Turn About (Part One)
Even late at night the city throbbed with a million pinpoints of light. If I had been able to see the stars, I might have been able to draw comparison. Unfortunately in this day and age there was hardly anywhere on earth that you could go to see the stars anymore. Most people never even bother to leave their corporate enclave, barring transfers they never saw more of the world than the holovids showed them.
My office was pretty high up, and quite simply that meant that I was a pretty damn important guy. It was a well-known fact that the higher your work space was, the more powerful your position with the company. I once had lunch with a middle management wage-slave who had a theory that the elevators went all the way to heaven, but you had to have an executive washroom key to get inside. That was back before my meteoric rise, now I knew better, the higher up the corporate ladder you went the farther you got from anything resembling humanity.
Being a Vice President of the company gave me some clout, but on the other hand there were more VPs than any other single executive position in the company. It was the killing ground for future executives; you either moved up the ladder or were culled from the herd. I guess I had an advantage, because they had put me in charge of a research division. I had been a research project leader before my promotion. At the time it had meant great things, now I wonder if I made the right choice moving into the arena.
I stood up and walked over to the window of my office. The Plexiglas they used for windows had been treated to seal out the temperature, but I could see the clouds swirling overhead. Yeah, I was pretty high up, but even I didn’t have an office above the clouds. With the warmth and humidity outside, it looked like a nasty thunderstorm was starting.
Sometimes I remembered my childhood, back when some people still lived outside of city and enclave. The sharp taste of ozone in the air during a particularly fierce thunderstorm, the soothing sound of raindrops on the roof of our house, and the fresh smell of grass after the storm ended. Even decades later it was still fresh in my mind.
As I watched the first raindrops fall, the soundproof windows kept all the sounds of the city out. I might as well have turned the windows opaque and projected false scenery, that was what most of my neighbors did. Looking at the muted storm outside my windows, I had to concede that it might have seemed more real if it were fake. That was true of most things in my world, the fake things were the most vibrant. It made sense to me, as much as I thought I missed being a kid and playing out in the storms, I knew that part of me loved the safe and secure feeling of being inside my office. Not even Mother Nature herself could blow my house down, we made our buildings tornado and earthquake proof. Towering monoliths of plastic and steel that scraped the sky itself. In the end none of that really mattered to me, it was all a distraction to keep me from thinking about what I had in my desk drawer.
My hand shook as I slid it open and gazed at the three items inside. The first was a small plastic card that was mostly transparent with the words MagLev in large letters, and a scrolling holo display below that showed the departure time. Beside that was a plastic tube about three inches long with a flat display on it as well. At the moment the display was blank, but I knew that all I had to do was put my thumb print on it and I would get a read out of how many credits were on the stick. I had liquidated most of my belongings and money into the untraceable stick, it would be enough to live well for a long time. It was the last item that held my attention the most, however, and that was because it was a gun.
The gun was a medium caliber compact pistol that was favored mostly by cops and security guards. It had been recommended to me because it ‘has enough stopping power and holds enough bullets to get the job done’. As I picked it up my hand shook so violently that I wondered if even fifteen shots would be enough to hit anything. If the friend who was waiting for me had heard me say something like that he would have smirked and said a prissy exec like me had no business with a gun anyhow, but desperate times…
I had been waiting for what seemed like years when the televid finally rang. In a nervous rush I pressed the connect button so quickly I almost knocked it off my desk. The display remained blank, but a deep voice said, “The dinner reservations have been arranged, I’ll be expecting you tonight.”
He was purposely disguising his voice, but if I hadn’t known him so well it would have sounded authentic to me. I caught myself before I nodded, with the video display blank it would have done no good, and said, “I’ll be there.”
Normally he would have cut the call without saying anything else, he was brusque like that, but instead he added, “Be careful, it looks like all hell is breaking loose out there, bring your umbrella.”
Before I could reply, he cut the connection, but I had gotten the message. As much as I hated it, I would have to bring the gun. If he was worried enough to say something, then that was enough to send a major chill down my spine.
I threw on my overcoat and loaded the pockets with the items from my desk, making sure that the gun was in the large pocket near my right hand. If I was lucky I wouldn’t have to touch the thing again, but no way was I taking a chance on fumbling for the thing if I needed it. Then I was out the door and down the hallway to the elevator.
That late at night most of the people had left, but there was still the occasional late worker or security guard. Anytime someone glanced at me, I had to resist the urge to scream or draw my gun. I remembered from watching old movies on the holovid that people used to smoke cigarettes when they were nervous, but no one smoked anymore. Most vises were a lot more intrusive now; you either piped it directly into your brain or your veins. The only people who still smoked were the riffraff that lived in the city between the corporate enclaves.
Right then, however, I really felt like I could use a cigarette.
The elevator chimed as it reached the lobby and the doors opened onto a sprawling display of faux nature scenery. Miniature waterfalls dribbled over rocks and into rivers that ran through displays of trees. Most of it was artificial or holographic. According to the PR department the trickling sound of water was supposed to be soothing to visitors, but with my nerves so raw it just made me wonder if I needed to pee. The doorman hailed a cab for me as I exited the building, but I waved him away with a hand that must have betrayed some of my anxiety.
“May I assist you in some other way Vice President?”
“No need,” I said as I popped out my umbrella, “I’m not going far, I think I’ll walk.”
He looked at me as if I had sprouted flowers from my ears, but nodded and returned to post. I was just grateful to be on my way again.
The trip to the MagLev station wasn’t really that long, but looking over the shoulder adds time to a trip. I knew deep down inside that someone would be after me, the information I had taken was just too valuable and damaging for the company to ignore. Even if I had chosen to leave the files alone, it was likely they would take me out anyway just to cover their bases.
Normally the station would have been packed, but between the weather and the time it was empty. I took a seat on the bench to wait. The station was uniformly colored a light grey and every surface was either plastic or concrete. Like most things inside an enclave, it was sterile. If one bothered to get off at a station in the unclaimed parts of the city they might find litter and bums.
Footsteps rang out across the empty station, so loud they had to be purposeful. I turned on instinct to see who it was, and caught sight of a familiar face. He was a few inches over six feet, wearing an exquisitely tailored business suit, and had his dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail over a face that was sharp and angular.
“Chase,” I said, struggling to keep my voice steady, “didn’t expect to see anyone this late.”
“Ditto,” he smirked, “but not all of us can keep steady hours like you researchers. So I guess, I should be more curious about what drags a mad scientist like you out of his lab this late at night?”
“Mini-vacation, figured I’d take a break from the project and see if a weekend away could give me a little more perspective.”
Chase walked over to the bench and sat down beside me. He was closer than most strangers would have sat, but still far enough away to not breach my personal space. Instead of speaking right away, his mouth spread into his customary smirk. We knew each other from work, I was a director of R&D and he…actually, I didn’t know what he did. I had seen him around the office frequently, but anytime his own work came up he steered the conversation away.
“So what business is keeping you out so late,” I asked, my anxiety rising like a fever.
“Right, you don’t really know what I do for the company. I have one of those jobs that are boring ninety percent of the time, and then way too hectic the other ten.”
“And that job is,” I quested.
“Troubleshooting,” he answered, “the company has problems and I handle them.”
He opened his coat and smoothly drew a pistol, placing it on his knee casually.
I sprang to my feet, and starting backing away from Chase. Picking up my own gun had made my hands shake, but seeing someone else with a gun was turning my knees to gelatin. He made no move to raise the gun or stand up, but I could see the tension slowly building in him. It was not the erratic anxiety of a man on the run, but the controlled tension of a predator about to pounce on his prey.
“I have orders,” Chase said as he slowly stood up, “to bring you back alive, if you give me the files you copied. It’s not too late to fix things.”
He thumbed the safety off, and his stance suddenly became springy. I ducked behind one of the square pillars that filled the room, and fumbled for the gun in my pocket, hoping that I would not shoot myself in the process.
“Draw the gun, disengage the safety, point and squeeze,” I repeated the mantra under my breath, trying to remember what he had always said, “always take cover, and memorize your exits.”
“Alex, please don’t waste my time” Chase laughed, “you’re not a killer, just help me out here and I’ll return the favor. You don’t really think you’re capable of shooting me, do you?”
I briefly wondered how he knew I had been carrying a gun, but then berated myself for breaking concentration. If I kept myself calm, maybe Chase would underestimate me enough to shoot him. By that logic, if I wished hard enough I could just fly out of there on magical fairy wings too, but I had to cling to something.
“Okay, if that’s how you want it,” he said again, his voice coming from a different direction, “I have to get that data, but the part about bringing you in alive was optional.”
I leaned out from the corner and squeezed off a shot in the direct his voice had come. The gun jumped, and it actually hurt the soft skin of my hand, before growing uncomfortable warm. Instead of leaning back immediately like I should have, I looked around for Chase. A sliver of him appeared as he leaned out to shoot at me. I cursed myself for not moving sooner and threw myself back, but not quick enough to completely avoid his shot. It scored a line of heat across my left arm.
There was no pain from the wound, instead a sort of tingling numbness where his bullet had grazed me. When I tried to move my arm, the pain finally came and it was worse than anything I had felt in my life. My breathing grew faster and shallower, and my vision condensed into a tight tunnel as I tried to lean around and shoot at Chase again. Two bullets flew from my gun, and the answering fire blew pieces of plasticrete off the pillar beside my head.
A deep rumbling came from the MagLev tunnel, signaling the approach of the train at last. Unfortunately, if I tried to run for the doors as they opened I would end up getting myself shot. My brain raced as the train approached and my time ran out. If I missed this train, Chase would kill or capture me, and I wasn’t really sure which one was worse.
“I give up,” I shouted, “I’m coming out.”
“Throw out your gun,” Chase shouted back.
I wavered, if I threw out my gun that would leave me completely helpless. Yeah, I know I wasn’t doing so well with a gun, but still…
A shot hit the ground in front of me, punctuating his point.
“Okay,” I yelled, tossing the gun away from me. It slid across the semi-smooth surface farther than I would have figured. I held my hands over my head and stepped out from the pillar on the side that left me closer to the place where the approaching train would stop. Chase was not a moron, he probably suspected what I was doing, but I still have one last trick up my sleeve.
He stepped out with his gun trained on me.
“Do you have the files,” he said, his gun arm never moved, “I need the files, then we’ll see what I can do for you.”
I nodded and reached for the inner pocket of my coat. Chase’s eyes flashed and his gun arm tensed slightly.
“It’s okay, I’m just going for the datastick,” I said freezing, “do you want it or not.”
His head inclined the barest amount, and I continued. I reached into my pocket and drew out the credstick from my desk. The small cylinder felt insubstantial in my hand. As I slowly held up the stick, the train rolled to a smooth and silent stop behind me. It was gliding on magnetic fields and only the displacement of wind created the soft hiccupping sound it made as if traveled.
“Bring it to me,” Chase said as the doors behind me opened, “but just remember that I have no problem shooting you.”
I slowly counted to ten, trying to remember how long the doors would stay open, and then nodded, “Here you go.”
The credstick was light, so I had to put a lot more force into throwing it to make it reach the stairs leading to the maintenance tunnels. It landed just shy of the first step, but then rolled out of sight. Chase’s eyes bore holes into me, but I turned to run for the MagLev. There were sharp cracks of sound behind me, but I kept running. I even kept running as I felt three shooting stars tear through my torso. The bullets impacted against the windows on the other side of the train after they passed through me. Idly my mind wondered if the bulletproof glass would have resisted the bullets if I hadn’t slowed them down first.
I crashed into the closing doors and spun before slumping in a heap against the seats on the opposite of the entrance. My eyes flared like a camera in the sun, but then I saw Chase running for the stairway where I had thrown my credstick.
My body slumped down further in the seat. I tried to grasp the rail to keep myself upright, but my hands were rapidly losing their strength. In the end I had to resort to throwing my right arm over the handrail and pushing with my feet to keep me from falling on the floor. This was the express, so there were fewer stops, but something about the way I was breathing made me wonder if it would be fast enough.
Speed continued to pick up until we were blowing across the landscape. All the lights of the city stretched and blurred, it was beautiful, but it had never done that before. Then time started moving in hops, the terrain blanking out and then coming back again. Sometimes I would find myself in a different position after one of the hops and had to push myself back up into the seat.
As I traveled, something did come into my mind. It was strange passing into a dream while I was awake, but then again I might not have been. Only this was no dream, it was a memory. I remembered being in school and wanting to go to college, and then the day I received my corporate sponsorship. It had meant there was hope for my future.
Then I remembered the day I had made the break through on the digital memory model. The angry glares from my fellow researchers, the smooth smile of the 3rd Division President who was promoting me, and the knowledge that I would never be able to relax again.
Finally, there was the day I sold my soul for money and peace of mind. Not the day I took the promotion, it was the day I agreed to sell my research data and working prototype. Once I made the deal, I wanted to back out, but just making the deal was enough to get my killed. Even if I went those on high, at the very least I would be removed from the corporation. My buyer was not above turning me in if he thought I might back out of our deal.
So then I was on the train, carrying the data and the working memory model, and I was dying. I wanted to reverse time to the point where I could escape, but where had I gone wrong? Was it the day I sold out, traded up, or bought in?
The train blew through two more stops before it reached my destination. I pushed myself to my feet, and nearly fell over. Not only was my shirt soaked, but I could feel my pants sticking to me as well. I dimly wondered about that, but my head felt fuzzy like it was wrapped in wool. All my thoughts were distant and fleeting.
Somehow, I made it off the train and ended up in a stumbling sort of horizontal fall that carried me to the bench. I collapsed on it, this time not bothering to sit up. My eyes felt strange, I might have been seeing everything in black and white, but the station was grey so I couldn’t tell.
A shadow detached itself from the wall. His face was familiar as he rushed over to me, but slid to a stop beside the bench. In the space of a moment his eyes slid over me and he let out a slow breath. His face was expressionless, and would have been chilling to me on any other day. Despite the lack of emotion there, I could see the hint of disapproval in his eyes, or was I just imaging things that weren’t there?
“That…bad,” I coughed, “it doesn’t hurt, like I thought.”
“No, Alex,” he said in his normal calm, “by this point it usually does not hurt.”
I fumbled for the device in my pocket. Chase might have killed me, but there was still a chance the plan could work.
“I need to do…this,” my damn throat closed up as I started hacking. More fluid came out of my lips, and I was surprised by the amount.
He helped me remove the device from my pocket, and as I passed it to him there was something like an arc of electricity between our hands. I felt myself being pulled in two different directions, my spirit being torn in half between the pull of earthly technologies, and a much older call that comes to all men.
I looked at the man who stood over me, such a stranger and yet becoming more familiar with each passing second, and knew that I had to confide in him before his knowledge of me would make it pointless. Shortly he would know me as well as I know myself, but not yet, “It was because of the rain…they locked me in that tower, and they took away the rain.”
He looked down at me, not understanding, but I knew that he would soon enough.
My thoughts were racing, but unlike usual they had a destination this time. There was no white light, but I could feel a change, almost like a train tunnel that I was entering. Once I reached the other side it would all be over.
He stood over me like a statue, just holding my hand. Before my eyes stopped working I could see him as a silhouette before me, and then it was me looking down from where he stood. A moment later it was all gone.
The man gently picked his friend up from the bench. His weight was nothing in his arms, and he carried him from the train station.
Rain poured from the skies overhead, and the man stopped for a moment and turned his face to the rain and let it wash over him. It washed the blood from his friend’s face and left his face looking serene and peaceful.
They soon reached the docks, and the man laid his burden down gently upon the ground as the oceans quaked ahead. Quickly he shed his clothes and then went about the process of stripping the body. He pulled a small black metal box from his clothes and then carried his friend down to the beach. After looking for a few moments he found a large stone and then lashed it tightly to the body, using fine cord that unrolled from the black box.
Once he had lashed the stone to the body’s chest, he pulled it out into the turbulent seas and began swimming. Fierce waters pulled at him, and his burden slowed his progress, but the man pushed on with inexhaustible strength. When the dock was a distant sight, he finally pulled the body from his back. He had to kick his feet hard to stay aloft while holding onto the body, but still he did not let go.
With a gentleness that belied his strength, the man closed his friend’s eyes. Around him the storm’s fury raged, wave after wave tried to pull him under, and his friend’s body threatened to pull him under. Rage pounded inside of him as well, threatening to pull him down to the depths just as surely as the ocean. He tried to fight the rage within as he did without, but that storm was a much stronger one.
Finally he let the body go, sinking into the depths with a cold finality. In the moment he also let himself go, sinking into the depths of his rage. No one heard his cries over the storm, and the ocean was little affected by his thrashings, but he let it have him for the moment at least. Alone, where it was safe to feel and be himself.
Then, his body heavy and exhausted from the exertion of swimming and the play of his feelings, he swam back towards shore. He collapsed on the wet sand with a great exhalation of air and lay gasping for breath as the rain pounded down from above, and the shore smashed at him from behind. After an eternity he rose and walked to where he had left their belongings.
His clothes lay beside his friends, like two bodies on the ground. Two choices before him. The choice was made in an instant, and then he hurled his clothes into the ocean and dressed in the others. All he kept of his old belongings was a gun.
It only took him a moment to see where the shots had pierced the clothing. Much of the blood had been washed away, but the stains remained. Then he took his own gun, aimed, and fired into his own body. The first shot was easy, but the second was much more difficult, and the last was pure agony. He hurled the gun into the sea with his dwindling strength.
The walk from the beach to a vidphone was painful, but the man bore it well and kept his wits about him. He had to restrain his impulse to stop the blood loss, and instead just focused on putting one foot in front of the other until he reached his destination. The ID in his pocket activated the vidphone, and alerted emergency services to his condition. Response time was quick considering the neighborhood.
A white ambulance rolled to a stop, the hum of its electric engine giving almost no sound. Two paramedics rushed to his side and strapped him to a board before sliding him into the back of the van. They worked over him in short, professional movements. The man felt his consciousness slipping, and it must have shown in his eyes, because one of the paramedics leaned down to look into his eyes.
“Stay with me, sir. We need you to stay away; your blood loss is pretty severe. Can you stay awake Mr,” he looked at the ID, “Valin.”
The man nodded, and spoke through his oxygen mask, “Call me, Alex.”
End Part One