A little problem, she’d reported. Fatima was a master of understatement. In some ways, Jorge felt she’d deserved to be eaten by his monstrous spawn.
Though, it probably wasn’t the time to be reflecting on Fatima’s missteps. Explosions still rocked the installation. Acrid smoke was filling the lab, and Jorge’s left hand was so badly burned the bones were visible. It throbbed painfully in alarming rhythm to the pounding on the barricaded door where the vicious things were trying to get in to devour him. Their creator.
Jorge should have been concentrating on how to save himself, but, as he sat on the floor leaning against the desk that he’d shoved against the door under furious assault, he couldn’t put aside the literally gnawing question of what had turned his micro soldiers into zombies.
Was it the final cellular enhancement process? An atavistic retrovirus? Something to do with the genetic re-rendering in the incubation vats? Or the hemlock? To know that answer, Jorge prayed, might somehow lessen the disappointment of being savaged by their ferocious little teeth.
The GNOMES had been so promising. When he’d been brought into the initial briefings on the project, he’d been skeptical. Creating tiny genetically modified soldiers to be used for special ops struck him as incredibly unethical. But, he’d been won over by the sheer scale and wicked audacity of the scheme.
In a half-crazed world, where savage regional conflict regularly erupted with only middle school cafeteria provocation, we needed a half-crazed solution. It was time to bite the bad guys below the kneecaps. A tactical shift from predator drones to predator GNOMES.
Jorge had come up with the acronym himself: General Noncom Operative Micro Enhanced Soldiers. Not quite Tennyson, but it caught on with the techs in the lab. And the generals soon grimaced with satisfaction when they toured their multi-billion dollar investments twitching in the milky brew of the incubation vats.
It was so easy for Jorge to reflect on the glory of those first GNOMES. Sturdy, stocky, pliable, completely obedient micro soldiers. A half meter tall with the ability to tactically deploy for three weeks without the need of food or sleep. Perfect for espionage and sabotage.
They’d turned out just as planned, until they ate Fatima.
That had been a complicated day. Fatima calling him in the morning from the training field to say she was having a little problem. And two hours later, he was directed to the obstacle course to be shown his bloody-mouthed GNOMES and his half devoured chief lab technician.
Jorge still shuddered at the thought of the mountains of paperwork Fatima’s “little problem” had created. It took him two weeks to convince the brass that it was not a fault in their genetic recoding. It had been an oversight in feeding the GNOMES. As part of their stamina testing, they’d gone almost a month without a meal. On a scientific level, their devouring Fatima was quite understandable, almost predictable.
Then they ate Fatima’s replacement. Jorge wasn’t able to placate the top brass. They insisted he euthanize all GNOMES. Jorge fought to salvage his pet project, but the generals prevailed, and he’d personally administered a lethal hemlock cocktail to his micro-mutants. It killed them all.
But not for long. Within a day all the GNOMES reanimated, noticeably paler and ranker, and all his lab technicians disappeared.
At that juncture, the top brass locked down the installation, trapping Jorge and giving him plenty of time to reflect. So strange. Zombiefication posed all kinds of theoretical and practical pitfalls. Jorge could’ve worked a thousand lifetimes and never intentionally created zombies such as these. But here they were. That much was clear. Very clear. Just a few feet away, his GNOMES were clamoring to get through the lab door and feast on his baffled brain.
With such a mystery hanging over his head, Jorge did not want to die. His options were indeed limited, but he could still think like a scientist. Control for variables. Reason out a solution. Create a workaround.
The hemlock? He considered it, though half-heartedly. Still, it was an option. He had a flask of the cocktail in his desk drawer. It would eliminate one variable. One personally painful possibility.
As he struggled to open the drawer with his good hand, he felt the desk and himself incrementally slide as the pounding increased on the lab door. The GNOMES were relentless problem solvers. Maybe they would solve their own riddle.
Jorge found the flask, fumbled it open and stared down its mouth, just as one of his GNOMES wriggled through the door. Pale and proud it approached, its coldly concentrated eyes locked on his. It stomped on his burned hand, hopped astride his trembling torso, snatched the flask of hemlock and bared its sharp, precision teeth.
Such a little problem, the creator admitted.