You stare down at the claw cobbled onto your wrist, where your hand used to be. You flex it gingerly. It will serve you well.
“Has anyone ever said you look like Nurse Ratched?” you quip.
“Funny,” the doctor mumbles, clearly not finding it so. “This may hurt,” he says as he puts his full weight behind the wrench.
“It all hurts.”
He responds with a non-committal and apathetic grunt.
What did you expect? Sympathy? From them? From anyone? You knew it wouldn’t be easy. You knew that when you opted for the full transformation. But there’s no turning back now.
Cooped up in this laboratory for the past six months, you feel ready to try out your new personal weaponry on those you were designed to smite.
And those who had brought you here—against your will, though they would deny that—will make ideal test subjects.
Subjects I tried to avoid thinking about: death and divorce.
Death? Well, that should be pretty obvious.
The other? What was that expression? Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I wondered what “fool me 37 times” would be? Probably just “fool.” I couldn't help it. I liked sex. A lot. Probably too much. And, because of the centrally administered prohibition against “unauthorized premarital contact,” if I wanted to get laid...
If only there had been some way to yank the damn chip out of my head. Of course I would have needed to find a woman, any woman, who was willing to risk it as well. No small task. Tampering with the dChip carried a hefty penalty.
At least in prison you got all the sex you wanted. The problem was, you also got all the sex didn't want.
When she smiled at me across the bar, then headed my way, I thought, Great. Here comes lucky number 38.
She slithered a taut thigh against me as she sat down. “Buy you a drink?”
What the hell. What have I got to lose? I thought. I have no place to live, to speak of. No stuff. Those In Power took anything, everything I have.
“What the hell. What have I got to lose?” I said.
I am a charmer.
“My name is Candy.”
An opening line if I ever there was one. Either the universe, or she, had a wicked sense of humor. I didn’t. And I wasn’t in the mood to start having one.
“That's nice,” I said.
She leaned in close, close enough that a few wisps of her hair brushed my ear. “Do you want it?” she cooed.
“You know the ‘it’ I’m talking about. Do you want it? With no strings attached? Without...” she said, glancing at the flag. Their flag.
This I had to see.
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Even if she was an informant, what were they going to do to me? I stood up, and punched in a few numbers. The “cash register” made a “ding” sound, even though no bell was involved. Of course, no cash was involved, either.
The bartender looked at the screen. “Thanks for the tip,” he said.
“See you tomorrow.”
I nodded toward the door.
“After you,” she said.
We stepped out into the alley.
The door slammed. I felt a prick in my neck, followed by a burning flow. As the world began melting around me, I heard her say, “I got him.”
I turned, and caught a glimpse of her hand. On her palm was a tattoo.
Then everything went black.
Everything is black. The walls are black. The ceiling’s black. As is the floor, the sink, the toilet, the bed, the plates they use to feed you.
Everything is black.
They say it will help you. They say you will grow accustomed to it, and ultimately it will help you see at night.
The say you’ll need that.
“Then maybe you should paint me black,” you say, half in jest.
“Then they won’t be able to see me. At night.”
“Don't worry. You will be, for all intents and purposes, invisible.”
You look at your body.
Your new body.
“You're kidding, right?”
“Trust us. They won't be able to see you.”
You repeat yourself.
“You're kidding, right? You mean to tell me they won't see all of this? Any of this?”
“We put in technology. They’ll never even see you coming.”
Coming here always made me happy. Well, less miserable. It was a beautiful spot. Well, less ugly than most places.
It was one of the few natural, nature spaces left. Though the grass was artificial. The trees were fabricated, according to the sign, from “recycled, reconstituted organic matter.” Whatever the hell that was. And the roses were made of steel. That included the thorns. You’d have thought they could have left those off.
Still, it looked a lot like it used to, though something was different. Something was missing. Something like...
I couldn’t put my finger on it.
As I sat there, waiting for him, waiting for him to come by with my medicine, I watched the families strolling, pushing prams weighed down with their little doomed toddlers, false smiles forced on their faces. And I wondered, How could you do it? How could you bring kids into this world?
Then I remembered.
That also was centrally administered.
So, fine. They had no say in that. But they didn’t have to be happy.
Then I remembered something else.
They weren’t seeing it. The world. They were seeing something else. They were seeing what Those In Power were serving them. They didn’t know any different, as they were watching a fabricated falsehood through rose-colored...
That was it. That's what was missing.
I remembered colors.
There were greens. The green grass, the green trees.
And yellow, red, orange. Flowers in summer, leaves in autumn. Fire in the fireplace.
And the sky. The sky was blue.
They were all gone. The colors. Now everything was just gray.
With occasional splotches of red.
Those, they couldn’t see.
But I could.
“Could you tell me the last thing you remember?”
“It’s OK. Take your time.”
“It was warm. No, hot. Really hot. I was walking along a road. A narrow road. A road that went up a mountain. But it wasn’t like the pretty mountains, green and capped with snow. It was dusty. Dirty. And hot. Did I say hot? There was someone with me. I don’t know him. I don’t know his name. But we were both walking. He had a gun. A rifle. So did I. All of a sudden there were some bangs. Loud bangs. Then he was gone. He had fallen. Fallen off the road, off the side of the road. And off the mountain. His blood flecked my uniform. Then I heard a sound. Almost like a whistle. It grew louder. I looked around for it, and saw a trail of smoke, coming at me. The sound was really loud now. Something hit my chest. I fell back. The ground was dusty. Hard. I looked to my side. My insides were lying on the ground, next to me. In the dust. That’s it. That’s the last thing I remember.”
“Very good. Hold on a minute.” You hear the unseen voice tapping something. He probably was working on his tablet. You feel a slight tingle in your dChip. “Can you tell me the last thing you remember?”
“It’s OK. Take your time.”
“I was sweating. It wasn’t hot. But I was sweating anyway. My back was against a wall. A brick wall. So I was in a city, I guess. I saw a police car, red light flashing. The door was open. Open, and near me. I held a gun in my hands. What was I doing? I looked down, at myself. I wore a uniform. A police uniform. A radio on my collar crackled. ‘He’s up on a roof. Do you see him?’ I looked up. But the sun was in my eyes. I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see anything. Then I saw a gleam. A glint, a glint of light, sunlight. On metal. There was a single shot. My head jerked back. It hit the wall. The brick wall. But something about it felt strange. I went farther back, got closer to the wall, than I would have thought. Almost as if the back of my head was no longer there. That’s the last thing I remember.”
You feel a tingle in your chip. “Can you tell me the last thing you remember?”
“It’s OK. Take your time.”
“I was in a hospital. It was clean. Bright. Noisy. There were babies. Babies crying. That was the noise. The only noise. I looked down. In my arms, there was a baby. A very small baby. A beautiful, precious baby. He wasn’t crying. He was asleep. I noticed that his nose looked like—”
You feel the tingle.
“Perfect. We’ve done it. We’ve managed to override—no, even better—tap into the chip. We can load in there whatever we want. It’s as easy as changing the channels on the television.”
“So all of that was...” says a second unseen voice.
“They were video games I used to play. Except for that last one. I think that was real.”
“Should you be saying this in front of him?”
“What difference does it make?”
You feel a tingle.
“Can you tell me the last thing you remember?”
“It’s OK. Take your time. Like I said. Just like television.”
Television, real television, did exist in my lifetime. I did have vague memories of it. Of course, because of the blocks, all of my memories were vague. Piecemeal. Frustratingly, tantalizing close...
I needed to stop.
Television. I remembered my parents had a little black box which sat beneath the TV. It allowed us to watch channels. Note the plural. It also allowed them to turn it off, whenever they wanted.
Another novel concept.
I remembered there was such a variety of programs. So many that, there was a special channel which listed all the different shows that were on. My parents would watch “grown-up” programs. Police shows. Home improvement shows. Comedy shows, which had a lot of language that was replaced by beeps.
For me, there were educational shows, shows which taught me how to count and read.
I loved those shows.
I assumed this would soon be blocked.
There also was a show called “MTV,” which stood for “Music Television.” I never understood why, since they never had any music on it. Even so, my brother would watch it, all the time. That is, before he...
I needed to stop.
I then hoped they would block this.
“Soon it will be time.”
“Soon” is not what you want to hear.
“No. It’s time now,” you growl.
“We’re not finished. You’re not finished.”
“What if I say I am.” It’s not a question. Regardless of its conversational purpose, he ignores the remark.
“There is more work to do. And more tests to run.”
You hate the tests. Most are pointless. Many are painful. You decide not to admit to either.
“What more could you have to do to me?” you demand. “I’ve been locked away in this sewer that you call a hospital—”
“We don’t call it a hospital. It’s our encampment. You just happen to be in the lab, which also doubles as an infirmary.”
“Fine. You’ve had been caged up in this encampment, this lab, which also doubles as an infirmary for...”
“Five months,” he says evenly.
“Five months. You’ve added parts, changed parts, and taken away parts. What else? What?”
You hate that answer.
“I think it’s time you started giving me some answers. I deserve to know what your plans are.”
You take a step toward him. He does not flinch.
“You do realize I could kill you. I could kill you in so many ways. I could kill you in one second. Or, I could make it last minutes. Hours.”
“But you won’t.”
You feel a tingle.
“But I won’t.” You’re not the one who speaks those words. And yet, somehow, you are.
“Is there anything else?” he asks.
“No,” you say.
“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow is coming too soon,” she said, fighting back the tears. “Isn’t there some way you can...”
“What? Skip my deployment? I wish.”
“Eighteen is too young.”
“You’re right,” I told her. “It is too young. It is. But I have to.”
We all had to. Military service for all adult men had been mandatory since the bombing, and all the changes that came after it.
“Are you ready?” she asked. “Not emotionally. Emotionally, I know you’re not. Who would be? Physically. Are you physically ready? How has your training gone?”
I knew that I’d told her this at least half a dozen times. I assumed she’d forgotten the answer. She forgot it, because she wanted to. She wanted to, because she didn’t want to think about what the answer meant.
“Apparently,” I said, trying to keep my own voice from shaking, my own throat from slamming shut, “training will be over there. On the job.”
The job which was to start tomorrow. In some distant, dusty hellhole, where I’d be fighting an enemy which prefers to hide in—and shoot at us from—every tiny notch in every barren mountain which dots the whole god-damned place. Not to mention burying home-made bombs along every road, and under the burqa of every woman who walks up to offer us water or food.
“You haven’t even had training?” she gasped.
“Training?” I said. “Hell, I haven’t even had a physical.”
Physical therapy is the worst.
Reach out to the can. Wrap your...fingers around the can. Carefully pick up the can. Crush the can.
Reach out to the brick. Wrap your... Grab the brick. Carefully pick up the brick. Crush the brick.
You can't wait for the therapy to end.
You want to practice on the real thing.
Things were good with number 1. Maggie wanted kids. Real bad. And she could do it, too. She worked with computers. She did information security for the bank. The bank, the one run by Those In Power. She said she probably could apply what she knew and hack into the chip. Override the restriction. Get pregnant.
“It would look like an accident,” she said. "They’d never know."
“Then why not just change our status? Make us Primes?” I asked. “That would make a lot of things a lot easier.”
"No way. That subroutine, I’ve heard, uses some crazy-scary encryption. It would be impossible. And even if I did break it, that can be audited, looked at, during the appointments.”
She had a point.
Maybe I was just being paranoid. Of course if you weren't paranoid, you were stupid. Somehow, I felt as if I was on some kind of black list. This close to being being demoted. I may not have been a Prime. But I sure as hell didn’t want to be a Tertiary.
Those people had fewer freedoms than we did. Which was unfathomable. It was common knowledge that Those In Power could control their movements—literally control their ability to move—by establishing acceptable perimeters. A sort of invisible fence. Get too close to some place you shouldn’t be, and ZAP! People assumed the voltage was non-lethal. Just a warning shot. But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t assume anything about Those In Power.
I saw what they did to my family.
Was it any wonder that seeing the flag—their flag—filled me with hate?
You hate seeing the psychiatrist. You thought those guys were supposed to help put your head on straight. But all he seemed to do was point your compass at magnetic lost.
In reality, you know that’s what he is supposed to do. What they had told him to do.
“What does this look like to you?” he asks.
“Two blots of black ink.”
“Very good. And this?”
“Two blots of black ink.”
“Very good. And this?”
“An angry machine-man-mutant stabbing a psychiatrist to death with his own pen.”
“Very good. And this?”
“Two blots of black ink.”
“Very good. I think we’re done for today. Do you have any questions for me?”
“How many other rats do you have running through the maze?”
“Only you. You’re the first. And from what they have told me, the last.”
“I think you know.”
You do. You just been wondering if they really do.
“Do the drops help?” The question reeked of kindness. Genuine kindness.
“No. No change.”
“I’m sorry. Your situation is uncommon, but not unheard of. Pity. You’re missing so much.”
I was. But I had no choice. The glasses gave me headaches. Right from the start, from the first time I put them on. I was disappointed about that. They seemed like a great idea. Everything you needed, everything you wanted was right there, in front of your face. I really wanted them to work.
But after a week of skull-splitting, lying on the floor screaming, wanting to die right now headaches, I had to go see them.
“Do you mind if we test?” asked the doctor. “We have to make sure. They tell us, we have to make sure.”
“Suit yourself. But it’s not pretty.”
They stuck some wires all around my head, then had me open my shirt so they could tape a few more on my chest.
“Put them on,” the doctor said, sounding empathetic, sorry that he had to make me do it.
The first few minutes were OK. They always were. But in no time, I was fetal and crying.
He removed them from my head.
As I began my recovery, I heard him on the phone. Talking to Them, I assumed. I didn’t catch the entire conversation. I probably wouldn’t have understood most of it anyway. But a few words made it through the pounding.
“Irregular alpha waves.”
“Elevated heart rate.”
After he had finished the call, he came over and put a hand on my shoulder.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m getting there.”
“Good. You have been officially granted a waiver.” He tapped on his tablet a few times. I felt the slight tingle in my dChip, telling me the “waiver” had been uploaded. It was now part of my permanent record.
He handed me another set of glasses.
“These are not active,” he said. “But you should wear them. That way, you’ll look just like everybody else. You’ll fit in.”
In hindsight, you should have known. You should have seen it.
You’re sitting in the doctor’s “office,” waiting to be examined, when something catches your eye. Your new eye. The eye that can see through walls.
You see a man pushing a little cart. He stops outside of the door—the closed door—and puts something on a small shelf outside.
Then he limps away.
A few minutes later the doctor comes in, having removed from the small shelf several small paper containers.
You take it, while the doctor watches. He has to watch to make sure you take it, for real, as opposed to hiding it under your tongue and spitting it out.
“How long will I have to keep taking this medicine?” you ask.
“I hope we can stop it a month or two after we finish our work. Hopefully, by then your body will have accepted and fully integrated the new components. But we’ll have to monitor you, to make sure there are no signs of rejection.”
“Rejection. Story of my life,” you mutter.
“I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
“No. Nothing. All clean,” you say, sticking out your tongue.
Later that day, back in your room, you sit bolt upright with the realization.
The medicine that you used to take, back when you lived on the outside, and had a natural human body. The medicine which helped you cope with the pain, the pain caused by the things you lost in combat. And all the other things you lost.
That medicine was delivered by a guy with a limp.
“What the fuck!”
“What’s wrong, honey?” Maggie said, running into the kitchen.
“I was trying to fix the sink, and I banged my head on cabinet. I think I jarred the chip, and now...OW!...it’s sending lightning bolts through my head!”
“Let me get you to a doctor.”
“No! No doctor,” I said.
“What? Are you crazy?”
“A doctor would have to report this. To Them. They’d investigate. To make sure...OW!...it wasn’t tampering.”
“But it wasn’t. You bumped your head.”
“Yeah. They might believe that. But after...” I said, pointing up. Up to where the baby’s room was. “After that... I’d bet money that we’re on some list. I think they’d pay a little more attention.”
She looked down.
“I wish you were wrong. But I don’t think you are. A few months ago, at work, I saw my monitor flicker. Just a little. Nothing, really. So I just wrote it off. But then I started noticing it more. Every day, always at the same time. So I set up a screen capture routine. Then I watched it in slow motion. A little window was popping up, then disappearing. All that the window showed was two lines, both IP address and port numbers. Port 21. That’s for FTP. File transfer. And port 3389. Remote desktop. I think they’re watching me.”
“What should I do?”
“You have... skills. Don’t you have any friends with cooler skills?”
She hesitated just a second.
“Get in the car. I’ll tell Mom we need to run an errand.”
I would have watched where we were going, but I was lying on the back seat, trying to prevent my brain from erupting. Eventually, we stopped.
“Be right back,” she said.
A few minutes more, and she came back to the car.
“Let’s go,” she said, helping me
The details were foggy, as was my whole cognitive process. I could tell we were in a part of town not frequented by the “Mercs,” short for mercenaries, which was what most people called the policing force. They probably figured most problems here would work themselves out one way or another.
She led me around to the back side of a house. Another set of hands—strong hands, a man’s hands—helped me down some stairs.
“Lie down here,” he said in a voice that sounded tortured, labored, almost as if his Adam’s apple had been kicked once or twice.
I heard a buzz, and felt clippers on my head. He was shaving the area around the chip.
“Do you know what the “d” in dChip stands for?” he asked.
“Damned?” said Maggie.
“Domination. I knew some of the guys who developed it. Good guys. Rest their souls. They had no idea what would happen. OK, let me see what I can do.” He patted me on the shoulder, and said, “I’m sorry I have to say this, but please let me know if anything I do causes pain. More pain. More pain than you’re experiencing now.”
I grunted, then passed out.
When I came to, I felt like the morning after an all-night bender. I didn’t want to open my eyes.
“He should be set. But I think he needs to rest for a few hours. He shouldn’t be moved.”
“I need to get home to check on the baby. Make sure everything's OK,” said Maggie. She kissed me on the head. “I’ll see you in a while, babe.”
I passed out again. When I woke up, I felt great. The feeling was short lived.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“One hundred percent.”
“Good. I’m glad I could take care of it.”
He smiled, briefly. But it was enough for me to see that most of his teeth were missing.
“I can’t thank you enough. I suppose I should get out of your hair.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket. “I’ll just call Maggie and—”
He put his hand on mine, and motioned over his shoulder. A television hanging on the wall was tuned into the news. As if we had a choice. Across the top scrolled the words “Live footage. Gas main explosion.” A house was ablaze. Something about the house seemed familiar.
In front of the house sat a car.
“Turn it off.”
“Off the top of your head, can you think of any questions?”
“Tell me about the Surge.”
“Technically that’s not a question,” Candy says.
“Could you please tell me about the surge?” you ask, extending your wings to their full span. Just testing them out, of course.
“What would you like to know?”
“How many of you are there?”
“Are there other cells—or, whatever you call yourselves, happy happy terrorist glee clubs—in other cities?”
“Do you have anyone on the inside? Close to Those In Power?”
You sit in silence for five minutes. Exactly. Your internal clock tells you as much.
“Anything else?” she finally says.
“What do you mean by else? You didn’t tell me anything. How about, is your name really Candy? No, don’t tell me. Let me guess. It’s—”
“It’s really Candy.”
“And the real truth is, we don’t know the answers to the questions you asked. David may. Or he may not. He says he just receives anonymous, untraceable emails from whoever is coordinating the resistance. So whoever he is, he could be here. Or he could be on the other side of the continent.”
“Anonymous? Untraceable? Did you ever stop to consider the possibility that you’re just receiving terrorist spam?”
“Knock off that ‘terrorist’ bullshit. What’s that expression? Terrorist, freedom fighter...it all depends on whose side you’re on. You’re certainly not on their side.”
“I’m not on your side. I’m not on anybody’s side,” you say.
“In this war, there’s no such thing as neutrality.”
“You know, lots of people would call kidnapping an act of terrorism.”
“We didn’t kidnap you.”
“Really? You lured me into a dark alley, then injected me with drugs. What do you call that?”
“We call it giving you a way out of the life you no longer wanted. We call it giving you the power to extract revenge on those who gave you a life you no longer wanted. That’s why you—you—opted for the full transformation, isn’t it? You could have just gotten one of these,” she says, holding up her palm, “and fighting like a human. But you wanted to be more.”
You decide to change the subject.
“I’ve been wondering about that,” you say. “I remember seeing it, just before I passed out, that night you drugged and kidnapped me.” She ignores the dig. “I would think that you people wouldn’t do something so obvious. All that the Mercs have to do is round up a bunch of suspects and say ‘A show of hands, please.’ Seems to me like a bad long-range plan.”
She holds up her hand again. You watch as the tattoo fades.
“How did you do that?”
“Special ink. It’s temperature sensitive. We can control it with biofeedback. It’s the same stuff they put in your armor. It will help you fade into the night.”
“You guys think of everything.”
Everything was gone. My wife, my child, my house. That I expected.
But the whole fucking neighborhood was gone as well.
I tried to get near, near enough to really see it. But the Merc standing solo behind the line of yellow tape across the end of my street wouldn’t allow it.
“My house...” I stammered.
“I’m sorry sir,” he said. I could tell he really wasn’t. “When that first house went up, the adjacent ones caught fire. Then they blew, and it was just a cascade. From what I’m hearing over the radio, the boys at the gas company are saying something about a failure of the anti-flowback valves. They think they have it contained. But they’re not sure.”
“Please,” I begged. “I just want to get close. To see if there is any chance my family is alive.”
“I really can’t, sir. And besides, that first house is nothing more than a pile of kindling right now.”
“How did you know that the first house was mine?”
I saw him smile, just a little. And something in me snapped.
My military training kicked in. I flashed out, grabbed his taser, and put him on the ground. Then I crushed his throat with my heel.
As walked away, I had a brief moment of remorse.
What if he had a family? What if he had a wife and a baby, like I...did.
I wasn't going to shed any tears.
don’t come. They tell you it’s because they’ve re-engineered
your eyes, put in special ocular implants. The implants, they say,
can’t stand up to saline solutions. They’d get corroded. So out
came the tear ducts. The trade-off is that the new eyes will allow
you to see everything.
In blazing sun.
Or, inches away.
The eyes focus, adjust, instantly. They also pre-process information. The latter is necessary, they say, to allow the new components to react as quickly as they were designed to. As quickly as you’ll need them to.
As quickly as you’ll want them to.
In fact, the new hardware will react so quickly that your brain won’t even have time to process what it’s doing.
They add, “It’s probably better that way.”
Every generation has its own “I will always remember where I was when I heard about it” event. For me, for my generation, it was the day they attacked the Legislature. I remember it so well. I was...eight? Nine? I’m not sure. I was home sick that day. I had a fever. A high fever. My mother was all set to take me to the doctor. But after some medicine, my temperature went down. A little.
As reward for being such a “brave soldier,” she said she’d let me watch TV. A lot of TV.
She switched it on, and the first thing that appeared was the news. Obviously, the station my parents had been watching last night. Though I was only eight or nine, I could tell that something was “going on.” My parents had been having a lot of troubled conversations around the dinner table. Then afterward, I often would hear them talking in the kitchen, in hushed tones. If I wandered in, the dialog would instantly cease. But I often managed to overhear certain words.
At the time, I barely understood what the words meant individually, let alone in their combined context. Sometimes I miss that naiveté.
Back to the fever day.
A reporter stood outside the Parliament. In and of itself, that was not unusual. After all, I did understand that a lot of important stuff happened in the Legislature.
But his face conveyed concern, worry. His voice, likewise, faltered a bit as he spoke. His eyes shifted. He seemed to wish he could be anywhere else.
“Hera, as the shadowy leader of Hydra Strike terrorist organization calls himself, has boldly proclaimed that he will attack the Parliament Building at noon today unless the government releases members of the group taken prisoner in covert raids on their overseas bases. It is now eleven minutes past nine, still well ahead of their deadline. According to a spokesman for the President, the government will not negotiate. But as you can see, behind me are tanks and army troops. That sound you just heard was a patrol copter flying overhead. So it would appear as though the President has decided to call Hera's bluff. The game of chess con—”
And then we saw it.
A cloud began seeping out of the building. It seemed as though every window and door had become a pore, sweating out a vile gray fog.
The reporter turned.
“What the—” he said.
Many times, when my father would say “What the—” I could tell he was just catching himself, preventing himself from saying some word he didn’t want me to hear. Though at the time, I probably wouldn't even have known word he had stifled.
In this case, the reporter had not stopped himself willfully. Something much worse was happening. Something was choking him. Something unseen was choking him, preventing him from finishing the sentence.
He turned back to the camera.
Already, his face had blistered. Before my eyes, it began turning purple. He dropped out of sight. A moment later, the camera dropped to the ground. No doubt, the man holding it had succumbed to the same toxic agent. The camera remained on, running, and focused on the reporter’s face as he coughed out a huge blood clot, then stopped moving.
“What the—” my mother said, though she made no effort to censor the expletive.
That night, we ate in front of the television. Normally, that would be a treat. In this case, it was not.
An identical attack killed the President.
“How the deuce did they manage to get that quantity of chemical weapons into two of the most heavily fortified buildings in the world?” my father mused aloud.
Fortunately, the Vice President had been out of the country, attending some economic summit. In the interest of security, he decided to remain abroad, and in hiding, for the time being. But he appeared via satellite to reassure the country.
“We will find Hera. And, when we do, diplomacy be damned. We will kill him. Publicly. Painfully. We will kill him.”
“Him,” you say. “I want to meet him.”
“You know damn well who I’m talking about.”
They stare at you blankly. Something they’ve been doing more frequently of late.
“Him,” you continue. “Mr. Surge. The big cheese. The guy in charge. I want to meet him.”
“Why not?” You’re starting to get angry. It shows.
“We don’t know who he is. We’ve never met him. Never seen him. He doesn’t live here. We think. We don’t know. For all we know, he could be someone here, in this facility. He could be someone who has worked on you. Who has...” He trails off when he sees your eyes starting to glow.
“You mean you people live in this sewer, this filthy sewer, risking your lives for someone you can’t even shake hands with?”
“We don’t do that for him. We do it for the ideal.”
You snort. “Ideal! Hiding like scared animals, popping out the the ground, and hoping the guy with the big mallet doesn’t play whack-a-mole on your head. Great ideal.”
“There’s something bigger coming. We just know it.”
“Let me re-phrase that. I want to meet him now,” you say, leaving five parallel centimeter-deep gouges in the surface of the steel table, for emphasis.
“You don’t want to meet him,” he says, the fear apparent in his voice.
“I’m not afraid.”
“You should be.”
“Why? What can he do to me?”
They looked at each other. Then one nodded.
“You know how many machines have a ‘kill switch’ to stop it if necessary? You have one, too. And in your case, ‘kill’ is not a figure of speech. Let me stress,” he hastened to add. “None of us controls it. He does. Not us.”
“Fine. I would like you to get word to him. I would appreciate it if you could tell him that I am interested in a meeting.”
“I’ll... I’ll see what I can do. I’ll see if he’s available.”
“Not if,” you say, dropping the facade of politeness. “When.”
When email could get through, it was a great day. It had been a while.
“Hey buddy do you want me to read the e-mail from my girlfriend?” I asked.
“I don't know. Will there be any naughty stuff in it?”
“Doubtful. But you never know.”
“I’m stuck halfway around the world in some dusty hellhole, fighting an enemy the jumps out of a crack in the side of the mountain, takes a few potshots, and then ducks back in, and the only women I see are wrapped head to toe, and get stoned to death if they even look at a man, let alone offer up a hummer. I swear, if it weren't for the goats I have no love life and all.”
“Too much information.”
“So, yeah, I’ll listen to your girlfriend’s letter, just to hear the kind words of a woman. And if she happens to mention that she’s horny, hot, and bothered, all the better.”
“You sure take a long time to say 'yes.' Ahem. “Dear Newman—”
“Your girlfriend calls you by your last name?”
“Yeah. She started doing that a while back. It’s actually a cute story. When we first started dating, she kept telling me how she was an independent woman. ‘Just so you know, when we get married, I’m keeping my own name.’ I said it was fine with me. And ever since then, just to remind me, she’s called me by my last name.”
“That’s sweet. I may cry.”
“Shut up. You ready?”
“Dear Newman. You might have heard that we had an election. Or, you might not have heard.”
had an election?”
“News to me.”
“I'm going to guess you didn't hear about it. It kind of surprised us too. About three months ago, the Central Authority announced that they had found significant instances of fraud in the last election. Something to do with online balloting and the electronic voting machines. Totally FUBAR. The fraud, they claimed, was so extensive that there would be no way to unravel it, and ever learn the truth, who had been elected President, and to the Congress. Further, they had evidence, they claimed, that the fraud could be traced back to the top. As a result, the President, Vice President, and several ranking senators were arrested. No one has heard from them since, by the way. In order to ‘move beyond this dark episode as quickly as possible,’ they—the Authority—said there would be all new elections. They were to take place one month later. As you can imagine, most potential candidates didn't even have enough time to gather signatures to get on the ballot. So, not surprisingly, only two ran. And when you looked at them, you pretty much saw a choice between Candidate A and Candidate A, version 2. The bottom line is that both were so conservative, they made your typical right-wing wacko look like a hippie. A few members of parliament protested. The loudest, Senator Amens, died in a commercial plane crash three days later. The authorities investigated and concluded—rather quickly some would say—that the plane was brought down by a missile fired from the ground. ‘Clearly, a heinous act of domestic terrorism.’ Still, it seemed to dampen the overall will to speak out.
“You would not believe the changes which have taken place in the last month, ‘for the public good.’ We’ve essentially been under martial law. Curfews, food rationing, it’s amazing. Since you guys—the military—are all bogged down overseas, they expanded the paramilitary force. They call them the 'Keepers,' as in peace keepers. What a crock. I would call them mercenaries. People are afraid. But the biggest change—one you’re not going to believe—is that we all were ordered to report to a Central Authority clinic to get chips.”
“Chips? What the hell is a chip?” he asked.
“I don't know.”
“Well, go on. Even without sex, this is good.”
“I didn’t think it was that funny.”
“No. Not that. My computer is frozen. I can’t scroll down. Let me... What the...? The e-mail is gone.”
“Yeah. Somehow it's been erased.”
“What’s your story?”
“What’s your beef with Those In Power?” you ask Candy.
“They took from me what I loved the most.”
“What? Your mascara? Your stiletto boots? Your—”
That was unexpected.
“OK. I’m an asshole,” you admit.
“I had a good life,” she began, staring at the wall. “I was a Prime. My husband was a Director. We had a baby. A boy. And right then, I decided I really liked being a mother. So we had a girl. I wanted more. But to the government, two was enough. So you know what I did? I ‘found’ someone who could help. Someone who knew his way around the chip. Three months later, I peed on the stick, and it turned blue. I thought my husband would be thrilled. He had come from a big family, back when you could actually choose to do that. I thought he loved the children as much as I did. I thought we could hide it. But They found out. Do you want to know how? He told Them. My husband! My husband fucking told Them. He even opened the door, and stood aside, when They came to take me.”
“Well, I did notice you’re not wearing a ring now.”
“Then just to show who wears the dick in this country, they took away my ability to have children. Forever.”
“Hell of a reboot.”
“They didn’t do it electronically. They did it surgically. They took away my girl parts. And to rub my face in it, they also...closed a loophole, shall we say.”
“I’m not going to say anything flip about that. Have you talked to a doctor about...you know.”
“They can’t do anything.”
“They can’t? But they can do anything. They can...” you say, extending your wings.
“They didn’t sew it shut. They cauterized it shut. The whole fucking thing.”
“Maybe I am on your side after all.”
“All ashore who’s going ashore!”
“Aren’t we already on land,” I asked, waking after the long flight.
“Yes, soldier. It’s just tradition.”
Tradition or no, it felt good to be home. Though, based on her last email, I wondered if I would recognize my “home.”
The first thing I noticed were the cameras. It seemed as though one had been slapped on to every building in the Central City.
The second thing I noticed were the patrols. The men walking the streets didn't look like cops. They wore helmets, full riot gear, just like the men who stole my life so many years ago.
Cameras and jack-booted goons are referred to as overt security measures. Put deterrents out there, where the people can see them.
But there was something else. Something I noticed, that I suspect not a lot of other people did.
The plainclothes officers. If nothing else, my time overseas taught me to look for things that weren’t there. Because more often than not, they actually were.
So I didn’t have too much trouble picking out the guys who were trying too hard not to be noticed, as they strolled the streets.
I could have singled out a number of tell-tale signs.
The little ear buds with wires disappearing down their collars.
The obvious (to me) bulge under their armpits, or around their ankles.
The fact that they all wore the exact same sunglasses.
But what struck me most was their demeanor.
Everyone else trudged.
They looked up, around.
Everyone else looked down.
For the past 15 months, I’d lived in constant fear of losing my life. At that moment I began wondering, “What else am I losing?”
Losing the ability to cry has its advantages. Of course, in the world, in this world, today, how could someone decide what to cry about?
You sit back in your room, your black room, and remember the last time.
You were 16. You were sitting around the kitchen table. You. Your mother. Your father. Your brother. You were having dinner. A nice family dinner. Despite everything that was going on, your parents made sure that dinner time was normal, the way it had been when they were growing up. The way it had been before...
There was a knock on the door.
Your father stood. “I wonder who—”
The door then exploded.
The force knocked him down. Your mother ran over to him.
The police stormed in, guns drawn.
You sat, paralyzed.
Your brother didn’t. He reacted. He jumped up and ran toward them.
One of them leveled his gun.
Luckily, if you can use that word, another one stepped in front and tasered Bobby. He fell to the floor. He looked dead. But you knew he wasn’t. You hoped he wasn’t.
They dragged him out.
They then turned to your parents.
“Professor Newman, you are being charged with treason...”
“Treason!” your mother yelled.
“...for espousing seditious ideals at a state university.”
“This is outrageous!”
“You can walk out or...” one said, motioning toward your brother’s feet as they disappeared from view.
Your mother stood, and stepped toward you. But two of them already had the path blocked.
He reiterated, “You can walk out, or...”
She helped your dad to his feet. He was woozy, unsteady. A small trickle of blood ran down his cheek. She took one last glance back before disappearing into the black.
Their leader—the one who read the charges—looked at you. You couldn’t see his face, because of his helmet. But you knew there was no compassion in his eyes.
“You have five minutes to get your things.”
Six minutes later, you stood on the sidewalk, watching your home burn.
That was the last time you cried.
And you vowed that it would be the last time you cried.
You put all that aside, back in the box where it belongs, and look at the arm. You still can’t call it “your” arm, even though it now is.
You move the fingers. They are whisper quiet, which constantly surprises you. You’d expect that they’d creak, or grind, or something.
But they don’t. They’re silent.
Just like your room. Your black room.
You think about turning the machinery on yourself. You know what it’s capable of. You know you could so easily end your pain.
But that would interfere with your master plan.
“Plan on seeing some surprises the first time you look in a mirror,” the doctor said when I awoke from the surgery. The first surgery.
“The most obvious will be the color of your skin. You’re noticeably greyer than you were before.”
Forget greyer. The grey part was surprising enough.
“The next time, we’ll begin adding the hardware. But in order for it to function properly, it needs to be lubricated. So we replaced about half of your blood with a synthetic mixture of hemoglobin and oil.”
“Oil? You mean like 10W-30?”
“Actually, the numbers are lower. You won’t run as hot as an engine. So you don’t require the higher viscosity.”
In reality, I had expected him to say, “No. Nothing like that at all.” So his answer came as somewhat of a surprise.
“And this won’t... harm me?” I didn’t want to say what I really thought.
“No. That’s actually what the surgery was about. You don’t need an operation to get a transfusion. What we did was to replace the bone marrow in your femurs with genetically altered cells which will produce the necessary compound.”
He seemed so matter-of-fact about the whole thing. But, I supposed I was better off with a technically gifted automaton, as opposed to a kinder, gentler klutz.
“Does that mean over time I’ll turn even greyer?”
“Understand that this whole procedure is experimental. So I can't say for sure. But I believe so.”
“Then I would ask you—beg you—to make sure there are no mirrors.”
“When is the next surgery?”
“We begin the real work tomorrow night.”
I didn’t expect it to be that soon. But I also knew I had no choice.
“Well, then, doctor. Until tomorrow night.”
Nights are the worst. It took you a long time to figure out why. Why are they—people—so happy, and you’re so...what you are.
The problem is, you don't have them. They do. That’s the part that took a while to get. For the longest time, you didn’t know any better. You were like a blind man who doesn't realize what he's missing, because he has no concept of seeing. That analogy is apt. You were blind, and never knew what you were missing. Because you couldn't wear the glasses.
So while everyone else was walking around in a permanent state of happiness, ogling the Eiffel Tower, visiting with friends or even dead relatives, getting laid, you’ve been stuck in the real world. The real, stinking, sterile, metal, cold world.
Now, today, you think what you wouldn't give to feel something soft. What you wouldn't give to feel something. Anything.
You probably never will again.
These new pieces were designed for speed, strength, durability.
They weren't designed to feel.
Of course, based on what they expect you to be doing, it's probably best if you can't feel them doing their work. And it’s best if you can’t feel.
“Feel free to talk about it.”
“What?” I asked. Sincerely.
“Anything you want.”
I sat in silence for 29 of the 30 minutes. The last tick of the clock hand took forever.
“Can I go now?”
“You haven’t said anything.”
“What do you want me to say? That I miss my parents? That I miss my brother? That I miss my life? That I still have nightmares about the men in helmets blowing in my front door and taking away all of those things? That I hate this place? That I hate everyone in this place? That it’s lucky we don’t get utensils with our meals, because if we did, I would find a way to kill someone with a spork? That I lie in bed every night and think about ways to kill someone with a spork? That when I escape from this hell-hole, I will hunt down the people who—”
“I feel much better. Can I go now?”
Now you enjoy talking to the psychiatrist.
“So what does this look like to you?” he asks.
“The greedy, bloated face of the evil Those In Power.”
“Very good. And this?”
“The black and blue, disfigured face of the evil Those In Power.”
“Very good. And this?”
“An angry machine-man-mutant throwing the evil Those In Power off a building.”
“Very good. And this?”
“A contented machine-man-mutant flying away, looking for his next victim.”
“You’re making good progress.”
“Progress is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Progress is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Hard work is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Hard work is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Faith in the system is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Faith in the system is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Duty is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Duty is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Obedience is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Obedience is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Sacrifice is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Sacrifice is the cornerstone of our way of life.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Newman. You’re not repeating the pledge.”
“I know. You see, I was just wondering how there can be so many cornerstones. Buildings have four corners. So there should be at most four cornerstones, right? Or can’t Those In Power count?”
“Master Newman, please remove your shirt,” he said, removing his prized switch from its carrying case. “Once again, I fear we must make an example of you.”
You always had thought that flying would be glorifying, exhilarating.
Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that you’re not free, like a bird.
You’re more like a bat. In a big cage.
But at least the cage is on the roof.
You can’t remember the last time you were outside.
That’s not true. Of course you can remember. The last time you were outside was the night you met Candy, in the bar. The night you stepped out into the damp, dank air, expecting to get lucky. The night that, instead of getting lucky, that you were poked and dosed. The night they brought you here.
That was the last time you were outside.
You've lost track of how many days that's been.
Amazingly, since that night, you’ve forgotten. You’ve forgotten what the air smells like.
You miss the sterile, filtered air down there. The air they pump into the dungeon.
You’re ready to go back. Back inside. Back inside where the air is sterile, filtered, lifeless. But at least it’s clean.
Clean sheets always made me happy. Then again, in the home there were so few things to look forward to that I needed to find something. And laundry day was it. Because I got clean sheets.
The sheets were delivered to our “rooms” by a kindly older woman. I imagined that her life was only one degree of sucking above mine. And yet, somehow she remained cheerful.
I appreciated that.
I also appreciated the fact that she bought my line about always being cold, and gave me an extra sheet. More importantly, I appreciated that she didn’t bother to count how many I gave back the next laundry day.
By my calculations, in two months I’d have enough for a rope ladder.
Of course I could have just used what I had already stashed away to form a noose long enough to guarantee a drop, which would snap my neck and end it right away, rather than leave me dangling to suffer a miserable, suffocating death.
I wouldn’t have been the first one.
“One thing I wonder,” you say. “Why me?”
“You really need to ask that?” he says, staring at the menacing, mechanized talons.
“I know why now,” you retort. “I mean, why did you pick me? After all, that random encounter with Candy wasn’t exactly random.”
“We needed a warrior. You seemed to fit the bill.”
“What? Because of my military experience? I can’t believe I’m the only person in this little ant colony who has served.”
“You have something else. An inoperative chip.”
“Is that what it is?”
“It must be. We can’t wander around out there. For long. Admittedly, in this part of town, the scans are periodic, sporadic. But eventually, one would tag us. We can cover the chips with something which blocks the signal. But that’s only a band-aid, as I imagine a non-reading would set off an alarm somewhere. That’s why we only go up, and outside, for short periods of time.”
“And me? Won’t my non-reading set off an alarm?”
“We haven't exactly figured out yet what is going on with you. You may not realize this. But you're a shadow. I mean, now... sure. But you were, before you came here. Of course, as far as Those In Power know, you’re dead.”
“You’re alive. But the other guy wasn’t so fortunate.”
“What other guy?”
“The one who bore a striking physical resemblance to you. To the old you. The one somebody fished out of the harbor about a week ago.”
“What are you talking about?”
“In order for this to work, you do needed to be dead. So we found a suitable replacement.”
“You killed someone.”
“Of course not!” he answers quickly. You don’t believe him. “It was some wino we found face-down in an alley. He looked enough like you that, after being in the water for a few weeks, no one would be able to prove it wasn’t you. So we planted a few of your personal effects on him, and bid him bon voyage.”
“What about the chip? Wouldn’t they read his chip, and know it wasn’t me?”
“After it’s spent a few weeks in the salt water, no.”
“No matter how much you resist, you will break. They all do.”
I was amazed by how well I had learned to cope with pain. At an age where the Prime boys were learning about acne and what their dicks can do—with equal alarm—I was learning how to suppress a scream.
“I will say it again. Where did the alcohol come from?”
It hadn’t taken long for me to learn that “the rule” depicted in every prison movie was true, and even trickled down to the boys’ home level.
Snitches, when found out, get punished.
And they always get found out.
Luckily, I didn’t have any first-hand experience.
Physical experience, that is.
I did witness it.
I did not take part.
But, I didn’t stop it, either.
Of course, when it’s ten on one, taking sides with the “one” won’t change the outcome.
The lesson I learned from those rare episodes is, if you’re the “one,” try to take it in the face. They will aim for your gut, your back, your thighs. Parts of the body which don’t bruise as easily. But if you can maneuver yourself, and take one to the cheek, there will be evidence.
“I will say it one last time,” he said, fondling the baton. “Where did the alcohol come from?”
I’ll find a way to take it to the face.
And, I’ll never tell.
“Tell me something,” you say to Candy. “What’s to the southwest of us?”
“The southwest? Why... Which way is that? I’m really bad with directions.”
You point. But then you realize you’re below ground, and that pointing at a grey wall makes as much sense as pointing at any other grey wall.
“Central City lies to the north of us.” You point north. “The river is to the east.” You don’t bother pointing. “To the west is the Tertiary Zone. What I, prior to my current arrangement, called ‘home.’ There’s not much of anything to the south. Damage from the war. But to the southwest—about 500 feet away—is some big building. I noticed it when I was out the other day. In the bat cage on the roof. There doesn’t seem to be too much of anything around here. Just us, and that other building. So I was curious. Is that another one of our buildings?”
You consciously chose the word “our.” And it’s the first time you’ve used that word since they brought you here.
“No,” she says. “As far as I know, we’re the only ones around here. It’s probably an abandoned building which, as far as anyone even remotely associated with Those In Power knows, is what this place is. Sorry I don’t have an answer.”
“No problem,” you reply.
The thing is, she did answer your question, though she doesn’t realize it. Your new eyes let you see infrared. Light fixtures emit infrared. Electrical appliances—like refrigerators, microwave ovens, and computers—emit infrared. Live humans emit infrared.
That place was glowing.
As was Candy’s face—as seen in infrared—when she flushed slightly when telling you that lie.
“Lie still!” the medic yelled.
“Wha— What happened?”
“You took some enemy fire. Three, maybe four bullets. I’ve got the bleeding under control. But if you keep moving, I’m going to lose it. So hold still.”
I closed my eyes, and tried to find a “good place.”
A calm place.
A happy place.
A place with memories of love, rather than rage.
A place with memories of smiles, rather than sunken eyes.
A place with memories of warmth, rather than frigidity, physical and emotional.
I couldn’t find one.
But by the time I had finished searching, they had begun the operation.
Operation Yoke, or “How To Seize And Maintain Control In Eight (Plus Or Minus) Easy Steps.”
1. Mastermind a series of terror attacks on homeland soil, and leave fingerprints pointing to known enemy nation-states.
2. Declare war on, and send troops to, said enemy nation-states.
3. To maintain security on homeland soil, expand the police force into a shadow paramilitary force.
4. Leak information to the enemy nation-states about the location of the overseas troops, ensuring that they will be slaughtered.
5. Back at home, declare election fraud, and remove anyone and everyone in power.
a. With one exception.
6. Establish military rule.
7. Work behind the scenes to set up a resistance organization with a catchy name like...oh, “The Surge,” and use them to:
a. Instill fear in the citizenry, and
b. Attract those who are interested in becoming freedom fighters
8. Kill those in step 7b.
“Yes or no? Will you cooperate?”
I just laughed. Then I spat a gob of blood on his shoes.
“My other cheek itches. Could you scratch that one, too?”
He raised his arm, then thought better of it.
“Perhaps we can make a deal.”
“I know you don’t like living in the dormitory. No one does. We have a special place for our guests who... cooperate. A much more comfortable place. A much less challenging place. You would never see the others again. As far as they would know, you just left. Or died. It’s an unbeatable offer.”
He really emphasized the penultimate word.
“And in return I...?”
“Tell me who runs the show.”
“I thought you did.”
“I do. But we all know that among our guests, there is a certain hierarchy. A certain pecking order. And I want to know exactly who never gets pecked.”
“That’s it. What do you think?”
I spat another glob of blood, this time hitting his pant leg.
“That will prove to be the worst mistake of your life.”
Lifeless eyes stare back at you. You look at the face, bloated and red, jutting out from a too-small neck sticking out from your clenched claw. You look, and try to feel sympathy. But there is none. They’ve probably programmed it out of you, you think. And even if they had not, you would not feel sympathy. Not for him.
“Just like television, my ass!” you snicker.
You know you don’t have much time. Time to get what you need to get, do what you need to do.
First things first.
You open the garbage chute so that you can “put out the trash.” The chute is small, narrow, too narrow for a man, even one with slender shoulders.
You make him fit anyway.
You listen. He hits bottom. You see the heat before you feel its warmth.
I’m glad the incinerator isn’t down for repairs today, you think.
Time to work.
You take the dead man’s tablet, and swipe it. You nearly draw a talon across the face, but stop yourself in the nick of time. Good catch, you think. That probably would have ruined it. You quickly switch...hands...and are amazed at the level of fine, gentle precision that the claw is capable of.
Luckily, the inactivity lock has not yet switched on. What a relief. You don’t want to have to hunt someone else just to find an active device.
Now is not the time for hunting. Hunting will come later.
Your profile is still on the screen, sparing you the trouble of having to search for it. You activate the wireless interface, then find the global settings and set up a full-duplex connection.
Then you start trolling. You begin with the files on the device. After reviewing and downloading any information which you feel may be important, you turn your attention to the network.
It’s huge. It might take a while. For good measure, you disable the tablet’s timeout function.
The data flows quickly. You handle it with ease.
Two minutes later, satisfied that you have everything you could possibly want from the local network—and equally satisfied with the knowledge that the logic bomb you downloaded will erase everything about you—you sever the virtual connection, and give the tablet back to its owner.
You then utilize your newly downloaded schematic information to locate, encircle, and yank out the chip. Just in case anyone ever gets the notion that he may want to control you.
One surgical move, and you ensure that will never happen again.
Let the games begin, you think.
“Think about it not so much as death,” I said to the Commandant—not his real title, but who cares—as I pressed my heel into his throat. “But a chance to spend some quality time with your grandparents. Of course, if they didn’t make a career out of shaming, coercing, starving, beating, brainwashing, and occasionally educating young boys, then I suppose it’s possible that they’re not in hell.”
Though I wasn’t sure why I found it funny.
Funny thing about Candy. If you throw it against the wall, hard, it will shatter.
Into lots of little pieces.
Pieces of my life lay scattered around me. My first home had been wrenched from me. My second home made it a daily activity to wrench some poisoned, illegitimate dogma into me.
After I crashed the Headmaster’s car into the river, and watched it sink below the fetid water, I thought for a moment about joining it.
It would have been an appropriate metaphor for my life, which had been sinking steadily for years.
I felt as though I were standing at the bottom of a deep well. A well so deep that I could barely see the speck of light which graced the top. And someone was standing up there, throwing down dirt in random amounts.
If I simply waited, I would be buried.
But if I stamped down on the loose soil, I would raise the floor. Just a fraction of an inch, of course. But it would be progress. And if I kept it up, eventually I would rise to the surface, and be able to climb out.
That word sounded good to me.
Out, on roof, you ready yourself for your next spree. Destination: that building to the southwest. The one Candy lied about. The one that glows. The one that glows because it is the seat of The Office of the President. The President who, in reality, was not arrested while I was overseas. The one who staged his own coup, so that he could install a puppet Central Authority, and run his whole rotten organization from behind the scenes.
The whole thing, going back to the bombing of the Parliament.
When you first scanned the building that night on the roof, you knew something was going on in there. But you didn't know what. In reality, you did assume it was another hideout for the Surge. But after putting out the garbage and ransacking the server farm, you learned everything you needed to know about the President’s bunker, though “palace” would be a more appropriate description.
With your wings, getting there will be a snap.
With your other enhancements, dispatching his personal guards will be four or five more snaps.
You find him in bed. Alone. Actually, you’re grateful for that. You don’t enjoy killing women. You decide to get his attention by upending the bed.
“Hello, boss,” you say in an even tone.
“Hello,” he says, rather at ease, considering. “I would ask what you’re doing here. But I can guess.”
His tone stays calm. He probably assumes he’s still in control. He probably assumes that the kill switch will still work.
You know what they say about assuming.
I do have to hand it to them, to the designers. You would have thought it would have been incorporated into the chip.
But it wasn’t in the chip.
You found it on their servers, in some file, in a subroutine called “KillSwitch.”
Rule #1 of programming: if you want someone else to be able to look at your code and figure it out, give your variables and programs logical names.
Rule #2 of programming: if you don’t want someone else to be able to look at your code and figure it out, then don’t give your variables and programs logical names.
“So, tell me. Do I call you President Hera? Mr. Hera?”
“Clever little thing, aren't you?”
You find his choice of the word “little” to be amusing.
He continues, “You do understand the legend of the hydra? Cut off one head, and two more grow back in its place. I hope you have a lot of swords.”
“Why me?” you ask.
“I think you know.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“What about the glasses?”
“The glasses don’t work on you.”
“Yes. I was aware of that.”
“We told the doctors to tell you that the rejection you experienced is uncommon, though not unheard of. That was a lie. It was unheard of. Among our entire population, you were the only one who couldn’t wear the glasses.”
You see him slide his hand into his pocket. No doubt he is fingering his happy trigger. To a gun that will shoot blanks.
“You mean to tell me that among millions and millions of people, I’m the only one who got suicide-inspiring headaches from them?”
“Actually, everyone wearing them experiences headaches. But the glasses send electrical pulses which subdue the pain centers, and amp up the pleasure centers.”
“So you’ve basically put the entire population on endorphins.”
“Yes. But you're immune to it.”
“Let's just say I have a gift for reality.”
“And I have a gift for you.” He pulls out a small fob, and shows it to you. He allows himself to grin the same sadistic grin that people who know they can fuck you in the ass can't stifle. “Goodbye, Mr. Newman.”
He pushes the big red button on it. You consider putting on a show. Grabbing your head, doubling over, and screaming. But you’ve grown bored with the conversation. Instead, you surround his hand with yours, and reduce the little piece of plastic and his phalanges to powder. Since you're not in the mood to hear screaming, you drop the broken toy, and your claw flashes to his throat.
He's dead before he hits the floor.
You toss his carcass on the upturned bed, and ignite it using some electrical wires you yanked from the wall.
You pause a moment to enjoy the heat, then fly off into the night in search of the next head of the hydra.