/’skAn/ : a loosely coiled length of yarn or thread wound on a reel

Alpha vs Delta - Part II

Hot on the heels of Part I, here's Part II of Alpha vs Delta, my exercise in 7th Son / Infection fanfic.

For all parts of this story, check the Alpha vs Delta category.

Thus far, it still feels like 3 more parts of 5 left as far as my notes run and how the pacing and length feel. And in case it's not obvious, this is written entirely from my own memory and interpretation as a listener of these two podcasts. So, blame me for any oddities or deviations from canon, etc. And, keep in mind that this is hot off the TextEdit — I've given it a quick once over, but won't do any serious editing / revision until the very end. Don't let that stop you from commenting with suggestions or criticism, though!

So with all that, I hope you enjoy Alpha vs Delta - Part II:

John Alpha yawned and stretched in his chair. He felt disgusting and itchy all over. He scratched under his beard and behind his neck, and he wondered just how long it had been since this body's last shower. Oh yeah, he remembered: this morning. It hadn't worked, apparently. Of course, the bachelor squalor in which Marten lived didn't help.

But, it wasn't the body or a clean apartment he was after here — it was Marten's mind. John could put up with the accommodations if the mind lived up to its promise. Sure enough, as John reached out into his memory, he found plenty of interesting material for the taking. He considered a few analytical problems he'd memorized as a sort of diagnostic tool, and was frankly amazed at how swiftly and clearly solutions came to him.

This was going to be fun. He couldn't quite bring himself to admit that Marten's mind was sharper than his own native brain, but the kid was undoubtedly a raw genius. Young Marten did lack a bit in smarts, though: John had been able to manipulate him into psyjacking himself without much creativity at all. It had just taken a tiny bit of mystery, a shiny toy, and few softballs thrown to make him feel clever. He was particularly amused by the "READ ME" packet that had laid everything out so clearly.

It wasn't all fun and games, though, as John had had to put some effort into obfuscating his trail while enticing Marten. Among other things, he'd used the Aleph moniker and intentionally garbled 7th Son terminology. He didn't want the Betas — Kilroy 2.0 in particular — to unexpectedly wander off the trail and match any keywords in an accidental email archive somewhere to discover this particular lark. They were on their own custom-designed rides, and he planned to keep their arms and legs in their respective cars for the duration. John Alpha chuckled to himself at the thought.

But, back to work. And, of course, the first order of business was establishing a line of communication back to the Bona Fide. Marten had started the work for him already: The thumb drive and the "drivers" he'd installed were actually parts of the secure computing environment John liked to use when he was away from home. Marten had broadband DSL service, which was good: John would need the bandwidth to dump copies of Marten's research and data out to his own hardened file servers back home.

More importantly, if this little project worked out as well as he hoped, he would be able to use some of Marten's algorithms and the DSL bandwidth to send himself back home in a few days. At that point, John would have plenty of time to squeeze work out of Marten's mind at his leisure. It could be a significant improvement to the state of his art overall — allowing not just one-time psyjack, but possibly safe retrieval and even memory totality merges. But, just in case it didn't quite pan out, he wanted to spend the next few days getting the most from what Marten had on hand.

Marten was just heading into a week or so of winter break, so John would have him all to himself for awhile. He'd planned to visit family by the end of the next week for the holidays, but John should be done with him by then. Eventually, someone would find poor Marten, alone in his apartment, in whatever state John chose to discard him.

John turned to the main PC on Marten's desk. There were a half-dozen computers and monitors set up around the room, all crunching away on various research tasks. But, they were all controlled from the workstation in front of him. So, John brought it out of the screen saver it was running, tapped in Marten's password, and brought up the desktop. John's secure computing environment was lurking dormant in sleeping system processes — to wake it, he struck a combination of control keys and rapped out a pre-determined rhythm on the space bar.

Suddenly superimposed over the desktop was a new user interface. John ran through a short set of challenge and response procedures to establish his authority over the system, and it was ready. Marten had a webcam, so John linked it into the system and opened a secure tunnel to phone home. After a second or two, the connection was established.

"Hello John," said Special K, grinning brightly from Marten's screen. "Nice to see you, whomever you are today! I'm afraid I don't have much time to chit-chat, but I confirm that your connection integrity is green." Special K was one of John's little helpers, a subverted disciple who'd defected from the inner circle of the mad hacker of the Betas, Kilroy 2.0.

"Good," replied John. "I know you're busy with the Betas, so I just wanted to check in and report my status."

"Excellent. We're having a blast here," Special K laughed. "How was your trip?"

"Not bad," John said. "I slept all the way here in my little box, so it seemed quick to me. The seats are tiny, but this really is the only way to fly."

"Cool. I was a little worried that this side-job would be a waste of psyjack hardware, but I'm glad to see I was wrong."

"Really, K? I find your lack of faith disturbing."

Special K laughed. "Don't worry about me, Boss. I'm just here to follow orders and learn from the best. Now, if you don't mind, I've got a Beta clone to taunt."

"I'll be in touch. Have fun."

"I will. You too, Boss."

John closed the video chat, keeping the secure connection open and its tools ready. With Special K's help, John had built quite an effective portable working environment. It was stronger than just about any corporate VPN package around, and harder to crack than anything the US government had. So, for things like this and daily IT oversight, he kept Special K in line with his own tailored cloud of flattery, geek in-jokes, and dot-com-style perks — but some day, he knew he'd have to cut him loose. After all, the only person John could really trust in the end was himself.

He paused for a moment, trying to remember where Marten kept his documents and notes. It came to him: They were synched and shared across the university network between his hard drives at home and servers on campus at his lab. Conveniently, he could get to everything from right here in Marten's bedroom office.

John found the meticulously organized root folder on the desktop and dragged it into the file transfer funnel offered by the secure connection software. This was the low hanging fruit: The products and raw data generated by Marten's work. It was a pretty large chunk of data, consisting not only of word processor files but also of massive data captures produced by Marten's brain scans. The transfer started chugging along, eventually reporting an estimate of a day or two to complete.

It would take years of work to actually get anything useful out of those files without Marten's help, but at least John would have the material. The next phase was more valuable: John planned to sit himself down and mentally compare notes with the remnants of Marten's mind to see where his findings were directly applicable to John's own technologies. The synthesis of the two would be the real payoff for this trip.

But, as he glanced at the system tray clock on the PC and yawned, he realized that it was well past two in the morning. Marten had sure taken his sweet time figuring out how to psyjack himself, and the trauma of the process must have left him more drained than he'd expected. Despite his misgivings about the mattress in the room, he knew any bedbugs were only temporary.

It wasn't like he could catch anything.

He gave the file transfer one more check — still going strong — and turned off the monitor. The room darkened and his body found its way to the bed, falling into darkness as fast as the still-clothed body fell into the sheets. As he started to softly snore, his hand moved of its own accord. His fingernails clawed at the back of his neck, gouging at something that just shouldn't be there.

The subjective experience of invading an already-occupied mind could fill volumes of study in its own right. Maybe someday, John Alpha would have a few selves with time to write memoirs from that perspective.

His dreams overnight were tortured, like a marathon domestic dispute. Alpha's dominant totality filtered steadily, relentlessly into every nook and cranny of the brain that it hadn't immediately overrun with the initial onslaught of the psyjack. There was never any doubt that John was ultimately in control, but that didn't stop him getting a mind-full of Marten's wailing subconscious. Throughout the night, Marten had reemerged in a myriad of aspects. At times, he came to John with calm logic and rational arguments, trying to talk John out of dissolving him into a more powerful psyche. At other times, he wailed with indignant rage, throwing parts of himself around the dreamscape with surreal violence.

But strangest of the episodes were Marten's threads of juvenile persona, expressing pervasive curiosity and simple, demanding hunger. It seemed like this part of Marten was splintered: He presented as a group of child-like impulses, each of them grasping and asking and seeking. Of all Marten's remnants, these seemed to be the only ones reaching for John himself, probing into his own thoughts and memories. Of course, he blocked every advance, but the sensation was unexpected and mildly disturbing.

John Alpha awoke to the glare of sun illuminating an unfamiliar pattern of veins through his eyelids. He'd tried imagining all the ways waking in a different body would be strange, but this was one he'd never considered. He opened his eyes, though not fully. He threw an arm over his face. The rays of sun speared straight at him, and he just wasn't ready for that.

Suddenly, he sat bolt upright, startled: The window of Marten's bedroom faced toward the southwest — sunlight didn't enter this window until well into the afternoon. An alarm clock near the bed read 3:38. He'd slept for well over half the day, and yet he still felt drained. Something was wrong. He'd hoped to wake with a clearer head by morning, ready to throw himself into research — but he felt even more cloudy than the night before.

How rude: Leave it to Marten to catch the flu on the night he'd had company calling. John wiped at his face — and smelled copper. Blood? He drew his hand away from his face to find the fingers reddish-brown, neglected long-ish nails caked under with — what? Was that skin?

It was then that the pain from the back of his neck registered, like a nasty sunburn. He reached back, gingerly, and felt a series of shallow trenches back there — one for each finger. And, through the pain, it still itched. And his fingers, when he brought them back, were wet. He looked behind him at the pinkish pillow. Marten remembered it as a dirty off-white.

John Alpha swung his body's legs over the side of the bed, feeling the plane of Earth's gravity dip and sway treacherously. Pausing to re-calibrate, he tried standing up. After a third try, he'd adapted to the weakness in his muscles and the characteristics of the wobble the planet had developed while he'd slept. The body remembered its way to the bathroom, down a very short hallway and left around a corner.

(feed us. we're hungry.)

He turned on the lights and saw a ghoul standing there. It occurred to him that he was looking into a mirror, but it felt like even the body itself didn't recognize what he saw. Experimentally, he reached out — and the ghoul reached back.

(hungry. hungry. feed.)

He turned on the sink taps and washed his hands with the grimy half-bar of soap left there, red water and small chunks streaming down the drain. Next, he splashed the water on his face and neck through his beard — he couldn't believe he was in a body with a yeti's face-pelt. He hadn't planned on wasting much time on hygiene, but this was going to drive him to distraction. And what the hell was wrong with his neck back there? And why was he so itchy in so many other places?

(you must must feed feed feed us we are hungry we are hungry)

Okay, he couldn't keep ignoring that. The juvenile persona had followed him into waking awareness — that was bad. Was Marten at risk for schizophrenia, had the psyjack been a catalyst into a psychotic break? That was a nasty worst-case scenario if he expected to get any work done, and Marten was about the right age for it. Was this what Kilroy 2.0 had experienced? Or, had Marten, the imbecile, actually botched the psyjack? What the hell was wrong with him?

John needed to refocus: It didn't happen often, but he'd been taken by surprise by whatever was going on here. Take one thing at a time, regain composure and control. First, check on his neck, then food, and finally a goddamn shower.

(no feed us now feed us now feed us no now now)

Neck first, then food, John thought. Go play in traffic, you little bastards.

(no feed us what is traffic play in?)

In the bathroom cabinet, John found some rudimentary first aid supplies: There was some gauze still in sterile packaging; a spool of medical tape; hydrogen peroxide in an old brown bottle; half a tube of anti-bacterial cream; some cotton swabs. There was a sound inside his head, like tennis balls running around the inside perimeter of his skull.

(traffic no play in.)

He grabbed a clean-ish washcloth from a towel rack behind him, wet it with hydrogen peroxide, and started blotting at the back of his neck. More tennis balls orbited around his brain. He scanned the under-sink cabinets for another mirror, something to let him take a look back there, but came up empty handed. He rinsed the pink wash cloth white again in the sink, reapplied the hydrogen peroxide, blotted some more, repeated until the wash cloth stopped turning pink. With another towel from the rack, he dried off the wound. Once dry, he smeared the rest of the anti-bacterial cream blind with his fingers, then taped a square of gauze over it positioned as best as he could.

(no feed in traffic play not now feed now now now.)

It was a rush job, but he was no longer in immediate pain. The anti-bacterial cream must have contained analgesics, as well. Stomach cramps and those incessant little creeps were pulling his body down the hall, toward the kitchen.

He remembered dinner from the night before, which sounded like a light snack at this point. Throwing open the fridge and a succession of cabinets, he lost hope for any food residing actually within the apartment. Searching Marten's memory didn't yield any good news, either. Lately, he'd been eating gradually more and larger meals from the fast food place up the road.

(yes yes yes we feed on triple cheeseburger extra large fries chocolate shake more again cheeseburger more more more!)

Well, that got their attention. And, he couldn't really disagree with them: A massive quantity of what they'd claimed to be food from the grease shack sounded like the ideal remedy to this hunger. He didn't feel like he was in any condition to leave the apartment, and hadn't really planned to do so for the next week or two — but he knew they didn't deliver. And, anyone who did deliver would take far too long. Marten usually walked there, which was an entirely unappealing notion in this weather.

Oh, but Marten did have a car outside! He just made a point of driving it sparingly for various confused conservation and money saving sentiments. To hell with that: Rookman oil was in that tank, it was time to go burn it up to fill his gut.

(food yes feed gut feed us yes burn.)

Back to the bedroom he went, to find some pants and his discarded shoes. His wallet was in yesterday's pair, with about thirty bucks left. In the living room, he found his coat, a hat, and a scarf. The scarf covered his neck well enough. He bundled up, zipped up, and let himself out the front door. Closing it, but not bothering to lock it, he hustled down the hall toward the parking lot.

Marten's neighbor, Laurel, was just opening the building's outer door with her key as he pushed through. He almost bowled her over, but she sidestepped and pulled the door open for him.

"Whoa," she yelped, toppling a bit and sliding backward on the icy walk outside. "Excuse me, I didn't see you heading out!"

"Yeah, sorry," he said.

(go go go go go go go.)

"Are you okay, Marten?" As he continued past her, she said, confused, "Oh, well I guess I'll see you later."

He half-walked and half-skated through the ice and salted slush on the way to Marten's second-hand beater. Everything felt so much colder than usual, but he was on a mission. His keys were, luckily, in the coat pocket — he'd forgotten to check if he'd even had them before rushing out of the apartment. Distantly, it seemed like a bad idea to have gotten locked outside in this cold. No time for that now, though: He unlocked the car door, swung in, and after a few chugging false starts, got the thing sputtering to life. The tires spun and spun in the parking spot when he hit the gas, but finally they caught and he lurched out of the parking spot.

The drive from the parking lot and up Plymouth Road to the burger place was less driving and more like tobogganing. He was glad it was only about a block away, and he was sure that the few other drivers on the road would be happy to see him get back home and stop tailgating and nearly sideswiping them into each other. If Marten had had a sturdier car, that might've even been fun.

But, he managed to reach the drive-thru window without major mishap. Quickly, angrily, he scanned the menu. There were no pre-constructed mega value meals that would match this hunger. So, he just started ordering some of the biggest items from the board, ala carte. Three triple cheeseburgers, four extra large fries, two jumbo chocolate shakes, and an apple pie. Much more than that, and he would be out of money.

(yes yes yes yes more more more feed now we are hungry we are hungry.)

"You having a party, man?" asked the cashier as John pulled up. He looked to be around freshman age.

Impatiently, John thrust bills at him and replied, "Yeah, and they're going to kill me if I don't get back soon."

(yes now now fries yes chocolate yes burger burger burger.)

With three bags full of his catch, John roughly piloted the car back to the apartment lot, stuffing wads of fries into his mouth the whole way. He managed to collect together all the bags, and the full drink carrier, in one hand. The treacherous slick on the way to the door threatened to spill him more than once, but at last he'd gotten into the hall and back into his apartment. He deposited the food on the living room coffee table and shed coat, hat, and scarf into the chair by the door. Unburdened of obstacles to his meal, he slumped into the threadbare couch across from the coffee table and began to feed.

(good we feed good good hungry good good good)

Part way through the third triple cheeseburger and the last fistful of fries, John Alpha felt the pressure and urgency begin to subside. Focus slowly returned, and he was deeply disturbed. This was most certainly not good: Whatever had gone wrong with him, be it insanity or bad psyjack, his mission was seriously endangered. His judgement was clearly askew — hearing and obeying voices in his head, wolfing down this disgusting fast food like it was ambrosia. He needed to contain this situation, and he couldn't do it alone. He realized that he needed some help before his situation degraded any further.

It was long past time for Marten to pay a friendly visit to his lovely neighbor Laurel.

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When I grow up, I want to be a computer scientist