Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 6 Jin Xue [null]

Monitoring: Jin Xue
Tianjin, China

1:30 a.m. China Standard Time
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
17:30 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Meanwhile—

It is an unpleasant analogy, but more and more Jin feels himself to be a kind of scarecrow as he observes these operations. It has a little to do with himself, the weight that he has been losing and other small details, but mostly it is about his relationship with the surgical team that he supervises, who he more easily imagines to be crows. Are they not picking apart the bodies of the living and the dead like feasting carrion birds? Their scalpels might as well be sharp beaks, and their commands and requests to each other sometimes seem more like imitations of human sound than the real thing. Jin has been hearing too much of it lately.

They stay away from him as much as they are able to. His presence is tolerated, because his authority supersedes theirs, but they enjoy it as little as he does. Both he and they are, if not happy, then at least as content as any of them can be if he restricts himself to standing here, near the corner of the room, and speaks only to the surgeon, Dr. Qian.

The object is to determine whether there’s a risk of contamination: whether more people might be altered in the same manner as the original subjects. It would be simpler to treat their remains like hyper-concentrated nuclear waste, render them down to ash and bury them half a mile deep in the ground, but there are other people to be concerned about. Other nations might condemn the CPC for guiding China with a firm hand, but Jin knows that what China does in the open, other states do behind closed doors. His opposite numbers in America, in Japan, in India, will not keep their hands clean when the time comes for dirty work, and if the alterations are “biologically insidious,” as he termed it some months ago, then it may not be long before others find out. Before then, Jin needs to discover the scope of the threat: can altered humans can be mass-produced?

It will be a relief once these experiments are over, but Bao thinks that they need to conduct further tests just to be sure that there’s no danger, and despite his distaste for the whole thing, Jin is in agreement. Experiments must be replicated in order to verify their accuracy. Jin can, at least, console himself with the fact that they have finished with killing the children that he had already become acquainted with.

He doesn’t know the name of the boy on the table, only a code name: Subject 7-0. Other children, normal humans without paranormal alteration, will be given names in reference to him, Subjects 7-1, 7-2, and so on all the way to 7-25, corresponding to the organs that they are due to receive from him. Jin finds some solace in the fact that, in this respect, his work is already saving lives. The comfort is minimal, though, inasmuch as he recognizes that the world at large couldn’t be convinced to accept widescale abductions for the sake of better handling the transplant list. These are some terrible things that he is doing, that they are doing, and part of him hopes that he will be able to later kill some of the less scrupulous members of the surgical team, the ones who aren’t having any trouble with what they are doing.

By all means we have to do it, of course, Jin thinks as Dr. Qian extracts a kidney, but if we lose our sense of decency, if it stops bothering us as it ought to bother moral people, then we have turned from protectors to thugs.

Subject 7-0 was (or rather still is, for at least a few moments) probably the most disturbing type of altered human that Jin has thus far encountered. Meifeng had been worrisome in her way, but Subject 7-0 had disturbed Jin. He makes it a point of practice to get a demonstration of the paranormal alteration of each child that they find, and in this case, where a mental effect had existed, he had insisted on experiencing it for himself.

For a brief time, till Subject 7-0’s hand had been taken away from him, Jin had lost the ability to… He isn’t sure just how to put it, even now. How to conceive of people as people, or imagine them as having thoughts and drives of their own and inner voices. It wasn’t simply that Jin couldn’t ask what it was like to be another person but that he had, for that long minute, forgotten that it was even a question that should be asked.

According to the information that they retrieved via Meifeng, the altered humans will find their range increasing. Jin can very well picture what would happen if Subject 7-0 decided to apply the effects of his alteration to hundreds or thousands of people at once. He does not want to, though. Subject 3-0, who drew the water out of things that she touched, could have killed a great many people with less effort, but at least there would have been no fundamental change to who Jin was as a person.

Jin is still smoking and fidgeting with the ring on his finger as he oversees the surgical team, but the need for these things isn’t as great as it usually is. Until the operation is completed, Jin can never quite shake the feeling that something will go terribly wrong, but in a few minutes he will be feeling safer than he typically does after an altered human has been harvested.

His phone buzzes, giving four short pulses in rapid succession. “Pardon me,” he says, and he peels away from his spot in the corner, putting out his cigarette in a bowl as he goes. The surgical team is less than enthusiastic about his smoking, but they don’t have to worry about existential threats, now do they… None of them know the full scope of the problem.

Li Bao is there when Jin reaches the elevator, and leads him into an unoccupied office without a word passing between them.

“There are no bugs in here. We can speak openly,” Li says as they find seats, and Jin nods. “I spoke with the Standing Committee. We have received authorization for the final commands, under the name Operation Anthem.”

“Anthem?”

“It’s more hopeful than a dirge, wouldn’t you agree?”

Jin is quiet. “So, this is it,” he finally says.

“This is it,” Li affirms.

The process of acquiring information from Meifeng had been a difficult (and potentially dangerous) balancing game, as well as prolonged and laborious. Each time, they could decide to acquire more or less information about a possible future, at the cost of not spending those bodies to learn about other scenarios. They could have pushed Meifeng more, but she already needed medication most days and breaking her would have been worse.

(“Her,” not “It.” He wonders, sometimes, if that’s a mistake, if he ought to distance himself from even the dead ones. He wonders if it’s technically correct at all. Are they still human? Jin doesn’t know.)

Most of the futures that they investigated had involved tweaks to Operation Anthem, though it hadn’t held that name (or any other) at the time. No matter what they did, there were still devastating, unacceptable losses, and replications of various scenarios had shown a remarkable margin of error: two separate futures could show a difference of millions of estimated deaths despite being based on the same plan, diverging on the backs of butterflies that nobody could reliably pin down. There was too much that came down to chance events.

“An anthem,” Jin says, half-whispering. “A song of celebration.”

“Or a final cry of defiance.”

Jin nods. It would be the last command of the first phase. Whether a second phase would follow thereafter would depend on how lucky they were in singing out the Anthem.

“I should be going,” Jin says. “Dr. Qian will be almost finished by now, and she and I ought to discuss Subject 8’s lobotomy before the day is out.”

He is not so foolish as to think that a phase two would be unnecessary, but Jin can still hope. Against whatever force the altered humans represent, knowingly or not, hoping may be the only thing that he can do, as despairing as that thought might be.

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