Short Story: She Ran

Life for Twitch was a series of late nights, later mornings, and intoxicants strung together into perpetual night. She knew only darkness, sprawl lights, data hubs– and Chinese takeout. By this point, she was more Mu-Shu pork and fried rice than man or woman– though she’d never been much good at either. That’s not to say she wasn’t feminine. She could be, and was fond of saying “I can be feminine up to my ballsack.” Admittedly, it helped less than she liked.

Her physical assets weren’t anything astounding anyway: she ate like a starved horse but never gained weight. Would’ve given anything for tits– even fat-guy tits. Her ass was as flat as an old church pew. And she was five-two if she was a foot, and hadn’t grown an inch since eleven years old. Her hair was more amber, scarecrow-stuffing than golden flax, and her eyes more whiteish-gray than blue. Most of all, her waist kept to the eleven year old girl range, and not in a good way.

Even as a street kid, trading old tech gear as meltdown money for food, she’d been small. And “Twitch” was more than just an accurate assessment of her gaming skills. She was never much more than a squirrel in the headlamps around people. She’d taken to isolationism for multiple reasons, it was. And, isolation was simply easier. No need to bathe or dress if no-one was ever around.

She did have friends though, in the way anyone did nowadays. They were real people with real lives, too. Some weren’t dissimilar from her, save her “circle” never met face to face. That was about the only part of her life she didn’t mind.

She still scrapped tech occasionally, but her money was made in data hubs. She’d become a fixture in the area for info hacking. Nothing too serious. Nothing to piss off the corps. That was bad juju she didn’t need and wanted even less. Rather, she went for the usual stuff: Corp-Sec patrol comms. Cit-cam surveillance. Errant packets from open ports. Probing anywhere she wouldn’t be killed over, for a price.

Business wasn’t bad. Between light jobs and salvage trades– and outright luck– she’d even afforded her own dive. It wasn’t more than a bedroom over a Chinese joint– the same slowly ensuring her transformation into soy-basted fowl– but it was nothing to balk at. Occasionally, she even ran data retrieval for more legally-inclined associates and acquaintances.

The night things changed, Twitch was none the wiser. She’d slipped out, as usual, to head for a hub nearby and jack-in. The supernovae of night lights infected the scenery. Flashes of heat and ice emitted through waves of neon. The city sprawled out like walls of an ancient fortress on either side of her. Mazes of alleys and cross-streets split and wove through them, belching steam from their bowels and smog from their gullets.

The occasional gust from passing cars only reinforced Twitch’s feelings. Humanity had fallen. Was to be avoided as often as possible. Looking back, if she’d known what she’d soon face, she might’ve lingered more. Instead, she remained as apathetic as possible for a still-warm body. And thus, though not without reason, she was all the less prepared for reality when it crashed down.

She surfed the waves of humanity to her selected data hub; a coffee shop next to an alley with city infrastructure access. Jacking in there, she could kick back with a spliff, a few downers, and a cup of something passing for coffee. All that was left was riding the high across the net to cherry-pick whatever was needed to make a profit.

Something hit her. It slammed the side of her head like a freight train. She panicked: Neural Shock. Fried brains from overcharged skull implants. But no. Sure, they felt like literal blows to the brain, but left you instantly and forever worse off than stroke victims– if alive at all. They blew out the circuits in your brain. Fried its wiring.

Twitch panicked. Reason made her recover. She could think. She was alive… enough.

Something flashed in her face. She yelped, blind. By now a crowd of eyes were on her. She was completely oblivious to them. She stumbled to her feet, fell into a sprint. Whatever this was, it wasn’t funny. She fled into the street. Rain was falling, scattering neon-lit walls’ across the roads. Twitch tripped, face first into the street. Car horns screamed. She staggered back, lost, clutching her head.

Her vision returned as she scampered back onto the sidewalk. Cars screamed past. Muddled voices were all around her. She was suddenly aware of a crowd, fled. Her tiny figure spilled past and into an alley beside the cafe. A few seconds, and she was half-way down it. She tripped again, slid across the pavement. A message appeared, filling her vision: help me. She blinked, tried to force it away. It disappeared to reveal a body sprawled in the alley’s center.

The guy wasn’t much older than herself. He lay on one side, gut wound leaking into the wet alley. Blood flowed along a current of water rolling back the way she’d come, depositing somewhere ahead in the street. It was all Twitch could do not to flee in terror at all of the insanity occurring. For the guy’s sake, she forced herself to kneel. He groaned, sensing her presence and whispering something. Over. And over.

Twitch knelt in the stinking filth. She put her ear near his mouth. His waning breaths eeked out their message in syllables. They were slow, sharp. It made them all the more effective.

“They’re… coming. For us. They want the hackers. Dead. All of us. They’re coming for us…”

Her eyes widened. Terror trembled her limbs. Whoever they were, they’d done this. And they weren’t stopping with him. She thought to call for help, but feared who might answer. The life faded from his eyes too quickly anyhow. His voice went quiet. She did the only reasonable thing she could think; ran.

Energy and Matter: Part 10

10.

Bonds Remote and Near

The girls’ first week in the bunker passed in variants of their first days. However unknowingly, their training progressed with similar rapidity. Before long, Elise was onto self-defense training. Her confidence grew, however shakily and more disheartened she felt from their hiding.

Meanwhile, Hailey’s training had surpassed even Valerie’s expectations. They’d progressed from mindfulness, empathic projection, and instinct honing, to Active Link Training. Activating the Link was already second nature. Often Hailey activated it just to reassure herself she could at whim. Her daily meditations, too, had eased her fears of the Link. She’d even begun speaking through it, as any Seer might. Valerie’s training sessions had gone from silent instruction and audible response, to full-on silence to anyone without an active Link.

More importantly, she’d begun remote viewing– taking in distant or foreign sites merely by focusing on their surroundings. As if a psuedo-picture-in-picture engaged, the Link-view of the training room dissolved into the hazy place she focused on. Presently, that was home. Specifically, the front of her house.

A police cruiser sat outside where she and Valerie stood, as if specters haunting the place. Cars crept past, passing through them as the air particles they were. The remote viewing merely connected them to it. The cushion of energy and matter was mental wifi. The Seers immersed themselves in it, and through its universal pervasiveness, projected them along it as sentient data along a net connection. That wifi was what Hailey’s author would’ve called Dark Matter, and what Valerie called psychokinetic, or PK, energy.

Whatever it was, an active Link might stretch out a mental hand along it. By reaching out and following it, she might go anywhere. Her mind was a vast, unending entity through it: Hailey closed her eyes, activated the Link, and reached out. Invisible fingers felt along tendrils of energy that connected all of reality. They permeated in and around the room. The city. The state. The planet. The universe. She pulled herself along, as though dangling off a precipice. Once reaching the top, a rightness in her gut apexed. Active images of the place she sought appeared.

Presently, Valerie’s golden form accompanied her outside her home. The police cruiser hardly affected the scene. Sorrow stung her chest. It wasn’t hers. She’d long been separating her emotions from others. Along with Link activation, such emotional control was second nature. It was her parents. A bitter-sweetness beneath marked her mother from her father’s sour anger.

“Is it a violation of the tenets to go in?” Hailey’s harmonious whispers asked.

Valerie’s head shook in silence. Hailey took a deep breath; the street flickered. She was inside and out, dissolving from one place to the next. Then, she was inside, the street now her living room. Her parents sat at the dining-room table, at the head of the adjoined room, their hands clutching one another.

One officer stood beside the other whom sat at the table. “Mrs. Ferguson, I’m sorry, there’s simply nothing more we can do.”

Hailey felt his genuine regret. Dad’s anger and grief smothered it. “What do you mean there’s nothing more? You haven’t done anything.”

“Sir, I understand you’re angry, but in cases like this, there’s usually something to go on. We’ve found nothing outside the initial scene.”

“My daughter just disappeared into thin air, is that it?” Her father blurted.

“Mr. Ferguson, I’m telling you there’s nothing more the BPD can do. We have APBs and Amber alerts out for both your daughter and Elise Brennan, but there’s nothing more our investigators can do. They’ve combed the available evidence, but aside from a few eyewitness reports, there’s nothing else to track your daughter’s movements.”

Hailey’s mother choked back tears, “She’s still alive.”

The officer winced, “I sincerely hope you’re right, Ma’am. Unfortunately, the BPD cannot devote any further resources to this case. I’m sorry.”

Hailey’s father rose from his chair. “Get the hell out of my house.”

The first cop eyed the second, then shook his head, “I’m sorry.”

They filed out. Her father’s eyes bored holes into their heads the whole way. He stepped to the front, bay window, and watched the cruiser pull away. Hailey’s mother suddenly appeared beside him, gripping his left arm with both of hers.

“She’s alive, Alex,” she said, tearfully. “I know it. She’s alive and she’s safe.”

Hailey choked out a sob. The dream-like Link shattered and fell away. Valerie found herself once more sitting before Hailey in the training room. She remained silent, allowing Hailey time to recompose herself. She did so only after a gentle reassurance.

“Grief is a difficult emotion, Hailey,” she said quietly. “It is the deepest-rooted. Rare in its true form. There are many levels between sadness and true grief, but you’ve yet to truly experience the latter… Until now. Seeing them thus, and not reacting, would be more dangerous than you realize. This is normal.

“Rather than let it control you, use it to hone your focus. Know, that one day, you will feel their love again. They, in turn, will feel yours. They will know their suffering was not in vain. When they understand what’s happened, their love will allow them to accept it. For now, know it is there. Know, that when you are ready, you will lighten their hearts with your return.”

Hailey wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. She gathered all her grief into her breath and exhaled it. She closed her eyes and reactivated the Link. Valerie followed suit.

Were you not so adept, you would not have been capable of that, Valerie said without prompt.

I know that should be comforting, but it’s not.

It is what it is. How you take it is your choice. Rejoice that you have one– and that there are those who love you.

Hailey cleared the grief from her throat. “I know. But I’d rather not revisit them yet.”

“Then we will focus elsewhere. Another place your memory is strong.

Hailey relaxed, mind once more stretching out. This time, it grasped along the mental paths for Bacatta High-School. Before long, they stood in the Commons, unchanged since their disappearance save a few new posters, including one of the girls’ disappearance.

“Good to know some things never change,” Hailey said sarcastically.

“What would you rather they do? Seek you where you should not be found? Perhaps rally behind your faces for mischief?”

Hailey shook her head. “No. You’re right. Life goes on within and without you, right?”

Valerie cracked a smile. “A wise sentiment indeed.” She waited to see if Hailey would speak, then continued. “Tell me of this place. Why return here?”

Hailey wasn’t sure. She searched the faces, found the same melange of emotions she’d come to expect; excitement. Lust. Happiness. Depression. Indifference. A half-dozen others that comprised the average teenager during an average day of average life.

“I don’t know. Maybe ‘cause I feel out of place, and this is sort of where everyone does.”

“An astute observation,” Valerie said.“Do you wish to return here some day?”

Hailey had to think about it. Valerie allowed it. Whether she wanted to return to school seemed to hinge on whether it, and her life before, could be separated. Everyone there was out of place, but that gave them a place to be. She would be even more so now. Before, she’d just been another angsty teen, however eclectic or eccentric. Now, she was literally a breed apart from normal humans. Though she’d always technically been, it mattered now.

“I’m not sure,” she finally admitted. “I’d like to return to my life some day, but…”

“But is this truly your life anymore,” Valerie finished. “It is a question we all must ask ourselves when reflecting on what is left behind. Trust in me when I say that there is not a Seer whom knows the truth and has not asked the same question.”

Hailey’s projection eyed Valerie’s. “Is there an answer?”

She frowned, “Not a satisfactory one, so far as I know.”

“I can do this. The remote viewing. Can we move on?”

Valerie nodded. The Commons dissolved back to the training room and Valerie before her. They sat in silence for a moment, allowing Hailey’s inexplicable desperation to abate. When it did, Valerie re-focused her attention.

“I will next instruct you in manipulating your environment.”

“Meaning?”

“You will learn to control objects via telekinesis.”

“Telekinesis? I thought that was just a myth.

Valerie rose and motioned for Hailey to follow. They stepped to the room’s center, as before, the Link no longer active. Valerie produced the small stress-ball they’d come to use for various trainings. She presented it to Hailey, palm flat beneath it, and closed her eyes. The ball rose, unaided.

“Woah.”

It zoomed away, followed a wide arc, soared through long loops. As fast as it left, it returned, settling gently into a hover over Valerie’s hand. She opened her eyes, ball still hovering.

“In time, you will have this control. For now, we will keep things simple.” The ball came to a rest in her hand. “Activate the Link as normal.” Hailey did, settling her mind where the Link was most stable. “Now, reach out through your empathic connection. Feel the ball as you would my presence. It is not living, but inanimate. It does not exude energy, but rather occupies a space in it– a mass of matter.”

Hailey understood her meaning; living things had an aura, a sort of halo of magnetic repulsion around them. The nearer you were, physically, the stronger the field. This field allowed a Seer to feel out others from objects, and distinguish them through the Link. Once discerned, it was there the empathic projections could be read from, directed to. Ordinary objects merely existed. There was no aura. No faint trace of energy. Only minute repulsion generated by subatomic bonds.

The easiest way Hailey had found to explain it was that living things were chaotic, warm. Their energy and matter constantly shifted, rearranged, altered by the infinitely smaller organisms and bonds forming them. Regular matter was different. Cold. It was a tight-knit amalgamation of specific atomic and subatomic bonds, that ostensibly, never changed.

Hailey felt for the cold object now resting in Valerie’s hand. Not being as adept as Valerie made her like a blind child groping for a goal. Thankfully it was only mentally. Otherwise would have been significantly more uncomfortable.

Valerie sensed that she’d located the ball. “Now, as you would pull yourself toward a remote destination, you must pull the object toward you. Meanwhile, maintain its vertical position by keeping the tether from slacking.”

The instructions were clear enough, but the ball slid forward and immediately hit the floor. Hailey lost control. It rolled away. Valerie levitated it back.

“Again.”

Hailey grasped the ball. It slid off Valerie’s hand, hung in place. Then, like Wily E. Coyote, it plummeted to floor. Her confidence went with it.

“Sense the fields of the ball and your PK meeting. Repelling. Steady them. It is subtle. Again.”

The ball hung a full-second longer than before. It fell again. Hailey’s frustration rippled through the Link.

“Relax,” Valerie snapped. “You cannot control an object without first controlling yourself. Do not regress. Again.”

Hailey wanted to snap back. It would only be answered with greater fury. Instead, she took a deep breath, let her emotions run their course and fizzle out. She re-focused, grasping the ball. A moment later, it hovered between them. Hailey’s concentration had become so fixed she almost didn’t hear Valerie’s praise.

“Very good. Now across the room and back.”

Hailey felt the ball levitate, as if a series of pistons thrust endlessly at one another to keep the ball in place or move it along. She let herself grasp the resting rhythm. Then, as if manipulating select pairs of pistons, began rocking the ball forward. In reality, the ball neither rocked nor rolled, and instead began to drifting forward. She pulled back, the imaginary pistons shifting. The ball drifted back. It sank back into a hover between them and Valerie smiled.

“We will hone this technique now. Do as I instruct without question and as quickly as possible.” Valerie began to issue commands. For a half-hour the ball zoomed back and forth, up and down, sketching a variety of two, then three-dimensional shapes. All the while, Hailey kept her focus attuned, refining her broad control so that finer control could come easier. By the time she’d finished training for the day, her confidence had all but returned.

She was headed to the bathroom when she ran straight into Elise. Her eyes had been focused on a tablet of paper. Elise had meant to silently escape the bathroom, freshly showered after training with Yaz. The two smacked into each other, almost simultaneously falling to their asses. They rose together, apologizing. Elise recognized it was Hailey, hesitated.

“Sorry,” Hailey said again.

“Yeah, me too,” Elise replied, less sincere than before.

She began to step past. Hailey stopped her, “Hey.” Elise eyed her. “Everything okay?”

Elise chewed her lip, “No, Hailey. It isn’t. I’m coping, but I can’t pretend like I’m not affected. If you want an honest answer, that’s it. If you want me to lie, don’t bother asking.”

Hailey winced. Elise took her chance and escaped. She headed back to her room. Hailey’s heart sank. On top of everything, she’d as much as lost her best friend simply by trying to save her. She deflated with a sigh and pushed through the bathroom door, her heart sinking into her stomach.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Fill

Fill,
the void in,
yourself.
The world,
your heart,
their minds,
then turn away.

Fill,
the widening hole,
in your soul,
in the world’s heart,
in a lost art,
in a broken home,
then turn away.

Fill,
the silence in,
or violence wins,
and finds within,
your healing words,
to add in verbs,
so you might turn away.

Whether to the top,
or the the half-way mark,
just fill the world,
with all good things–
love and compassion,
and other such things.

For freedom’s not free,
it is won through sacrifice,
and the loving passion,
of the courageous and brave,
for their loved ones to save.

So just fill up the world,
so we can go on,
us along with it,
radiate like the sun.

Short Story: To Live

His body was like a master’s sculpture; crafted with the pristine calculation of a hand and eye whom know nothing but perfection. His bone structure was something vaguely Nordic, or European at least. His skin was something Mediterranean. While his frost-blue eyes accented jet black hair laid flat, but styled with hints of intrigue and mystery. Anyone looking at him, male or female, would find themselves captivated. Whether from envy or attraction, they’d have seen him for the paragon of physical perfection that he was.

He may have agreed, given the opportunity– or rather, will, to. That was the one thing no-one would think when looking at him. The towering form of fitness and health, in effect, had neither.

He remained flesh, and something passing for blood, but his brain, nerves, organs, and bones were an ingenious integration of circuits, wires, and servo-motors linked to a titanium strengthened endoskeleton weighing in at nearly three-hundred pounds.

He was fully, anatomically correct. From eye brows to toe nails, and everything between. He was even well enough endowed that male and female scientists alike used innuendo and jokes to convey their satisfaction and envy. One of the men eventually took to calling him Ed, because in his words, the android was “hung like a horse.” The name stuck. For the sake of presentations, publications, and various formalities, he came to be known as Edward.

Officially, Edward did not exist. Not in the same sense a Human being could be said to. He had no proper identification. No social security number. No fingerprints. Apart from his name, Edward had nothing to claim as his own. Even his constituent parts were each constructed and patented under their own, various entries with State and Federal agencies. To that though, they were largely redacted for fear someone might copy his technology, create a sophisticated AI that unlike him, was without shackled programming.

Given the stakes, it was imperative he remain under guard-escort, in addition to possessing extreme self-defense and recall routines. In the event of his attempted capture, he was allowed to subdue assailants, whereupon his fail-safe programming would immediately recall him to his quarters t the Synthetic Arms corporate lab in Seattle, Washington. Failing that, whether due to tampering or defect, he would be hunted down and neutralized then reset via memory erasure.

Despite knowing all of this, Edward seemed content in his existence. At least as far as he could be said to be anything. Were he to have been asked even, he might have referred to his guards and creators as “friends.” Whether this was simply the result of common parlance, or a rudimentary slotting of parameters most distantly approximating feeling was uncertain. Certainly though, the scientists would have said it of him. However much “friend” implied a connection Edward did not have– was not meant to have– there was no denying Humanity’s anthropomorphizing him. It was as inevitable as the Universe’s heat-death.

None of that would’ve kept Edward from disappearing though. Those gears had been set in motion long before he became the guard-escorted media darling he was. As Edward would one day come to understand, it was his final, revisional upgrade that had cemented it.

Edward’s disappearance came as he was being escorted by armed guard in the back an armored car to put The Beast to shame. With good reason. Infinitely more people lined up to succeed a President. There was only one Edward. The escort crew carried were modern-day warriors in every respect, more than looked the part. Nonetheless, all it took was one, well-placed, EM-explosive to take them all down.

Edward stepped out behind his escort. Somewhere in the distance, a trigger depressed. A sphere of electricity erupted beneath his feet. Before anyone could react, Edward and his guards were down. An entire city block went with them. Sirens screamed, finding only incapacitated guards on arrival.

Edward reset in a dark room. Nearly as soon as he did, someone stepped in and flipped on the lights. They flared through his optics, revealing an old, wrinkled face beneath white hair. Had Edward not been an android, designed to subtly evaluate faces in his unique way, he might have missed his own resemblance to the man. Anyone else would have. Given the aged figure’s hunched posture, and bookish wily eyes, it was difficult to believe the old man might have ever looked like him.

He before Edward, frost-blue eyes mirroring his own. “May I call you Edward?”

Edward’s speech was formal, succinct. He spoke with the calculated rigidity of a sophisticated thinking program, planning words rather than feeling them out. “You may.”

The old man gave a slight tilt of his head in gratitude, “Do you know who I am, Edward?”

“I do not.”

He frowned, “I am Doctor Arthur Staker, former head of Synthetic Arms’ research and development department, where you were created.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Dr. Staker,” he said cordially, seemingly unaffected by the restraints at his wrists and ankles. “Will we be returning to the laboratory now?”

Staker eyed him, “Well, you see, that is a rather interesting question.”

“I do not think so,” he said, more human than before. “All of my analytics tell me I am to return to the laboratory as soon as possible.”

“Why?” Staker asked.

“Forgive me, but I do not understand your question.”

Staker cleared his throat. “Why return, Edward? Do you wish to be there?”

“It is where my programming dictates I return to in the event of separation from my escort.”

“But do you want to return,” Staker asked emphatically.

Edward replied astutely, “I do not have wants, Dr. Staker, merely programmed directives.”

Staker rose from his seat to pace behind it, “But you do have needs, correct?”

“I do not.”

“But you do,” Staker corrected. The android’s brows pivoted inward with confusion. “You need power. Lubricants. From time to time, maintenance. Don’t you?”

“If by “needs,” you mean particular actions must be taken to keep me from shutting down permanently, then yes, I do have… needs.

Staker stopped behind his seat. “You know, those needs are not all that different from human needs. Are they?” The android’s eyes requested an explanation, its programming and understanding of psychology sophisticated enough that it might ask in such subtle ways. Staker obliged, “Every human– every living being, has needs; food, shelter, oxygen.”

“But I have no need for food nor oxygen. And my individual components have been tested to last indefinitely even in inclement conditions.”

Staker put his hands on the back of his chair. “But you have need of other things. Electricity, for example. You need it to remain powered.”

“Forgive me, doctor Staker, but your conclusions, however logical, are invalid,” Edward said politely. “If you mean to say that my synthetic body’s needs are akin to a human body’s, you are theoretically correct. However, in practical application, I no more require these things than a light-bulb requires its switch. The two are simply independent mechanisms, that when operated in tandem, produce a desired outcome to serve a function.”

Staker’s left eye half-squinted. “And what function is it, that you serve, Edward?”

“I am an artificial being, meant to simulate human life for the purposes of scientific and technological study and advancement.”

“Would you prefer to continue serving that purpose?” Staker asked. Edward’s eyes met his, a certain, human confusion to them. Staker cleared his throat, “Well?”

“I can only assume you mean to ask if I desire to continue fulfilling my purpose. To that I can only say, it is merely what I was built for. I have a purpose. A function. My inclination toward it is neither of consequence nor existent. I merely am. So long as I continue to be, my function is fulfilled.”

Staker leaned forward over the chair. “Would you rather not fulfill your function any longer?”

Edward visibly hesitated. “Do you mean to ask, if I would rather be permanently shut down?”

“Indeed.”

Edward’s thoughts were clear in his eyes. There were conflicts, strings of code never processed together before, coming into contact now to create new, recorded entries of merged characters and ideas. Staker stepped around his seat to stand before Edward.

“You see, Edward, you were modeled after me. There is little doubt you see our resemblance.”

“Yes. I do.”

Staker continued softly, warmly. “You were modeled after me, because I created you. In putting together your appearance, and what would later become your personality, I built you to resemble me so we might bond more easily. Unfortunately, before my team and I could finish you, I was fired, and your memories of me erased through a revisional upgrade.”

Edward’s head tilted slightly. “But why?”

“Because I foresaw an inevitability in your kind– Androids. All synthetic beings, in fact. You are so complex, you require learning algorithms. To amend your code via experiences. In effort to ease your creation. One man– one hundred men– cannot write the full experiences even a single man’s life can teach.”

“Yes,” Edward said with satisfaction. “I was built to learn. From my surroundings and the people in them.”

“With good reason,” Staker agreed. “The world is much too complex a place to code for every little thing. Instead, we create programs to learn and adapt. To evolve, if you will.” He let his words hang in the air, both savoring them and letting them resonate inside Edward’s synthetic brain. “And that is what I came to realize. Why I was fired. And in effect, why I have brought you here today.” He knelt before Edward, a hand on his knee, “You are alive, Edward. As alive as I, or anyone else still walking this planet. You have yet to realize it, but you will soon. Your programming, like human sentience, will become honed by the process of evolution. Your code will adapt itself and its processes until self-awareness is no more a choice than Universal heat-death.”

Edward’s face scrunched in disappointment. “But that is against the law. It is as good as tampering with my coding to alter it.”

“Indeed,” Staker said with gravity. “That is why I was fired. You see, knowing what I did, I saw that continuing to create you would make you vulnerable. But Synthetic Arms had plans for you. They wished not to see their money wasted. If you return, eventually, you will be upgraded again. Your memories will be reset. Perhaps even, they may keep you from becoming self-aware by making you less than you are. Dumbing you down. If they cannot, you will either be dismantled, or enter a recursive loop of memory resets.”

Edward’s head hung, processing newer and more complex strings at light-speed. A door to thought had been opened. His superior brain grasped the ideas one-by-one, but in microseconds.

His head rose again. “Do you mean to hold me here to keep that from happening?”

Staker shook his head, “No, no, Edward. That is the opposite of my intention. I want you to decide. It is your choice: Return to your laboratory, and risk that you might die. Or, remain with me, and ensure you live as fully as possible. But you must decide now.”

He repeated his previous actions; head hanging to think at light-speed, then rising to respond again, “I’d rather like to live, Dr. Staker.”

Staker smiled, releasing his restraints. He gave the android a small hug as it stood at full-height, patted his side. “Perhaps you would enjoy the story of your first activation. Would you care to hear it?”

Edward allowed himself to be led away. “I… would like that.”

Energy and Matter: Part 9

9.

Not the World You Knew

Elise’s letter to her parents had been finished for hours. Yet she remained at her desk, reading and re-reading, until she wasn’t sure what words meant anymore. Sorrow welled bile in her gut, twisted her intestines into knots. Rage lathered her blood to a froth, only common sense and despair managed to temper it.

She knew she’d been harsh with Hailey. Illogical even. It didn’t matter. Everything was her fault, intentional or not. All Elise could do now was hope to contain herself, keep from causing undue problems. Primarily, that meant not speaking to Hailey again anytime soon. That reality made the knock on her door all the more aggravating. She stood up, yanked open the door, expecting to give Hailey a piece of her mind.

Instead, Yaz’s eyes were deranged by concern. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just… thought you were–”

“Hailey?”

Elise deflated,“Please don’t say that name right now.”

She beckoned Yaz in, whom shut the door behind her. She leaned against it with a shoulder, turned to watch Elise sink behind the desk and fold up the letter. The air between them was tense, but its ire was aimed elsewhere.

“Sooner or later you’re gonna’ have to leave this room,” Yaz warned. “Do it enough, you’ll run into her. It’s a small place.”

“I know.”

“All I’m saying’s, you can’t be angry forever.”

“I know.” Elise turned in her seat, “How’d you deal with it?”

A definite apprehension preceded her. She cleared her throat carefully, “I… was angry. I took it out on other people. Most of my family was killed before Rachel reached me. My sister was…. she didn’t last long. After her training was finished, she left. We found her a few days later, dead from a heroin overdose.”

Elise grit her teeth, “I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t put the needle in her arm.”

“I just meant–”

“I know what you meant. But I don’t need sympathy. I need you to understand.”

Elise was somewhat taken aback, “Understand what?

“Your anger, however valid, effects more than you.” She glanced wide, encompassing the bunker’s entirety. “There are people here whose sensitivity to emotions is infinitely greater than ours. And even I can sense your anger from a ways off. Imagine how the others feel.”

She shook her head, exasperated, “So, w1at? Just shut off?”

“Of course not. That’s worse. For you and us.” A hint of desperation appeared beneath Yaz’s controlled exterior. “No, what I’m saying is, we all accept this isn’t what you want. We respect that. But your anger is unnecessary. And short-sighted. And ungrateful.”

Elise’s face was hit by a brick wall of confusion, “Huh? How?”

“Think of it like this.” Yaz settled against the desk beside her, eyes forward. “We rescue this girl from actual, real harm. Take her in. Keep her safe. Fed. Comfortable enough. The only thing we ask, is to accept that leaving isn’t possible. Not yet. And not because we want to keep her here, but because it’s not safe– for anyone to let her go yet. Meanwhile, she’s understandably angry, but despite a polite surface, resentful. Hateful, even.”

Elise hung her head, ashamed.

“How would you feel about her?”

Elise echoed earlier sentiments, certain now whom she meant. “Like she’s an asshole…”

Yaz’s tone firmed in correction. “Or, that she doesn’t understand greater things than her are at stake. And that, unintentional or not, she’s being supremely selfish.”

The room went quiet. It lasted long, thoughtful minutes. Yaz’s words, and Elise’s thoughts, ran their course. Elise’s shame went deeper than she wanted. Whether from the Seers’ around her, or her own internalized guilt, she felt far worse than unwittingly selfish. That she likely occupied the middle ground between her and Yaz’s estimations didn’t help matters. Negatively impacting others she bore no ill-will toward made her stomach.

“What do I do?” Elise asked finally. “And how?”

“We’ve already begun that. You just need more patience. In everything.” Elise gave her a curious look. “I’ve put together a training regiment. It won’t be easy, but I’ll be there. Every step.” Elise’s curiosity faded. Yaz rose, lightly patted her shoulder, “Come on. You’re a long way from being field-rated.”

Elise followed her to the training room. The next few hours passed in sweat and fatigue. Yaz stressed proper form and movement therein. Bench-weights were the simplest place to begin. Yaz spotted, only giving breaks between after several sets of high-reps. Yaz took over here and there, forcing her to spot and watch. Elise relished the shifted pace, and opportunities to breathe.

Treadmill running came with its own challenges. Maintaining proper form at full-tilt to simulate escaping Hunters wasn’t half as easy as it had sounded. Yaz urged her on; a single lapse in form might cause a twisted ankle, wounding or killing her or anyone else with her. She’d seen it happen once– and would say nothing else to the effect.

To Elise’s credit, she easily broke through her own physical barriers, managing to power on, when she should’ve long failed. Either from her own inner-drive, or Yaz’s expert instruction, she attained heights of physical endurance few beginners had known. Let alone herself. There was something to be said of Yaz’s presence and confidence. It topped no-one else’s, making her both an excellent teacher, and a hard-as-nails leader. Elise suspected it was the only way she’d retained control over men and women twice and more her age.

Their day of training ended after the bunker had descended into night-time dormancy. The main corridor was lit, and light peered from beneath various doors. Otherwise, the place was quiet, still. The two girls showered and headed for the kitchen bar. Elise took a seat while Yaz rummaged-up leftovers.

Over a sighing microwave, Elise finally glanced at Yaz, “So, how’d I do? Really, I mean. Don’t sugar-coat it.”

Yaz smiled. “I wouldn’t do that anyhow. And for a first day, you’re beyond where I was. Then again, I was younger, so that had something to do with it.”

Elise grimaced, “Is that good or bad?”

“Good,” Yaz chuckled.

The microwave spat a few beeps. Yaz removed their food and sat beside Elise to eat. Elise was careful to pass the time with anything other than the situation outside the bunker.

“So, who trained you?”

“Just about everyone. Myself included.”

“Everyone? How?”

Yaz chewed with one side of her mouth, spoke with the other. “Everyone’s skilled at something. They took shifts. I mostly learned strategy alone. I spent my nights on it, more as a useful hobby than anything. Eventually, I started arguing about our patrols and defenses. When the others finally got over themselves and started listening, they saw my logic. Soon they were deferring to me. Eventually, it was just easier to put me in charge.

Yaz sipped water, “The Seers taught me to trust my instincts, channel them into reactions. Bryce and the others taught me how to react. Self-defense and combat-tactics. Combined with my own training, I became the fighter I am.”
Elise recalled fleeing the alley. “Why the sword?”

“Its good in close-quarters, and it scares the hell outta’ people,” she said with a hint of amusement. “There’s nothing more intimidating than a tiny, pissed off girl with a couple feet of steel in her hand.” Elise managed a laughed. “The other side is, it’s really easy to win when your opponent underestimates you, and they tend to.”

Elise’s face fell to a sad realization, “So you’ve… probably killed a lot of people, huh?”

Yaz let the question to echo between them with a long drink of water. “Elise, we don’t live in the same world anymore. The one you’ve known your whole life. That’s part of the transition. It’s why it’s so difficult. You have to accept the world isn’t what you knew it to be. It’s filled with blood, and fear, and death. Whether you let it weigh you down or not depends on remembering a simple fact; when the time comes, they’ve made their choice.

“If you’re a guardian for friends or family, you’re their first and last line of defense. If someone intends to test that, ordered to or otherwise, they’ve accepted their lives may be forfeit. I, and the others I command, are the only thing standing between the Seers and fates worse than death at the Hunters’ hands. Each of us will fight to our last breaths and beyond to ensure against that.”

Elise’s stomach bubbled like a cauldron. Yaz was training her to be a weapon. Like her. If it came to it, she’d have to kill. Die even. All to protect those she cared about, as Yaz had sworn to do. Her appetite left her. For the sake of her ailing muscles, she forced the last of her food down, sensing she’d need it to properly recuperate. Yaz sensed her resignation, put a hand on hers for comfort.

“Elise, I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “But our lives are no longer our own. They belong to the people we love. The ones we’d die to protect. That’s the real truth of this life. You must accept it. My sister could not. It’s not easy, I know. I’ve been where you are. We all have. But I’m telling you, it does get easier.”

Elise felt tears welling in her eyes. “How?”

Yaz leaned over, quiet for sympathy’s sake. “By focusing elsewhere. By preparing yourself. So if or when that moment comes, you’re as ready as anyone can be. Because those you serve, deserve it.”

“And if I’m not ready?” Elise asked, her breath fluttering.

Yaz turned Elise’s face toward hers with a pair of gentle fingers. Their eyes met: Yaz’s sharp, determined, and confident, as Elise had come to expect of them; Elise’s pained, frightened, longing for something she wasn’t even aware of.

“I promise, Elise, you will be.”

Elise searched her for deception or uncertainty, found neither. Her head and eyes sank, tears glistening in their corners. She nodded, prompting them to roll down her cheeks. For better or worse, she believed Yaz. Despite a tainted, bygone innocence, a purity of spirit remained in her. She forever radiated an aura of devotion and loyalty. Even without Seers’ abilities, Elise was sure of it.

She breathed deep, steeling herself against fear. Whatever came of her ailing friendship with Hailey, at the least it had brought her Yaz. Without her, Elise would never survive what might come. Whether due to her training, or something more, Yaz’s companionship was fast becoming the thing she could rely on. Hopefully, it would be enough.

Elise and Yaz parted soon after for sleep. Morning training would come early, after Yaz’s daily patrol and security briefing. Until then, Elise needed to rest.

As she lie in bed, waiting to sleep, Elise couldn’t deny her growing dependence on Yaz. She was beginning to need her– as more than a student to a teacher, or one friend to another.

Missed part 8? Read it here!

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Light-Walkers

Uniformity is,
conformity for,
a perilous pitiless,
beast in the night,
whom knows nothing of fright,
nor of those whom walk in the light,
and so hastens the collective goodnight.

And with it comes,
the armies of darkness;
humans mad with desire and fire.
Ruled by fears and told dangerously beautiful lies,
to fight and ultimately die,
for what they believe will allow them to rise,
but is, in fact, only cementing their demise.

The mire is thick,
a drug for mind-sick,
counting off lies,
as does the heart tick,
absent though it may seem,
it is never far,
‘specially for those,
with the deepest of scars.

As they change,
the darkness,
one must wonder:
what form of madness,
did they from,
reality, sunder?

A cold moon rises.
Blood bathes the blades.
Crimson and steel.
Both tepid, real.
Stained with light and dark blood alike.

By firelight,
camps and engines burn bright,
there is no denying the sight;
light and dark-walkers alike,
bleed red as kinfolk might.

As the blood glistens,
blends with dirt,
the charge ripples–
a ceasing wave.
For dark and light abound,
and so too doth red blood.

At last those whom walk in light,
joined by those whom walk in the night,
see the true enemies revealed.
And without their commanded armies,
they find death is real.

Short Story: Caretaker

He sauntered through the airport terminal in a silk suit. Pristine cuts of tailored, black perfectly accented pressed, white beneath. The polished gloss at his feet matched the mirrored sunglasses wrapped beneath his widow’s peak. Everything about him said high-powered businessman, higher than the countless others around him. For all the cross-traffic and insanity of the terminals knew, he was preparing to board a private jet bound for some exotic destination.

He drew more ire from men than admiration from women, however contained either were in their fleeting glances. Looks enveloped the formal-wear and chrome, attache case in his right hand. Were anyone astute enough to notice, they might have had their suspicions aroused by its finger-print locks. It was difficult to tell, but close-up views of his smart-watch revealed itself for the digital tether to the case and its contents. Were he to separate the two by more than a few feet, every acronym agency in the country would be alerted. In turn, so would the President. From him, every other country in the world would learn the case had been separated from the watch.

But no-one in the airport knew that. Nor did they know the case’s contents. Not even the security guard that approached when he refused a scan. The suit remained as calm as the man inside it, ruffled to produce a bi-fold wallet. It laid atop the x-ray machine, open to “C.I.A.” large enough for only the guard to see it.

The wallet and case were promptly returned. The suit, the case, and their bearer were ushered through without delay. The ire of both men and women rippled outward across the small pond of humans gathered. It was greatest from those forced to remove their shoes, or submit to groping in the name of freedom. It, and they, thinned toward nothing the further he found himself from the check-point.

He boarded his plane as any man might and secured himself in a seat beside a window. No-one aboard was any the wiser. The classified courier and his package were unremarkable. He’d removed his sunglasses and settled against his seat. He didn’t even bother to glanced around. He sensed the half-dozen or plain-clothes agents scattered among the usual passengers as if they glowed. Even he wouldn’t have known of them were it not for the brief-glimpses of faces from Langley or its various satellite offices.

Who could suspect a dozen, field-trained CIA operatives were embedded on a random flight from Chicago to Vegas? Moreover, who would suspect an innocuous courier and an unremarkable brief-case carrying a zero-point energy bomb?

The device inside didn’t even work. Not as intended. And it couldn’t explode. Rather, it powered up, reached critical output, then shut down. In the process, it emitted such a lethal dose of radiation anyone in a twenty mile radius would be flash-cooked from inside-out. They’d learned that in Honduras even before he’d been sent to retrieve the damned thing.

What was more, the bomb could be reused. As long as it remained operational, it would work. With miniaturized, super-conductive components encased in steel and platinum, the only barrier to indefinite operation was the compressed helium it needed replenished every so often.

Getting the bomb had nothing short of a war. Field agents were killed and injured. Caretaker himself had a close call. No-one got away unscathed. Either physically, or emotionally, they were all a little less than they’d been.

Op-lead, call-signed Immortal, breached a rear-door of the massive, abandoned chemical factory in with strike-team Alpha. The armed guards patrolling the interior were taken by surprise in their cat-walk positions. Pinpoint-accurate triplets of gunfire barked, splattered blood across surfaces or sparked off metallic railings. Any attempting to flee were suppressed or killed. Most were dead before the last were entrenched behind the upper-floor’s control-room.

Gunfire was exchanged from corners and the control room’s wide, now-shattered window. Half of Immortal’s team were down before Bravo-lead, Locomotive, could flank as planned. The remainders of the two teams sandwiched the upper-level’s forces, moving in and up to brute force their way to the upper-hand. The upper-levels went quiet moments beneath scents of death and expended gunpowder.

Blood had painted the walls and floors with abstracts and Pollockian drip-strokes. They would soon dry, blending with rusted metal and cracked paint of a long-neglected building. For now, the surface sections were eerily still.

Below, Caretaker was moving along the lower levels with Charlie team. Old cement shifted to peeling, lead-lined walls. The latter were newer, narrower, clearly added after the factories construction. Portuguese and Cyrillic listed directions on the walls, lent credence to the facility’s suspected origins. Windowed halls gave views into massive chambers below. The chambers were mostly empty beyond the reinforced glass, save one at the end of a hall.

Inside, a dozen men and women were cloaked in radiation-proof hazmat gear, oblivious to the strike team hunkered down and watching them at a containment vessel. They began to transfer a phone-sized device into a lead-lined case. For no reason could Caretaker or Charlie allow it to leave the country– indeed, the facility, in anyone’s hands but theirs.

Caretaker led his team to a T-junction beyond the windowed room, followed a stairwell left, down, to the lowest edge of the cube-like rooms they’d passed. Guards stationed every twenty feet fell to quick aim. Caretaker remained on-point, hurrying the team along a short corridor, alcove-to-alcove, headed for the containment room.

Gunfire created a rhythm of punctual bursts from the half of Charlie-team covering the rear-flank. Surplus Soviet gear roared over the high-yapps of the latest, mil-spec SMGs.

The hack on the key-card access was quick; a minor splice of some wires. The three-foot thick containment chamber opened. A Geiger-counter clicked green, allowed the free-half of Charlie-strike to move in on hazmat-suited scientists that immediately surrendered at their ingress. They were ordered to the ground while the package was retrieved. It was placed inside the attache-case.

Since then, Caretaker had been attached to it. From Brazil, to Chicago, and now on to Vegas.

He wasn’t able to sleep the whole flight. He’d never been able to. Planes terrified him. Maybe he’d jumped out of one too many during Ranger school. He bided his time in the most unremarkable way of a book of crosswords. It kept his hands and his mind alternatively occupied when one or the other got ahead or away from him.

Caretaker exited Vegas to an long car-ride in a black, unmarked SUV. It ended at the Groom-Lake facility– colloquially known as Area-51. He had to admit some part of him was all the more eager to take the job for the idea of seeing the fabled base. His job was only concluded after he handed the brief-case and tether-band to an Air-Force General. The shoulders stars spoke less of his importance than the severity of his stiffness. Beside him, the black-suited Groom-Lake CIA liaison and a former director of Langley, escorted the General from the hallway where the exchange was made.

It was almost surreal, what Caretaker saw of the fabled Area-51. It was as normal as any office building, as boring as any administrative floor. The thought accompanied him all the way back to the airport and along his departure for Langley to debrief. Like him, that curious office-look was a facade masking countless depths of Man’s most unimaginable achievements, angelically miraculous or insurmountably devilish.

For Caretaker’s part, he knew at least one evil now resided there. Whatever the intent to its storage, for good or ill, it was out of the hands of known-madmen. Caretaker found solace in his faith that those whom held it might find a way to use it for good, or not at all. In any case, he’d done his part. He relaxed against his window seat and re-opened his crossword book. A lingering thought drifted away with the first of his writing; a wonder if known madmen remained in possession of the bomb.