The best way to conquer one's enemies is to befriend them.
"We sent twelve operatives into that farmhouse and never heard from them again. The robots we sent in shut down before getting through the door. We established a perimeter around the house and now everyone within a twenty-meter radius looks like they stitched tumours to their faces. The damn place is a meatgrinder."
"Well, the 'meatgrinder' is expanding. We can't blow it up without finding out what's inside; we both remember Kodiak. Somebody's got to go in and investigate."
"Who's crazy enough to knowingly kill themselves?"
"… Get Tau-5."
The first embraced the darkness blissfully. The second succumbed without resistance. The third failed to remain conscious. The fourth died clutching her chest and writhing.
"Now, this is a type of anomaly we haven't really dealt with before, so we're field-testing some new equipment. It's based on Prometheus Labs technology; essentially, the device generates some kind of field that forces cells inside to remain in a G0 stage regardless of outside influences. Stops cancer and other mutations cold, but also prevents healing. We don't really know what… kind of field it is… but we're pretty sure that whatever it is, it'll also stop your gear from shorting out," the technician explained, handing the four of them large, bulky rucksacks.
The four members of Samsara nodded, peering at the complicated-looking machinery buzzing within the packs.
"Hey be careful with that, okay! No sudden bumps or jerks. It's kind of volatile. We couldn't even test it on D-Class without sending Ethics into conniptions, so…" the technician floundered.
"You're testing it on us?" Irantu supplied.
"Uh… I wouldn't put it like… but uh… yeah?"
Nanku looked inside her rucksack again and flipped the switch on the device. It detonated with a muffled CRUMP.
She looked up. The bones on the left side of her face had fused together; chunks of eye nestled in the bloody crater that remained of her nose.
"I think something got in my eye…"
The technician splattered the remains of her face with vomit. It took her several seconds to start wiping away the stomach acid and remains of tuna salad. "Oh… er, ugh, ew, ew! That's disgusting!" she belatedly wheezed.
"That was good. You sounded normal and disgusted there," Irantu complemented her.
"Thank you!" she responded, forcing a note of levity into her voice.
The technician kept heaving even after his breakfast and pre-lunch snack had ended up on the ground.
The first time they were born, they lay curled within pink, fluid-filled plastic wombs. They could breathe. They could gargle out words through the respirators. They could sense the warmth of the fluid. They could perform integration and derivation in their mind. They could not feel.
The scientists observing them cheered briefly and then began scribbling notes on their PDAs.
The fourth time they were born was the first time they were defective: resembling horrific infantine harlequins. The first woke up and began exploring the tiny confines of her womb, eager to experience rebirth. The second woke up silently, suckling the artificial teats within the small pink spheres. The third dreamed of emptiness, basking in the muffled lub-dub, lub-dub of his environment. The fourth screamed, beating her underdeveloped, scaled fists pathetically against the hard plastic shell.
Far above them, men and women in stark white coats scribbled down notes before activating the womb sterilizers.
Irantu peered inside the den of the farmhouse, shotgun at the ready. The hairs on his neck stood up as the anomaly in the house clashed with the device strapped to his back. Nanku's limbs were already swollen with malignant tissue. She pulled out her knife and started sawing away as quietly as she could, practicing her winces when she punctured noncancerous flesh.
His face unriddled with bullets or tumors, Irantu sidled into the den. Munru followed, quickly moving to the other side of the room. Onru entered third, and finally Nanku, who had swapped her knife for a pistol.
A chant in an unclear language wafted down from upstairs. Irantu peered around the door into the hallway and got his first glimpse of a corpse blocking the hall.
The squad moved forward carefully, guns trained on the bubbling mass of flesh dressed in Foundation-issue body armor. Irantu poked it with the barrel of the shotgun.
It failed to react.
"Dead," he called back quietly.
As they swept the kitchen, living room, dining room, and bathroom, the squad took note of the corpses in each room, draped over furniture like demented throw pillows.
"They're all pointing in the same direction," Nanku mumbled, voice muffled by the neoplasms stuffing her cheeks.
"It must have some significance with the voices upstairs. All ground rooms clear?" Irantu asked.
Irantu pulled out his radio and briefly called in.
"Ground floor is clear. Have found six bodies; all MTF. All covered in tumours similar to the bodies discovered outside. Moving to second floor."
The second floor rooms were also devoid of live bodies.
"Adorable," Munru commented, looking at a pulsating mass on a child's rocket-shaped bed.
"Wrong emotion, I think…" Nanku garbled, shearing off the tumors that had sprouted around her face and subsequently stuffing them into her mouth. "Hm, these taste like lady fingers."
"Let me see?"
"Over here," Irantu hissed from the hallway. Munru and Nanku immediately shut up and aimed their weapons at the offending door. Five blobs of flesh lay in front of it, all propped in positions suggesting that they died trying to reach the knob.
"The chanting is coming from within. I can only hear one voice. This door is the only entry within, so I suggest we flood it."
"Understood," Munru nodded. The rest of the squad turned and plugged their ears as he unclipped a flashbang from his belt, kicked open the door, and lobbed it inside with one smooth movement.
The twelfth time was also the thirteenth. Two copies of each were grown and uploaded with the memories and thoughts of the original, then placed in ostensibly private rooms to have a discussion. Faced with each other, they began the session by discussing the nature of their rebirth and what this meant for the nature of consciousness. They concluded the session by reassuring each other that it was merely an experiment and form of self-gratification.
These results were noted down with interest by the fourteenth.
They poured into the bedroom, weapons up and eyes locked on the figure chanting on the bed at the far end. Its features lay hidden beneath a twisted mass of cancerous flesh bulging from under a ratty T-shirt and jeans, like an obese pin-up model.
ᴘʀᴏᴠɪᴅᴇ ʜɪᴍ ʏᴏᴜʀ ғʟᴇsʜ
Irantu prodded the mass with the barrel of his shotgun, which did nothing except make it chant slightly faster. His radio crackled to life.
"What's your status?"
"Found the source of the anomaly," he replied. "Large conical mass of cancerous tissue, about one meter tall. Chanting in an unknown language. Appears to have been human."
"Understood. We're talking to some researchers now… okay. You are authorized to neutralize the threat. Your guns should do the trick. Hurry. The anomaly is expanding at an increased rate."
"Confirmed," Irantu noted. He motioned for the group to take a few steps back and fired a few tentative rounds into the mass, which all ricocheted off and into the walls.
sᴀᴛᴇ ɪᴛs ᴛʜɪʀsᴛ
Irantu looked at the mass, scooped up some brain and marrow lying around, and coated his glove in it. This time he was able to make a dent in the mass.
ɢɪᴠᴇ ɪᴛ ʏᴏᴜʀ ғʟᴇsʜ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ʜᴇ ᴍᴀʏ ᴍᴀᴋᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ɢᴏᴅs
Irantu thought for a moment. "Nanku, hand me your pistol."
She obediently stepped forward and handed it over.
Irantu emptied the magazine into her neck. Even before she could topple over, he had begun hacking away at her neck sinews with his combat knife. Onru and Munru helped him finish decapitating her.
As the rest of the squad evacuated the room, he took a frag grenade from Nanku's belt, stuffed it into her mouth, pulled the pin, and slammed her head deep into the cancerous mass in a single smooth motion. Then he dove out of the room.
The gigantic neoplasmic mass exploded, coating the room in fragments of muscle, intestine, brain tissue, and bone marrow.
Irantu stood up and spoke into his radio. "Anomaly neutralized, over."
His radio crackled to life. "The effect has ceased spreading outside. Anomaly confirmed neutralized. What's your status, over?"
"Nanku is dead. Rest of us are unharmed, over."
"Understood. Exit the structure immediately; we're burning in T minus five minutes, over."
ᴛᴀᴋᴇ ᴛʜᴇ sᴀᴄʀᴇᴅ ᴛᴏᴍᴇ
Munru stepped back into the room and made for the remains of the anomaly, shoveling away detritus until he found a small, meat-stained leather book buried underneath. He stowed it into his uniform.
The end came very suddenly, when everyone found themselves facing the barrels of a group of peeved religious fundamentalists.
The first was neutralized. The second was eliminated. The third was executed. The fourth was slaughtered. Of the few that escaped being lined against the wall, almost none survived the explosion that leveled the facility.
Several meters underground, four backup vats whirred to life, orchestrated by a slightly damaged cloner containing four men and women who had sacrificed their lives for immortality.
They died in that machine; lives, loves, thoughts, feelings, the ability to create, and their humanity erased by a damaged hard drive.
The three of them were poring over the book when Nanku was escorted into their cell. The side of her head was slightly dented, with a few stitches and a discolored patch indicating where they'd grafted bone from an earlier, aborted incarnation.
"Hello!" she greeted them.
"Quiet," Munru scolded her.
"What are… you reading?"
"A book we found in your body."
"What's it… about?"
"How to 'summon' a god…"
Munru tried and failed to make air quotations.
"It's a good book."
"They let you… keep it?"
"Nobody said anything about it."
"Can I read it… with you?"
"We're almost done. We've been reading for two weeks."
"Can I read what's left?"
The bodies were grown but there was nothing to inhabit them. The intelligence had died in the machine's broken drives. All that remained were a single template, two genders, and four names.
Machines are nothing if not good at arithmetic. Minds are nothing if not good at creation. Bodies are nothing. One template plus one name plus one gender plus one body equals one being. One being equals one-fourth of the available bodies. Four beings equals one completed task.
A machine is nothing if not good at completing tasks.
"…It's a good book."
"Maybe we could… visit the place in the book?"
"We could learn more about acting like people."
A damaged wall crumbled as a group of black-clad men and women blasted through into the cloning chamber. Behind them was the last surviving handler.
"What are we looking at here, Doctor?" asked one of the black-clad women, peering at the naked, almost featureless fleshy shells within.
"A former project that almost got me killed a decade ago. I think it'll prove a useful asset."