Isolation, p.1
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       Isolation, p.1

           Dan Wells
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  Title Page

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 2, 2060

  Paragen Biosynth Growth and Training Facility, Undisclosed Location: January 5, 2058

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 3, 2060

  Paragen Biosynth Growth and Training Facility, Undisclosed Location: October 7, 2058

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 9, 2060

  Paragen Biosynth Growth and Training Facility, Undisclosed Location: January 31, 2059

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 9, 2060

  Paragen Biosynth Growth and Training Facility, Undisclosed Location: February 15, 2059

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 9, 2060

  Paragen Biosynth Growth and Training Facility, Undisclosed Location: April 12, 2059

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 9, 2060

  Chinese Airspace, Shanxi Province, China: June 9, 2060

  Zuoquan City, Shanxi Province, China: June 10, 2060

  Excerpt from Fragments: Book Two in the Partials Sequence

  Chapter 1

  About the Author

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  About the Publisher


  June 2, 2060

  Artillery pounded the city, fiercer and closer than before. Mei Hao stopped at the window in her rush, seeing plumes of smoke and gouts of flame amid the Chinese half of the city. The fires, too, were closer. The Partials were pressing forward, and the Chinese headquarters were no longer safe. Mei left the window and ran down the hall, a stack of maps in one arm and the army’s satbox in the other. She could already hear the two generals arguing.

  “We have to move our headquarters,” said General Wu. Mei was his assistant, and it was no surprise to hear him arguing for retreat. He had proven himself a coward since the day she’d met him. She hurried into the room and laid the maps on the table; he spread them out without acknowledging her, and she opened the satbox while he examined them. “The devil army has held this line for weeks,” he said, pointing at a vague line scrawled through the center of the city with a red wax pencil; the line was vague by necessity, for there was no easy way to tell exactly which buildings were held by which army at any given moment. “Now they are pushing past it,” General Wu continued, “at least to here, and likely even farther.” He thumped the map with finality, as if pointing at his estimates had made it so. “Either way we are no longer safe here.”

  General Bao considered carefully before answering, though Mei had learned from experience that this was most likely tact rather than hesitance. Bao was the opposite of Wu in many ways: young where Wu was old, tall and handsome where Wu was round and ugly, brave where Wu was cowardly. He chafed against the older man’s caution and cowardice, but Wu was the senior general, and Bao was always very politic with his counsel. “We cannot run forever,” he said at last. “We have been tasked with the defense of this city, though as the invasion wears on we are defending less and less of it every day. We do not have the strength, as you say, to drive the BioSynths back, but a stand must be taken somewhere.”

  “Bah,” said Wu, dismissing him with a cursory wave of his hand. He had none of Bao’s tact. “You would stand and die. The civilian section of the city is of secondary concern to us—our only true objective is to defend the munitions factory.” He thumped the factory’s off-center location on the map with his thick forefinger. “That is what we cannot lose, and retreating today would put us in a better position to defend it.”

  An aide rushed into the room, bowed to both generals in turn, and held out a gently glowing tablet. “General Bao Xu Quin, a message from the tower.”

  Bao glanced at Wu and took the tablet, reading it quickly as he tabbed through the photos with his finger.

  “Ill news, no doubt,” said Wu. “How close are they now, schoolboy, five miles? One?”

  “They are three miles from our position,” said Bao, staring at the tablet, and Mei could just see the movement that held his attention. He was watching a video of the battle, probably a live feed, and from the look on his face, it was not going well for the defenders. “They are advancing quickly. Perhaps it is time to move our headquarters.” He glanced at Mei, and she dropped her eyes demurely. “For the safety of the staff, at least.”

  “Now you speak reason,” said Wu, “even if you mask it as concern. The question now is where.” He studied the map. “The enemy cannot pierce a heart it cannot find. Our headquarters will be best hidden in the university, here; they will have no reason to look for us there, and even fewer opportunities to find us in the labyrinth of the campus.”

  “If we could reach it,” said General Bao, gesturing at the map. “With the BioSynth army crawling up the boulevard here, and the canal beside it here, I think the university will be too soon cut off.” He mused a moment, then pointed at another section of the city. “If you must leave your heart where the enemy can pierce it, you should at least protect it with armor. The Zuoquan library has deep catacombs below it, defensible and firm. We should move our headquarters there and, when the time comes, defend it far more securely than here.”

  “We would be forced to defend it with our lives,” said Wu, “for there would be no retreat from it.” He pointed at the lower left quadrant of the map. “The contours of the city would lead the devil army around us, cutting us off from safety long before they would ever have need to confront us directly. It seems there is only one place left to make our foolish stand.”

  Mei had known the answer long before either general; she had suspected, in fact, that the Partial advance might be an attempt to drive them to their one and only safe place of retreat.

  “The munitions factory,” Bao mumbled, staring at the map with deep concern. “I do not like it. The devils will know where we are, and with a single stroke could eliminate both us and the factory. It is the most valuable objective in the city, and we cannot afford to make it more so.”

  Wu shook his head. “It is valuable because they need to use it, not because they wish it destroyed. Their press into the rest of China will fail without the supplies that factory will provide them, and as such it is the one place in the city they will refuse to obliterate outright. We will be safe from air strikes there, and our ground forces are still strong enough to defend it.”

  Bao considered a moment, but Mei knew that he had no other recourse. It was truly the best and only place to retreat, and while that made it seem to her like a trap, the generals would have little choice but to walk into it. Bao nodded, though his eyes made it clear that he did not like it. “The factory, then.”

  “Mobilize your forces,” said Wu, brushing Mei away from the satbox. “I will mobilize mine and update our maps accordingly. Do you have us connected?”

  “Yes, sir,” said Mei. Wu sat down and activated the touch screen, calling up the map of Zuoquan and adjusting the layout of their forces on it, moving them here and there like pieces on a game board. The changes would be relayed through their network both to the subcommanders, who would align their forces in more detail based on the general’s commands, and to the superior commanders overseeing the defense of all of China. The entire war could be coordinated seamlessly through a network so secure it could never be spied on . . . unless you had access to the satbox. Mei kept it close at all times.

  An alarm sounded, and the generals’ phones both chirped an alert in unison with it. Bao cursed and finished his orders to his men, glancing quickly at the incoming message. “The devils are here,” he said. “We must leave now.” Wu finished his work on the satbox and rose to his feet, accept
ing his coat as Mei held it up to his shoulders. Soldiers were streaming in to defend the leaders and escort them to safety; Mei could already hear gunfire in the street outside. Wu bustled out of the room, leaving her to close up the satbox herself. Bao, more gallant, stayed until she was ready. “My men will bring us to the Rotors, miss.”

  “Thank you,” she said, being sure to favor him with a grateful smile. She had been cultivating in him a subtle attraction, should she ever need it, manipulating him as surely as Wu had moved his forces on the satbox. Now that attraction was manifesting as a desire to protect her—a typical response for a man in authority, and one that worked to her advantage. Not that she was in any real danger from the “devil army”; already she could sense the Partials below, linking with them as they entered the first floor of the building. They were winning handily, and she relayed her location back to them, warning them away. Her orders had been specific: Do not let the generals be taken yet. Do not let yourself be exposed. The order made no sense, but she followed it anyway, as she always did. As she had been engineered to do.

  Her name was Heron, and she was a Partial spy.


  January 5, 2058

  Her first sensation was sound.

  She didn’t know it as sound, because she didn’t know anything; her life was the barest essential minimum to qualify as life. An unborn child in its mother’s womb feels warmth and motion, hears sounds and voices, sees light and dark through the thick red filter of its mother’s own body. Its brain begins to process these sensations before it even finishes developing, an insatiable learning machine that is already defining the world months before it understands, on any conscious level, that the world exists. An infant human becomes so accustomed to its mother’s voice, for example, that it cries with its mother’s accent mere seconds after birth.

  A BioSynth brain can do so much more.

  The sounds she perceived were meaningless to her, but they were constant, and that made them comforting. If she had the words, she would call them voices, beeps, and the gentle wash of water in her growth vat. Doctors came and went, vital signs were scanned and reported and recorded. Machines hummed and buzzed and beeped and swished. Her father was a genetic sequencer, and her mother was a tube of carefully calibrated nutrients. They were her world, and she listened to them with a consciousness no human fetus could ever imagine.

  Her vision developed next, clusters of photoreceptive cells forming rapidly in the backs of her eyes. She saw the world not in red but in blue, the translucent walls of her growth vat letting in just enough light to give her a sense of darkness. Shapes moved beyond the dark blue walls, coming and going with the voices, but she didn’t know what they were, or who, or why. Her muscles developed soon after, and she found that she had arms and hands, feet and legs, each one seeming to act independent of her own thought and control. Over time she learned to move them—her arms drifting back and forth in the growth fluid, her fingers opening and closing. With her hands she discovered her face; when she accidentally poked herself in the eye, she discovered pain. As her control over her limbs grew stronger, more precise, she poked her eye again, on purpose this time, just to see if she could. It hurt, and she didn’t like to hurt, but it was new. In a vat in a lab where everything was done for her—and to her—it was the first thing she had ever done for herself. Her pain was her statement of identity.

  She had been growing for nearly three months. She was thirty inches long, and nearly twenty pounds. The vat’s inner membrane expanded, and she continued to grow.

  Her hair was already long for an infant, but soon it grew long enough to float in the tank before her, wafting in the currents of her own subtle movements. Her arms lengthened, her legs thickened, her chest and abdomen filling the space until they pressed against the warm, solid sides of the vat around her. This, too, was new, but it didn’t alarm her; the tight press was comforting, keeping her safe and protected. By six months she was nearly five feet tall, if she’d been standing up, and as her body approached its full size, it began to change in shape as well; what a human girl would call puberty became, for her, simply another stage of in-vitro development. Her limbs grew long and slender; her hips swelled; her chest grew from tiny bumps into round, curving breasts. She would later learn that this was also when a human girl would begin to bleed, but she had been designed sterile, like a living doll. This was neither a comfort nor a bother to her, for she knew nothing else.

  At five feet eight inches she stopped growing, and her skeleton solidified into its final shape and size: her skull plates closed and knit together; her adult teeth tore through the virgin flesh of her gums. She had been growing in the vat for nine months, but her body, by any objective measure, was nineteen years old.

  She had the mind of a child, and the knowledge base of a helpless infant.

  On September 24, in the year 2058, a man in a rubber jumpsuit popped the seal on her growth vat, raised the lid, and slapped open the dump valve in the bottom. The warm water she’d grown up in swirled away with a roar; the membrane that held her, now unsupported by the fluid, tore open, and she tumbled out in a tangle of flailing limbs. The rubber man caught her and laid her on a plastic cart, and a swarm of people in suits and masks clustered around her, strapping her down, probing and prodding and poking. She shivered in the sudden cold; her limbs, full size but never used, were too weak to protest. She vomited up the last of her amniotic fluid and breathed air for the first time, new and painful and horribly insubstantial. The people spoke the same words and language she’d listened to for months, but without the tank of water to alter the sounds, they sounded harsh and terrifying.

  “This one’s not a pilot one,” said a voice.

  She knew the words, but not their meaning.

  “She’s espionage,” said another. “Group Theta.”

  “Figures,” said the first voice. “She’s gonna be a looker when she fills out.”

  “Looker or not, be careful,” said the second voice. “Thetas don’t have the empathy package.”

  “You’re kidding.”

  The man shook his head. “A body like that and a brain like a snake. Scary as hell.”

  The probes and tests were done. A man grabbed her cart and wheeled her away, and suddenly the entire room seemed to move around her, vast and bright. The other doctors stayed behind, and as she passed they moved to the next vat in the line, popping the seal and dumping the fluid and sprawling another wet, shivering body on a low plastic cart. The girl’s lungs labored, struggling to breathe, and she forced out her air in a long, ragged scream.

  The man pushing her whistled idly as he walked.


  June 3, 2060

  SECURE CONNECTION ESTABLISHED, read the phone. Heron turned on her local scrambler—a small lapel pin that would disrupt any surveillance equipment in the area, making her conversation impossible to overhear—and spoke. “Agent Six reporting.”

  “Good evening, Heron,” said the familiar voice. She had never been told who her commanding officer was, and she had never asked, but she could decipher from his voice that he was old, and that he was undeniably human. Partials relied so heavily on the link for communication that without specific training, such as Heron had received, their voices carried an identifiable flatness one might call “inhuman.” That her handler was human marked him as a high-level strategist, for most of the other human soldiers and officers had already cycled out of the Isolation War and gone home. The Partial infantry fought, and the Partial generals led, but the humans still called all the shots. Her handler spoke with easy authority. “What do you have to report?”

  “The generals and their retinues, including myself, have retreated safely to the munitions factory, as you planned.” She didn’t actually know that this was the plan, but dropped in the assertion as a test. Her handler confirmed it with the inflection of his response.

lent, excellent. You are to be commended for your part in the operation.”

  “I’m afraid I still don’t understand the operation,” said Heron. “We had soldiers in the building—I could have delayed both generals long enough for them to be captured. With an official order, I could have captured them myself. You would have had them and the satbox. Why did you instruct me to hold back?”

  “We have bigger wheels in motion,” said the voice. “You keep following your orders, and those wheels will roll smoothly to victory.”

  “I look forward to it,” said Heron. The voice never told her much, but he seemed to be even more mysterious lately. “Any chance you’ll let me in on my next glorious part in it?”

  “I delight in talking to you, Heron,” said the voice. “You’re so much more personable than the other Partials.”

  “I’ll try to take that as a compliment.”

  “You should. I have a mission for you, because I know that you’re clever enough to manage it. I need a map of the munitions factory complex: all buildings, all hallways, all rooms, from the roofs all the way down to the basements and subbasements. Be sure to call out key locations and defenses. I need this information as quickly as possible.”

  “Because you’re going to invade,” said Heron.

  “And clever, too,” said the voice. “Get me my map. Confirm.”

  “Confirm,” said Heron. It wasn’t a code word, just a protocol the officer had. He treats me like a computer program, or a trained animal. The thought shot through her mind, but she dismissed it. This was the way it had always been, and she had a job to do. The connection was severed, and she turned off the scrambler. She adjusted her skirt and straightened her jacket and walked out into the busy factory.

  The factory complex was a hive of constant activity: five buildings already crowded with workers and machinery, now doubly crowded with soldiers trying to set up a military headquarters. The bulk of both armies, Wu’s and Bao’s, were outside, spread through the city to make them less of a target for Partial air strikes; but even so, the factory was filled with men and women in uniform, the assistants and aides and messengers of two generals’ retinues. Heron walked through the hall to the main factory floor of Building 3, where hordes of men in thick leather aprons crawled in and around the massive machinery that processed ore into bullets. China had rejected the expanded use of intelligent biotechnology on moral grounds, if not outright religious ones, and though the factory still used certain engineered bacterial cultures in the metal-cleansing process, they had nothing so advanced as a BioSynth—not a Partial, nor even a Watchdog. Their skill in robotics, on the other hand, was impressive, and Heron watched with respect as the fully automated, self-sustaining monstrosities collected the ore, refined it, and pressed it into millions of rounds of ammunition of every shape and size. Zuoquan supplied much of the northern Chinese army with their munitions, and when the Partials took the factory, it would supply them with the same. The invasion hinged on it, in a very real sense.

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