Elaine pulled the basement door closed and leant against the wood, her chest rising and falling. Eyes closed, she waited for her heart to slow its frantic beating, for the goosebumps along her arms to settle.
Slowly the cozy, quiet atmosphere of her workshop calmed her, and she opened her eyes. Computers sat on tables, blinking as programs compiled lazily, far removed from the stabbing urgency of the horrors below. There was a little cot in the corner, big enough for one, though occasionally she might squeeze another in, when she could be bothered to go through the anxiety of sending a meet and waiting to see if she'd get reply. A photograph, the glass frame cloudy with fingerprints, sat on the floor by the cot, showing two young people in t-shirts and jeans, arms around each other, grinning in front of a huge metal server.
Her MiKat jumped down from her work station and padded over to her, his yellow eyes flickering. He wound his way around her ankles, purring discordantly.
“Again?” Elaine asked him, picking him up. “All right. Let’s see what we can do.”
She flicked the switch behind his left ear that sent him to sleep, and gently opened the panel in the back of his head before connecting him up to one of the lax computers with an adapted u-busk. The MiKat was fifth generation, but she didn’t want to upgrade him. He was a gift, like the photograph. Besides, she’d never get a replacement on the warranty, not after all the little adjustments she’d made. She set to work fixing his purr, and for a short time was able to forget the monster in the basement.
“I don’t know how you manage it,” Jean stated. “Honestly, I don’t. You’re so brave. We all think so. We were saying just the other day how brave you are.”
Elaine found her smile, offered it to Jean. “How is everyone?”
“Oh, well, the same, the same. Annabelle got her promotion, did you see?”
“No… I’ve not had much time…”
An expression passed quickly across Jean’s face, something like distaste but less abrasive. Pity? Embarrassment? Elaine couldn’t be sure, and it was gone too quickly for her to make a study of it. Jean turned her wrist over, tapped the button on her Sok and pulled up her feed. She flicked through the most recent stories until she found the one about Annabelle.
“Here, see? She’s Head of Augmotions now,” Jean said, shifting slightly so Elaine could read the headline.
“You have been busy, haven’t you?” Jean replied, a little laugh accompanying her question. Elaine found herself wondering what was funny. She laughed as well, to be safe.
“Annabelle’s working on a prototype to help survivors – rape, war crimes, water refugees. A new therapy implant,” Jean clarified. “They’ll be a Nobel, if she’s successful. It's good work. All approved.”
Elaine scanned the listicle, her gaze passing over the pictures of the survivors’ before and afters, of Annabelle and the infographs, to focus on the four lines of text.
“Biotech? But it's banned?”
“I thought you'd... You didn't see?"
"I've been busy."
Another quick expression passed across Jean's face, this one tighter than the last, making her look older. "Oh. I probably shouldn't have... I just assumed you knew. The UWN lifted the blocks last month,” she said, double-tapping her Sok and pulling up the right feed, pointing to a picture of a man signing a release. “See? Abeni signed it himself. Listen, I know this might be hard for you, but-”
Jean flickered, her avatar stream buffering. Elaine waited for the stream to resume, thinking.
The block on biotech had been in place for the last seven years, ever since the event at MIT, making it impossible to share research or gather data, even on the grey web. But if the ban had been lifted, that meant information was flowing again.
A buzz shot through the workshop, making Elaine jump.
The familiar, stinging sickness filled her stomach. She typed a message on her Sok explaining her abrupt departure, pushed it to Jean, and shut down the meet.
It was time to feed the monster.
Setting the empty glass down on the floor by her cot, Elaine re-read the listical, pausing this time on the images of Abeni signing the release, opening the data stream. She tapped her Sok, pulled up a video of the same event, and watched in UDHD+ the precise moment the gold nib of his black stylus hit the screen. How had she missed it? How had she not known?
Too busy doing nothing, filling her days with odds and ends between feeding and tending to the monster, that's how. Too many hours hiding up here, ignoring the outside world.
The MiKat let out a little brup, jumped up onto the cot and butted his head against her arm. Elaine rubbed his ears with her right hand, reaching across the wrist of her left in such a way that she could still watch the video on the Sok. Again and again, looping back to the beginning every forty five seconds, Abeni signed the document. Eventually the MiKat's systems, the ones Elaine had tinkered with, ruining his warranty, decided he'd been affectionate enough. He wandered off in search of something else equally cat-like to occupy his run time.
Elaine closed the Sok, poured another glass of whiskey. Swirled the glass, watching the way the alcohol caused the liquid to hold to the smooth surface, caught against the glass... fighting gravity. She downed it, drunk enough now not to notice the sting. Poured another.
Biotech. Biotech was back.
Tipping herself off the low cot, she clambered to her feet and made her way over to the table on the far wall. Her calendar shone white with meet requests, customers wanting to know when she'd be done fixing their tech, if she could crack their MiPets, whether she was the type of free-lancer who'd do purges or retcons. She flicked it to the side, opened the Torz program, and spent the next few hours drifting through the grey web, picking up information, watching as the threads of knowledge slowly began to weave their way back into the whole.
After a while she began commenting, hiding herself behind a purged avatar, and then writing her own posts. Conversations began, and her calendar flickered as new meets were pushed to her fake Sok account.
The alarm buzzed at 10.30, reminding her it was time to go back downstairs, into the basement.
Elaine turned the MiKat on, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she waited for him to reboot.
Ten seconds, twenty… His yellow eyes flickered, his tail twitching as her new code was incorporated into his source files. The MiKat shuddered, and then, slowly, got on his feet. He blinked at her. Reaching out, Elaine brushed her fingers against his head and then, when he pressed his face into her hand, she started to rub his ears.
Had it worked? She'd meddled with her MiKat, a attempt to program him to feel. How could she test it?
Elaine reached over with her free hand and picked up her soldering iron, the tip still hot from affixing the new chip to his board, and quickly pressed the iron against the MiKat’s back, pulling away before the heat could damage him permanently.
Nothing, except the stink of singed faux fur.
God damn it. Eight weeks of work, eight weeks of ignored meets and late repair jobs, and the code hadn’t worked. Maybe she wasn’t up to it? Maybe they’d been right to fire her, to strip her of her doctorate and licenses. She dropped her head onto the table top, trying to ignore the memories of her tribunal, of the ethics committee, and the doctors at University Hospital… the horror on their faces when they'd seen what she’d done.
What she’d created.
No wonder biotech had been banned, her avatar gagged. No wonder Jean only pushed her virtual meets, never coming to visit her any more. None of the others even bothered with that.
The alarm buzzed. Elaine lifted her head.
Pulling herself to her feet, she patted the MiKat’s head and turned to face the basement door. God, she longed to stay in her workshop. The wooden eaves which leaned across her, covering her; the little round window that let in a disc of sunlight, the fold-up cot in the corner, and, filling the room, her work. Not the ridiculous bits of tech-support she did the pay the bills, to cover the food and equipment she needed to keep the monster quiet – her real work. The work they'd banned from her from; the work the UWN had banned the world from, until a few months ago.
But she’d failed again, hadn’t she? The MiKat hadn’t reacted to the heat of the soldering iron.
And now the monster needed her.
Elaine shut down her computer, turned off the soldering iron and packed away the detritus of her failure. The MiKat sat on her chair, purring steadily. At least she’d managed to fix that, even if she couldn’t fix anything else. She exited her workshop and climbed down the stairs, to where the monster lived.
Machinery beeped at her, angry at being overlooked, scolding her for being late. The monster lay on its slab, surrounded by wires and tubes, by the tech that regulated its breathing, its heartbeat, its brain activity. That kept it alive.
The monster’s eyes were cracked open, its teeth yellow and black in its loose mouth. She didn’t bother brushing them anymore. No one else came to deal with it, so there didn’t seem much point. Besides, if she brushed its teeth she had to lean in over its face, see the nothingness in its eyes.
Dribble ran from the corner of its lips and through the matted hair on its jaw.
Elaine concentrated on her own mouth, stretching the muscles in her cheeks to manipulate her lips. Smiled at it.
The monster closed its eyes. Went back to wherever it lived, while its body was kept alive by the machines that stretched across the whole first floor of Elaine’s house. If it lived anywhere at all, that was.
She changed its catheter, refreshed the drips, noted down the monster’s blood pressure, pulse, temperature. Next she did the injections, shifted the monster’s position on the slab to avoid sores (a mistake she’d made at the beginning when, seven years ago, this had all been new to her), and pushed all the data to University Hospital’s Neurological Department’s Sok. Finally, she ran quick diagnostics on the machines and checked the generator and back-up generator were functional.
And then she sat next to the monster, held its hand, and tried to feel something other than shame and anger and exhaustion.
Later that evening, Elaine left the monster sleeping and returned to her attic workshop. The MiKat jumped down from her desktop and padded over to her, but he fritzed halfway across the room and began turning in circles.
Sighing, Elaine picked him up and switched him off. She took the MiKat back to her work station and began turning on her computers.
“Ok, Adam Two. Time to start again.”