Bronze Star

by Latent Lurker


               The hell of it is, Commander Galena “Gally” Hoff was someone you wanted to see prosper.  Pretty, athletic, bright, patriotic.  In her fit early forties, she was already captain of a nuclear sub.   Later, scuttlebutt told me that if she had not been relieved when she was, she would have been escorted off the sub through a torpedo tube.

               Gally Hoff was, more’s the pity, married to the idea of zero-sum.  For her to flourish, someone else must be torn down.  And anyone else’s ascension was automatically a threat to her position.  

               I understood the logic that got her assigned to our laboratory.  As discipline problems, scientists were tied with cats.  An inept disciplinarian was not expected to make matters worse.  This was especially true for our lab, which was funded on the grounds that our real costs were negligible and the long-term payoff would be excellent. Gally Hoff would while away her time to retirement at a desk, pushing papers and being the liaison between science and the real world of the military.   Or so a sane person might have expected.

               Gally Hoff, on the sanity scale, was somewhere between MacArthur and Patton.  Maybe I’m being generous to her; maybe I’m slighting MacArthur and Patton.  She arrived determined to shape us up, sight unseen.

               “What the hell is quantum anabiosis anyway?” was the first thing she said to me.  At the time, I just smiled and assumed she was colorful.   Smiling was not a thing she took lightly.  “Don’t be an arrogant prick, justify yourself!”

               “It’s suspended animation, managed through subatomic physics.”  That was usually a safe gambit.  People understood suspended animation.  Like teleporting or telepathy, it was one of those sci-fi concepts that had diffused into the mainstream.

               “Explain that.” 

               I kept smiling.  I was thinking of my dissertation defense, where everything had to be explained to the satisfaction of a mutually antagonistic gang of academics.

               “Human hibernation, if we can manage it, has various advantages.  For example, imagine a wounded soldier who’ll die shortly without proper medical attention. Supposing we could put that soldier’s dying on hold until it was possible to get them to care.  Or suppose a submarine was sinking to the bottom of the sea.  Instead of drowning, suppose you could enter a sort of sleep where you did not need heat or oxygen, and could wait like that indefinitely until rescue came.”

               “Or we could just put this whole lab to sleep until someone actually comes up with an idea.”  For the life of me, I could not tell if she was busting my chops or kicking my teeth in.

               “Actually, we already have. It’s just – heh – ‘polishing’ the idea.”  She did not get the joke, even after she saw the bronzed specimens.

               Escorting her to my lab area, I saw that my colleagues were orbiting us; close enough to observe, far enough that they might not be in her range of sight – or fire.  They had met her before.  Warnings had not circulated.  To warn someone, you have to be willing to talk about what happened to you.

               “Shit!” was her simple exclamation watching the mice. I took it as praise. She was impressed, or at least too confused to be on the attack. She kept flicking the switch to turn the mice on and off.

               “The system works perfectly in the mice,” I explained. “Polarize the subdermal layer, and the suspension field starts.  Break the polarization, and the mice return to life.”

               She picked up a suspended mouse and twisted its paw.  I tried not to think she was looking for signs of pain.  “You can bend it?”

               “The field works because chemical reactions – which depend on exchange of electrons – are totally arrested when the field is active.  However, the field does not depend on geometry, just the body being all of a piece. “

               “So you could cut off a paw and the thing would wake up?” she asked.

               “In fact, one of the benefits of the polarization is that the subdermal layer becomes tougher than diamond.  You can twist it, but you can’t tear it.”  She twisted the mouse harder, taking it as a challenge.   Then she dropped it in the mouse pen and flipped the switch again. All the mice returned to life.  Her ‘victim’ seemed a bit disoriented but was soon indistinguishable from the other scurrying mice.

               “They’re all bronze? Why not silver or gold?”

               “Bronze was how the final stuff looked.  Early iterations were actually more coppery.”

               “So this works. What the hell are you doing sitting around with your thumbs up your asses?  Weaponize it.”

               “The problem developed with the rabbits.”   I paused so she could ask the obvious. I thought she would feel better with more of a sense of involvement.

               “What problem?”

               “Larger organisms seem to revive for shorter periods before spontaneously reverting to the suspended state.  We’re not quite sure why.  It has something to do with the principle of minimum energy in thermodynamics, and something to do with the ratio of surface area to mass. “

               “The mice looked fine.”

               “Or maybe the mice would revert if you waited long enough.   The other problem is that once we’ve introduced the subdermal layer, there’s no way to remove it.  The subject is bronzed for good.“

               “So what if you did it to a human being?”

               “Based on our projections, an average human being would have to be plugged in to a light socket to just stay alive.”

               “Well, hell, that’s great. Don’t you see? You’ve just abolished the death penalty. Just bronze the bastards. You’re not killing them.   You’re just putting them on hold until someone can revive them in an electric chair.”  She laughed.  “Hell, why spend money on jails? Turn them all into statues and charge admission to see them!”

               I wanted to join my colleagues at a safe perimeter from Gally Hoff. I began initiating conversational disengagement.  “Suggest it to our Institutional Review Board.  They tend to be very conservative.”

               “A bunch of pinkos, probably.  Get rid of their meddling and some of this crap might pay off. We’ve got enough wastes of space sitting in Leavenworth cells to get you some good test subjects.”   What I wanted from Gally Hoff was distance, but she took my arm the better to lead me around.  How did I make a good impression on her?  I thought back to try to identify my mistake.  “So show me where you brew this goop.”

               I was expecting disdain when she saw the apparatus.  “You need all this junk and how many goddamwatts of electricity to brew how much goop? What a waste!”

               I was trying to decide whether to debate or stay quiet when she reached out and began tweaking controls, not having a clue what she was doing.  “You get more of this stuff flowing, it should be cheaper.”  When I heard the alarm, I yelled “run” and then demonstrated.  I just got the door sealed behind me when the machine blew.  Gally Hoff was still standing there trying to bludgeon it to her will.  She was still standing there when we finally confirmed the room was safe to re-enter.

               “Well look at the monumental ass,” someone said.  I forget who.  The bronzed, statuesque, figure of Gally Hoff was a lightning rod for contempt.  Her misadventure had created enough electrical and environmental damage that she had not only managed to put an end to all wasteful research at our lab, she had put an end to any research at all.

               I was backing up my files and boxing up my books, waiting for the formal announcement of the end, when the lab chief came by and told me we had a problem. I correctly inferred this meant I had a problem.

               Could Gally Hoff be resuscitated?  If so, then she faced criminal charges.  If no, she could be declared dead and her body disposed of, and someone else would have to take the blame for this snafu.  The most promising candidate would be the scientist whose apparatus was the focal point for the disaster.  That would be me.

               I was regarding Gally Hoff with a mixture of thoughts.  Her clothes had been peeled off, leaving a bendable bronze body.  She had been straightened from her crouch but otherwise was still staring at the machine in consternation, as if she and it were both still standing there.  She was certainly attractive.  No longer young but far from old, and she probably pursued athletic activities with her usual reckless ferocity. 

               I got a good laugh when I requisitioned the knitting needles.  I got an even bigger one when I made my first attempts at knitting.  But one of the chemists, who took knitting up as a hobby waiting for reactions to finish, was able to help me out.  She made it clear though that this was being done to only help me out.  If Gally Hoff were going to return to life, it would either be a short visit or a long one with much suffering.

               Pretty soon, I had something workable.  It didn’t offer Gally any modesty, the holes (what do you call them?) in the knit garment were too big, but it provided appropriate electrical field coverage over her body and limbs.  I put the headband on her and turned up the juice.  The lights dimmed a little.

               Gally Hoff did nothing gradually or quietly.  “Goddamn unsafe contraption!” she hollered loud enough to let everyone know I succeeded. By the time they arrived, she had already denounced me, with volume and venom, as a pervert who had dressed her in some godforsaken fetish outfit for deviant purposes.  She turned to the audience she had gathered, as I took the opportunity to kill the power.  Instantly she was a statue again, frozen solid with a word on her lips.    The lab chief said, “so are you going to rape her?  We can wait.”

               Explaining things to Gally Hoff was usually an uphill fight.  In this case, getting the immediate point of her suspended animation across involved a mirror and many repetitions of turn power off, / move something around / turn power on.  Other points were harder to get across.

               “So how long is it going to take you chickenshits to turn this chickenwire suit into something I can wear under my uniform?” she asked.  I left it to my lab chief and others in authority to explain it to her and went back to packing up.

               The lab chief came in just as I was finishing.  I had the odd idea that he was deliberately waiting until I was completely packed up, out of some sort of courtesy.  “So where did you leave it?” I asked.

               “It is being dishonorably discharged,” he said flatly.  “She destroyed the entire lab.”  There was an uncomfortable pause that I wasn’t sure how to fill.  “So, where are you going?” he asked.

               “That depends on what sort of trouble I’m in.”

               “That depends on where you’re going.”

               “I’m not surprised.  Whatever she did, I made it possible.”

               “And as part of that, she’s now unquestionable proof of the possibility of your own work.  Even before the accident, you were further along than anyone else. Now, your technology is the one salvageable part of this mess.”

               “So if I keep working for the government, I won’t be in trouble with the government?”

               “Exactly.”

               “What happens to her? She’s test subject number one, as you pointed out.”

               “She’s been ruled legally incompetent by the military court, so we need to find an appropriate guardian for her.”

               “Legally incompetent?”  I knew what the chief was going to say before I finished blurting the question.

               “The legal definition is that she can no longer demonstrate comprehension of proceedings or assist in her own welfare.”

               “You turned her off.”

               “And I enjoyed it.”

               As he had her wheeled in, he explained her current pose. They had turned her off, tipped her forward, turned her on just as she was falling.  As she was on her hands and knees on the floor, looking up in confusion and anger, they turned her off again.  “Might make a nice dinner tray now that this junk is off of it,” he mused, handing me the knit electrical mesh that had been removed from her body.  

               As I set up in the new lab, I made some basic inquiries to find out if anyone had asked about the wellbeing or whereabouts of Miz Gally Hoff.  It took me a while to decide my own attitude towards her.  She had ruined a number of promising research projects, and set back a lot of careers, but my own work had been moved ahead.  As part of settling in to my new location, I wanted to make sure there would be no unsettling surprises. That she was dishonorably discharged and then dropped out of sight had apparently been quite satisfactory to her family and others.   It finally sank in that I had sole and uncontested de facto ownership of another human being, despite the fact she spent most of the time now as a monument.  Even if I resented her, I could act on her behalf with impunity.

               Gally currently stood hands on hips, grinning broadly, solid as the cast bronze sculpture she resembled.  There were a few reasons for that.   Since I could bring her back to life wherever I chose, I treated her to a few sessions in a sensory deprivation tank.  Apparently shifting without any warning from alertness to sensory deprivation intensified the effects of the sensory deprivation on suggestibility.  Nothing elaborate, I just convinced her subconscious that the on-off switch functioned as a more general control box.  I pressed a button and she had to obey. It helped that she had both keen power worship and a deep, ignorant suspicion of science’s dark powers.  I had set the programming up with the assistance of one of the behavioral researchers I’d known from the old lab. Ethics usually went out the window when it was something being done to Gally. 

Another assist came from one of the electrical engineers, who helped me turn Gally’s mesh into something more refined.  Little beads had been cemented to strategic parts of her body. The strategy was primarily for charge distribution.  One was right by her clitoris; stimulating there helped with her programming, and with the smile she was wearing most of the time.  I considered leaving her completely naked, but a lab assistant couldn’t hold everything in her hands.  When necessary, she wore a tool belt.  She could wear anything and go outside just looking like a normal person with a glowing suntan if you didn’t look too close.

Turning violent criminals and others into obedient robots was not where I had originally seen my research going.  Then again, most technologies first find their footing as toys.   And now that I’d given generals and admirals new and unprecedented powers over ordinary human beings, and was still the only expert on the process, I could pretty much do what I wanted during my working hours.   That I was doing it to Gally was a plus to those who remembered the ‘old’ her.

I turned her on and said “jumping jacks, Gally.”  She began doing jumping jacks in place. It was fun to watch and it gave me an appetite. She scowled, of course, and called me names.  She only smiled when commanded.  Her basic personality was intact.  What fun would it be to demand and get total obedience from someone who was always pleasant?  One of her former superiors had asked if it would be possible to give her breast implants.   I considered it, but rejected it on the grounds that what she was now, physically, what she had made herself. Fit, toned, and bronzed.  

I took my lunch out of the refrigerator, took off my pants and hung them over a chair, and sat on the sofa.  Gally watched, knowing the next command would be “lunch tray, Gally.”


...continued, in By Request


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