Prose Header


by David Cleden

Saluka came awake five or six times in the night, thinking she’d heard smart dust falling on the roof again. Each time she got up, went to the rotten window in the little lean-to potting shed, and looked out. But it was just rain pattering against the corrugated iron roof.

The time before — days or perhaps even weeks ago now — she had opened her bedroom window and caught one of the motes in her palm. All across town they had fallen lightly, like confetti, bouncing and clicking as they skittered across roof tiles, forming little rivulets as they spilled into gutters or fell to the ground. She listened for the drone of a plane, but it was either too high or long gone.

In the moonlight they glistened like a new-formed frost, millions upon millions of them. And as they came awake, the ether must have filled with their electronic chirping. A million million eyes and ears — and who knew what other senses too — coordinating, cross-referencing and reporting back.

All this, just to hunt her down.

She looked down at the tiny insect-like thing in her palm: a grey, non-descript oblong no bigger than a grain of rice. Tiny hairs covering its surface sensed her body heat and spasmed into life. It began to crawl across her hand.

You little snitch, Saluka thought.

She regarded it a moment longer, then crushed it slowly and deliberately with a glass ashtray against the windowsill. It crunched like the dried husk of a moth.

Adrian was serious, then. He would stop at nothing to find her. And when he did, doubtless he would crush her as effortlessly as she had crushed the tiny machine he had sent looking for her.

Saluka had one option left: she fled.

* * *

There were lights and some sort of commotion at the end of the street. A roadblock? So they had moved fast. But she could move faster.

She took nothing. In the final analysis, the only thing of value was already within her, a part of her.

Saluka slipped out the window, sliding down the incline onto the flat roof of the garage block. Scaling the back wall was easy; the alleyway beyond reassuringly dark and an enticing escape route. But that was too easy; the risk of a trap was too great.

Instead, she pushed through scrubby hedge into a neighbouring garden, crossing quickly to the next boundary, and the next, always staying away from the pools of light thrown by windows and street lights. In this fashion she progressed through a series of narrow, suburban back yards, scrabbling over rickety fences, trampling flowerbeds and hoping to God no one had left their dogs free to roam. When she judged it safe, Saluka exited into a different alley and then ran for the river through deserted streets.

Everywhere smart dust crunched beneath her shoes. It was on her clothes, in her hair. They might already be tracking her. If so, they would figure where she was headed, and why. But it took time to sift those volumes of raw data. Seconds certainly, perhaps minutes. And on that slim chance hung her survival.

By the riverbank, she stripped naked. She took a moment to fill her lungs with fetid city air, and then she plunged into the river before she could give herself time to reconsider.

The coldness crushed her like a vise, squeezing the breath out of her. Her arms and legs were suddenly wooden and useless, all her muscles in spasm at once. She sank rapidly and, in the darkness, the water closed over her like a coffin lid. She panicked, feeling the imminence of death as a real and tangible thing, not like the other times. Back then, she had felt invincible.

But panic was good. It was enough. Control returned. She kicked out with powerful strokes, breaking the surface and gulping down air.

She let the strong current carry her. For now she was clean again, purged of the smart dust. It was like a rebirth, another chance at survival. But though the odds might have improved, she was under no illusions.

She stayed in the water as long as she could until consciousness began to slip away as hypothermia took hold. Worrying about circling thermal-imaging drones, she hauled herself from the river beneath the rusted girders of a road bridge, wandering dismal industrial streets until she found a waste heat vent to warm herself. Later she would steal clothes and food, find a place to hole up. She liked the idea of lying low for a time.

But he would find her again. He always did.

You bastard, Adrian, she thought.

* * *

She watched for changes: unfamiliar modes of thought, a change of perception or some sense of differentness — any sign that the things in her bloodstream were altering her, rewiring her brain in some subtle fashion. Naturally, there was nothing.

One night, as she sat in the lee of an old wall, miserable and hungry, hugging herself against the cold wind which had swept away the layer of low cloud, she gazed up at the newly revealed stars and felt a sudden dizzying connectedness, an overwhelming sense of belonging. Tiny though she was on the scale of the universe, she suddenly felt an intimate, vital part of it.

Elated, she started to get to her feet. And then she remembered back to her childhood, a winter’s evening out comet-hunting with her father. On that crisp night, peering at wobbly, ghost-like images through binoculars, she remembered experiencing that same feeling.

Nothing new after all.

She considered the possibility that the nanocells were sterile or defective in some way. But no. Adrian clearly thought not, or he would hardly have gone to such lengths to recover what she had stolen.

As for Adrian... Once it had seemed the perfect union of their brilliant minds. Each talented and precocious, they had spurred each other on, creatively and financially, to new levels of success. Their little research lab had grown and prospered until the big boys had no choice but to sit up and take notice. It was the classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Without each other, they would have had nothing.

But if she thought she understood Adrian, she had made a catastrophic error of judgment. She couldn’t begin to trace the lineage of his lies, but it was undoubtedly a heritage that ran deep.

* * *

“I’m flushing the batch,” he told her. “The results are inconclusive. I think there are better avenues to try.”

“How can you say that? The analysis is incomplete.” She had felt shocked and angry. Betrayed.

Saluka acknowledged they had both pursued their vision with a certain arrogance. Hers, the belief that despite its dangers, this double-edged blade of powerful biotech offered humanity the chance of a step-change. His: simply to prove to the world he could make it happen.

Adrian had shrugged. “It’s decided,” he said, as if the matter were trivial. Years of work to be incinerated.

But he had surely known she would find a way to circumvent him. Each knew the other’s moves like two veteran chess players. For months she said nothing about the anonymous visitors, the after-hours meetings she was not invited to, the cars that came and went late at night. She suspected whatever Adrian was dabbling in ran to the highest levels of government. And Saluka was to have no part in it, apparently. No doubt, Adrian had realised long ago how differently she saw things.

There were dangerous consequences: they had both understood that. But nevertheless, the speed with which Adrian had executed his coup had caught Saluka off guard. She had worked late that evening, as was her wont, leaving the lab just before 10:00 pm. Arriving at 7:30 the next morning, it was all gone. Everything had been sterilised, just as Adrian had threatened. Equipment broken up. Decontaminated.

Transferred elsewhere, Saluka thought.

But Adrian had miscalculated. Weeks ago — one vial among the hundred had been replaced with inert serum, labels swapped, no audit trail left behind. One would be enough.

Yet she knew her little victory would be short-lived. When Adrian discovered what she had done, as he undoubtedly would, nothing would deter him from recovering that missing vial.

But she knew better than to underestimate him a second time. No hiding place would ever be safe from him and his powerful friends.

Except one, of course.

* * *

She travelled only in the hours before dawn. Night-time was too dangerous: the unlit spy-in-the-sky drones were silent, their infrared eyes sharp and beady. In daylight they would be watching for her in any one of a thousand ways. In the pre-dawn light she might be able to spot such threats. Maybe, maybe not.

Options? None to speak of. However, getting herself across the border — indeed, several borders — would make things harder for Adrian. Here, he could call upon all the government support he wanted. Elsewhere, that might not be so easy. But it meant finding contacts, human traffickers willing to make a little extra in the form of a trip out instead of in. And that meant going back to the city, not something she felt comfortable with.

But with each day spent in hiding, something else began to trouble her. She really did feel it now, deep inside. A little change. Something different, intangible, alien. Though it was only just beginning to stir, still weak like a half-starved creature waking from a long hibernation, it was there.

And dangerous.

Sometimes she wondered if Adrian hadn’t been right all along.

* * *

Hunger drove her to desperation. Deep in the forest, Saluka found different kinds of fruit-bearing bushes, but she was no woodsman; she had no way to tell which berries might be poisonous. She nibbled one cautiously. No bitter aftertaste, just an unpleasant tartness; but she could live with that, so to hell with it. She ate enough to quell the worst of her hunger pangs.

She kept to the cover of the forest, safe from prying eyes above. They could find her easily with more smart dust, but first they would need to know which areas to seed.

In mid-afternoon, she stopped by a little clear-flowing stream to drink, the water cool and refreshing. As she did so, she noticed movement in the water. A tiny fish, no bigger than her middle finger, moved cautiously in the shallows. Her stomach growled. Not much, but something.

With painstaking slowness she let her hands sink deeper into the water, gradually bringing them together. The fish, questing and curious, moved a little closer. When she could bear to wait no longer, she grabbed for it, cupping a volume of water she thought must surely contain the fish and lifting it clear.

For a moment, she felt its body against the skin of her palms, rubbery mouth-parts tickling her with a tiny bite. It stung. And then the fish was gone, twisting and snapping its body through her fingers faster than Saluka could react. It darted away upstream. Oh well, it wouldn’t have made much of a supper.

Much latter, when the sky was fully dark, the little fish returned to the same spot. Accompanied by two or three others, they swam in lazy circles, tasting the water and its trace molecules like a connoisseur sampling a glass of wine and deducing its vintage and origin. Then, as swiftly as they arrived, they departed, heading purposefully back upstream.

* * *

Saluka approached the group cautiously. For nearly two hours now, she had watched them from the shadows, glimpsing their faces in the flickering light from the braziers. All seemed normal and unthreatening. Traffic thundered overhead on the motorway, its sound transmuted into a near continuous bass rumble in the echoing spaces of the underpass.

She recognised Croxley, the man she had spoken to before; the fixer. And some of his cronies, too. Most wore hoodies pulled up against the chill air. They drank from bottles of vodka passed between them, smoking and making the occasional joke.

Saluka stepped out from the shadows. Immediately the men fell silent, all eyes on her.

“You have the money?” Croxley asked.

“Do you have the papers?”

Croxley nodded to a plastic bag on the ground nearby, weighted with a broken slab of concrete against the wind. “In there.”

She stepped closer. “Then we can do business.”

Now a man to Croxley’s left spoke. “I do hope so.” He stood and pulled back the top of his hoodie. There was sudden movement in the shadows, like ripples spreading outwards. She thought she could see the glint of weapons in the firelight.

“Hello, Adrian,” she said. “I had no idea times had gotten so hard for you.” She took a moment to take stock. Surrounded, there didn’t seem to be anywhere left to run.

“Why did you have to make things so difficult?” Adrian asked. He sounded genuinely sad. “I thought we had it all worked out, you and I.”

“We wanted different things, Adrian. I figured that out a long time ago. It was always just a matter of time before you sold me out.”

He shrugged. “This is bigger than either of us. The government can’t afford to lose control of this, you must see that? In the wrong hands... What you did was incredibly reckless. And now because you’re part of it — it’s part of you — we have to bring you in.”


“Call it that if you like. It’s not ready for release. It may never be. It’s too dangerous.” He nodded, and now the men holding the weapons came into view. “You ran but you must have known we’d never stop hunting you, not until it was safely under lock and key again.”

“Oh, we both know it goes further than that.”

“What do you mean?” Adrian sounded puzzled.

“You never did like competition. You saw your chance to be rid of me and took it. This is personal, Adrian. You made sure of that.”

“You flatter yourself.”

“What led you to me?”

“A batch of bio-engineered fish programmed to sniff out your DNA profile. We had mosquitos ready to go, too. And other things you don’t want to know about. The government’s capabilities have developed further than you realise, Sal. You underestimated us. It was just a matter of time.” He stepped forward and rested a hand lightly on her shoulder, squeezed gently. “It didn’t have to be this way, Sal.”

She counted a dozen or more weapons trained on her, encircling her. It seemed hopeless.

“Well, Adrian, you were always better at tying up loose ends than I was,” she said. “I guess that’s all I am now, just another problem to be dealt with? Is it really that simple? Are you that callous?”

He shrugged, turning to gesture at the encircling men. In that instant of distraction, she bit down on his hand. Not hard, but enough to draw blood, and for her saliva to mingle with it. He snatched it back, rubbing at the wound.

“What the hell—”

There was a moment of frozen time while its significance sank in and then, barely perceptibly, some of the guns shifted until now they were trained on both of them.

Saluka smiled. “Tag.”

Copyright © 2015 by David Cleden

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