I wrote this science fiction story, titled “Dissolution”, last year. It was published in the multi-genre anthology Anything Goes: Volume 1. The anthology, which contains twenty-one stories including this one, is available to buy in print or ebook here. Dissolution is set in the same near(ish) future setting as a book I’m currently working on. Let me know what you think of the story in the comments.
Dr Ada Low thrust her hand across the desk, killing the power to her computer monitors, turning the screens black.
She slumped backwards into her chair. A heavy exhale, almost a groan, burst from her lips. Her fingers itched to rip the memory card from the computer and hurl it out the window.
“I could hurl myself out afterwards,” she laughed, a bit too loudly. She covered her mouth to silence herself. I must be in shock. Her reflection stared back at her from the darkened monitors; her face a sickly shade of grey, drops of sweat beading on her forehead.
Pulling open her bottom drawer, Ada rifled towards the back until her shaking fingers grasped the small packet she desperately needed. Ten minutes later she was on her third cigarette, the first three she had smoked in… is it five years since I quit?
The cigarettes tasted horrible, stale after years waiting at the bottom of her desk. But the smoke still coiled smoothly into her lungs. It was like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in years, yet the conversation flows like it was yesterday. The smoke tickled her bloodstream with nicotine, pumping the stimulant up into her brain. There, it made itself at home, triggering a familiar flood of neurotransmitters and hormones. A cosy chemical soup, telling Ada that everything would be okay.
Her nerves calmed, she reached back across her desk and flicked the power button.
The screens lit up, filling Ada’s vision with nightmares.
“…events of last night have left an estimated twenty-six dead, eighty-seven injured, and over two-billion dollars in damage.
“Rescue and recovery efforts remain severely hampered. Many of the city’s emergency response assets were compromised or destroyed during the incident.
“External aid is being routed into the city to help bring the crisis under control.
“Police and government officials still refuse to comment on whether this was a terrorist attack, or some kind of catastrophic accident.
“But many independent analysts are already declaring this to be the most advanced and devastating act of cyberterrorism in history. The complexity of the assault on the city’s systems, they say, goes far beyond the capabilities of any known organisations, including the government…“
“Someone hacked their lattices!” Ada leaned over the shoulder of her close friend and former professor, Raina Gates-Xhe, head of Zentec’s telecommunications research and development team. Ada spoke fast, breathless from her run across Zentec’s compound to Raina’s office. She tapped the shifting, multi-coloured images on the older woman’s screens as she continued. “Someone hacked their lattices and grew them into-“
“Ada, calm down.” Raina gently pulled her friend’s arm away from the screens. She swiveled in her chair to face Ada. “Calm down,” she repeated softly, pulling the hyperactive woman into a chair beside Raina’s desk.
Raina’s nerves were already frayed. She had spent the past few days and nights helping Zentec bring the city’s systems back online after the horrific “incident” earlier in the week. According to the morning news, officials had revised the death toll estimate to seventy and the property damage to over four billion dollars. Raina felt exhausted and she struggled to follow her friend’s manic ramblings.
“Start from the beginning and go slow. Remember, I’m not a neuroscientist. These scans don’t mean much to me.”
Ada took a deep breath. “Okay, let me start over. It’s probably easier if I use the projector, so you can see the whole thing at once.”
Ada waved a few hand gestures into the air. A control panel on the wall beeped in response. The large windows at the end of the room turned opaque, blocking out the daylight, as the holo-projectors in each corner of the ceiling stuttered to life.
The system’s welcome message appeared, floating in the middle of the room: a three-dimensional, stylized letter Z, beneath which hovered the company motto:
“Zentec – solving tomorrow’s problems today.”
Ada waved a few more gestures in the air, swiping the welcome holo out of the way and flicking the images from Raina’s screens into the centre of the room.
Eight translucent heads bobbed in mid-air; false-colour medical scans, shaded blue. The faces, bones, and most of the organs were dimmed in order to focus attention on the brains, which flared with an electric-blue light. Throughout each brain, thousands—no, Raina realised, millions—of very fine threads were woven into complex structures, resembling spider webs, or the roots of a tree. The threads radiated from a central spot, shaped like a grain of rice, fused to the top of each spinal cord.
Ada stood and took position in the centre of the room. She reached out and rearranged the heads, the holo system responding to her movements as if the images were physical objects. Ada arranged the heads with seven in a circle and one in the centre. She flicked her fingers to summon a holographic control panel in the air in front of her.
“These eight kids are all in the same school, the same class in fact. A game theory class—costs a fortune—designed for upwardly-mobile brats. They’re all aged between nine and twelve. Seven have Zentec’s latest neural lattice. My design.
“The eighth girl,” Ada pointed to one of the floating heads in the circle, labeled Deborah Jeong-Ivanov, “her parents unfortunately chose an Ourogen lattice seed, right before the company went bust. Crappy tech, those Ourogen lattices. They barely boost brain function at all and the wifi link they give the patient is laggy as hell, barely good enough to play basic VR games.” Ada looked to see if Raina was following. The single raised eyebrow on the older woman’s face reminded Ada of her student days. I must be rambling again, Ada thought. She cleared her throat and moved on.
“Anyway, the data for these images come from each seed’s medical black box. I’ve linked them together into eight synchronized time lapses. They start from when the seeds were implanted in-utero. I hate that we can still only implant during the first trimes-”
“Wait,” Raina interrupted, stopping Ada from going off on another tangent. “That name, Jeong-Ivanov. Is that who I think it is? And these others names,” she pointed to the labels under the other children’s faces, “Ada, are they—“
“Yes, you would know them all. Or rather, you know who their parents are.” Each of the children possessed a famous family name, a roll call of world leaders and corporate tycoons across multiple industries, from weapons manufacturing to agrigenetics. “Eight children, each from one of the world’s most powerful families. Genetically designed, enhanced, and trained—from womb to tomb—for global leadership.”
“Ade, what have you gotten yourself into?”
Raina’s face was pale, matching Ada’s reflection from earlier that morning.
“Trouble Rae, a decent amount of trouble. Somewhere between a lot and—” she looked back at the images:
“—and maybe the end of the world.”
Ada ran through the replay of the children’s medical scans, explaining the nightmare she had found lurking on the memory card.
As Ada spoke, Raina slid lower down the back of her chair, until she was almost falling off the seat. She held one hand clamped across her mouth, the other on her stomach, as if she were about to vomit.
The previously blue images now filled the room with an angry red glare, signaling catastrophic damage to each child’s brain.
Throughout most of the replay, everything had looked normal. The lattice seeds wove their nano-scale mesh of silicon, carbon, and gold throughout the nascent brain and nervous system of each embryo. From birth through early childhood, the lattices grew with the child, boosting neuron growth and connectivity, providing fibre-optic shortcuts between regions of the brain, and eventually—at age three—activating the lattice’s wireless communications function, freeing the children from their reliance on desktop, handheld, or wearable computers.
However, during the final phase of the replay, something had gone horribly wrong. It began with one child, the girl Ada had placed in the centre of the circle. According to the holo data, a little under a year ago the spiderwebs of her neural lattice had gone rogue.
The shimmering threads lost their delicate appearance, exploding into a surge of new growth. Jagged fibres gouged through the girl’s grey matter, strangling and piercing her neurons. The cells deformed: at first just throwing out new dendrites, forming exponentially more connections between themselves. But as the golden weeds nestled deeper, the neurons ceased being neurons. Raina’s stomach heaved as she watched the folded lobes of the girl’s brain disintegrate, rebuilding themselves into an unrecognisable nightmare, a twisted chimera of flesh and circuitry.
Three months after the first child, the scans showed the other seven suffering the same grotesque fate, all within days of each other.
“Ade, this is horrible. How? The children, those poor children. Why haven’t I seen this on the news? How could so many high-profile deaths be covered up?”
“Deaths?” Ada’s brow furrowed, glancing back and forth between the images and the horror painted on her mentor’s face. Realisation replaced puzzlement. “No, Rae, no. They’re not dead.”
“But there’s nothing left of them. It’s all, it’s all a mess!” Raina’s hand flew back to her mouth as her stomach heaved again.
Ada let go of the holographic control panel, leaving it hovering as she rushed back to her friend’s side. “No no no no no, Rae, that’s not the problem. They’re not dead. They’re not dead. The kids are at home, right now, with their parents.”
“But, but they have no…“ she waved her arm at the nightmare images. “How?”
“I hoped you could help me figure it out.”
Raina’s head tilted to one side. “What are you talking about?”
“What?” Raina redirected her puzzled frown from Ada back to the holo. Something in the mess of images tickled a sense of recognition. She stood, shakily, from her desk and took Ada’s position in the centre of the room, grabbing the floating control panel.
She zoomed in on the first girl’s scan, enlarging it to fill the entire room, wincing as the monstrous mish-mash of parts swelled around her. Raina spotted new patterns in the chaos. She adjusted the colour settings on the scan, accounting for material density, molecular composition, and energy flow. The angry red glow disappeared as Raina assigned a rainbow of colour markers to what she saw.
“My god.” Raina’s voice was barely a whisper. She stepped away from the control panel, huddling close to her friend and gazing around the room.
“That’s why I came to you.” Ada took Raina’s hand. The two scientists and long-time friends stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the floating images surrounding them. With the new colours differentiating the red mess, both women could clearly see the shape of a high-powered, semi-organic wireless communications array dominating the girl’s skull.
“But, what’s it connecting to? How can they still be alive?”
“What do you do when your home computer runs out of storage space? Or you need extra processing power for an experiment?” The look of despair lifted from Ada’s face as she spoke. Raina recognised Ada’s wide-eyed, mad scientist look; it always took over the younger woman’s face whenever she thought she had hit a breakthrough.
Raina scoffed at the implication. “You’re not seriously suggesting, what? That someone,” Raina struggled to say the word, “outsourced the children’s minds? Turned their bodies into puppets and their brains into routers? Ridiculous.”
“Look at the scans, Rae. The kids are up and walking around, but each of them has one of those things living in their skull.” Ada reached over to the holo controls and zoomed back out. She applied Raina’s colour scheme to all eight scans, revealing a similar device in place of each child’s brain.
“But who would do it, Ade? And why?”
Ada sat down in Raina’s chair, kicking it away from the desk so she could put her feet up. She flipped a cigarette out of her pocket and lit it, earning a frown from Raina. Ada took a deep drag on the cigarette before she spoke.
“I think the little shits did it to themselves. I think they hacked their own lattices and gave themselves an upgrade.”
As they watched the replays again and Ada explained her theory, Raina found herself nodding despite her initial incredulity. It wasn’t a malfunction. The way it happened to one child first, then all the others a few months later, within days of each other, ruled out product fault. The children were all different ages and the Jeong-Ivanov girl possessed a different device to the rest. There was only one common factor: the children were all friends, all in the same class. One child hacked herself, and then taught the others how to do it. It fit the facts.
A thought occurred to Raina. “Why haven’t their parents said anything? Why aren’t the police involved? This is huge. No offence, Ade, but why aren’t you in jail right now? You said you were in trouble—‘end of the world trouble’—yet you’re sitting here. Smoking in my office.”
The excited expression vanished from Ada’s face, replaced by the look of despair she had worn upon entering the room. She took her feet off the desk and leant forward. Ash fell from her cigarette to the floor, turning Raina’s frown into a scowl. When Ada next spoke, her voice was a whisper.
“Have you been watching the news lately?”
“…details of yesterday’s missile strike on downtown Ulan Bator remain hard to confirm, due to ongoing disruptions to global telecommunications. UPSR Defence Secretary, Xiuli Yang-Wu, has reiterated her condemnation of the attack, repeating her claim that separatist militia forces are responsible. However…“
“…small but growing group of independent analysts remain very vocal, insisting that these events are connected, the work of one or more rogue artificial intelligences. However, NSA analysts have ridiculed such theories, arguing that AI science is decades, if not centuries, away from such feats. They continue to insist…”
“…is our punishment for tampering with the flesh of God’s children. Those foul sinners, filled with pride in their ivory towers, have spat on the Lord’s designs for decades. They manipulate the blood, the genes, of their own babies, defying the Lord to raise their spawn above the rest of Creation. The worst of these devils even poison the minds, the very souls, of their offspring, whilst the poor lambs are still in the womb, infecting the child with silicon seeds of demonic intent! Traitors to…“
It took Raina a week to scrutinise each black box. The lattices had become the nexus and router of each child’s thoughts. Raina traced the data-flows out from the lattices to the scattered supercomputers and data warehouses hosting each child’s expanding mind. Based on the volume of data passing through each lattice, Raina estimated each child was processing fifty to one hundred times more information than a normal human brain.
After these initial discoveries, it took Raina only a few more days to discover the real horror. Ada had suspected the truth from the moment she first saw the deformities in the medical scans. She had said nothing to Raina, not wanting to taint her friend’s analysis with her suspicions.
Raina had identified dozens of spikes in energy use and data traffic, synchronised across each child’s network. Curious, she ran an analysis correlating the peaks to any real-world events. The results stopped her breath. The timing of each surge matched perfectly to one of the horrific events dominating global news.
Raina immediately called Ada with the news. The children were behind the escalating toll of death and destruction breaking the world apart.
But Ada already knew.
Ada swore as the flashlight fell from between her teeth and clattered loudly on the floor. The sound reverberated out the open door and down the darkened corridor. She knew the labs were deserted at this hour, but it still set her heart racing. Ada spat a stream of expletives into the room, their echoes chasing the flashlight’s clatter. She gripped the top rung of the ladder with white knuckles, waiting for her pulse to slow and her hands to stop trembling.
Just one device to go, she reminded herself. The last of seventy-four. After days of frenzied manufacturing in her garage at home, Ada had spent four long nights digging around the maintenance crawlspaces, smuggling her makeshift machines into the ceiling, wall, and floor cavities throughout her lab.
The past few weeks had been hell, not just for Ada, but also for a growing percentage of the world’s population. War, chaos, and ruin now consumed every corner of the globe. To the children, engineered and trained for global domination, it must all be like a grand game, played on a huge board with real world pieces. The size of their board and the number of pieces they controlled would continue to grow, unless someone stopped them.
As Ada gripped the ladder, she did her best to forget the expression on Raina’s face when her friend discovered the truth. Much of Raina’s extended family and friends lived in Ulan Bator, where more bodies were dragged from the rubble every day since the missile strike.
The two women had not spoken since their last meeting ten days ago, despite Raina’s constant calls and voicemails. Ada had needed her old friend’s help to confirm the truth, but she was determined to keep Raina away from what came next.
Ada’s blood stopped pounding in her ears and her hands steadied on the ladder. She took a slow, controlled breath before making her way down to retrieve the flashlight and finish the job.
The seventy-four machines hidden throughout the lab lay dormant, but would spring to life at her command.
The ashtray fell from the desk and smashed, ceramic shards and dozens of cigarette butts scattering across the floor, an ash cloud billowing into the air. Ada sighed, though it came out more as an angry thrust of air than a slow exhale. She should have looked where she was waving her cigarette hand, but her eyes were glued to the monitor, watching the children arrive one-by-one to Zentec’s facility.
She jammed the glowing end of her cigarette straight into the dark mahogany surface of her desk. Why not, she thought. With the whole world gone to hell, what’s a desk? This thought made her giggle; an odd, strangled sound.
Ada stalked out of her office, making her way through the lab to reception. The children, the subjects, the terrorists, the robots—whatever they were—had all arrived.
She caught her reflection in a passing mirror and paused, quickly straightening her greasy hair and wrinkled shirt. Her makeup could not hide her bloodshot eyes nor the dark circles beneath them. She was running on nothing but adrenalin and nicotine.
Her phone buzzed. Raina. A text this time. She must be sick of leaving voicemails. “Stop them,” was all it said. Oh Rae, Ada thought, would you still say that if you knew the cost?
One final, calming breath and Ada pushed open the door to the reception room.
Her skin crawled at the sight of eight small figures, each one flanked by nervous parents. But as she looked, she struggled to believe these eight children—they were children—could be responsible for all the chaos.
No, Ada shook herself. The data doesn’t lie.
The children each looked at Ada, wearing various expressions of nervousness, confusion, boredom. Ada wondered if those expressions were real, or just a mask. She wondered if they still felt emotions.
The parents looked universally anxious, but less than they should be. Ada had told them the truth about their children, but not the truth about her solution. They all thought their little babies would be sedated, to have the changes to their lattices reversed.
But the changes were irreversible. Ada couldn’t anaesthetise the children.
She had to euthanise them.
Each lattice formed the nexus, the communication hub between the scattered pieces of the child’s evolving mind. Cut all contact to the core and the system collapses.
Ada’s phone beeped again. Annoyed at the distraction, she flipped it open to switch it off, but paused when she saw that it wasn’t a call or a message.
Her screen flashed, an alert from one of the seventy-four signal jammers, one hidden in the ceiling. It had switched on, to run a basic diagnostic on itself. Shit, Ada thought. What is it doing? I didn’t give the comman–
One of the children, the oldest boy, was frowning up at a spot on the ceiling, exactly where the jammer was hidden. A split second later, the other seven little heads turned up to the ceiling.
No time, Ada realised. She swiped her finger across her phone, commanding all the jammers to power-up.
The machines would turn the lab into a total wireless blackout zone, severing the children’s bodies from the isolated pieces of their minds, destroying their networks, destroying them.
All eight heads swiveled to glare at Ada with expressions of fear and fury. Only one of them spoke: “No.”
A power surge rippled outwards from the centre of the lab. Like dominos, the children’s bodies fell, lifeless, to the ground. Their parents screamed.
The jammers came online. But it was too late.
The trap had failed.
Ada stared at the two objects on her dining table. Her foot furiously tapped the carpet under her chair, causing the police ankle monitor to rattle against her shoe.
Five days of house arrest since the first hearing. Five days of missile strikes, fires, riots, revolutions, stock markets crashing, societies collapsing.
The inquest would last for months. The international panel had been cobbled together from whatever ‘experts’ could be spared from the more important job of managing the myriad catastrophes. After one hearing, the panel was already sharply divided, arguing whether the children were victims of murder, suicide, or an industrial accident. None wanted to consider Ada’s explanation, that the children were very much alive and were themselves the cause of the global breakdown.
Five days. Ada couldn’t stand another one.
She wondered if the children missed their parents, their flesh and blood. She wondered if they missed their physical bodies, their literal flesh and blood. What must it feel like to abandon your own skin, to shed it like a snake?
For the tenth time, Ada fingered the pistol lying on the table. She yearned to jam the barrel into her mouth and squeeze the trigger. A clean escape. The chaos was her fault, but it wasn’t humanly possible for her to stop it.
Ada sighed. There was the real problem. It wasn’t “humanly” possible. But it was possible.
A final sob and Ada made her decision. Letting go of the pistol, she grabbed the sleek syringe lying next to it. Inside, a lattice seed, recalibrated for her adult brain and programmed with a new growth plan. It would probably kill her, no patient older than an embryo ever survived implantation.
But, if by some slim chance her revised calculations were correct, her redesigned seed could work. It would not kill her, instead she would become like the children. She could fight them on their own ground. “Still sounds like death to me,” she told the empty room.
Ada plunged the syringe into the back of her neck and squeezed the trigger.