Corruption - Book 2 of Evolution
Chapter 17: New Year's Day

Copyright© 2015 by Misguided Child

"You're up early," Caleb remarked, as he entered the kitchen on New Year's morning.

"So are you," Bran retorted dourly. "Any word about Branch?"

"No one's seen him," Caleb answered. "That makes me very nervous. That's why I'm up early. I'm going to get on the phone, and see if I can turn over some stones. Why are you up so early?"

"I had an idea yesterday about our armor problem," Bran said with a shrug. "I started a culture, and I got up early to see if it worked the way I think it should. Do you want some coffee?"

Caleb nodded for the coffee and asked, "So did your idea pan out?"

"I think so," Bran said hesitantly, as he poured another cup of coffee. "It would work, but I don't know if it's a viable solution."

"That sounds mysterious, and confusing as hell. Thanks," he said, accepting the cup of coffee. "Why would an idea that works not be viable?"

Bran sat with a sigh before explaining, "As you know, the internal nanobots are DNA coded. I've run some tests. They react almost like reflexes. If you are cut, or injured in any way, they react almost instantly. They are programmed to work with the immune system, but they also take cues from the nervous system. I didn't expect that."

"That sounds like you did a good job. Would it have worked as well if you had made generic nanobots for healing?" he asked curiously.

Bran shook his head no, and said, "I don't think that it would have worked at all, after seeing how the nanobots work in the body. I did run a few more cultures, just to see if I had been on the right track. Every culture failed. The nanobots replicated, and bonded, as expected. But without the DNA controlling the nanobots, they took over of the whole culture. In the human body, there is no telling what kind of havoc they would cause. However they reacted, it would be catastrophic. Think of bones being converted to blood, rather than just the marrow producing blood. Think of organs being encased in nanobots and not being allowed to move. What happens if the heart can't move to pump blood?"

"It's a good thing you didn't spend any more time on that line of research. What do the internal nanobots have to do with the armor?" Caleb asked.

"I was wondering why we couldn't do something similar with the armor," Bran explained with a frown, as he sipped his own coffee. "The culture I made yesterday shows that we could, but I'm concerned about the consequences."

"What are the possible consequences?" Caleb probed curiously.

"Well, your internal nanobots' programming can be updated. The problem is, I don't know if they can be removed. I don't even know if they can be deactivated. If I could find a way to simply turn them off, the body's normal waste removal systems would expel them. The DNA link won't allow me to turn them off. Since the nanobots are coded to the DNA, it seems like our bodies have accepted them as just another resource to protect itself," Bran mused, his fingers drummed on the table, and his brow furrowed in thought as he pondered the issue.

"Internally, that really isn't a terrible thing," Bran continued after a moment. "I can't think of a situation in which we would want to turn them off. My thought was to use DNA to code the armor, too, so it would react as quickly as the internal nanobots. The armor is external, though. There could be an issue with concealing the armor's presence, and we may not be able to remove the armor if it's DNA coded: other than reprogramming, that is."

"So the armor would work like the body's reflexes," Caleb mused, nodding in approval. "And the downside is that we may not be able to remove it. Do I have that correct? Is that what has you worried?"

Bran nodded his head slowly, saying, "I can't tell if it will be possible to remove the armor. It should still be able to be camouflaged, like the current armor. The nanobots are so small, they can easily pass through the body's skin pores, so it's possible they could even be worn under the skin. If I'm wrong, though, and we can't remove them, and they don't work the way we expect them to, what happens to the first person to get them? What happens if they don't work, and we can't undo the process?"

"Could they be reprogrammed?" Caleb asked.

"Sure. They would be like the internal nanobots, except they would be designed for external use," Bran explained.

"So your conundrum is that you're worried about doing something that you now know is irreversible. Is that about right?" Caleb asked.

"Not exactly. Being irreversible wouldn't be a problem, if I knew that it would work," Bran corrected. "What if it doesn't work? What if it causes you to grow horns and a tail. You're stuck with them!"

Ignoring Bran's qualifier, Caleb restated, "So the process works, but you are unsure of the programming. Programming that can be changed, and updated if necessary. Is that right?"

"Well, yeah, but it also means the first person may be stuck in the lab until we get the programming right," Bran protested.

Caleb shrugged and said, "We're talking about survival, Bran. No one will be forced to use it, but JJ was hurt because her armor couldn't adjust quickly enough. I would have been killed, if I hadn't already had the armor deployed under my clothes. If you have a way to make our armor react like reflexes, we need to seriously consider it."

"I know," Bran admitted. "It's just ... I don't know ... When I figured out that the internal nanobots couldn't be removed, it ... it bothered me. Finding a way to make the armor work better is important. I know that. But what if I can't figure out a way to remove the armor? That will be one more permanent change. We're changing, Caleb," Bran said simply. "Are we still human if our reflexes include internal and external nanobots that protect us?"

"Yeah ... I see what you mean," Caleb answered softly, looking at the floor. "I think ... We're still human. We might have some attributes other humans don't have, but we're still human. Realistically, it isn't like we have a lot of choice."

Slowly he looked up, and met Bran's eyes, before saying, "Bran, I didn't ask for any of this, but I wouldn't change anything, either. I never would have met JJ if that space ship hadn't crashed where it did. If the cost of having JJ, and the kids, and all of you in my life, is to change, then I will change. I'll become anything that I need to be to protect JJ and the rest of you. Right now, I've got a mad man with a Demon in his head. The pair of them want to kill us. All of us! After I eliminate them, we have aliens with superior technology coming for us! That armor could be the edge we need to survive both of those challenges. All of us will need to change to survive. That's just the way life is," he concluded with a shrug. "Our ancestors had to change, and adapt to new situations, to survive. We need to do the same."

Bran nodded, leaning forward, with his elbows on the table, and his head in his hands. He studied the table-top as he considered Caleb's words. Finally, he nodded again before looking up.

"I'll try to finish the tests on the armor this week. I think we need to be more careful about administering it, though. It's more dangerous than I thought. I'm a Physicist. I'm not a doctor! It was irresponsible doing what we've already done, but it seemed that we didn't have a choice. Maybe it was just panic, but it's done, now. When we start administering the DNA linked armor, we have to do it slowly, and carefully. We need to know, as best we can, that other side-effects aren't going to cause problems."

"Sounds like a plan," Caleb answered, smiling.

Bran just nodded, and asked, "So what happened with your candidate screening, last night?"

"This screening process is going to take longer than I thought. I only finished talking to seven families, three of which I feel safe bringing into our circle immediately," Caleb said, frowning. "We need to have a conference about the other four. Those three families are coming over about noon. We'll do the portal thing with them, and maybe their kids, at the same time. That will be nine people with the kids, from my deputies. Jorge is coming with a couple of his 'cousins'. The Companions agree they will be a good fit. Scotty is bringing his Chief of Staff, George Terrell and his wife. He's also bringing that newspaper editor, Belinda Hunt."

"Isn't that pretty dangerous, bringing a reporter into this?" Bran wondered.

"That's what I thought, too," Caleb said with a snort. "Apparently, Scotty was a very good friend of her husband. Her husband was killed about twenty-five years ago when the USS Stark was hit by an Iraqi missile. I think Scotty has a thing for her, but hasn't taken the chance to take it beyond being very good friends. Al said that Scotty discovered that Belinda wants to be more than friends, too. We'll just have to take a chance. It can't be much worse than some of the other chances we've taken."

"That's for sure," Bran said wryly. He sighed before straightening his shoulders, and saying, "With that many people coming, we're going to need a few things from the store. I think I'll pick up the ingredients to make a big batch of German Pancakes for breakfast. They're good, but low in cholesterol and fat. Do you have any special requests, while I'm there?" Bran asked as he stood.

"Nope. I stocked up on beer and soda, and have some wine for the people that prefer it. Vegetable platters might be a good thing for people to munch on," Caleb mused, taking another sip of coffee before standing. "I should get started, too. I need to try to get these calls out of the way before people start showing up."

"Okay," Bran said, hesitating before leaving the kitchen. "Caleb, think hard about the armor, and who will be the first to test it. It can't be you, because you have too many public requirements. Someone will need to be first, but it needs to be someone that can keep out of public view for a few days."

Caleb nodded thoughtfully, then said, "Jorge might be a good choice. I'll talk to him about it when he gets here."

"Thanks, Caleb," Bran said, relieved someone else was taking responsibility for that aspect of the armor project. "Let me know if anyone else thinks of anything I should pick up at the store," he said before leaving.

An hour later, Bran glanced at the grocery list that he had dropped on the passenger seat of his Ford Taurus. He shook his head in amazement.

"I shouldn't have let anyone know that I was going to the store," he grumbled aloud.

"You did say to let you know, if anyone wanted something," Noah pointed out, obviously amused at Bran's consternation.

Everyone had asked him to pick up something. Even Cindy had added a request for iced tea. It was the middle of the winter! Who drinks iced tea in the middle of the winter?

Bran shook his head again in bemusement as he backed out of the driveway, and headed for the store.

"Yes, Mullah Hassan," Farrid said. "I am sure it was the professor that left. Kamil is following him. Do you want to know when the professor returns?"

"Call Kamil. Find out where he is going. Call me as soon as you know. I am on my way. I will meet you wherever the professor has gone," Mullah Hassan ordered in a voice as cold as winter.

"As you command," Farrid said, before realizing the connection had already been broken.

He shivered before calling Kamil and relaying the instructions.

Farrid had observed the strange American Mullah for several years, during the man's infrequent appearances. He had been a lower-level aide to Aimal al-Kassem, and his duties had included serving the American Mullah when he was present. The American Mullah had appeared the year before, announcing that he was here to stay. Farrid has been assigned to serve Mullah Hassan in the same capacity, and report suspicious actions back to Aimal.

According to Mullah Hassan, Aimal al-Kassem had been killed by the American authorities. Farrid's instructions, in the event of Aimal's death, had been to call a certain telephone number. The Mullah had known about the instructions, and had stopped him from calling. He had said that he would call, and make any arrangements that were needed.

Aimal must have given the contact number to the American, Farrid decided. That was the only way that he could have known what the number was. However, the American had been acting strangely since Aimal's death. He was different in some way, and colder. Farrid tried to shrug off the differences in the man. The death of close associates affected different people in different ways. Perhaps the Mullah simply became more focused, and less feeling when associates were killed.

Farrid's phone rang, and he took the information to pass on to the Mullah.

"Link up with Kamil," Mullah Hassan ordered. "I'll meet you in the parking lot at the store. Make sure the parking spot next to the professor's car is available."

"Yes..." Farrid began, before realizing the connection had already been broken, again.

Farrid shivered again, as he proceeded towards the store. The Mullah's voice hadn't just been cold. It had sounded ... hungry."

"What did Caleb mean when he said the Companions approved of Jorge's cousins?" Bran asked mentally, shaking off his frustration with shopping.

"I didn't see that coming," Noah remarked in surprise. "You're getting better at shielding your thoughts. Good job."

"Do you really mean that, or are you just trying to distract me?" Bran asked.

"Both, actually," Noah replied. "I really did mean it, and I'm not really sure why I wanted to distract you. I don't think it's a secret."

"Okay," Bran said. "What was Caleb talking about?"

"It seems kind of silly to have to say it, but the Companions are united behind the humans," Noah answered slowly, as if picking his words carefully. "All of us were doing all we knew to do, but Al taught us something else we could do. It is an exercise that Companions don't often resort to. Apparently, there is seldom a need, and it is uncomfortable. Companions can meld, separate from their hosts, and take independent action as long as it is in all the melded Companions' host's best interest. The evaluation of so many humans for inclusion in our coming battle was ... is daunting. Individually, we were helping our hosts the best we could. That effort was less than satisfactory when trying to evaluate families for inclusion."

"So this melding gives you a different way to evaluate new people?" Bran asked curiously.

"Not exactly," Noah said, feeling frustrated, and reflecting it in his thoughts. "It is more like becoming a single mind, and being able to focus a broader level of attention on a problem. When you and Caleb work together to solve a problem at the college, you are working on the same problem, but each of you have a slightly different perspective on the problem."

Bran nodded to himself in agreement.

"If you were working on a single problem with ten people, that single problem would still be approached from ten slightly different perspectives," Noah continued.

Bran nodded again before mentally saying, "That can be a research teams' greatest strength."

"And a research teams' greatest weakness is conflict caused by the egos involved. The different personalities either begin grating on, or soothing their fellow researchers," Noah agreed.

"Now imagine taking those same ten individuals and melding them together," Noah said more softly in his mind. "The egos submerged, and the personalities blended, so there is no longer conflict. Yet, all the knowledge, and different perspectives, from each entity, is there to use by any of the others. Not just the facts alone, but the understanding of those facts and how to apply them. The different perspectives of the ten individuals still remain, retaining the strength of good research teams."

"And without the weakness of conflicting personalities in bad teams," Bran agreed in awe. "Companions can do this? They can meld like you're talking about? Can you help humans meld like that?" he asked, not waiting for an answer to his first questions.

"I don't think that is possible," Noah said, humor in his thoughts at Bran's excitement. "It requires allowing your personality to submerge into the meld. I don't think humans can do that. Human's sense of 'I, ' or sense of self, is too pronounced. It is very hard for Companions to give up that sense of 'self, ' which is why Companions seldom resort to melding. I think it would be impossible for humans."

"You're probably right," Bran agreed. "That would be something to experience, though."

After a moment, he asked, "So the Companions are using this melding technique to evaluate candidates?"

"Yes, but we're learning a lot more, too," Noah continued excitedly. "All of Al's memories are open to the rest of us during a melding. We can use Al's memories as if they were our own, and save much of that knowledge for our own use. I've learned skills that Companions have used since the beginning. I learned how Companions used melding to help their host species in the past, and how to prune memories, evaluating hosts' bodies for weaknesses that we can eliminate, and thousands of other things Companions have learned since the beginning of this Universe. Bran, it was amazing."

"I assume all of you found a solution to our current problem?" Bran asked, amused at his Companion's excitement.

Noah had displayed emotions before. Frustration at failed experiments, and satisfaction when an experiment was successful were the most common. Lately, fear and hate had been added to his list of emotions ... since the appearance of the Demon.

"I think so," Noah answered, seeming to pick his words carefully again, as if he were unsure how, or how much to explain. "We translated the human psyche into a numerical matrix. Then we selected the numerical values in the matrix, which we determined were needed to meet our goal. That goal is defined as ensuring the survival of the human species. Each human we evaluate can be measured against that matrix. It isn't perfect, but it provides us with a quick way to select those immediately acceptable. It also provides a pool of possible candidates requiring more evaluation, and identifies those completely unsuitable."

"I thought the human psyche would be too complex to reduce to a numerical equivalent," Bran thought with a frown, as he parked in the grocery store parking lot.

He parked well away from the entrance. Bran told himself that the walk was part of his exercise program. Actually, he was tired of his car getting scratched and dinged by other people's car doors. It seemed like people that parked as close to the door as possible didn't care if they damaged someone else's property.

"Not a numerical equivalent," Noah corrected. "It is a multidimensional, numerical matrix. It is a very complex matrix, but is still a tool that is manageable. Before melding, evaluating the human psyche was nearly impossible to evaluate."

"Does this mean you can explain how women think?" Bran mentally asked, suppressing a grin, as he selected a grocery buggy.

He pushed it to the side, and selected another buggy. He found one with four round wheels. Bran wondered if every grocery store purposely included carts with three round wheels and one oblong, in their grocery buggy inventory.

"We tried to understand how women think, but the melding broke down from all the laughter," Noah replied, reflecting Bran's humor. "There are some things too complicated, even for multidimensional matrices."

They had often discussed the impossibility of understanding women. Bran's and Noah's thoughts and conversations, during their shopping, primarily consisted of evaluating other shoppers for suitability. Bran was fascinated as Noah explained the process. The complexity was mind boggling, but the way the Companions had simplified the complexity was pure art, in Bran's opinion.

Bran had reached his car, and was reaching for the rear door handle, when Noah cried out in warning, broadcasting that warning to the other Companions.

The side door of the van parked beside him slid open as Bran spun around. A man was grinning at him from a strangely ridged face. It looked like the man had calluses covering his exposed skin. The cold blue eyes had that intensity often attributed to the insane.

Branch was attacking, and Bran was alone.

Bran's determination hardened. He attacked with his mind, and hit a wall of utter darkness. The wall began contracting, squeezing the shield that Noah and Bran had thrown up in defense.

"I have to go," Caleb barked into the phone before pressing the end button without waiting for a reply.

There had been a yell of warning from Noah, and then nothing.

"I can still feel Noah and Bran, but something is blocking us from reaching them," Al reported anxiously.

"Link," Caleb commanded, sending the order to all Companions.

He felt the surge of power as Companions and their hosts responded to the order. Caleb hammered against the wall preventing them from reaching Bran and Noah, but to no avail.

Caleb ran towards the door, hoping that closer physical proximity would improve his chances of breaking through the barrier. The store was only a few blocks away. It wouldn't take long to get there. His stomach churned, recognizing the similarity between the dark barrier, and the darkness he had experienced before Aimal had died. He was sure that Branch had struck, and he got chills of dread.

"Hold on, Bran," Caleb thundered, with the combined might of linked Companions and hosts. "We're coming!"

He had no way of knowing if the message got through.

"Caleb will come," Bran assured Noah, but both understood that it was more hope than knowledge.

"I know he will, but we won't be able to last until he gets here," was Noah's strained reply.

The wall had contracted until sight had been lost. Bran still had control of most of his body, but a roaring thunder was all he could hear, and a sickly, black, roiling mist was all that he could see.

"Then kill me," Bran ordered desperately. "Turn me off, or whatever you need to do. Branch cannot be allowed to have the knowledge I have," he pleaded.

"I can't do that," Noah replied. "Even if it is for a greater good, I can't harm my host," he gritted through the strain. "It wants the formula of the internal nanobots. I can feel it searching for it. Knowing its purpose gives me an idea. I don't know if it will work, but the Demon will have our memories and our essence in moments if I don't do something. It will require my leaving you. It will leave you exposed, but it is the only recourse remaining. You must hold your shield alone until he is fully occupied with me."

"What are you planning?" Bran asked in trepidation, also straining against the inexorable walls closing in.

"I will leave you, and enter his mind," Noah replied, determination hardening his thoughts. "Branch's quantum connection is wide open, so I know I can enter his mind. I don't know if it will stop him. Fighting a battle in your mind will destroy you. Maybe fighting in the Demon's host's mind will destroy them. There are other things I can try that may help."

"But ... What will happen to you," Bran asked, worried for his friend.

"Survive, maybe. If not, hopefully, I will cease to exist: die," Noah replied, splitting his attention between the battle, Bran, and something else that Bran couldn't identify.

"No!" Bran cried out in his mind. "It wouldn't work. You have all my memories, so the Demon would still win."

"I know how to prune my memories," Noah reminded Bran as gently as he could, while continuing the fight. "I will take copies of my memories of you, and of my love for you, so I will know why I am fighting. I will also take the formula for the generic nanobots, without the memory of our conclusions. Maybe, if it thinks it has what it wants, it will leave you alive."

"Please, no!" Bran mentally moaned. "Noah, I don't want to lose you!"

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