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I spent the next few months doing things the way I should have done them the first time. What I mean is that I left as little of a trail as possible. Spider was just honest enough to not actually remove my profile from he.ro, but I didn’t post there anymore. Rumors were spreading that I’d been killed by some kind of secret government raid gone wrong, and though the government denied the raid, there was not so much talk and fear of me in the media anymore, so everyone assumed it was true.

Spider made sure that the burned body retrieved from the house was assumed to be the terrorist individual known as the Mindbender, and then she pulled off some kind of righteous hack that erased Cpl. James Murphy from existence. It offended her morals a little, but faking my death and giving me back a government-assassination-squad-free existence was the least she could do.

She got smart and moved out of Portland, and would not even tell me where she was going, which suited me just fine. Considering what we’d just been through, I wasn’t going to argue with her desire to go off-grid.

That’s when I started to really embrace the idea of going off the radar myself. If you met me during that time, I made sure you did not remember me. I had conversations with people on trains, on flights, sometimes I would join them for dinner. By the end of our time together, they remembered either nothing, or everything about that encounter except for my presence in it, and only I had the true memory of what really happened.

I got used to saying whatever I wanted, even more than I had before, since I was just going to erase the encounter from their memory by the end of our time together. Consequently, I also let my appearance go a bit. Grew out a scruffy and patchy beard, but I’d gotten used to the shaved melon. Plus, and it may have been psychosomatic on my part, I felt like I could read people better with a shaved head. The hoodie was back, though. I had not so much given up dressing like a stylish and successful businessman, it was just that I knew I could do that whenever I wanted. It had become less important to make appearances once I got the idea of eliminating my appearance in people’s heads as a matter of course.

I perfected my own form of invisibility, where I could walk down the street and avoid glances from anyone except those at a distance. I’d skim through the buzzing hive of minds and edit out the pictures of me that their eyes took. Perfecting this visual manipulation would turn out to be very handy later in life, but it all started with realizing that whatever the eyes saw didn’t matter:

It was the brain that did the real seeing, and it’s a series of snapshots edited together and processed by our minds into a recognizable whole. Remove some of the slides from the slide presentation, and you never even know you saw me. It never even makes its way into your memory banks. Edit out a section of video, and you might realize there’s some lost time, but you would have no idea what you were doing during that time with those missing inputs. In programming terms, I was filtering the data before saving it to disk.

If I had the time to do it, I’d fill in that missing time with a bullshit memory, or just plug their time gap by telling them that they’d looked at the clock just a minute ago.

As a result, wherever I went, I was unknown, and invisible. I could, for instance, walk into a movie theater, step behind the counter to make my own popcorn, and pour my own drink, and then walk past the guy collecting tickets and into the movie theater. I’d eat meals on a sidewalk cafe, and the waiter would make orders for me and bring them to me without even remembering my name, or who I was, or that I’d just tipped him fifty dollars.

Shoplifting was, as you might imagine, a crime that I committed, and still commit daily. I’ve done it so often that I consider it about as serious of a crime as jaywalking at this point. It’s just far more expedient, the margins will cover my little thefts so there is little harm done (or so I rationalize) and most importantly for me it leaves no trace, no record of my existence, no paper trail. The security cameras are a different story, but if I’m really bent on cleaning out a place, controlling the manager to turn off the security camera footage beforehand is easy enough.

My powers were growing. Some of that was all the practice I was getting and some of that help was pharmacological. I’d self-medicated my dose of prescriptions a bit higher at that point, as I was done with doctors outside of life or death emergencies. I had my prescriptions refilled simply by walking into and then out of a pharmacy. No one asked to see my prescription, or my health insurance.

It was lonely, and liberating at the same time. I could talk to people, say or do whatever I wanted, the same as always. But now I’d learned to clean up after myself, leave no trace or record of my presence. Anything that leaked into the web about me was quickly expunged by Spider. I was a ghost in the machine as well as in real life.

By that point, everyone was referring back to the thing called The Event. The government was issuing its now-lampooned denials about the existence of extra-terrestrials or any willingness to validate the by-now-de-facto popular conclusion that we had been visited by them.

I got a sense of how the government really felt about aliens. They had hunted me like I was an alien, not a person. A thing to be put down. Granted, they also thought I was a sick and twisted monster that had mind-controlled Bloodstorm into going on a murder spree. Which was Spider’s goddamned fault. But for her turncoat services to Uncle Sam, Spider’s reward was to be put down like a thing as well, while her son Keith was abducted.

So she was as pissed off as me in all of this, and she stopped going on about all the hero/villain bullshit, which suited me just fine. Her faith in humanity had received a swift kick in the ovaries, which brought us both to a similar level of realism about the world that I could work with.

Colonel Hodge knew that Keith had been taken to a place known as Greenfield. Greenfield, a boarding school established by a secret government executive order, in which orphans of ability were adopted by the state as a national security imperative.

Keith wasn’t an orphan yet, but they had clearly considered that a technicality at the time they snatched him off the street as he left school.

I’d been all over the place for almost six months, listening around in people’s heads, tracking down Greenbriar. That was the easy part. The difficult part was getting Keith out in a way that left no tracks, and that pointed to neither of us as the culprit. Really, there wasn’t even supposed to be a culprit in all of this. It took some convincing to get Spider to wait, because I could have waltzed Keith right off of the property, but that would have left records, security footage, things that Spider might not have been able to squash. Then we’d be back to being hunted by the government again.

Not that she hadn’t already wormed her way into the security system, and got to keep an eye on her boy.

We were working out a plan to get Keith, and I was doing my thing, scheming up a fucking beautiful plan, which I’ll tell you all about later. There’s a few things I have to cover first before any of that will make sense.

I was a different Lance by that point, and I was getting a broader appreciation for the world. Traveling had taught me many things, one of which was that language was no longer a barrier, another being that people are all fundamentally the same, and another rather sad and depressing cultural realization that came to follow me everywhere like a cloud:

Americans are a fundamentally unhappy people. We keep imagining some day in the future where we’re happy, and we strive to get to it, but we never will. As we achieve, we create new happiness goals to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re just not happy right here, right now. There is no amount of sex, or experiences, of money that can fill it, but we still pursue it. It’s a bottomless hole that we try to fill with consumption, and plans for a better life.

One day we’ll be happy, then we die. It’s depressing to walk around under that cloud all the time when you can see it for what it is. Some days it would be easier to go back to sleep like the rest of you, and let it carry me along. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the ability to go to sleep like that anymore, so I’m just going to keep calling it out until the rest of you fuckers wake up.

Our minds are full of daily obsessions, dreams and aspirations for our future happy life, and it is this that we think makes us ‘who we are’. To everyone else, however, who you are is what you do. It’s our own body dysmorphic disorder. We never seem to realize that no one can see future happy Me, they only see current depressed and overworked Me. Big collective vibes hung everywhere, the vibe of The Herd, the vibe of Getting By and almost all of us followed the vibe without question.

By ‘we’ I mean everyone else but me. Once you understand what’s going on, it’s harder to fall into the routine. It would be like hearing the Pied Piper’s music, feeling unaffected, yet choosing to follow along with it, anyway. It helps if you want to blend in for awhile to do so, but you’re in no way obliged to follow the music all the way to its inevitable end, either.

During these explorations across so many cities, I also came into contact with a great many minds, as well. The average baseline human mind contains a mix of good and bad, and after being exposed to so many, it’s really hard to surprise me anymore. But every mind has its own unique and interesting structure and sense of identity, like a diamond as unique in its flawed expression as any other. Each of you precious snowflakes is fascinating in your own individual fucked-up way. I can’t help but be interested in all the shit that’s going on up there that you never tell anyone about.

As a result, I know a few things.

I know that teenagers have possibly the most screwed up minds on the planet. I steer clear of them as much as possible. It’s a toss up which gender makes me despair more for our species.

I know that if you’re married, your family is pressuring you to have children, in many subtle and downright overt ways.

I know that if you have been abused, it is hard to trust and see the world without the potential for violence everywhere. Yet if you had a safe upbringing, it is equally hard to understand that the potential for violence is everywhere.

I know what it feels like to be schizophrenic, and that most of us are a lot closer to it than we would like to believe.

I know most of you are unhappy in your marriages, and that as far as I’m concerned at this point, no one should get married. It seems like a lot of work for no gain other than carrying around a trapped sense of desperation all the time.

But I also ran into more than my fair share of what psychiatrists would term “abnormal minds”, and it presented me with a moral conundrum. In other words, I ran into others like Mitch, sociopaths who had given in or were on the path to destruction.

The first of these was Emmet Case.

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