STRATAGEM CHAPTER 30
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
ONE DAY EARLIER
THE OVAL OFFICE
THE WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON DC
FACES. STRANGE AND LIMITED. With only two eyes, smooth skin with some facial hair, human cases looked peculiar, despite their somewhat logical design. Primary sat at the desk considering each of them in the different video conference windows on the screen, matching their designations to their images. Having just infiltrated the case belonging to President Edward Mercer, Primary had accessed POTUS’ memories, personality traits, verbal and psychical idiosyncrasies. For all intents and purposes, Primary was President Mercer—but with profound inspiration. He would from this point refer to himself as such. Each elder would do likewise and take on the identity of their cases.
The case moved awkwardly, yet efficiently. Mercer’s human neural pathways responded slower than the sentients of other worlds but they would suffice for the immediate circumstances. However, long-term the collective faced a virtually impossible challenge—one which could spell the extinction of their entire species.
“Time is finite,” he said in Mercer’s voice, acutely aware of the small window of opportunity they had to overcome the current limitations threatening their future. “Have we made any progress?”
Inhabiting the case of ICOMM CEO Richard Eicher, 025 said, “Our test cases have had partial success. “Jon Kimura” and “Lucille Washington” have been fully integrated and remain stable.”
“For now,” Mercer said.
“Yes, but it proves that we can fully infiltrate human cases and utilize their knowledge, memories, and abilities,” Eicher said, his gaze wandering like a moth seeking light until alighting on the camera. “It’s no longer theoretical.”
Mercer nodded—a strange gesture which he understood (only after he’d done it) to mean agreement. “Though we are still bound by a period of ten to fourteen days before cases expire.”
From the case of World Health Organization’s Director General Leo Botha, 026 spoke. “Ten to fourteen days, yes. However, we have evidence indicating that after complete infiltration, when we migrate from one case to the next, we carry the knowledge and skills of the previous cases with us. This is a surprising benefit from inhabiting such a simple and primitive species.”
Something about Eicher’s demeanor caught Mercer’s attention. It was his case’s memories and knowledge informing him, but judging by Eicher’s shifting gaze, reluctance to maintain eye contact, that he seemed uneasy. “Eicher,” he said, using his case name as it better integrated with their neuropathways to respond, “How is 37’s progress?”
Eicher’s lower jaw quivered. He hesitated. Finally, he said, “We’ve had varying degrees of success with the initial infiltration attempts.”
“Why is this the first I’ve heard of this?” Mercer said, his volume and pitch rising.
“We don’t have conclusive information just yet,” Eicher said. “But during confinement, Connor Walken died, and 37 did not have a chance to migrate.”
“So 37 is gone?”
Eicher glanced away.
“I asked you a question,” Mercer said.
“Unfortunately, 37 has perished along with Walken.
“How did this happen?” Mercer’s pulse rate increased, his hands gripped the arms of his chair involuntarily. He was experiencing the human physical manifestation of anger.
It felt empowering.
He rather liked it.
“We are investigating, Sir,” Eicher said, his tone subdued.
Projecting a warning in his voice, Mercer said, “Is there anything else I should know about the initial infiltration project?”
Once again, Eicher looked away. Beads of perspiration glistened from his forehead.
“Yes?” He turned back to face the camera briefly. Then with his eyes looking away, he said, “I mean…no. There is nothing further to report. All the other subjects are accounted for and under control.”
Mercer glared at Eicher for three seconds. No doubt this technique came from his memories of the time his case served as a district attorney in the state of New York. Eicher was lying. He was withholding something. But that would have to wait until later. “No further surprises, is that clear?”
“Fine.” Mercer turned his attention to 024, who had infiltrated the case of William Grant, the United States Secretary of Defense, and 023 infiltrating the case of Natalie Rivera, the National Security Advisor. “What is the status of the catalyst project?”
Rivera leaned forward. “All channels are open and clear. Everything is in place and ready.”
“I don’t need to remind you all how important this next step is,” Botha said. “Any chance of our survival hinges on this. If the catalyst experiment proves a viable method, then mass infiltration and propagation will be possible.”
“But will it do anything to stabilize infiltrated cases to last longer than fourteen days?” Mercer said.
“Until we find a means of overcoming the expiration limitation,” General Grant said, “We will have to rely on rapid migration.”
Botha appeared to be holding something back. Mercer detected it in his expression.
“What are you not saying, Botha?”
“Mister President, we are working on the expiration issue non-stop. But I must present you with the scenario in which we are not able to overcome that limitation.”
“It was truly our misfortune to have gotten stranded by a planet as primitive as Earth. Their lack of interstellar travel capabilities jeopardizes us all. We can only keep the rest of our population in stasis for another three weeks. By that time, they will have to infiltrate human cases or expire.”
“We had no choice,” Mercer said. “Don’t you think I would’ve chosen a planet on which we could feed off the cases long enough to acquire the appropriate technology for transport?”
“No one is placing blame, Sir. I just—”
“And don’t you think I would have remained in the previous star system if I had known we would come under attack and be forced to abandon ship and all our cases?”
“Of course,” Botha said.
“The fact that I located and made the ICOMM satellite and International Space Station a refuge and our only means of survival where our enemies would never think to look attests to my ability to lead us all.”
“Yes, Sir.” Botha’s mouth remained open but no further words came forth.
“So thank you for reiterating the gravity of our situation, Mr. Botha, but what we need right now are solutions!”
Botha nodded. “As always, you are right. For now, rapid migration and infiltration will be the only way to extend the lives of our species, but considering the planet’s population, we would expend all the human cases within three months. Unless we find a way to overcome the expiration limitation, we will not have enough time. We must construct that communications array, send a distress call, and hope the Homeworld responds and deploys a rescue transport before we perish with the entire human population.”
For some reason, the automated process of respiration stopped. Mercer found himself compensating by inhaling deeply and letting out a long breath. “I was not aware of just how dire the situation was.”
“None of us were, Sir,” General Grant said.
“But—!” Botha quickly interjected, “After reviewing some of the data from the initial infiltrations, Eicher and I have some promising theories that could point to a solution to the expiration problem.”
“Is that so?” Mercer said. “Eicher?”
“Yes, Sir. It’s too early to speculate, which is why I didn’t mention it yet. But it’s true, we are looking into a possible solution.”
“I want regular updates on that, understood?”
“Good.” He turned his attention to the Secretary of Defense. “General, you have my authorization to proceed with the catalyst project.”
“Very good, Sir. To test widespread propagation through networked synthesis, we will perform the experiment in a densely populated area.”
Rivera chimed in. “New York City—Upper West Side, to be specific. Infiltrations will be brief and temporary to preserve the life spans of the cases involved. While there may be a few deaths, the most common effect will be amnesia. But that won’t be a concern later when they have all been fully infiltrated.”
“Keep in mind,” Grant said, “because propagation occurs through electrical currents, there will be disruptions to the power grid and a good possibility of heavy damage to property and loss of lives.”
“A small price to pay for progress,” Mercer said. “Assuming we are successful, how long before we can replicate this globally?”
“Groups 0200 and 0400 are standing by in the European Union and Group 0600 will be online with China and the rest of the world population centers within twenty-four hours of the EU going online.”
“Excellent,” Mercer’s lips pulled back to reveal his teeth. A smile, yes. “Our people will soon be able to come out of stasis and have cases to inhabit. With such great numbers, we will together find our way off this planet and back home.”
But without a means of overcoming the expiration limitation, within months they will have expended the entire planet’s population along with any hope for escape or survival.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
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