The Scent of the Worm
rating: +10+x

The apartment complex had too many entrances for Nathan’s taste, but that was the cost of doing business in this case. There was also the matter of it being one-thirty on a Thursday night, and in the middle of a gated community, and over ninety degrees outside. The humidity slammed into him the moment he stepped off the plane at DFW airport, and it hadn’t let up.

NEXT TIME SOMEONE HIRES US TO GO TO TEXAS, WE’RE OUTSOURCING, he texted the Director.

The computer is in the bedroom. The Director probably wasn’t going to respond to him, so Nathan didn’t press the issue. There are two doors to the main building, but you’ll have an easier time getting in through the balcony. Kid’s got two additional deadbolts on the front door, but his balcony locks with a switch on the inside.

THAT SOUNDS EASY, Nathan answered, and then he remembered that his sarcasm wouldn’t translate so well through his neural link to the Director. SOUNDS LIKE A TRAP.

That’s why you’re going to be very careful when you pick the lock, the Director reminded Nathan as he scaled the fire escape next to the target’s apartment. Keep an eye out for any extra security. Mr. Snyder invented a computer worm that hacks brains. Yours should be pretty safe from it, but it might not be the only thing in his arsenal.

ROGER, Nathan answered. He swung his legs over the balcony railing and onto the wooden planks outside his quarry’s one-bedroom. The insulated boots he wore kept his footsteps whisper quiet, and his reflective suit was treated with an MRF weave, keeping him off radar and optoelectronics. Special ocular implants - a new toy - would filter out any info- or cognitohazardous material that came his way.

Nathan was well aware of how overqualified he was to be breaking into a twenty-something’s suburban apartment. When he combined that with how much he was being paid to do this, something didn’t add up.

He knelt down in front of the balcony door and began to jimmy the lock open with his knife. He noticed what appeared to be scratches from a set of keys on the lock, the kind that show up on the doorknobs of homeowners with a tendency to come home blind drunk. What were they doing on a balcony door that locked with a switch from the inside? How would one even lock themselves out on the balcony with this sort of lock, and why would it have deep, swirling gouges around the handle in mesmerizing patterns?

Something flashed in front of his vision. A notification from the phone in his brain had flagged and cleaned a cognitohazard. He blinked, and noticed his back was to the door. He had one foot on the railing of the balcony, and his body was pitched over it staring at the concrete below.

Dammit Nathan, respond!

I’M HERE, he texted back. DID YOU CATCH ALL THAT?

I did. I scanned and removed over fifty known auditory, visual, and olfactory cognitohazards when you got up on the balcony. By all accounts, you were in the clear. Nathan did not bother arguing with the Director over tampering with the implant’s natural functions. Not only would it waste his time and annoy the pig, but he imagined that his current situation would be a lot worse if his brain was forced to deal with several of them at once, no matter how innocuous they were separately.

WELL APPARENTLY THERE WERE FIFTY-ONE, he replied. HOW DID HE MANAGE THAT?

Snyder’s virus looks complex to a layman, but it relies on a very simple process, the Director explained. Nathan continued picking the lock, only half paying attention. It mass-produces cognitohazards, which most commonly present as images or symbols. Creating a memetic cognitohazard from a series of precise scratches would require time and effort but be theoretically possible.

Nathan finished popping the lock and slid the door back. The living room was fuzzy with the filtered content on the walls, like censorship in real life. Probably the Director’s doing. He scanned the immediate area for threats, and slipped gingerly into the living room. The computer station was immaculate, with an impressive desktop tower next to a wall-mounted television, but it was the only thing in sight that was tolerable.

It was a pigsty. No fewer than three pizza boxes were piled on an armchair in the corner, old mail and newspapers littered the floor, and at least two of the bowls on the table still had food in them. How did people live like this? He shook his head and began stacking dishes, plates on bottom, bowls on top of them, silverware inside the bowls.

Nathan? Nathan, are you there? Goddammit. Give me a minute to run some more anti-cog protocols. Nathan tried to text back, but his brain was fully preoccupied with the armful of dirty dishes. He set them down gently in the sink, picked up a greenback sponge, and tried desperately to claw his way out of his own traitorous mind.

“You know, I had been meaning to get around to that.”

Nathan’s body screamed for him to stop scrubbing but his brain wouldn’t listen. He squirted a softball-sized lump of detergent into the top bowl and turned the hot water knob as far as it would go. Whoever the voice belonged to, they were close by, just out of arm’s reach.

“How did you even get in here? You should have gone insane about ten seconds after deciding to pick my locks. What the hell is your CRV anyway, like a million? Is it over nine thousand?”

Nathan’s lungs screamed with a response they were unable to give. He couldn’t make his limbs do anything but run the greenback over this kid’s dirty plate, over and over and over and over.

“Crap, I forgot,” said the voice. “These ones are all previous gen. Shit. Keep washing, and don’t forget to rinse. I’ll be with you in a sec.” Meanwhile, Nathan’s muscles burned from the effort of fighting the compulsion.

I’m running a full cerebral diagnostic, came the Director’s voice. I’m going to keep talking to you too. It’s a .2% increase in the disruption of the meme’s effect, but anything to get you back on your feet quicker.

HE’S MAKING ME WASH HIS DISHES.

Yes, well, that was unexpected, replied the Director. Welcome back, by the way.

YOU HAD ME FLY DOWN TO TEXAS TO WASH SOME COLLEGE STUDENT’S DISHES.

“Will you two kindly shut up? I’m trying to work.” The voice was further away, probably in the living room.

HE CAN HEAR US TOO?

“I’m in yer base, destroyin’ yer mind,” he said. The beeping of a PIN pad was muffled by the wall between the two Nathans. “You really think I can’t hear you talking to your imaginary boyfriend?”

Setting down the clean plate, ignoring his scalding hands, Nathan struggled to pull his mind away from his task. He succeeded in putting the greenback into the stack of bowls. His muscles ached as they shifted his hands away from the pile of dishes and he turned his body away from the sink.

He rounded the corner into the living room, but the kid was nowhere in sight. The door was wide open, the computer was gone, but the television began to flash with dozens if not hundreds of images before Nathan was able to turn his head.

He tried to raise his left arm and lower it at the same time. He tried to touch his nose and turn his head and cough. He tried to put his right arm in and shake it all about. He tried to literally put his foot up his own ass. While his enhanced neural network was able to catch up with and recognize each action, the simultaneous actions his body was trying to take pushed it into overload and he fell to the ground, writhing in agony.

His vision exploded with pinks and reds, the kind you see when you press too hard on your closed eyeballs. He could feel his limbs moving in a spastic, jerky dance as he convulsed on the floor of this tiny apartment.

You’re having an intracerebral hemorrhage. You’ve been hit with forty-seven simultaneous cognitohazards and your brain is coping by having several aneurysms. The nanobots are doing their best to repair the damage, but you’ve got to stand up or else Snyder is going to get away.

Nathan propped himself up on one of his arms. He wasn't entirely sure which one it was. Possibly the left. The damage to his brain was beginning to take its toll, and the problem was further compounded by his neural interface autofiltering all the cognitohazards in the area. Everything was fuzzy or covered in that horrible visual noise that old analogue TVs got when they had problems picking up signals.

Nathan could smell television static, something he didn't even know was possible. It smelled acrid and vile, like someone had pissed acid on a car battery. There was something underneath it too, something sweet and sugary that made Nathan think of flies in a pitcher plant. He could smell it, taste it, and it was intoxicating.

The Director's voice throbbed in his head, rattling off all sorts of diagnostic information that he ignored. He shambled out the door and down the stairs, leaving the door ajar behind him on his way to Site-17. He didn't even see the GOC Strike Team that ambushed and subdued him.


Nathan Snyder's entire body was pulsing with adrenaline from behind the wheel of his rented Versa. He'd outsmarted a freaking robot assassin that had tried to kill him. The thing was probably still lying on the floor of that apartment having convulsions or something. The latest update to Neurocrack was an absolute nightmare.

His phone began to go off. He answered it, and a harsh, gravely voice came through his car's speakers.

"Recovery was a complete success. The funds have been deposited to your account as we discussed."

Snyder took a deep breath before responding. "Thank you ma'am." Wythers creeped him the hell out. He could never put his finger on why, but she sent a chill down his spine whenever he saw her number on the caller ID.

"The neural implant was unaffected, but that is expected," she went on. "You shouldn't be held responsible for subduing an AI in addition to his surrogate son."

"Maybe if he'd spanked the kid when he was little, Nathanbot would've had the discipline to fight the memes."

"It's fortunate for you that he didn't, then."

“What, don’t you believe in spanking your kids?” Snyder chuckled at his joke, but the line was silent.

“You do not bring up my kids,” came the harsh reply. “Ever. Since you don’t realize what you said, and you’re several countries and an ocean away, I’ll let it slide this time. Do not let it happen again. Are we clear?”

“Oh. Look, I’m sorry I-”

“Are. We. Clear.”

"We're clear, ma'am," Snyder replied. His face and cheeks reddened, and he reminded himself to be kinder to his GOC benefactor. He was being hunted by Foundation MTFs, Chaos Insurgency, probably other GOC operatives, and God only knows who else. His list of safe havens was getting shorter with each passing day.

"Good. How is Project Bastet progressing?"

"It's chugging along," Snyder answered. "You saw the results of the Venus Strain on that android or whatever he was."

"He wasn't an android," Wythers replied. "More of a clone. Sure, he was enhanced and upgraded to all hell and cost more than the GDP of some countries, but a clone is a clone."

"Okay, the clone," Snyder conceded. "Whatever he was, he took the olfactory memes hook line and sinker. I even snuck in some of the experimental gustatory ones. I'll bet you all the money you paid me that he was on his way to Site-17 when you guys nabbed him."

"I hope so," Wythers replied. "Then it means the project was a success. Are you ready for Phase Two?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good. Park the rental at the rendezvous point and dump the phone. Your contact will be there to pick you up shortly."

"And how do I know that you can' trust you?"

"You don't. But you'll do what I say regardless. I'll see you in the morning. Try and get some sleep. We'll need you in top form for the next phase of the project." She hung up the call.


Made for the Original Character Tournament. Be sure to check out the other entries featuring these players:

AFX NeuromancerAFX Neuromancer's entry: TBA
Attila the PunAttila the Pun's entry: To Run Forever

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