Victoria first noticed the fungal smell at the airport. She didn't recognize it then, which was sort of weird. She never forgot anything, not a touch, smell, taste, sight, sound, or even stray thought running through one of the simultaneous channels in her head. No, she never forgot, sometimes it took her a moment of concentration to 'find' the knowledge in her memory, but it was always there. In spite of the formidable vault of knowledge stored in her artificially engineered brain, which included the entirety of more that 15,000 books and the minute nuances of about two dozen languages, she couldn't do any better than 'vaguely fungal' to describe the smell. She debated telling anyone about it for a while, as a Chinese airport the place was full of smells from visible air among other things and she'd probably be taken as a rude westerner complaining about it. She made one discreet comment to a woman who seemed surprised at her perfectly delivered Mandarin but didn't make a big fuss about it.
That smell was completely new to her, so it was fresh on her mind when she smelled it again about a day later.
She was intrigued enough to track it to its source as the strength of it seemed to be wavering as though it were on the move. She found the source in a take out delivery man who was limping about, looking as though one knee were going stiff. She walked out ahead of him and turned to stand in his way.
“<You don't look well.>”
“<Not your business.>”
“<Right, that's rude of me. I have some medical knowledge, I could look you over if you like.>”
He laughed at her, “<I don't think...>”
Victoria reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of yuan that totaled an amount she was sure was greater than the man was paid in any two months and probably more than that. She held it in his direction and smirked as he lunged for it and she easily pulled it back away from him.
“<This is for the hospital bill if I find you need medical attention, alright?>”
He wasn't happy about it, but he did relent to her inspecting him. There was some inflammation in the knee, but not enough to explain his impaired movement, much more disturbingly she found his circulation to be quite poor in a way that suggested something was spreading through his veins from – there, his midsection.
“<Lift up your shirt here,>” she indicated his lower left side.
He shook his head at her and she sighed, it wouldn't be hard to force him to do what she wanted but she was looking to keep a low profile in the totalitarian nation.
“<How about a trade? I'll show you mine,>” she pulled her shirt up most of the way and almost laughed at his bulging eyes. She was very well put together after all, but she avoided posing in a way that would display the abs under her skin too much, lady muscles were still less popular here than the west in general.
The man's tongue nearly falling out he moved to shift his clothes, but tried to keep his pants up over something. Victoria moved forward and forced the issue, shifting the pants down a couple inches revealed a little gash. It might have been small but it didn't seem to be healing, he had a good number of bandages on his person and an implausible number of them were red and wet. She also saw a flash of something very pale green and she was struck by a stronger sensation of that fungal smell. Quick observation, which he tried futilely to fight free of, proved that he didn't have other open wounds and his midsection was losing flexibility for some reason.
Victoria stood up and brushed back her hair before fetching the money she'd offered before, added to it and spoke a lie to let him think he had something over on the tourist woman, “<I don't know which hospital is the good one around here, but I strongly advise you go to it. This should get you in there.>”
“<I'm not sure I...>”
“<Two conditions, you tell me your full name so I can check their record on you, I'm very curious about this malady you have, and secondly tell me where you were delivering.>”
He complied and to her significant annoyance he confirmed something she'd suspected for little clear reason. He'd been delivering food to a local genetics laboratory. One that she'd been working with discreetly off and on for years, in fact she kind of thought of it as her local gene lab even though she didn't own it in any direct sense.
Victoria had contacts all over the world, across dozens of companies and organizations and most of them had no one who knew anything of her unusual birth. Out of what was left she usually worked with just one person who was somewhat aware of her inhuman nature while their subordinates remained unaware. There were a couple of times that number was expanded thanks to non-western hierarchies and the nature of the work. The people she had working on projects to improve the human species were often in that final category, and a handful of the scientists here knew their international benefactor was enhanced to some degree.
So far the whole thing had been a run of failures though. Impart her strength onto human muscles and you broke the bones. Impart her bone density and strength into a human and they had growth issues and difficulty moving. Pull off both at once and the ligaments tore or the tendons snapped or the cartilage ground to nothing. It had taken uncomfortably detailed analysis, namely cutting into her arm and using cameras to actually look at her tendons and see some strange features in them. It did lead to her finding out that she didn't scar though, her body kept healing until the job was entirely done. They hadn't even started on trying to match the speed she could move at yet, the projections all showed catastrophic damage at a fraction of her speed.
If anything the brain was proving even more difficult. Perfect memory led to people who couldn't work because they were overwhelmed by the constant flood of memories. Imparting something like her multi-tasking led to one psychological condition or another, and often people who felt disconnected and frustrated because their body just couldn't keep up with all of that at once. One of her senses could be managed to a degree, but give a person her full range of enhanced senses and they went crazy from constant over-stimulation. Trying to approach her math aptitude, which let her multiply 13 digit numbers together so quickly it seemed instant in her head seemed to lead to space cases who could barely leave the numbers in their head to deal with the real world. Give someone her thinking speed and they seemed to go crazy at the slow motion of their bodies. Try to do it all at once and often times the brain literally overheated.
She'd burned out over a hundred people in one way or another in her efforts to improve them. She told herself it would be for the best in the long run, that those sacrifices weren't for nothing. Sometimes she told herself that, other times she told herself they were just human and didn't really matter. She'd turned to modifying embryos hoping that the still growing could take modifications based on her DNA better but so far they all had serious developmental issues that more than offset whatever augmentation they received.
Victoria had gone to the laboratory to look over the recent subjects and felt honest sadness. The oldest of these people weren't quite five and yet they were all displaying serious problems and she couldn't find much potential for a high quality of life in them. Whatever despicable things she had done, Victoria honestly believed that it was for the best of everyone in the long run. Failing like this and seeing deformed miserable beings as the only result of her efforts so far cut into her hard.
“<You're soft hearted Victoria,>” a scientist on the team pointed under an eye, a mirror image of where a tear had started down her face.
“<Few would say so,>” she wiped it away, “<You've been ordering take out? That doesn't seem professional to me.>”
“<Everyone orders take out, what's so wrong with that?>”
“<In the Western nations, especially the US in this case, the biggest weakness in Google's secrecy is the fact they all get pizza delivered. They hide their offices well otherwise, but the local pizza places know if there's a Google place in their city.>”
“<It's a security fault. There's a chance someone knows something about this operation because of it.>”
“<I don't think that's very...urk!>”
Victoria lifted the scientist by the neck and held up for a moment with casual non-effort. She had to admit, she kind of got why Lisa liked to fight. These little reminders of her insurmountable physical dominance were always a pleasure. Weak, soft hands plied at her stronger, harder arm in vain and he changed color more as he fought for air. She let him go with a quick unclenching and let him fall to the floor gasping. He landing on his back after his legs failed to catch him and tried to get away from her in an awkward, scrambling manner. She closed the distance quickly and stomped down on his chest, shoving his torso into the ground with a creak of the rib cage. She used her flexibility to lower her face down to his while keeping her leg pinning him to the floor.
“<When I want to know what you think, I'll bring it up. Don't offer it to me like it's a gift from you.>”
He didn't say anything, he just tried to push her leg up off his chest. He used both hands, he arched his back – which only caused more indentation in the rib cage really, and tried to flip and squirm this way and that. All to no avail, she had him pinned like a bug in a collection. She shoved down with more force, gently, relatively speaking, but in one sudden spurt which knocked the air from him and pushed the lowest part of his rib just barely shy of the cracking point. Any more force and she'd start to break his bones.
“<Good boy,>” she let the pressure up and stepped off of him, “<I've noticed something unusual since I showed up in your great nation this time around. I think... someone is interested in me.>”
“<The government?>” he looked concerned and with admittedly good reason.
“<No, not them, I don't think so anyway,”> Victoria had to admit that the Chinese government was one of the last entities she wanted finding out about her. She didn't think they'd care too much about what had happened to some of their citizens under her direction, outside of a 'hey, those were ours' sort of territoriality.
Victoria looked over the failed augments again and came up to one little boy, his eyes drifting in different directions incessantly. He was on an oxygen machine and she clamped her hand down on the nozzle to cut off the air. When he noticed his eyes finally came together to focus, on her. Fear and accusation in those little growing eyes made her uncomfortable. She turned away and let go, letting the little boy catch his breath in coughs and spurts.
“<This batch is failed, again.”>
“<You don't mean to...”>
“<Euthanize the lot, there's no quality of life in any of them.>”
“<Surely that's rash!>”
“<I'm sorry, didn't you just say I'm soft hearted? I guess I just can't stand to see this suffering continue. It's too sad.>”
“<At least let us collect more...>”
“<More data, again? I realize the limitations in having to work with third rate scientists and engineers like I'm forced to. I can't work with the national leaders of their fields, they're too public, too connected. They have too much government and private funding to need my aid. No, I have to go to the likes of you. The ones that couldn't achieve anything without me. In spite of that I've managed some impressive technological feats. Do you know the one field I continue to fail in? The one field that frustrates my goals to this day?>”
“<Hmm, I think I know where this is going...>”
“<Clever boy if you think it's heading right here. This, augmentation, the whole purpose of my quest lags behind every other aspect of my great project. I'm not sure if my priorities are off or if you're just that much bigger failures than everyone else I work with, but given the fact I've succeeded in everything else I've set out to do... I'm not looking to aim blame inwards right now. Now remember who is in charge and use the bodies as best you can. It's time to try AGAIN.>”
Victoria left, throwing out a couple excuses and a few 'don't question me, I'm in charge' responses, but really she couldn't bear to watch. They were supposed to be like her, better, but instead they were deranged failures. She had to get away from that scene. She headed for Beijing and its high end genetics laboratory, a leader in the field of determining the markers for intelligence. Their findings so far actually led her to think she might not actually possess optimal human intelligence which was disturbing to her for much the same reason she disliked the idea of AI, she was so used to always being the smartest around that she hated the idea of something passing her by. Still she might be able to steal something or glean a new technique with a new tour.
She noticed the smell as she left the little backwoods lab she'd basically taken over and then again when she arrived at the institute in the capital. Neither time was she able to identify the source. Whoever was carrying that fungal infection was very good at hiding, which raised a host of questions.
She had started another tour of the genetics institute when she was cut off by three men in suits who dismissed her would-be tour guide.
“Miss Cross, our records show that this is no less than the fifth time you've visited this building,” one of the men in front confronted her. There was another next to him, with similarly assertive body language. The third man, behind them hadn't said anything yet, so she figured he was the one in charge. He moved stiffly, like his knees could barely bend.
“Is there some law against taking an interest in genetic research I wasn't informed of? Oh, and your English is good, <but I'm at least as good with the main languages and dialects of China. We can talk this way if you like.>”
“We've noticed your fluency, Miss Cross. What we want to know is what a mechanical engineer is doing taking multiple trips to China to tour genetic laboratories.”
“Has it been all that many? It's not like I ever go more than once a year.”
“Certainly enough to be suspicious. We're going to warn you this time, but we're just escorting you off the premises this time.”
“I've not broken any rules, what's the reason? Why won't he talk?”
“We've already said, your background and undue interest don't seem to align. We're denying you another tour, ever again. As for Mr. Huang, he is only supervising, he doesn't need to waste time talking to you.”
“Who are you? Do you have such authority?”
“I wouldn't want to be the Westerner challenging Chinese authorities in their home territory, Miss Cross. If Mr. Huang feels required to speak up, it's probably going to be a very long time before you ever see England again.”
They gestured at an elevator and she complied, walking ahead of them at a measured pace. Not too slow to annoy them, but not so fast that she got there too far ahead of a little trolley she'd been aware of. Two interns were moving a trolley full of various supplies and Victoria measured her pace to try and arrive at the elevator just before it passed by, hoping there wasn't anything to change their pace. When she saw her moment she tripped an intern and turned to grab the trolley and shoved it at the men. It collided with one, doubling him over and the other dodged a little too hard and was coming back around. Victoria stepped to the side into an elevator door that was closing as it was heading up.
At least she thought she dodged in at the last possible moment. The last man, the short elderly one that hadn't spoken had somehow followed her in. The one that utterly reeked of that fungus smell.
“You're fast for an old man.”
“<You'll have to forgive me, I've never learned the colonizer's tongue.>”
Well that was a weird way of phrasing things.
“<I said you're fast for an old man, but given the smell of you...I'd guess you're more fungal mold than man at this point.>”
“<The smell? And after all that cologne... Shame.>”
“<It would work on most people, if that makes you feel any better.>”
“<And what makes you so special, my young, tall lady?>”
Victoria smiled with a faux sweetness and leaned back into the wall of the elevator, quietly gripping her purse in a different way, “<wouldn't you just like to know? I'm afraid I'm not into divulging that to just any one.>”
“<I could make you talk, you know.>”
“<I highly doubt you could. If you're human you can't, but I wonder if I'm not talking to something else. You move so stiffly and that fungus eats the blood and pushes the rest out of the body, by the smell from you.. it must fill that body's entire circulatory system...>” Victoria admitted to herself that she felt nervous about this confrontation, she was making some big leaps here but her intuition told her she was aiming true about this however wild it was.
“<I'm impressed with you, Victoria. You got me away from my body guards and you intuit that much... whatever you are, you're formidable and far too interested in making our historic prey stronger and smarter and everything else that might let food fight back.>”
Victoria was stunned by the speed the man charged at her with, but only for a tiny fraction of a second. She managed to get her purse up in time to catch his arm and twisted it about so she forced his arm away from her. He came at her in a series of strikes, but not like any martial art she'd trained in or Lisa used. He tried to scratch her with his nails and his arms moved in strange spurts, jumping nearly instantly in 90 degree angles. There was no fluidity to his motion, almost like a corpse being forced to jerk along on solidified muscles and tendons but it was damn fast. Maybe a little faster than Lisa, but slower than her, still he was the fastest opponent she'd had. Fast enough to catch her if she was careless.
The fungus spread through the blood as seen in the delivery man. This man was saturated with it as she could smell on him and see bits of pale green hiding under make up that would have hidden his inhuman complexion from lesser eyes. He was trying to scratch her, of all the things he could do to try and incapacitate her all he was trying to do was scratch her. She surmised this meant he could infect someone with a scratch and was trying to do so by the time his claw-like arthritic hand came at her the second time, as the first could have been for psychological purposes or assuming an insurmountable physical advantage. The second time though? That was the whole plan. Victoria knew her immune system was superior to the average and it kept her from being afflicted by the cold or flu but she was a little too fond of herself to test it wildly against something that was this unknown.
Victoria leaned away from one of his swipes and dropped down, kicking him in the stomach and sending him into the far wall. She moved backwards with the motion and grabbed the hand rail at her end and grabbed with both hands as she pushed her feet into the wall. She willed her adrenaline into action and tore the whole thing out of the elevator wall with one pull. She swung it at him once, letting him raise his arms to defend himself. Dust and possible spores exploded away from his arms as he barely repelled the bar, but he wasn't really her target. With him off balance she threw it into the ceiling to dislodge the hatch in the top and squatted down.
The alleged Mr. Huang's arms stiffly went out to his sides with a groan and a crack and his hands shifted so he could bring both at her in a swipe that closed in on her. She jumped before his hands tried to close around her and only barely cleared their lightning slash at her. She grabbed the edge of the hatch as her head cleared it and pulled herself through with one powerful jerk of her arms. She was nearly moving again before she landed, bounding right to the emergency ladder on the sides. It would take some speed to keep ahead of the elevator, but speed was a strength of hers. So was balance. Victoria ran up the ladder while holding her hands out to the side, her posture was somewhat strange but she didn't want to risk losing her purse or move too slowly. As long as she kept in motion she could keep her balance on the narrow bars without using a hand to support herself.
Then what was almost certainly the ex Mr Huang followed her. With one powerful, creaky leap he cleared the elevator entirely. Things snapped inside his legs as he crouched down and once again as his legs snapped back into an upright position, throwing himself far into the air. Alarmingly far and fast, he actually caught up to her with a few bounds. Victoria jumped away from the wall as he aimed at her and grabbed the cable for a split second as she twirled around it. It did her hand no favors, but she would heal and she launched herself into another wall and kicked off it. She jumped from wall to wall in the corner until Mr. Huang sprung at her again.
This time she jumped for the next door and grabbed for the middle, or rather made it look like she was. When she heard Mr. Huang's body parts do their tortured feats to make him leap again she dropped down to the doors below and threw them open, rolling into the hall just before the elevator rose too high. Hopefully that would buy a little time...
Victoria thought about where food might be kept on this floor and made a quick stop before quickly running over to the largest windows on the floor. Her purse had taken a little damage from the scuffle in the elevator, but she'd managed to hold it together well enough to protect what she needed. She pulled out two tubes, one a simple marker and started drawing on the glass as she moved along it in a bent over posture. With her other hand she reached down to the floor and applied material from a much more unusual tube. This contained a powerful agent of partly her own design. She walked the length of the window with unnaturally smooth motion, scrawling a series of symbols from her seemingly awkward position. She flung a few of her food raid items around herself and waited for whatever was running that man's body to catch up.
Mr. Huang came down a little latter and looked at the food tossed to the floor with a raised eyebrow.
“<Hello Mr. Jiangshi, I knew you wouldn't be long.>”
“<Is that what you think I am?>”
“<It doesn't seem like a reasonable explanation to me, but the lack of heartbeat indicates you're deceased, yet you move about making you undead, then there's the fungal smell...I can tell your hair is only died black, it would be white otherwise. How stiffly you move, I have more than enough evidence to say that you're jiangshi, though I didn't believe it possible as recently as minutes ago. Though of course you might be some kind of alien spore that happened to be able to take advantage of a local myth? Either way you are far more formidable than the old folktales and modern popular culture would lead one to believe. I can respect the tactic of getting people to underestimate you.>”
“<It would seem you like to employ that tactic yourself. Who would realize you could move so fast and with such power just looking at you? All the times you've been here and there was no evidence, except for this weird preoccupation with 'improving' humankind. Why?>”
“<You've been sabotaging me,>” Victoria had a sudden revelation, the delivery guy – they knew where her gene work was, they knew about her past visits, and Mr. Huang had mentioned a desire not to see his 'food' be able to fight back, “<You've hidden your presence from me successfully until now, but you've been tailing me this whole visit. You're why I haven't been able to progress.>”
“<You are a sharp one, I'll give you that.>” Mr Huang smiled as his two 'body guards' joined him and took up positions around her. For now the light of the fading sun filled a large part of the room and Victoria noticed they weren't stepping out into it.
“<So it's true about the light then. What about the beans, and rice chaff?>”
Mr. Huang stepped forward and pushed at the mentioned items, “<I'm not fond of them, but they'll not do you much good on the floor,>” and kicked them aside.
“<Vinegar?>” Victoria asked as she pulled a bit out of her purse and threw it into the man's face.
He groaned and stepped back but mostly just tried to creakily move his head away from it, “<A noxious smell, but hardly enough to stop me. Definitely not going to stop my men here, get her please.>”
She'd noticed before that the men working for Mr. Huang only moved with a slight hobble and their fungal smell was light. Either they were newly changed or they were somehow something different, like a human servant. Whichever it was they weren't a threat to her. She moved in a blur and struck the first in a dozen pressure points and nerve clusters with a strength calculated to be plausible in a woman her size and he fell to the ground even less able to move his limbs than his boss. The second one tried to pull something on her but she slammed his arm into his body before repeating the same process, sending him crashing to the floor as well. Two minions down, unable to move, and not permanently damaged.
Mr. Huang looked at her handiwork with some approval, “<You have great skill, but you have to tell me what are you? You have me mostly figured out now.>”
“<Why should I tell you? It's of no benefit to me.>”
“<We know you are new to the game, but you've learned so quickly. My kind and many, many others have been hiding in the shadows and manipulating events behind the scenes for centuries. You jumped onto the scene hardly a decade ago and it took even the ancients a while to figure out just who you were. You are...something new, but you seem to be alone or nearly so. I didn't think to make a connection because I haven't seen you really moving before, but do you know a Lisa?>”
“<Hardly an uncommon name. It wouldn't mean anything if I did. Now, one final set of questions, how exactly do you feed and do the symbols behind me mean anything to you?”
“<It is just as the old stories say, my kind feed on the force of life, chi.>”
“<There is no such thing.>”
“<You mean your science can't detect and measure it. Tell me, what are the readings of the phenomena western science calls dark energy?>”
“<That's different, we infer its existence by its effect on visible matter. That is a very serious distinction, the concept of chi or what have you is completely devoid of any scientific basis.>”
“<Three patients have the same injury or disease, they're given the same odds because of equal damage to their bodies. One dies, one lives but is crippled for life, and the third makes a nearly complete recovery. What is that but the physical evidence of chi? One had weak chi, one very strong chi, and one was in between.>”
“<Random differences in physiology, the strength of the mind's influence over the body as illustrated by the placebo effect, a lot of different things after that, I could keep going for some time.>”
“<Rationalize all you like, it won't change reality, but I think I should touch on your other question,>” the light was nearly entirely faded and the full strength of the sun vanished behind a building and Mr. Huang stepped forward to the writings on the window, “<Of course the sign of Ba Gua mean something to me, far more than they ever could to you, Miss English.>”
He reached a stiff, creaking limb to the marker replica she'd made and starting wiping it off, “<If you had faith in it, if you where a farmer who'd grown up with stories of the jiangshi and believed the Ba Gua could repel me, it would slow me some, but you're just some white girl with some multicultural studies behind her,>” he turned to face her with a sinister smile.
“<You have been unbelievably helpful Mr. Huang, I really should thank you, but...>” Victoria spun around in a roundhouse kick and struck the glass with the full power of her supersonic kick. The corrosive adhesive she'd laid down as she copied the signs of the Ba Gua had eaten through much of the sealant while she stalled for time and much of the window popped free, but the top stayed on and she jumped down the gap while it was flying outwards. The window crashed back into place right behind her, cutting Mr. Huang Jiangshi from following after her.
Victoria kicked away from the building as she fell and caught one of the few trees outside and made her way down quickly. She fell the last ten feet deliberately onto someone and as she got up, pulled their large coat off of their body. Before they could protest fully she was already slinking off into the crowd and grabbing a hat from another person in the crowd. She kept low and in the mass of people and made her way as quickly as she could without being immediately suspicious.
Ever since she'd introduced herself to the world Victoria had been the big fish in a little pond, even as close as Lisa made a fight between them she'd proven the better combatant. Of course, she had something of an advantage in just how public Lisa made herself... Victoria had been able to study her preferred fighting style and develop her own specifically to beat her in secret, but still, she'd won their first real fight. Now it seemed like the metaphorical pond had just gotten a whole lot bigger, and she had no idea just how diverse the ecosystem really was.
Still, she was sure she was the future and she would adapt to this new challenge and anything else that came her way. For now though, she sent an innocuous text to one of her quasi-subordinates in the laboratory. It didn't say anything at all really, basic small talk. The only thing odd about it at all as that the grammar was messed up in a way that an English speaker might mess up Chinese grammar. That little discrepancy was the signal to shut down the augmentation project for now while she came up with some other location and process.
“<That did not go well at all.>”
“<She ran away didn't she?>”
“<Successfully, and with far more information about us that we got about her... Damn it, how could I get so arrogant that we had her?>”
“<A normal human might have separated us, but she would have died in the elevator. You had every right to think she was cornered.>”
“<Perhaps in usual circumstances, but that doesn't excuse the error on my part. I have a lot of apologizing to do to the masters....>”