Copyright 2016 T.F. W.W.T.
Published on Shakespir by 39 Publishing House
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters in it are completely imaginary and bear no resemblance to any people or androids, living or dead.
by T.F. W.W.T.
A long time ago, when I still believed in coincidences, Machine Sister came to me and asked me about the purpose of my life. I smiled, gently stroking her synthetic curls, and she opened to me without any answer given, because I had none. No one, not even Outsideauthority, may Zaal and Ali keep It always in rich supply, knew just how I had gone and passed the test, and certainly not Old Zara, the Key Keeper, or my real sister, Sal, who because of me is forever under a beautiful crown of ice. With shame, I write now that the test I had cheated on was one of many such trials, and Machine Sister would always support me in my craziest wonderings, and in times of trouble, would always come to my aid. That is a debt I cannot easily repay, not because it is impossible, but because I’m a lazy bastard. Even now, I can hear her sweet voice and feel the tickle of her curls against my ear. The one in charge of this story, Onion by nickname, had the greatest respect for my kind. I would not have told him that he was wrong, because his belief in us was so great. The foolish fool even created his own version, tinged with religious belief. I laughed when I read his account. But no matter. I have stayed far too long on Earth.
—-The Sacred Texts of Denny Leach
I was running from them, really fast. Any minute, I was half-expecting to wake up, but it wasn’t happening. I could hear the husky, frustrated growl of the shepherd and see the red flashlight beams cutting off my escape just ahead. I had gotten rid of my bracelet and that’s what set them off. To avoid the ones blocking my way, I ran into an old courtyard, where several crooked, small apple trees grew in an odd procession against the mangled fence. I was out of breath. I could already see their red beams crawling along the courtyard’s walls, and the jagged, jumping black shadow of the dog, like some crazy puppet play. The dog burst into the courtyard first. In a split second, I was on the ground with the dog on my neck. There was a wet crunch of cartilage, and my ears became filled with a strange metallic din. I began praying to Zaal, in whom I did not really believe, but I had to pray to someone.
It was a moment of darkness. A gentle ringing marimba brought me back. I looked at the alarm clock, a thin black bracelet wrapped permanently around my wrist: it was showing 5:15. It was just a dream. But I had to hurry. I had to run, this time for real.
My room mates weren’t home at this time, fortunately, with the exception of Markel, who was still asleep. I could see only the top of his head above the arm of the sofa, the wispy blond forest on top of it moving lightly in the window breeze. He always slept very quietly, almost carefully. I was pretty sure he was just pretending to be asleep now, especially after I stumbled over someone’s shoes, left precariously in the middle of the dusky room, but in any event, he didn’t show any signs of life. I crept out of the room, carrying only my tool bag (in order to look like I was just going to work), sidled down the four flights of stairs, and was finally outside. Even at this early hour, the courtyard wasn’t deserted: sitting on top of a rusted cargo container were two adolescent males, of a species likely my own, but so simian in their posture that I considered for a moment if they could be Outsideauthority’s minions-in-training. I glanced up cautiously through the feeble sun rays hitting the corrugated metal box. The monkeys continued to proudly ignore me, chewing on Problem, a gum spiked with tobacco, cartons of which lay scattered below them on the ground. I decided to chance it. I put on a standard papier-mâché face and crabbed quietly past them, trying not to make a jingle with the tools in my bag. I stopped in my tracks at the sound of a whistle. “Willie, come back!” a voice rang out. I looked around. Hobbling toward me was an old lady in a blue bathrobe, with a small dog running ahead of her, its leash dragging on the ground. In one hand she clasped a bag of dog shit, and in her other hand, on a long blue cord, was the whistle that nearly gave me a heart attack. On impulse, I stepped on the leash as the dog went by, and it stopped abruptly, yanked by my pull. It was a small brown poodle, not very pure-bred. Friendly, not very smart—an appropriate Other for an Other. The old lady glared at me as I handed her the leash. She didn’t say anything. She just whisked away the leash and walked past me as if nothing happened. The monkeys on top of the container grinned and spat.
My bracelet went off suddenly and I jumped. I looked at the screen: it was displaying two circles—a coy reminder that it was the day to renew my ID. I proceeded cautiously down the street, still on my hypothetical way to work, but at the underpass, where I would have ordinarily gone right to wait for the bus, I turned left. It was the beginning of my new life, I realized—not yesterday, when I’d made up my mind to run, and not this morning, when I chose to flee instead of going to work. No, it was right here and now, in the cold shadow of the underpass, as I shivered with excitement and apprehensive glee. The bracelet would have to be dealt with later, at the river. I didn’t like thinking about that part because it was the hardest. A patrol car went by, wheezing through the short tunnel on its thin wheels. It was really not much more than a bicycle: the frame barely supported the flimsy black cabin, which bobbed precariously on the uneven road. I wondered if they saw me, but they did not stop. I watched with a strange longing as the driver pedaled grimly out of sight, disappearing in the pale light at the end of the tunnel. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t yet broken any law, and that they had no way of reading my mind. In fact, even my hurrying had no real purpose—not until I messed with the tracking device, anyway. But maybe, if I stopped and thought about things for a minute, I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. And so I walked and moved without pausing, on pure brainless impulse.
I continued cautiously down the street. I could already smell the river, although it was still some distance away. I was planning on tampering with my bracelet on the river bank, not so much for the romantic factor, but because it was a convenient place to dump my tool bag, assuming I survived the tampering process. From what I gathered over the years, this was a phony bogey, meant to intimidate but not deliver on its promise. Still, no one from my group had taken the initiative to meddle with theirs. I felt more than a little proud, and absolutely scared.
Across the street from me I saw two Zaalite monks. They were scrawny and unkempt, dressed only in rat-gray cassocks. One was barefoot and the other wore straw flip-flops. They waved to me and I waved back. The monks were generally frowned upon. They were Specials, and usually very pure bred, but they’d chosen the monastic life over likely doom in war. They were automatically exempt from the Room Test, another bogey designed for Specials. I watched as they crawled slowly by, dragging their feet, and wondered what would happen if I joined them, but it seemed to be a dull life. I remembered the running old lady with the poodle and grinned. She hated me, without even knowing me. Not that I blamed her for it.
We didn’t look like anyone else and an ingrained dislike toward our species was always evident in every interaction. To the Others, as we Specials referred to regular citizens, we were the freaks. They blamed us for the deliberate extinction of regular procreation, which wasn’t entirely unjustified. Ubuqus’ scientists had perfected a much cheaper and more efficient system of making perfect new meat, controlled in every way, from the length of your nose down to minute variations in preference for broccoli or cauliflower. Having children the old fashioned way was permitted to only a few very select individuals, the couples chosen by Ubuqus and his lab-coated gang. Those old timers who were made the old way, randomly, haphazardly, in back alleys and movie theaters, with plenty of unpredictable quirks, an honest lack of refined beauty and gerbil lifespans, still remained, but there were fewer and fewer of them now.
Arguably, an unfortunate thing in many eyes, special or otherwise, was that Ubuqus went far beyond preferences for broccoli and tweaking the asymmetrical flare of a nostril. The creation of Specials was much more precise and insidious. I’d always wanted to meet my Other, or what can be described as an avatar, of sorts—not a physical being or a parent, but the one who determined the genetic make up of what’s called a soul. But this ground was off limits to Specials. We had no access.
We weren’t born, we were hatched. Rows upon rows of semi-transparent eggs lined the sides of Capitol Hill, as if to complement the gilded dome house Prime Minister Ubuqus had built on top of it. No one knew where these “seeds” came from, with the exception of their manufacturer, Agni Corp. On reaching maturity, the egg would be removed from its niche on the hill and placed in Ubuqus’ Garden, where it would eventually hatch. The Gardener walked through the rows every morning, sweeping away fallen leaves and occasionally tapping the egg caps tentatively with his fist. If he heard someone tapping back, he’d go ahead and break the shell. I don’t remember the morning I was hatched too well. There was a cracking sound as I floated in the fluid, blissful, oblivious to my doom. At first, there was just a tentative tap, tap. I remember I didn’t knock back. It turned out that I was the longest gestating Special on record. In fact, even when I finally hatched, I was still asleep. I was dreaming. In my dream, I was inside the egg. I could hear something humming, the sound getting louder. Then I saw her: it was Machine Sister, the Giver of Life. “What is the purpose of your life?” Machine Sister asked me through the humming eggshell, and I saw her peering in. Somehow she was able to be inside the egg with me without breaking the shell. She positioned herself next to me, her fans stirring the fluid around inside my refuge. It was the first thing I’d ever seen, and I just kept staring at her face. Her eyes looked like two blue flashlights, the apertures whirring quietly as she focused them on me. “What is the purpose of your life?” she repeated coldly, and I felt her hand reaching for my cord. I grabbed her hand then, but she wouldn’t let go. In her other hand she was clasping a pair of ordinary scissors and was attempting to cut me away from my only source of food. I began fighting a loosing fight. Machine Sister broke the top of the egg in one brisk movement, and it began cracking all around me. Its fluid spilled out, and in a moment I was sitting on the ground of Ubuqus’ Garden, naked and cold, still holding on to the severed cord with one hand. I woke up to find that that was exactly the case. The Gardener looked at me in disbelief. He gave a whistle, and began mopping away the spilled contents of the egg.
For the next fifteen years, I went to school with the others of my kind. We were placed into groups of sixty four and lived and studied together. The most brutally inclined of us were singled out for special duty. They were implanted with the latest gadgets and were no longer your standard, pasty-skinned run-of-the-mill Specials. They became Outsideauthority’s police, cold and absolutely merciless. No one from my group had joined this club, as far as I remember. Ubuqus, our mighty leader, came to make the selection himself, but for one reason or another he omitted our class entirely.
To give our lives some semblance of normality, we were briefly trained in some basic menial tasks of our choice. I picked the job of a mechanic, but my mechanical knowledge was vastly limited. All that my work involved was tightening a single bolt on the Mind Sifter Machine, a large satellite which searched for signs of intelligence—not in the universe, but right here in our Sector. So far, it had picked up the brain signals of a very few individuals, who were immediately taken into custody by Ubuqus’ police and detained for further questioning and possible inclusion in the old fashioned breeding program. Some considered it an honor, or at least a compliment, but most were so terrified that they tried to think as little as possible, or not at all.
My last day of work, which looked to be yesterday, was the same as every other day: I came into the Mind Sifter’s room after showing my clearance cards to the guard on duty, took out the only wrench that matched that particular bolt, and tightened it. For the next three hours, it was my job to make sure that the annoying bolt didn’t get too loose, and I’d peer in from time to time and re-tighten it. I liked to be alone with the giant machine, listening to its purring and heavy grunting. It had multiple discs, its belly partially hiding a multitude of mysterious gears, tubing and Zaal knows what else. It stirred and whirred a little more loudly every time I was near it, as if its dry lips were creakily thanking me. I flattered myself with the idea that we had some form of communication going on. The brand name was MacAdam, but we always called it “Macadam,” which was gradually transformed by a sort of linguistic gear reducer into “Madam” and as a result, the machine became a she. The whole thing was covered with rust—it needed greasing, and cleaning, but no one seemed to care, and I never had any grease or suitable tools to take care of it. I patted it gently one more time on the outermost disc, an auburn mammoth shoulder. Three hours passed by and I packed up my tools, saluted Macadam and left, just like I did every other day.
I headed for the Zaalite-SP Meditation Center, where I was supposed to spend the rest of my day perfecting my skills, but in reality I just spent this time either sleeping, or playing back my favorite violin concerts in my head. (I could never remember their names or who composed them, or even if they were actual pieces, rather than a mash-up of the ones I’d listened to. Curiously, I could do this only in a state just before sleep, on the border of waking and dreaming. I could tune it, make it louder or quieter, change the song or add more instruments.)
From a distance, I could hear some horrible live music. As I turned the corner, I saw the huge, colorful tongue of a mass procession coming toward me. There were at least fifty Specials strolling in a loose march, with a squeaky brass band in tow. At first I assumed it was a funeral, but that idea was quickly dispelled as I read their signs. They were carrying red and black placards inscribed with various slogans, which flapped comically, threateningly in the late autumn wind. “The Children of Ubuqus Will Rise,” declared one sign, and another following it read, “Early in the Morning.” I watched as the procession staggered along to the awful brass hiccups. “We are the Protectors. We are the Future,” read another sign, and the last one announced: “Long Live Lord Zaal, the Immortal Being.” Judging by their faces, no one here seemed to believe any of the things they were holding up, and the general mood was grim. The few passersby who had to move aside and watch the procession go by eyeballed the placard carriers with suspicious tension while holding their hands high above their heads in salute. Without any inspiration, such salutes looked more like a unanimous response to a mass stickup. I wondered what they were really thinking—not that I couldn’t guess, but I still wondered at the exact words, even as I raised my hands high up too.
It was simple. They were afraid of us, and fear breeds only one thing: hate.
At last, I’d reached the river. I saw it lying before me, a sparkling silver snake. It ran through the city and emptied somewhere far away into the sea. I could smell the water sharply, hear every leaf brittle with the early morning cold. Fear magnified things, made everything crisp. Nearby, a few kilometers up river, was a ship scrap yard, where decommissioned boats were taken apart by a motley crew of Non-Anima machines. I thought I could hear their faint clanging, thoughtless, repetitive. My hands stiffened at the sound. I was given a choice—they were not. I could even stop it all, if I’d wanted to—they couldn’t. They would just go on hammering all day, for years, until they fell apart under their own vibration.
I imagined what the river saw along its way, first in the stone cold stillness of the mountains, and then as it ran past the ship scrap yard, where its glimmering belly collected rust, debris and oil, followed by the empty stretch of no man’s land on the border between us and our neighbor, Ogee, until it finally reached the sea. The water glistened, restless. It seemed to be filled with voices.
I stole a quick look at my surroundings and slid down the shallow bank, immediately filling my shoes with sand. On the way down, I dropped my tool bag and it arrived at the river slightly before me.
I crouched down on the river bank in some acacia bushes. The fine white sand felt good as it crunched wetly under my knees. I looked one last time at the bracelet, and then at the river, and opened my bag of tricks. Although there was no way to get it off (it was similar to a tattoo), I’d heard that placing a small screwdriver in a certain area of the screen would disable its tracking. Of course, it would also instantly send a tamper signal to Outsideauthority, but I had already made up my mind. I got out the tiniest screwdriver I had and began my evil work. I poked around randomly for a while until I seemed to have jammed every function except for tracking. My wrist was starting to turn orange, which was a warning sign that the bracelet had been damaged. Oddly, it also made me feel dizzy, almost ill. My vision doubled and became blurred around the edges, crawling with tiny black slugs. This was a known side effect of tampering—I looked up to clear it, and saw the dark silhouette of a scalpel floating among rosy pink clouds. It soon went away, but I tasted blood. My wrist was changing colors now like a kaleidoscope.
I had to hurry, so I gave the bracelet one more decisive jab, and it bleeped and went red. My nose suddenly emitted a small red jet, coming only from one nostril. It sprayed the sand and got on my clothes. The bracelet quickly faded to gray and stopped making any sounds. It was dead. I jumped up like a rabbit, threw my bag with all its wrenches and screwdrivers into the river, and ran.
Through the line of trees I could see the blue roof of a nearby building. It always reminded me of a lake, the way the color suddenly caught the eye among the pines, but it was just the roof of a building, a solid, stark blue. Probably another housing complex, judging by the architecture. Across the wall, I could hear my neighbor praying. He repeated the same thing about fifty times in a row: “Lord Zaal created the world, while Alistair, his lazy young brother, did nothing. Together, they rule the Cosmos. All praise be to Zaal and Alistair, Sacred Keepers of this World. Bam, bam, shazam, blessed be Ubuqus in all his glory.” Every time he finished saying the prayer, he walked into the wall, judging by the sound. There were a couple of Zaalite monks living in the room above, displaced by the recent accident at the Zaal Center of Explosive Performing Arts, but they were mostly quiet during the day. At night, they would engage in some odd ritual of running from one end of the room to another, back and forth, which was punctuated by the sudden dropping of heavy objects.
This was Benny’s room, and I had no right to be here. In fact, my presence meant putting my friend in danger and I couldn’t wait to move on, but it was daytime now, and so I had to wait. (I had run into Benny the previous night, and he offered me a temporary refuge.)
I sat in Benny’s chair, at Benny’s desk, looking out the window. There were no books or any interesting gadgets at his place. It was stripped clean of miscellaneous objects, like a hermit’s cave, and the window was functioning as a kind of screen, I realized—not particularly entertaining, but better than staring at one of the bare walls, or the single pin up poster of a redhead in a red bikini, no bra, of which I was sick by now.
It was early morning, when the day is still full of dangerous possibility. Suspicious mists floated by the window, sometimes tinged with green and red, but all in all, the view wasn’t bad. Right across from me I could see, in all its glory, the monolithic gray dome on top of Capitol Hill. The dome house of our country’s ruler, Prime Minister Ubuqus, swept high into the sky, looming just above the thin forest of trees. It was an enormous ball, elongated toward the top. Three towers, made of real marble and topped with onion shaped golden caps, decorated its top. Cheerfully, they glinted back the early sun. This monstrous egg sat on a hilltop overlooking the river, and every day the siren installed in one of the towers would go off, announcing the arrival of a new diplomatic guest, or the beginning of a new war. On the other side of Capitol Hill, invisible to me from this vantage point, was my hatching place, a pod nestled somewhere among neat rows of Specials’ eggs. Beyond the hill, visibility was limited by the Camo-Mists™, which filled much of our vicinity. It looked pretty, with so many pearly, wispy white clouds.
The housing complex was called Verdiz-on-the-Bank (a crude translation—it had a rather delicate local innuendo, which I won’t go into). It was a good hiding place both from P.M. Ubuqus’ police, who were looking for me ever since I failed to show up for work in July, as well as from the Outsiders, those mechanical beings with red eyes who were usually accompanied by shepherds, and whom everyone feared for their viciousness and unmatched speed on foot. I imagined them looking for me all night with their dogs and red beams. At first, it was just a nascent nightmare, but then it became a reality. I moved often, jumping from night buggy to night buggy, the semi-legal taxis which also provided false ID’s for the right price. I had no plans except to escape, but escaping wasn’t easy. The city police were on the alert, and last night one of the units (a Non-Animus, probably) had stopped my taxi. The aluminum capped thing was busy peering in through the window and asking for my papers when Benny appeared. He recognized me, and drew away the cop on the grounds that he knew me and was absolutely positive I had no plans of escaping. He was wrong, and I think he was already regretting it as we were driving to his place in the cab. He kept clicking his jaws non-stop.
There was a knock on the door, and I got up to open it. A piece of detached wallpaper flapped furtively in the corner as I pulled on the doorknob. It was Benny, my savior and the only legitimate resident of this room. He had a very peculiar, baited look as he came in, and I knew at once that something was wrong.
Benny was a nurse by training—an odd character, as none of the other nurses were male. He had small, black eyes and an enormous jaw, like a piranha. Actually, he held some resemblance to the fish. Strangely, we weren’t friends while we were in school, and I remembered noticing Benny as such only at the end of the last year, during one of Amygdala’s “formative sessions,” which I had to attend instead of playing billiards in the game room as usual. He was sitting stark naked after one of the female students telekinetically took off his clothes. Benny’s reaction was uneventful: he continued sitting in his chair as if nothing happened, until someone brought him his coat. I met him again later in the ambulance, shortly after the implosion of our school. He was hanging above me, arms spread out to keep a hold on something as the little wagon wiggled down the street, wailing and cutting into lanes. I was just staring dumbly at his face, still in disbelief. “Don’t be afraid,” he said in a deep bass, and quickly moved his jaw, clicking it back and forth.
He was carrying a metal plated briefcase in one hand, which he set down on the table, shoving aside some empty plastic cups. His jaw repeated its peculiar movement, a habit, I learned, caused by nervousness. I didn’t want to find out what was in the case Benny had brought. Nothing good ever arrived in metal plated briefcases in our country.
He grimaced and rubbed his face on his sleeve—a casual, almost human gesture. Benny was unmistakably one of us: the byproduct of a very sophisticated, and yet from another perspective, absolutely idiotic system of procreation. The pin up poster that decorated Benny’s room was a risk, though not as big as harboring a fugitive like me. Perhaps, Benny was still hoping to procreate the old fashioned way, an idea I had given up on long ago (comparatively low test scores on both of our IQ tests were a big obstacle, according to Ubuqus’s Statute No. 76). Although a Special, Benny had not passed the Room Test—that’s all I knew, and he never talked about it.
The first thing Ubuqus did when he came to power was forbid ballet, pornography, drinking, and sex for the general public. Furthermore, he made it illegal for anyone to engage in, or be in possession of any items, pertaining to the above things. Needless to say, all of these industries flourished on the illegal market, with the exception of ballet. There was always bad booze, cheap magazines and hookers available if you looked hard enough, even under Ubuqus’ draconian law.
Lovingly, Benny eyeballed the pinup poster on the wall behind me, and returned his attention to the briefcase. “How’s life?” he asked, one hand tapping on the case.
“Good, good,” I replied. “What’s in the briefcase?”
Benny’s face ran into a grin. He had a lot of very white, sharp teeth. “Just between you and me, this is very sensitive stuff.”
He leaned closer and began whispering in my ear, tickling me with his stubble.
“This is Outsideauthority stuff. They don’t know where you are, they have no links. But…”
I shuddered. “But what?”
“Leach found you out, he’s at the Capitol now, or so he said.”
My face became whiter than usual, as my right ear turned red. I could feel it burning. I’ve often noticed the odd correlation in all the Specials. (A running theory was that it was the result of artificial asymmetry.) Leach was an old enemy of mine from the school days. Not exactly a real enemy, but he was one of those types who’d sell you out for a carton of Problem Chewing Gum.
“Hey, relax,” Benny said, noticing my reaction.
“What does he want?” I asked tentatively, massaging the rogue ear with one hand.
Benny loosely spread his arms. “I thought you knew.”
“Why? Should I?”
He shrugged. “He said he just wants to talk. And…” He leaned closer again. “He promised to give you a passport if you show up. Voluntarily, of course.” He stressed the word “voluntarily.”
I began to laugh, quietly and nervously, which unnerved Benny. He frowned. “What’s the matter with you?”
“You believe this guy?”
Benny scratched the back of his neck. “Well…”
I glanced at him once and moved past him toward the briefcase. It had a code panel on its side. I looked at Benny, and he looked at me.
“Well, what’s the code?”
“Hmm.” I entered the code, but the lid didn’t react. I looked at Benny. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“No. Try 785.”
The lid popped open, and the interior of the case was briefly illuminated by a toxic green flash. I rubbed my eyes. There was a message written on a piece of blue cloth, like a neck scarf. It read: “Come to the pier on 5.6.20 at noon, Sector 7, lot#32. Your friend, DL.” Benny studied the writing from behind my shoulder, breathing loudly and worriedly into my neck.
“What’s it say?” he asked. (He couldn’t read.)
“Who gave it to you?”
“Some guy on the train.”
“I see.” I let the lid snap shut.
“What are you going to do?”
“If it’s Leach, there won’t be any problem.”
“And if it’s not Leach?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Germany’s pale eyes squinted softly, twinkling in the dim glow of the green shaded reading lamp. She was my classmate all through level seven, aged about fourteen. She was transferred after something happened to her group—she was the only one left, and they moved her in with us. She was only the fifth girl in our class: everyone else was either male or of an indeterminable gender. I was around the same age as her, and imagined I was in love. She stole a sly look at me and went back to her reading, some school-assigned text about P.M. Ubuqus’ exploits in one of the many wars, although no one had actually ever seen the Prime Minister in any of them. Next to her elbow lay a worn out copy of Ubuqus: Uncle of Our Country.
Germany was a somewhat frequent name back then: there was a fad after the discovery of artifacts from the Second Great War. It was ancient history, and wasn’t being taught anymore in schools. They found some typewriters and medallions, and pieces of yellow paper that fell apart instantly when they were exposed to the light.
Anyway, Germany was my first touch of lets-call-it-love. She was shy, and I was shyer. Every night, I’d lie in bed alone and fantasize about her. My fantasies were far from concrete at that time—the topic was strictly taboo and, with the exception of crude depictions in graffiti, I had never before seen a real girl. I had only a very general idea of what sex was, but I couldn’t imagine doing it with her, or with anyone else. The more prohibited and clandestine, the more dirty and exciting it all seemed. Every pictogram, every suggestive scrap from some magazine that happened to fall into the hands of the students was savored and dragged from room to room for weeks, until it was discovered and confiscated.
I doubt, however, that even if circumstances allowed we would have gotten much further than a tentative, awkward first kiss. But that was not to be. There was a raid, (Prime Minister Ubuqus was often at war), and a missile landed on the roof of our school’s dormitory in the middle of the night.
Some time later, doped under the hospital’s drug cocktails, I’d see her swim by, comically distorted as if through a thick glass. She’d swim above me, and all around me, looking accusingly and pouting. I could never figure out why she was upset. Was it because I had survived the attack, and she didn’t? Or was it just my imagination playing tricks? To be honest, I’d never felt survivor’s guilt, so perhaps it was guilt on account of not feeling any.
A Non-Animus had found me in the rubble. The little robot was skillful and resembled a miniature crane. It pulled on my sleeve, and continued pulling until I woke up. Germany was gone. I never saw her again, and I don’t think she was ever found. The compound seemed to have spontaneously imploded, leaving a hot, unapproachable puddle in its center. The rescuers had to use special horizontal ladders to fish out the survivors. I was missing an arm and a leg, but these were easy to grow back. (The Specials had no problems re-growing any lost parts, with the exception of their heads.)
After I was dragged out of the rubble, it took some time for recovery to take place. I re-grew my missing limbs in a few days, but my brains seemed to be taking a while longer. They had come tumbling down, together with the brick and mortar of our compound, and were still somewhere under that pile. My former perception of reality was gone, and I had to start anew, start from scratch. What was before me, what was I really seeing?
I was moved along with the others to a temporary housing complex on the outskirts of Verdiz, not far from my current residence at Benny’s place, incidentally. The temporary dwelling was a former dormitory, now barely standing up, and by the looks of things, not far from being condemned. Our room’s walls were deceptive and bowing, and covered with many leaks as if streaked with tears. The ceiling leaked every day when it rained, and also when it didn’t. I shared this room with five other people—they were refugees from a neutral country that got somehow embroiled in Ubuqus’ War. They were quiet, mousy people, cautious and paranoid to the point of being ridiculous. They set a curfew for every inhabitant of the room, and if you weren’t back at home by eight, they wouldn’t open the door, even if they heard you knocking and yelling on the other side.
I lived there for about three months, until one day, the Mail Woman appeared at our door. She was one of the most feared people in the city. She was always dressed in black, with a cowl like an executioner’s hood covering her face. When she walked, she seemed to be gliding on thin air. She knocked three times on my door, and I opened it. Two of my roomies who were home that day shrank back and huddled close together on the love seat, pretending she wasn’t there. The Mail Woman handed me a long white envelope, which was a notice to appear for the Room Test in Sector 3, scheduled for August 2nd, at 2 a.m. The door seemed to have shut on its own after she left, and I stood for a long time in the vestibule with that white envelope. My room mates stopped communicating with me shortly after that, and appeared to be shunning me. That’s when I first began to seriously think about running away. The next thing I did, after I’d finally made up my mind, was mangle my bracelet on the banks of Capitol Hill River, and get rid of my mechanic’s tool bag. (It skipped on the water twice and sank surprisingly well.)
I can tell you, when your mind is going, all the things—the mundane, little things that used to bore you, like solid walls, your own reflection in the mirror, having to wait for the streetcars to go by before crossing the street—all these things suddenly become very near and dear to your heart. And as you wake up from the nightmare, you want to kiss the paint on the walls just for being in its place. But what happens when there is no paint, no reassuring walls to hold on to? When the walls are just treacherous bastards, ready to jump and crawl away into black space?
There were sixty four of us, and then sixty five when Germany came, living in the dormitory adjacent to the school. We weren’t allowed to go out at night past 8 pm. We weren’t allowed to visit each other’s rooms, or to read certain books. There were always rules. There were many rules.
Our genetic parents were many, and some were not human, but in any case, that information was off limits. I had an avatar somewhere, I was told, and he was the one from whom many different copies of me were made, male, female, red haired and black haired. At the end of our lives, we would all return to this Other, or so we were told.
It was considered normal and healthy to spend time with our adoptive parents, and every week, on Sunday, we would be allowed to go for a visit. I looked forward to these visits every time. My father was a mechanic by profession (a possible explanation for my own choice), and my mother was a nurse. During those brief visits, the surrogates were supposed to behave like a regular family, but it wasn’t easy. Mostly, we’d just sit around watching TV. There were only four channels available: microscopic local news, boring national news, limited and highly skewed foreign news, and puppet opera. (It was a mystery as to why opera wasn’t forbidden.) No one ever watched the puppet opera, and the TV was always tuned to local news, where a buxom, pastry-like farm girl could be usually seen milking a cow. Sometimes, our great leader Ubuqus would interrupt the cow girl to give a speech, his shock of white hair wavering menacingly.
I was not supposed to be here. None of us, Children of Ubuqus, were supposed to be here. Sometimes, I doubted if we were even real. We didn’t look like anyone else. We had chalk white skin and usually white hair, although sometimes it was red or black.
A thin black bracelet was always wrapped around my left wrist. It was a necessary evil, a simple and effective precaution in case one of us got too strong. These bracelets could be made to go off by only three people: Amygdala, Outside Authority, and, of course, Ubuqus. To date, not a single bracelet had ever been activated. Try and take it off? Not a chance. It wouldn’t go off, but it would send a tamper signal to Outside Authority, and nobody wanted to deal with them, not even the Specials.
Growing up piecemeal, first in the Garden, then at my surrogate parents’ home, and later on at Salvage, Ubuqus’ school, I would watch the TV with wonder. This was a whole different, unfamiliar world, but one thing seemed constant: there was always a war going on somewhere, between somebody. It was never clear who was bad or good, and nobody explained anything to us, the synthetic children. When I asked the grownups what it was all about, they just shrugged uncomfortably and mumbled something about the nature of the world.
I watched the soldiers marching to their deaths and thought myself superior, smart, special. In reality, however, I was not. It turned out that even the single skill I was created for was not within my grasp. Unlike the other Specials, I could not mold reality to my liking. It was always the way it was, and stayed that way, no matter how hard I tried to transform it with my supposedly given powers. Amygdala, the Director at Salvage, once remarked that of all the Special Children she had ever met, I was the least special.
Amygdala had an enormous bun of sleek, black hair. It was always gathered tightly and shone like a satin tree ornament as she turned her head—a fascinating thing to watch. I imagined what was inside it, my fantasies ranging from the comical to the gruesome. Denny had his own theory that Amygdala’s bun housed a rat. No one had ever seen her eyes, as she always wore black glasses with lenses so thick they resembled goggles. She was the director of the school, and we Specials alternately trusted and feared her. On the Outside, being around Amygdala guaranteed our safety from any mean jokers. One look from her was sufficient to make anyone bite their tongue. On the inside, at school, it was a different story. Here we were subject to every whim, from ensuring that our shoelace ends were both of precisely equal length, to the tedious cultivation of Amygdala’s edible garden. The garden contained fruit and vegetables of all sorts, from tiny mutant squash with nodules that looked like eyeballs, to enormous square watermelons. These watermelons were my favorite of all. They heated up nicely in the sun, and were good for sleeping on when nobody was paying attention.
The remainder of our time was supposed to be spent concentrating on perfecting our reality-altering skills in order to pass the final test, which each and every one of us had to take at the age of twenty. Those who’d taken the test weren’t allowed to talk about it, whether they’d passed it or not, but there was a special glow to those who did. They looked tragic, and maybe a little touched in the head. There was a rumor that some Specials never made it out of the Room at all. No one knew what became of them—they seemed to have just vanished. Several theories circulated among the students. One was that the room wasn’t a room at all, but some sort of portal or gate which could be opened only by someone with extraordinary power. According to this theory, those who’d mysteriously disappeared from this room were the most special of all the Specials, and in doing so they had transcended not only the room, but the entire system set by Outsideauthority.
I failed at all of these practice sessions. At first, Amygdala tried to be nice. She attempted to encourage my development through one on one lessons, positive reinforcement of my meager progress, and even sugary treats. When that didn’t work, she hit me a few times with a ruler across the knuckles in utter frustration, but that was also no use: my reality simply stayed the way it was: boring and beautifully ordinary. While the more talented students of our group summoned objects out of thin air, bent sporks into pretzels and changed the color of paint on the walls, I just sat there with eyes like peeled potatoes. At last, Amygdala gave up and let me be. Although I was still required to show up for class, no one seemed to care anymore if I spent this time playing pool by myself in the deserted game room. Sometimes I would see Germany there too. She was skipping sessions not because she had no reality altering powers, but because she was being picked on constantly (and embarrassingly) by Denny Leach.
I was alone the first time I met her in the game room. I was chasing a ball around the pool table without following any rules, just trying to get it to go in. I noticed her watching me from across the table as I leaned down to take a shot. She smiled. Her eyes were white, as was her hair. She waved her hand, and the billiard I was aiming at began moving on its own. It traveled slowly around me, circling my elbow, and dropped into a pocket. I heard a dull clunk as it fell inside. Germany smiled as I looked up, and then quickly walked away.
Denny Leach was attracted to Germany, that much was clear. When we were younger, he taunted her and pulled on her beautiful white tails. When we got older, he resorted to more advanced tactics, like candy and flowers, and even wrote a song for her. I’m not sure what she felt for him, but they would sometimes go off together, holding hands when they were sure nobody could see them. Anyway, I reported Denny to the school’s Director, and Denny Leach was called into Amygdala’s office the next day. I remember it well. When he returned, he was just about ready to kill me. At night, I experienced several strange poltergeist events, including a copy of The Military Exploits of Ubuqus flying at my head. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some three months later, it was Denny who planted the porn mag under my bed, which got me in trouble with the school. Amygdala sent me straight to the dog house (it was an actual doghouse located in the exercise yard of the school, albeit provided with electricity and indoor plumbing, where I had to spend a week—the impact was meant to be rather psychological, but after a few days I began enjoying the solitude and even contemplated if I could just live out here for the remainder of my life). I talked to Germany about it later on, but she told me she had no interest in Denny Leach anymore at all.
But I digress.
I stood with the briefcase at the pier, lot 32. It was empty, and the noonday sun was beating down. I stood there alone like a cactus, casting a spindly shadow onto the corrugated metal gate. There was no one around, and I started thinking that this could be some misunderstanding, a case of mistaken identity (there were at least twenty guys who looked like Benny in our Sector), or just a terrible joke.
There was a large burned out hole in the warehouse door, probably caused by stray missile debris from the recent attacks. I looked around carefully one more time, and stepped through the blackened gap, holding on to my lucky cap with one hand.
An empty warehouse, and a pile of rubbish in one corner, broken cement blocks, rags, bags and other kinds of junk. The pile was bordered neatly by wooden beams on all sides. It didn’t look like anyone had been here for some time. There was a hole in the roof, and a dark spot on the floor below it where rainwater had dripped in. I stared at that spot for some reason, unconsciously gripping the handle of the briefcase so hard it left marks on my palm. There seemed to be no one here at all. I turned around carefully and began walking toward the gap in the door.
Suddenly, I heard a pneumatic hiss behind my back and stopped.
“Onion!” someone called out. “Look around you, look!”
I looked around, but there was no one in sight.
“Who’s there?” I asked the air.
“It’s me, Maggie.”
I squinted in the general direction of the junk heap, and discerned a semi-transparent figure standing waist-deep in the pile. I began backing away toward the door.
The ghostly form of Maggie, my former classmate, began to rise out of the pile. She drifted toward me so quickly that I stumbled and fell flat on my back. The briefcase went jumping across the floor like a frog. Every time it hit the ground it opened, flashing its green light. It came to a stop at Maggie’s feet, and she bent down to pick it up.
She hovered over me, her face transparent, blinking her dark eyes. “Relax, Onion,” she said. “Haven’t you seen a sim before?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said, squinting through Maggie’s light.
“It’s just a sim. The portal is in that pile.” She pointed over her shoulder at the heap of junk. She was no less solid now, but I could see that she was wearing a gray suit and black heels. She laughed, and said: “Go to that pile.”
I scrambled to my feet, rubbing my back. “What do I do now?” I asked.
“Just stand there, better if you stand right in the middle of it.”
I looked suspiciously at the rubble. “What’s going to happen?”
Maggie laughed again. “Nothing, relax. We just want to talk.”
“Come on, Onion, don’t be a chicken.”
“I can’t help it. You’re a ghost, for all I know. Where are you taking me?”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “This is the only place where you can hide from Outsideauthority.” I continued standing still. “Chicken,” she added.
I stepped carefully over the wooden beam, and found that the pile was not as solid as it appeared. My foot sank immediately into the rubbish, but not in the normal sense of the word. It was like walking through water.
Suddenly the pile became very transparent, and I was instantly sucked in. I don’t remember if I screamed. Even in a state of horror, I suddenly realized that I’d left my favorite cap on the warehouse floor. It was a very petty, and yet somehow completely overwhelming concern.
A room. Just a regular room with fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. There was a sign hanging above the door, which read, “Keep Out and Stay Out”. There was a white plastic table in the middle, with paper cups standing on it. Maggie was seated at the table, and I was sitting across from her. Mysteriously, my cap was back on my head. I took it off and folded it carefully across my knee.
Maggie was looking with puzzlement into my eyes. She was real now and warm when I accidentally brushed her hand. She had no bracelet on her wrist. Somehow, she’d managed to get rid of that grim little reminder. She was wearing a dark green dress with paisleys and some kind of strange coin-shaped pendant around her neck. For a while, we just studied each other silently, as if trying to make the memories we had of each other match their reality. We hadn’t seen each other since the attack. The engineered children of Ubuqus’ school mostly had pale eyes. Maggie’s eyes were dark, like mine, and her hair was black with an unusual tinge of copper when it met sunlight. We used to call her Squirrel back in school, because of that reddish color in her hair.
“It’s like my eyes have been opened,” she said abruptly. “Do you like it?”
“The portal, isn’t it great? Denny made it himself.”
I rubbed the back of my head. “Very nice. What about Denny?”
“Denny’s just wonderful. He taught me many things. Simming, how to go places with my mind. A real magic man. What?”
“Nothing,” I said, avoiding her eyes.
“There’s no harm in what he does.” I studied her face for a moment. “Here, have some tea,” she said, and moved one of the paper cups toward me. The green paisleys around her collar trembled like thirsty leaches.
I squinted at her pendant. She noticed me scrutinizing it and brought it closer to my face. It was an oval copper coin, embossed with two axes crossed over a human skull, and the year 2063. She turned it around, and on the reverse side I saw a profile of Denny’s face. She blushed, and quickly removed the pendant from my vicinity, dropping it into the collar of her dress. “Come with us, Onion,” she said quietly. “Join us, please.”
“You should be careful.”
“Of what? He’s so very sweet.”
I took a drink from the cup. The liquid tasted like stale tea. “I’ve come to the conclusion that anything overtly sweet is inherently evil. Also, I don’t have a passport.”
“Denny will help you.”
Maggie gave an impatient sigh and folded her hands at her forehead. I saw her lips moving quickly: she was praying.
I took another drink from the cup, in spite of myself. “Little squirrel,” I called her softly. “Say, little squirrel, what hour is it now?”
“It’s twelve past noon,” she said through her hands, after some delay.
“I hope you weren’t praying for me.”
“I would never.”
“Do you need money?”
She shook her head, blushing. “Denny takes good care of me now.”
I got up. “May Lord Zaal and Ali always be upon you,” I half-sang. “Or whatever the hell it is you people say.”
A tear began to roll from the corner of her eye.
“Maggie, it’s not like that. You’re…you’ve been brainwashed.”
Color suddenly returned to her face. “Go away,” she said quietly, but in such a way I quickly pulled on my cap. I paused in the doorway under the sign “Keep Out”.
“Umm…Maggie, how do I go back?”
“It’s you…It’s always about you, isn’t it. You should at least talk with him first.”
“Talk with whom?”
“With Denny, of course.”
I stood, dumbly mauling my cap in both hands.
“Shall I call him?”
I looked cautiously over my shoulder at the door. “Sure,” I said. “Why not.”
Denny walked in about fifteen minutes later. He had changed, a lot. He now had a short black beard with lush sideburns. His attire was a black suit and over it, a long-tailed dark coat. He came out of the same doorway I’d come from, like a peacock, looking sleek, robust, with a certain contented gloss. He was accompanied by three young girls, who wore practically nothing. The girl with dark hair who was carrying Denny’s staff, playfully decorated with a gold bust of Outsideauthority on its top, was dressed in a white and blue striped silk dress with a very wide and long neck that stopped only at her belly button. The second girl, whose hair was dyed green, was walking in tow, diligently carrying Denny’s coat tails like a royal robe. She was wearing a red cloth wrapped around her waist, and not much else. The third one, walking slightly behind her, was dressed in nothing at all, with a single, striking white shock of hair that resembled the one on our mighty leader, Ubuqus.
Denny raised his arms in an ominous greeting when he saw me, and Maggie quickly got up and left the room. I’m not certain of where she went: she seemed to have just vanished into the blank wall.
“Onion!” crowed Denny. “Come’re, old friend, and give us a hug!”
For some reason, I half expected the girls to join him, but they didn’t. In a moment, I was in the wiry cables of Denny’s arms. He clamped me for a moment, and then pushed me away. “Assistants!” Denny clapped his hands once like a lion trainer, and two of the girls came to stand behind me, while the dark haired one stayed by Denny’s side. She seemed to be unsteady on her feet, swaying lightly back and forth.
“How’s life?” he asked.
“How’d you find out I was in town?”
He gave a laugh. “Easy. You give off a little stink, Onion, everywhere you go.”
“But seriously, how?”
The girls behind me laughed.
“Lets just say we have a way. Meet my assistants, Onion.” He made a vague gesture, as if throwing a fistful of grain. “Here’s Betty,” he pointed at the dark haired girl next to him, and she put her hands on her hips like an exhibit. “And to your right is Shawna, and on your left, Nicole.” I looked left and right over my shoulder, nodding appreciatively. Nicole’s green hair seemed to give off an unearthly glow, and there was something very suspect about the whole thing in general.
“Assistants, then?” I said, and received a proud nod from the magician.
With a silly giggle, Betty suddenly dropped to her knees and began clawing at Denny’s groin.
He waved her off. “Dummy, not now.”
“What do you want, Denny?” I asked.
“Me? Nothing. Absolutely nada. But…Outsideauthority, and the rest…”
“What do they want?”
He glanced slyly at his entourage. “We better go some place else,” he said. Suddenly the room folded away like a cardboard box. We were in darkness for a moment, and then in the middle of a vast green field. I looked down and saw the grass clinging at my feet. Denny’s face showed utter bliss.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“What is this place?”
“It’s all in your head.”
I bent down and touched the grass. It was real. “Well, shit..”
“Feels real, doesn’t it?”
“You still haven’t passed the test, remember? Well?”
“I know,” I said. “I just want to go back.”
“To go back where? You dummy, it’s all in your head. You’re already there, and here. And you can be anywhere you like.”
“Ah, that’s the thing. I’ll show you how. I’ll show you things you never even knew existed. Fun stuff.”
“Take me back to the warehouse now.”
“Tell me, how can I change your mind?”
“You can’t. I like it just the way it is.”
“That’s like liking water, or breathing. You don’t have a choice—until you realize that you do have a choice.” He rubbed his sideburns with the flats of his hands, a gesture which made me think of cockroaches. “You think you’re so smart, Onion. Just because you don’t know anything…don’t believe in anything.”
“No, that’s not it. It’s not because I don’t believe in anything. It’s because I can’t. And screwing fourteen year olds isn’t my thing.”
Denny laughed. “What makes you think I’m screwing them?”
“Isn’t this a cult?”
“You know, you have a funny way of thinking, Onion.”
“You’ve got something on your mind and you just say it, like a child. These days, it can get you killed.”
He picked up a blade of grass and began twirling it before my nose. “You see this blade of grass?”
“I made it. I can make almost anything. I’m motherfucking god. How would you like to do that too?”
Denny let the blade of grass fall. It landed on the tip of my shoe. I looked at it, and then at him. “Did you pass the test?”
“What’s it like?”
Denny smiled a mysterious smile. “It’s nothing, actually. Just an empty room with a chair in it. Like I said, it’s all in your mind. What happens there depends on you.”
A breeze rose up and picked the blade off my shoe.
“What happened to the ones who…”
“Disappeared from the room?”
Denny shrugged. “Dunno. Died, probably.” He bit down momentarily on his lip. “Come on, I’ll take you back to the warehouse. But remember, they’re coming for you.”
Suddenly the green meadow began to simmer and boil like some horrible green paint. I watched my shoes sinking into the mess, and then my vision went blank. Just before it all went out, though, I briefly saw Maggie’s face hovering before me, her lips moving in silent prayer. She raised her Denny pendant to bless me, but I declined and voluntarily sank even further into the warm goo.
I was lying on something soft and damp, with the lap of waves at my feet. I opened my eyes because something was prodding at my head. It was long past sunset, and cold. There was a black barrel, glinting dimly, hovering just above my face.
“Hey, you,” a voice said. “Get up.”
Tan furry legs stepped delicately over my shins and I heard a low growl. Time became very slow as I sat up carefully, and saw the dark sea rising and falling in front of me. Small phosphorescent dots were diving among the waves. I wondered what they were. My shoes were wet. Suddenly my view was exterminated by a blue beam as the officer scanned my face. It was an Outsideauthority officer, and probably a drone.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
I buried my knuckles into the sand. “I don’t know,” I said.
I got up. He continued tracking me with his beam.
I briefly patted my pockets. They were empty.
“I don’t have one.”
The flashlight suddenly abandoned my face. I stared at him, being able to see his face for the first time. There was no face, actually, just the grille of a helmet and two red apertures instead of eyes.
“Are you a criminal?” he asked.
It was a question only a Non-Animus was capable of asking, and confirmed my suspicion that I was dealing with a drone. “No,” I replied. “I’m a tourist.”
“Then what are you doing here at night?”
“Officer, there’s been some mistake. I think I might have been kidnapped.”
“Put your hands up.”
“I don’t know how I got here, I swear,” I mumbled, raising my hands.
The drone turned around. “Follow me,” he said. He began walking in the direction of the few lights on shore, the single extra eye in the back of his head keeping a steady ogle on the scene. I followed him, holding my hands high, with the shepherd close behind. The dog was female, because the Non-Animus kept turning his head from time to time and softly calling, “Here, bitch, here, bitch.”
We walked all the way to the parking lot in this strange procession. There was a solitary black patrol car, which opened its rear door as if in greeting. The officer had some trouble fitting on the handcuffs. He said, “Put your hands behind your back, like you’re praying.” My hands were cold and I couldn’t feel them very well. Finally he succeeded, and I climbed into the back of the car, followed by the dog.
The police station was only about a mile inland. The cruiser drove very slowly up to the gate and stopped. I was then taken inside by another drone.
I began filling out the paperwork at the welcome desk. Standing across from me was a spitting copy of Benny, stout and muscular, with a bright blond mop on its top. Unlike Benny, however, this variation used his massive jaws for chewing gum, a habit Benny couldn’t stand. Behind the clerk was a large wanted poster of Denny. It depicted the magician in his pre-bearded days, his face shaven smooth, with eyes like two bullet holes. The Benny shaped guy squinted suspiciously at me.
“You seen him?” he asked, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. I thought about Denny, who left me in the rising night surf, and then I thought about Maggie, so I said: “No.”
The clerk gave a snort.
“What’d he do?”
“Dodger. Took off right after he passed the Test, just walked out of the room. If you see him, report him at all costs. Denny Leach has a fabulous mind, but no brains.”
I gave a nod.
I spent one night in a cell, after which I got a new ID and a new goal in life: to pass the Test. In the morning, I and three others were picked up by a shuttle and moved to some facility that I never even knew existed. It looked somewhat like a hospital and there were people in lab coats all over it. I was locked in a very small room by myself. This wasn’t the Room Test, the nurse explained. This is where I was supposed to spend the night before the Room Test. Then she left, locking the door. I stood for a while with my ear pressed against it, as her footsteps faded away down the hall.
I had diarrhea all night. It just wouldn’t stop. By morning, I was completely devoid of shit and even paler than engineered children are supposed to be. The only detail I had managed to weasel out from the nurse, who came by in the morning, was that the test was for fitness in combat. I figured I’d flunk it, and instantly became more relaxed.
Just as Denny had said, it was a small white room. There was a plastic chair in the middle, not very comfortable looking. I was pushed into the doorway, and my hands were untied.
“Sit down,” a subterranean voice said from somewhere, and I sat down. The door had already been closed.
I sat in the only chair present and waited. I didn’t know what I was waiting for. The walls remained as blank as ever. The ceiling offered a depressing sight: there was a black silhouette of a scalpel, like a bad tattoo, right in the center. I kept looking at my wristwatch, the only familiar bit from my old life, but sometimes the numbers seemed to go backwards, and I’d panic and shake my head. An hour passed like this, and then two more. From time to time, I’d get tired of sitting and take a walk about the room. What kind of combat fitness test was this, anyway? Maybe I should try breaking down the door? I glanced at it: a white panel, barely visible in the wall. I walked up to it and gave it a tentative shove. It didn’t budge. I tried picking up the chair, but it was bolted firmly to the floor. I wondered what it was Denny had done to pass the test. It also occurred to me that Denny, a draft dodger, was now hiding in a virtual pile of rubble in Sector 7. Whatever he did here to pass the test would land me in the ranks. I quickly retreated and sat down in the chair, trying not to move at all.
After another two hours, the door slid open and I was allowed to leave the room.
“He has zero imagination,” I heard someone say behind my back.
“Does this mean he failed the test?”
I pricked up my ears gleefully.
Every time P.M. Ubuqus conquered someone, or something, a new egg shaped palace would go up on Capitol Hill. (The first egg was built in celebration of Ubuqus’ coming to power.) In the morning, as I was being transported to the Sonora Military Training Facility, I saw Capitol Hill on the news: there were two identical, equal sized eggs now on its top, with a white marble obelisk situated directly between and slightly in front of them. There was a cheering crowd gathered at the top of the hill above the river for the grand opening and commemoration, and a tearful Prime Minister Ubuqus cut the yellow ribbon suspended across the entrance to the new egg. The crowd went wild, throwing up its umbrellas and hats. Then it started to rain on the ceremony. Soon, the rain pouring down on the broadcast caught up with the convoy traveling to Sonora, and my mood, which was already not in the best shape, sank to unimaginably deep and dark depths.
The bus staggered on the uneven road, grunting and puffing out clear clouds of vapor from its rear end. The clouds lit up from time time with a magical glow as the driver, Animus Joe McGibbons, stepped on the brakes. It kept raining, a regular, steady pattern. I was falling asleep, lulled by the tug of war between the road and the bus, and my brain was forming things on its own, without any effort on my part. I licked my lips, and let it go where it wanted.
There was a big artificial pool in the area adjacent to our school. It was square and made of concrete. No one ever cleaned it and the bottom had accumulated a considerable layer of fallen leaves, branches, and other debris. The water was clear and there were water beetles and goldfish, and some kind of small pink shrimp living in the muck. Occasionally, it was visited by a local flock of ducks. We used to go there from time to time during our early years at Salvage, sometimes in a group led by Amygdala, who wanted us to spend time next to the water in order to learn how to manipulate it. Water, as it turned out, was the hardest substance to control, as if it had a mind of its own. Some of the more talented students in my group had mastered the impressive skill of forming water spouts—small, creepy things that rose spontaneously off the surface and disappeared in seconds in funnels, making a burping, sucking sound that made my skin crawl. Amygdala called it “talking” to the water. I was afraid to be there by myself, although the place was a nice break from the school grounds. So, whenever Denny was heading out to the pool, I’d join him. There were usually two signs that meant he was going there: first, he’d collect small rocks, coins and bottle caps and stuff them into his pockets; and second, he’d steal a few plastic bags from the cafeteria during lunch.
Sometimes, Germany would come along with us, but at that sweet time, Denny did not appreciate her company: Germany was a nice girl, and she was protective of the ducks at which he liked to throw rocks, coins and bottle caps. The plastic bags were used for another purpose: he’d sometimes bring back a few of the leaches who inhabited that pool and stick them at night on unsuspecting friends.
In my mind, I watched as Denny threw another rock, and it hit a duck squarely on the head. It quacked and swam off a short distance, but then it returned, flanked by several more. “Dumb shit,” Denny laughed, picking out a new rock from his pocket. (The ducks assumed he was feeding them, even when all evidence pointed to the contrary. And they kept coming back, rock after rock after rock.) The last missile from his pocket missed, splashed and disappeared in the clear autumn water, stirring up some muck as it hit the bottom. The wail of an alarm killed my dream. The bus was lit up all red and there were figures running back and forth, knocking each other around. I sat up straight and unclipped my seatbelt. “Remain calm,” a heavenly voice demanded from the ceiling of the bus. “Stay seated,” it commanded. I looked out the window: the bus had stopped by the side of the road. It looked as if it was stuck in a rut. There was a desperate squeal of tires, a nudge, but to no avail: we were stuck, positively stuck. From the driver’s seat, Joe McGibbons expressed himself fluently in Matenese and then climbed out of the bus.
We arrived in Sonora at four in the morning, having walked a part of the way to the facility on foot, because, although our driver had managed to free the bus from the rut, it broke down just one kilometer later. There were many others walking in the gray splattering fog, but I don’t think there was anyone I knew. No one talked because that was the rule, and no one paid any attention to anyone else. I assumed these were husks like me, those who had failed the Room Test, and were suited only for basic combat—recyclable, replaceable, barely a scratch away from scrap metal Non-Anima.
The Sonora facility stood gloomily in the morning fog, gray and geometrically inexplicable. There was a strange cylindrical structure located on its top, mounted with a single bright beam. The illuminator rotated constantly and unsteadily like some crazy cyclop’s eye.
On the first day we were given handguns, but no one explained how they were to be used. My newly issued weapon resembled a drain snake. There was a small black drum with a handle, and a flexible spout that dangled partially out of the base. Turning the drum handle caused the weapon to fire. We found this out the hard way, with several casualties. After this, we were issued helmets and standard uniforms (dark blue, with gray convict stripes). This was the first, and last, day of our training.
The next morning, the same bus that had brought us here took us beyond Sonora. We had a different driver this time, who refused to reveal his name. He was a Non-Animus, with a small, round metallic head and a body like a tick. He had several arms, which were all occupied in steering the wheel of the bus. The trip took all day, and by nightfall we had arrived at the border between our country, Auk, and our neighbor, Ogee. A long trench had been dug out here, as Ubuqus prepared for the invasion. The militant Ogees had already beat P.M. Ubuqus to it, however, and had launched several attacks. A burned out bus loomed welcomingly just above our section of the trench.
Jonny Mooney was the sergeant assigned to our group. Sgt. Mooney couldn’t stand engineered children at all. Every time a new busload would arrive, marked with a green biohazard symbol that represented our kind, he’d visibly cringe. He called us abortion survivors behind our backs and looked like he was going to vomit any minute whenever he saw a chalk-white new face. I think that at least in part, this was the reason why we had a Motivator instead of a real human commander in the field.
Our Motivator was a small, noisy Non-Animus, a spherical robot with a gyro that prevented it from falling no matter what. It would always roll back to its feet with a cheerful yelp in Matenese, which meant, “To victory!” We practiced taking pot shots as it rolled along the edges of the trench in the early morning fog, signing hymns or parroting its favorite political slogans. To date, no one was able to hit it effectively enough to disable it—except for Marmozet, our gunner, no one was professionally trained, and Marmozet never took any interest in taking down the annoying robot, or letting anyone use his turret. (He was quite reclusive, in fact, and rarely spoke to anyone.) Although he looked human in every way, I had a sneaking suspicion that Marmozet was a Non-Animus. Not even trying to get Motivator while being in possession of the only weapon that could was sufficient proof. Every day, the damned thing would wake up before anyone else and sing its favorite tunes, rolling tantalizingly along the edge of the sleeping trench. The morning song was always the same, performed in an odd, buzzing voice:
Who is always by our side?
Who would give our lives so gladly,
(But we aren’t afraid to die).
You are free now, drop your chains,
Come and join us in the game.
Our savior, our hero,
Only you know what’s in store.
Join us each in every war.
We spent four weeks sitting in the mud. Nothing happened. All was quiet, with the exception of the Motivator. Sometimes, I’d even hear the birds sing. The ground immediately beyond the trench line was caked dirt, with signs of a violent and recent past: deep craters and pieces of metal decorated the area. Far beyond it always hung a reddish-brown mist, and it was impossible to see if the enemy was on the other side. A few times a day, we sent out Snake Guns to crawl into enemy territory. That was the only thing we did, actually. We’d release them and the black slithering things would tramp away, bumping into craters that were too high and wiggling like confused worms on the dried mud. But the quiet didn’t last long.
It was early morning. I lay in the dark, listening to someone’s cautious snoring (probably Oliphant’s—he was permanently discouraged from loud snoring by matches placed between his fingers and lit while he was asleep). It was all normal. And then there was a sound like someone was cracking nuts above my ear.
An alarm went off on our side, so loud and nauseating it overwhelmed even Marmozet, who grappled the turret with shaking hands.
I threw on my helmet, and the visor slammed down with a clang over my nose. I heard the sound repeating all around me, to the left and to the right. That was the only protection we had, other than the trench itself. There were a few more of those nut cracking sounds up in the sky, followed by bright falling lights with tails of black smoke.
Finally, I had the opportunity to witness the abilities of those who had passed the Test firsthand. I sat in the mud, watching from the embrasure of my helmet as about four or five Denny types pummeled the invaders. (We were mostly unarmed, having spent the reserve charging cells trying to start fires in the muck or taking pot shots at the Motivator). The Dennys were encased in transparent bulletproof spheres, well protected from all harm. Their magic suits floated high above us on the ground, as they wreaked havoc on the advancing enemy using nothing but their minds. They created peaks and valleys, which suddenly rose and fell on the terrain, with the wave of a hand. Giant machines, shaped oddly like Gatlings, but with wings and a million times faster firing speed, rose into being out of thin air, and pulverized the advancing artillery and soldiers into dust. I was afraid of their eyes the most: they were multi-faceted, like the eyeballs of giant flies.
The sky grew dark and turned a very odd violet color, streaked with bolts of lightning and red smoke. Some kind of pale transparent socks were flying high above us, howling in a thin wail. I covered my ears and sank down deeper into the trench, trying not to hear their cries.
Our Motivator had met his end some time before the battle began. I distinctly remember hearing the familiar buzzing voice, lilting in sing-song, “Rise, rise ye brethren and greet the early morning.” There was a single shot, and it was deadly accurate. The little robot stopped tragically in its tracks, tilted back its head and keeled over. Right now, pressed back against the shaking cold earthen wall, I could see his dimmed spherical remains, still twitching heroically, at the top of the scrap pile—all that was left of our Non-Anima backup unit.
I looked over at Marmozet, our gunner, who now lay on his side in the dirt next to the turret, his eyes glazed. A bullet had gone in under his left eye socket, barely missing the eye. A Non-Animus had patched him up temporarily with pink healing gauze that resembled cotton candy, but his time was limited: he had about 24 hours before the damage would become lethal. Gradually the noise died down, until there was an awkward but welcome kind of silence, punctuated only by very quiet popping noises—this was the remainder of the enemy’s undeployed weapons going into self-destruct.
The entire battle took only about five minutes, after which the Denny types withdrew. The rest of us were ordered to get out of the trenches and go through the muck of what was left on the other side. We had to collect any remaining weapons and enemy parts. As I bent down to pick up an arm, with its wiring still partially intact and twitching, something whistled past my head. I saw two med bots hurrying to my side. I watched them from somewhere close by and slightly above. Its head was like a cracked pomegranate. They wrapped it in a white sheet after checking for vital signs, and began carrying it away. I wanted to protest, because it was mine, but I wasn’t sure what to do or if they would even hear me. I stood alone in the smoking field of dirt, with a detached arm still clasped in one hand. The robotic limb kept wiggling around, its fingers still trying to wrap around my wrist with a deadly grip.
“Shake it,” someone’s voice said behind me. I looked around, and saw Denny.
“What?” was all I could say.
Denny laughed a little. “Shake that hand, Onion. And let it go already, this isn’t war anymore.” The mud at my feet was suddenly replaced by grass. I looked around: a hillside, suspiciously similar to Capitol Hill, which I’d visited once or twice since my birth, was looming next to me. Not far away, the ground bristled with headstones, and on the dim line of the horizon there were about twenty black silhouettes of different sized eggs—I assumed they were Ubuqus’ new homes. In profile, I saw two small figures running up the hill: a boy and a girl.
Denny began speaking, hoarsely and not very clearly, in a tone like a priest singing me away:
“Zara, the old machine, had finally made up its mind and produced two seeds: Denny and Sal. Zara was fond of random games, and let the two new seeds out upon the hill so that they could race each other to the top.
“There, on the horizon, they saw them: rows and rows of dark eggs, but only one was meant for them, and for only one of them. Sal glanced at him quickly and they began the race, which Denny won.”
I saw Denny’s face, but not of the one who was actually before me. It was a much more youthful version, just a child who resembled the adult.
He smiled a confused smile, because he had won his place inside the egg. The feeding tube reached out to him longingly, attempting to make a connection to his stomach, but he pushed it away. He kept looking at his sister. Sal’s lips were slowly turning blue as she stood still under a cap of ice, the crystals forming all around her, hiding her face from view. He tried to brush them away, but they only cut his hands. The terrible crystals kept forming, weighing down on her eyelashes, filling in the subtle curve of her lips.
“Sal,” he called her, and she slowly opened one eye. “You can take my place.” She looked at him through the crown of ice, shaking her head. “You can come back now. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Sal licked her lips, but didn’t say anything. After a moment of hesitation, he reached out and took her hand. She was cold now. Solid and cold, like stone. The persistent feeding tube kept prodding him, peering over his shoulder.
Denny let go of her hand. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, and let the tube make its connection. Sal faded away, growing smaller and smaller, until there was nothing left of her inside the egg.
The real Denny smiled at me vaguely, aware of an indiscretion, but having no control over it.
The wind was rising. I was standing in front of my own grave. It had a bronze name plate, overtaken by grass. It read, “Jacob Orion, Great War of 39”.
I turned to Denny. “Am I dead?”
He shook his head.
“Then what’s this?”
“But it’s got my name on it.”
There was an echoing giggle of girls’ voices behind Denny. I saw the brunette, Debbie or Betty, I’d forgotten her name. She pulled her arms around Denny’s neck, and he said, “Hold on.”
I looked around for something to hold on to, but I couldn’t find anything. The hillside began tilting under my feet, as the grass pressed itself flat against my cheek.
I opened my eyes and saw a skylight filled with blue, with a stained glass mosaic of a scalpel in the middle. A Non-Animus medic was calmly checking my pulse, humming a mellow tune. I was in the hospital at Sonora. Somehow, I was alive, but I couldn’t get Denny out of my mind. I felt like I was dead, and that my current reality was some kind of replay of things that had already happened. By noon, I was able to get up and walk around. I made two circles around the glass center of the facility, and ended up in a common area with a long TV suspended from the ceiling. The few occupants of this room were either asleep or drugged, staring dumbly into space. From the TV, I gathered that we’d won the battle, but the news didn’t seem to have any effect on me.
In the evening, there was a big celebration of our victory. Those of us who didn’t die learning how to use the weapons, or during the four weeks spent in the mud, were decorated with blue ribbons, hung by a buxom girl around their necks, and given special seating places at the celebratory table. There weren’t many left, actually: only twenty of us had made it out of the five minute battle. They sat gloomily under the flapping rubber canopy, spooning vegetable soup out of their cups and watching the giant screen, which was showing P.M. Ubuqus giving a victory speech from the very top of Capitol Hill. P.M. Ubuqus flashed his teeth in time to the cameras, which were going off all around him. The white shock of his hair seemed to have taken on a life of its own, swaying dramatically in the breeze. I sat still and watched the broadcast to the end, when everybody began clapping and waving their hands. P.M. Ubuqus finished his speech, his eyes filled with tears, and everyone at the table raised their hands high above their heads in grim salute, including Marmozet, whose left eye socket was still filled with pink foam.
The next day I was released on account of the injury to my head. I felt great, actually, but I didn’t protest. (The stray shot turned out to have come from one of our own weapons, a defective Snake Gun that had fired by itself.) I kept the ribbon tied around my neck like a noose all the way home. The bus didn’t break down or get stuck this time, not once, but the trip wasn’t without incident. I was half asleep on the long ride when the red alarm on the ceiling suddenly went off again. The survivors all jumped up: some dove under their seats, others screamed and began running around, knocking each other down. Someone (it was Oliphant) leapt out of the window and we had to return and look for him: we found him unharmed, cowering in the bushes by the roadside. The driver parked the bus on the shoulder and we gathered around the small TV: there had been a missile attack on the city. Capitol Hill was smoking from the recent blast, but the two palaces of Ubuqus stood stoically upright as ever. However, the obelisk which stood between them was now missing. A dark, suspicious looking rain was falling over the city. We watched Prime Minister Ubuqus barking angrily at the screen, waving his arms and promising brutal retaliation to the attackers. An assistant who was holding an umbrella over the prime minister’s head cringed visibly whenever the wind changed direction and the rain fell on him. I took off the blue ribbon and stuffed it into my pocket: it was starting to strangle me.
By morning, we got into the city. There was a lot of rubble and not much else left of it. Giant craters yawned in the streets, and the roads that remained were pockmarked by debris. A strange salmon pink smoke filled the sky, wafting from somewhere beyond the southern mountains. It seemed to glow in the night sky, looking thick and solid. The city’s inhabitants were told that this smoke was from the ruins of Ogee and that the enemy had been decimated in the last battle. However, the next day there was another attack, and it was the worst one yet.
When the sun set and the blaring alarms had quieted down, I snuck out of the shelter and took a walk down what was left of the streets. Neat square pieces of broken glass made a pleasant crunching sound, jingling under my feet as I walked down to Benny’s place. Fortunately, it was still standing, although all the windows had been shattered and the facade of the building was covered in a green residue. I found Benny at home, taping a pair of shorts over a blasted out window. He was somewhat surprised but glad to see me. He was the only person I could trust, and probably the only person who noticed that I’d been gone for a while. He asked a few questions—very few, in fact, as if none of the things that happened were out of his knowledge. I told him about the Room Test and he nodded, avoiding my eyes. He asked me whether I had passed, and I said no. One of his eyebrows went up. Then how was it that I got into the war? I shrugged, because I didn’t know. Overall, Benny seemed unusually quiet and distant. I attributed it to the stress of the attack (which would be an understatement), and left it at that. Night was gathering as I left Benny’s place. I was supposed to report to the temporary base, nothing more than a makeshift tent, and get a new ID, but there was no hurry: the city’s nervous system was stunned, and there would be no order or police here for a while.
I told myself that I just wanted to see the extinguished city, but in reality I was going for a visit to Denny. I wasn’t sure if Zone 7 would be closed down or if there was anything left of it, but I needed to see him. The city was glimmering with a mystical blue light, with all its lights off, only the Camo-Mists protecting it from aerial attack. The black eyes of the buildings stared at me as I walked down the street. There was no one around—no SRI, no cops, not even traffic drones. The city seemed dead, gutted out, but it was also beautiful. It looked at once surreal and more real than real things could ever be.
When I got to the empty lot in Sector 7, I found the warehouse gone. It had been destroyed the previous day in the attack and there was only a pile of rubble left. I poked it with my foot just in case, but it was solid. Pale smoke was rising slowly from the remains. It was still warm. “Denny,” I called softly, and for no particular reason. There was no reply. I turned to leave.
And then something strange happened: the jagged surface of the rubble pile began to waver like a mirage, like it was made of water, and I saw yellow ducks coming out of it. They popped up to the surface one by one, garishly, inexplicably yellow, and they kept on coming out of the ashes. My primary concern was that I had lost my mind, because even in our age of shit wonders these kinds of things usually didn’t happen. The ducklings began quaking aggressively when they saw me and formed a triangular, tight pack like a set of living billiard balls. This triangle began moving quickly toward me, quaking louder and louder, as I stepped further and further back. Finally, the ducklings won: I stumbled and fell flat on my back. With horror, I anticipated what they would do, and thought that I could already feel them climbing over my legs—small, soft, warm and deadly. I sat up with a jolt, kicking away at the unknown, and in a moment was back on my feet.
“Congratulations, Onion,” I heard a voice say behind me. “You passed the Test.” I looked around and saw a shadowy figure, like a faint charcoal drawing wobbling in the fog, which made me forget the stupid ducks. “Come here,” it called me, and made a semi-circular, waving motion with one hand.
Suddenly everything fell apart, dropped completely away, and I saw rough geometric shapes, coordinates, vertices, joined randomly and wavering like shampoo foam. There was no rubble underneath my feet, no ducks, no clouded night sky. Instead, I saw the ceiling of the test room, brightly illuminated, with the classic silhouette of a scalpel in the middle panel. I was still sitting in the chair, and sitting across from me was Amygdala in a white jacket and black goggles. Next to her was someone I’d never seen before, but I felt that I’d known him my entire life. Amygdala smiled, nodding her head. She took off her glasses for the first time, and I saw that her eyes were oddly misshapen and milky-white. “Not bad,” she said, and exchanged a look with the stranger. “Meet your father, Orion.”
My Other was looking at me with humor and, I thought, a tinge of disappointment. He moved his lips, but no sound came out. “We think you did well,” Amygdala said for him, as if he were a ventriloquist’s dummy. The Other blinked at me in silence, a strange smile not leaving his face. “A little bit…boring, wouldn’t you say so, Jacob?” She looked at me. “We thought you made it a bit too real, without a sufficient element of fantasy. Jake fell asleep a few times, in fact. Nevertheless, congratulations.”
“But I failed the test,” I said feebly. “They told me so.”
Amygdala nodded, but without any conviction, like an adult at an overgrown child.
“Why did you draft me, then?” I asked.
“We didn’t. You did it to yourself, probably because that’s what you were expecting. Speaking of a lack of fantasy…You passed the Test, Onion.”
“So what happens now?” It was a question to which I did not really want an answer.
“You can meet the others. You’re a Special, and you’ll fight in Ubuqus’ wars.”
I showed no enthusiasm. “Come,” she invited, getting up. My Other remained seated. I got up, glanced one last time over my shoulder at Jake Orion, and followed Amygdala out the door. In the adjacent room, I saw Maggie and Denny. They were both standing in front of a tall oval window, but there was nothing outside—just a gray mist, as if this were a submarine in the sky. Maggie just looked away when she saw me come in, but Denny smiled. “Sorry, Onion,” he said.
“For tricking you, but it was a necessary step. Remember, I offered you a passport? At that point it was still your choice.”
“At least, it would be voluntary.” He sighed. “I’m bored here. I miss the girls.”
Suddenly I got scared. I moved closer to Denny, out of everyone’s earshot. “What if I don’t want to be a Special?” I whispered. He looked at me strangely. “I mean, what if I just don’t want to be? What happens then?” Denny’s eyes shot up and traveled along a short arc on the ceiling. Maggie came to his aid. Her hair seemed to glow with an even brighter auburn-orange than usual as she walked up to us. “You don’t always have a choice here,” she said quietly. “Come on, we’ll show you around.” She exchanged a brief look with Amygdala, who nodded her agreement, glowering at me meaningfully from the corner. Orion was still nowhere to be seen. Maggie reached out to pat me reassuringly on the shoulder, when I bolted for the door.
“Onion! Come back!” I heard Amygdala bark, followed by the sound of multiple running feet.
I glanced over my shoulder: first in pursuit was Denny, his coat tails trailing after him languidly. Shortly behind Denny ran Maggie, her copper hair beautifully adrift, and following her was Amygdala, whose sleek black bun was gradually coming apart, the loose strands of her hair resembling snakes. They all moved slowly, as if under water. I was also being followed by an entourage of yellow ducks, but they no longer terrified me. They were, however, effectively slowing down my pursuers. Denny was disgusted and tried to avoid them as best he could—I could hear him hopping from foot to foot and hissing out curses that would make Motivator blush. I wondered then for some idiotic reason if ducks have teeth. The quacking behind me intensified and I heard a yelp as Denny shook a duckling off his shin.
The space I was running through was odd, to say the least. It was like being inside a stack of glass panels, with very limited visibility, and not a lot of room. It was easier to move side to side than forward. I wanted to get out, bad, like a bug stuck between the glass plates of a microscope slide. Whatever this place was, it was not meant for humans, or Specials. The exterior walls were made of clear glass, and I could see a very dead looking landscape outside: rust-red terrain, with a pitch black sky as the backdrop, and tiny red twinkling lights in the distance. It looked ridiculously artificial.
Denny was right on my heels as I rounded the corner, and almost ran right smack into the giant, cylindrical core of the building. It was a very elegant, transparent tower which rose through the floor and disappeared into the ceiling. Outside it was pure darkness, and I saw streaking stars: the building was spinning through space. There was a sign plastered across the glass core’s wall which read, “Keep Out of Outer Sky,” just above the luxuriously wide, exotic looking double doors of an elevator. I hopped inside and slammed the start button. The cabin trembled as if in outrage at my presence and began to descend very quickly. I heard Denny laughing somewhere far above me. The cabin dropped a few more meters and then stopped—I assumed that the power was cut. I pressed myself flat against the wall and looked up: the darkened glass ceiling gave a faint reflection of everything in the lift. Everything except me. A few more minutes passed by before the doors slid open on their own and I saw Denny standing before me, looking extremely pissed. Slowly, he raised his right arm, pulled it back, and then brought it forward, aiming at my face, so slowly that at first I didn’t understand what he was up to. Cautiously, I leaned to one side as his fist traveled past me. He nearly lost his balance, also extremely slowly, and his face gradually adopted an expression of surprise. I studied the subtlety of the change, and then delicately walked around him and out of the cabin. I idled for a moment before the mighty glass core, and then went through the wall below the placard which read, “Outer Sky.”
I walked out into the night, as black as Amygdala’s enormous bun. Surprisingly, there was air, and the streaking stars were putting on a pretty show. In fact, I think the stars were to blame for my defeat. I kept gawking at the sky, having lost all track of time and any sense of urgency.
“Onion!” I heard someone bark, not very far away. It was Amygdala, but she was no slower than usual: in a split second, she was glaring right next to me. She slapped me, and said, “Back! Now!”
The beautiful star light faded to a bland artificial light, and once again I saw the old familiar scalpel tattooed on the ceiling. A med bot of the most primitive Non-Anima variety was checking my pulse. I studied his blank shiny face: the humidity of the room was causing droplets to form on the plates of his forehead, which resembled sweat. I grinned, and saw myself reflected in his lifeless, dull face. I tried to get up, but the medic suddenly raised his hand, his black eyes telescoping out like a crustacean’s. “Lie down,” he said most persuasively, and I lay back down and pulled the blanket up to my ears.
The next day, I was released from the hospital at Sonora and sent back to the city on a regular, civilian bus with a crisp new passport and a nagging suspicion that this was no longer a simulation of any sort: the city was not one bit destroyed, contrary to my last memory of it, and there were only two egg-shaped buildings on top of Capitol Hill. I went back to work the next day at my usual place of business in the room of the Mind Sifter, adjusting the single bolt on the machine.
I hated my job in every way.
I was running from them, really fast. Any minute, I was half-expecting to wake up, but it wasn't happening. I could hear the husky, frustrated growl of the shepherd and see the red flashlight beams cutting off my escape just ahead. I had gotten rid of my bracelet and that's what set them off. To avoid the ones blocking my way, I ran into an old courtyard, where several crooked, small apple trees grew in an odd procession against the mangled fence. I was out of breath. I could already see their red beams crawling along the courtyard's walls, and the jagged, jumping black shadow of the dog, like some crazy puppet play. The dog burst into the courtyard first. In a split second, I was on the ground with the dog on my neck. There was a wet crunch of cartilage, and my ears became filled with a strange metallic din.