was one of the most stringent in the galaxy, and anyone without ID was a nonentity. He couldn’t even travel outside of the complex without an escort, and so had spent the past three years effectively in limbo.
The door chimed a soft warning as Jon approached his darkened laboratory, and he smiled wryly at the familiar irony. The Brothers insisted on spartan furnishings and meager food, yet had invested what little income they had in a full security suite for the complex. Many of the doors required personal access codes. Some even insisted on finger scans, which seemed ridiculous to Jon. Yes, life on Sarchon was supposedly “dangerous” and “fraught with sin”, but Jon could think of no one who would actually attack a servant of the Lady.
Excited twittering from the kennels greeted Jon as he flipped on the lights. Lucy and Eldrin, palm-sized lifeforms that were this world’s lab rat equivalent, pressed up against the glass in their urgency, purring for food. He had been told once that the “furrets” had been named for the old-world ferrets they resembled (except for their electric blue coloring), but could not recall when or by whom . . . Sighing, he reached into the cage to give Lucy a scratch before pulling her out. It seemed like he would never become used to the odd gaps in his memory. His moth-eaten mind constantly confounded him with tantalizing bits – blurred faces, partial conversations -- but trying to follow them was like attempting to navigate a mountain while blindfolded; one couldn’t go far without stepping off a cliff.
Gently, Jon stretched Lucy out on the table and held the chattering animal in place with one hand, mindful of the torso cast he'd put on her after yesterday's surgery. With his other hand, he ran the bioscanner over her limbs. . . .There. Tiny blinking lights indicated that the microorganisms he’d been developing were still active and had spread almost to the tip of her tail. He judged that it would take another day or two more before he could remove the cast, so he laid her back in the recuperation box, then caught Eldrin after a few aborted attempts and placed the purring creature onto his shoulder.
Unlike Lucy, Eldrin had been paralyzed from the neck down before the introduction of the Proxy Bug, his spinal cord neatly severed in three places. Jon had waited several anxious days for the microbes to begin forming their linked chains throughout Eldrin’s bloodstream, sure that this effort would prove to be another failure. This time, however, the bugs had successfully interfaced with the furret’s brain to begin relaying neural impulses to Eldrin’s limbs, allowing new movement. With each passing week, Eldrin regained more control over his body – a result that Jon had worked years to achieve. If Lucy could move freely after Jon removed her cast, he would finally have proven the Proxy Bug a success.
With the Bug so close to completion, Jon's thoughts turned once again to starting a new life outside the monastery. The Brothers had been kind, Jon couldn't deny that; yet life here had begun to chafe. He hated the mandatory religious services, loathed the restrictions placed on his free time, and was thoroughly sick of the food. Perhaps it was time to pay Brother Jonas another visit.
Checking one last time on the furrets' comfort, Jon left his laboratory and set off towards the Brother's quarters. So preoccupied was he in his thoughts that he almost barged straight into the room before he realized that Jonas had a visitor. Two voices argued back and forth within, fading in and out of hearing – one querulous and demanding, the other placating and irritated in turns.
“You'd better speed it up, Jonas. . . . years to develop this and our investors are tired of waiting. . . millions riding on this.”
“We've made great progress, Your Grace. Just a little longer. . . begin developing the neural transmitters soon.”
Jon, whose hand had been raised to knock, hesitated. What was this? The voice in the room with Jonas belonged to a stranger, of that Jon had no doubt, but he couldn't rid himself of the uneasy feeling that it should be familiar. Though it irked his sense of professionalism, Jon found himself leaning in, prepared to listen a bit longer . . .
“ . . . need the Bug to be ready by the next election. . . . want the first outbreak to be in place.”
“Yes, Your Grace. We're acquiring a new assistant to help him. Brother Silas is wiping her tonight.”
“Wiping her? There'd better be a good reason, Jonas!”
“ . . . hard to find someone in the field who wouldn't recognize him. Besides, she's especially suited for the position.”
“Oh, how so?”
Though his ear was practically pasted to the cold door panel, Jon could not make out Brother Jonas' response. The burst of startled laughter that followed, however, would have been plain down the hall.
“Yes, I dare say she would be suited to the work, but I'm concerned. Won't he remember her?”
“Fear not, Your Grace . . . nothing for him to remember. He was wiped. The man he was is effectively dead.”
“Still, you should take care, Jonas. Silas will need to be very thorough tonight. She must remember nothing.”
Jon stepped back from the door and stared at it for a long moment, unsettled. For three years he had counted the Brothers as . . . not friends, exactly, but at least as companions. They had taken him in, and provided him with what comfort they could. Yet Jon couldn't easily dismiss what he had heard: “She must remember nothing.” That sounded too much like what had been done to him. Instead of knocking, he headed back to his room to think.
Though he tried to dispel it, he also couldn't shake the lingering suspicion that the men had been discussing him. If it were true, then the Brotherhood must be responsible for the gaps in his memory. A queasy feeling settled into the pit of Jon's stomach. He didn't want to jump to conclusions without proof, but if they were about to do the same to an innocent woman, he had to figure out a way to rescue her. And, if the talk of the men could be believed, she might even be able to recognize him. Fate, it seemed, had provided him with a potential link to his own past, if he were bold enough to pursue it. His decision made, Jon changed course for his laboratory.
- - -
Several hours later, Jon stood perspiring in a doorway, ears trained for the sound of approaching footsteps. He was in a part of the monastery that he had never been before, a place denied him by his security level for three long years. Tracking down Brother Silas had not been easy – Jon hoped that Brother Matteo would forgive him for filching his passkey in the event that this was all a mistake – but now that he was here, Jon was immediately struck with an uncanny sense of familiarity. He was absolutely sure that he had been here before. The curve of the hallway there, the whir of machinery somewhere close by; a part of him knew this place, and dreaded it.
His thoughts were interrupted by a sharp cry of pain from somewhere down the hall, muted by heavy metal doors. Curling his fingers around the sedative that he’d hurriedly retrieved from his laboratory, Jon crept cautiously down the hall, searching for the source of the sound. Another cry, followed by sobbing drifted out of a room to his left, and for the second time that night, Jon pressed his ear to a cold metal door.
“ . . . wish I had time to play with you. These rush jobs are never any fun. Back when we were still experimenting with these beauties, I could take a week and wipe a girl over and over again. And you know the best part? They’d never remember what you did to them between sessions.”
Jon could almost see the lascivious grin stretching across the Brother’s face. His stomach tightened with nausea. Silas had always been a pleasant companion, and Jon wouldn't have believed him capable of this had he not heard him speak just now. If Jon was sickened by Silas' words, however, the voice that answered the Brother’s goading provoked an entirely different response.
The strained voice of a woman – both utterly unknown, yet absolutely familiar – pleaded hysterically with Silas, “Please! Get them off me! Just get them off!”
Suddenly, Jon’s caution evaporated along with his half-formed plans. Some powerful instinct, long-buried, was reasserting itself and Jon was swept up in its wake, an unwilling passenger. Without pausing to consider, he found his hand on the access panel, entering his stolen code; his shoulder on the door-frame, shoving it open.
The door thudded to against the wall, causing a startled Silas to rise quickly from his seat at the side of a low table. “Jon! What are you doing here?”
But Jon took no notice of the Brother. For there, on the surface of the table, lay a girl barely out of her teens, covered with the denizens of his nightmares. Finger-length gray caterpillars writhed over her exposed flesh, carving bloody trails into her skin -- paths that would leave her with gruesome scarring so similar to his own.
Then the nightmare before him twisted into a horrible memory. In his mind, Jon was strapped once more to the very same table, straining against his bonds as the bugs drained all the color from his memories, breaking off pieces of himself until nothing but the husk of a man remained. As Silas strode forward to confront him, Jon could only watch as horror bound him to the floor.
At that moment the girl's head rolled towards him, and her tear-filled blue eyes widened in recognition and shock. “Father?” she rasped weakly.
Jon remembered how to move. In two steps, Jon closed with Brother Silas and shoved the tranquilizer of sedative into the surprised man's shoulder. Two more and he was at her side, his trembling hands picking the larvae off of her naked, shivering body to be crushed beneath his heel. Behind him, Silas slumped to the floor unheeded. Helping the girl to her feet, Jon wrapped his lab coat about her thin shoulders and drew her into an embrace.
He couldn't remember her, not really. Everything about her had been stolen from him by the Brotherhood three years ago: her first words, her first smile, the name he had given her when she was born. It would take him years to rebuild the life that had been stolen from him. Yet a part of him had never forgotten her; the connection between father and child was just too strong. Nature, it seemed could not entirely be overcome – not by the bugs, not by the Brothers, not by the Lady Divine herself.
Holding her tightly, the man, known only to himself as Jon, whispered into her ear, “Shh now, it's alright. I'll get you out of here.”
- - -
Back in his laboratory, Brand and his daughter had precious little time to destroy as much of his research as possible before they were discovered. Even so, he could not help but watch her as she dashed about his lab, seemingly as comfortable in this environment as he. Her name was Liza, and she had given him back his old name, too. Brand rolled it around in his head, still getting used to it. As he wiped his terminal and moved on to the incubators, he hoped that Brother Silas would remain unconscious long enough for their plan to work.
Brand knew that they couldn't just walk out the front door. The passageways in that area were too well-frequented. They would have to try a route that the Brothers would not expect: through the secure areas and out an emergency side entrance that Jon had used once during a fire drill.
Brand had no choice but to destroy the furrets, an act he'd been putting off until the last moment. First, however, he carefully removed Lucy's brace to allow her a final minute of freedom. Jon knew that, were he to die, he wouldn't want to do it in a cast. Stroking her soft blue fur, he watched as she took her first faltering steps and allowed himself a moment of sad, quiet pride. The Proxy Bug had been a success. Her newly-severed spine had proven no match for the microbes in her blood. Countless victims of paralysis could have benefited from this treatment, but allowing the Brotherhood to pervert the Bug for their own ends was unacceptable.
At last, he could delay no longer. After giving both furrets a few more pats and scratches, Brand bid Lucy and Eldrin a heavyhearted farewell before sliding the needles home, euthanizing them both. The light within the medical incinerator danced briefly as he fed their corpses to the cleansing fire. He called out to Liza, “Time's up. We've got to go, kid.”
Tossing the last few papers into the incinerator, she nodded and hurried over to the medicine drawer for a scalpel and more sedatives. Brand admired her aplomb. She was still pale and a bit shaky from her experience with the grubs, but she had pulled herself together better than most youngsters would. Brand had bound her wounds as best he could, knowing as he did that her scars would never fully heal. He was just grateful that the bugs hadn't been at her long enough to do serious damage to her mind.
Leaving the darkened lab, Brand and Liza cut across the complex in the early hours before Sarchon's false dawn, ducking into doorways whenever they feared discovery. The monastery seemed mercifully deserted for much of their trek, though Brand knew that the Brothers would be up soon for the morning devotion. Finally at the side door, Brand once again keyed in Brother Matteo's access code.
With a soft buzz, it was denied.
The lights came on in the hallway, and Brother Jonas strode in, followed by a contingent of military personnel bearing the insignia of Sarchon's governing body.
“Jon, Jon, Jon,” he tsked. “Did you really think that we would fail to keep a trace on you? It took some time for the Consortium to respond to our call for aid, but these men will escort you and your assistant back to your quarters now.”
Though Brand struggled desperately to protect his daughter, it was a losing battle. Liza was ripped from his arms. He could only watch as she was led away, crying for him.
As Brand was pushed roughly down the hallway in turn, Jonas sighed in irritation. “Seriously, Jon, will this ever end? This is . . . what? The third time? You are far too valuable to us to let you escape. We've learned to keep backups of your work by now, so you will be able to continue with the Proxy Bug as soon as you pay another visit to your grubby friends.”
Watching as Brand was dragged past, Jonas muttered to himself. “At least the grubs take no issue with wiping their creator.”