Category Archives: Free Fiction

The Commuter

 

The Commuter

by Michael R. Fletcher

8:50am. Friday.

An hour stuck in parking lot-like traffic, screaming at the bastards impeding his progress–drive like you’re going somewhere!–and Shawn finally arrived at SAMA Accounting. He parked the Bentley, kicking the door closed as he exited the vehicle.

It might be his car, but it wasn’t like he paid for it. Not really.

Hell with ’em both. They did this to me.

Shawn approached the SAMA entrance, slowing as he neared. Why? Why was he doing this to himself? He should go for a beer. Hell with work. When was the last time he had a cold beer? He couldn’t remember. It seemed like months, but it had been years.

He glanced at Rancy’s Bar, a divey little wanna-be Irish Pub, across the street. For sure they had Guinness.

No. He’d made a choice, he’d live by it. This was for the best. Right?

Shawn pushed through the plate-glass doors before he could change his mind, stalked through the crowded lobby, head down, and into the security cordon. They probably thought him rude. Didn’t matter.

I must be an idiot. Nothing is worth this.

Except apparently he didn’t believe that.

He knew how he felt, right? If he ignored how miserable he was, there must be worth it. Right? Both Work Shawn and Home Shawn could remember the commute. They knew what a hell his life was. They knew. They remembered. And still they did nothing.

Bastards.

Prashanti, head of SAMA security, watched Shawn from behind the bomb-proof glass. Was looking paranoid was part of her job description, or just something that came naturally? The little hopper door opened with a sigh, and there sat his Memory Plug, Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer displayed in winking green text. Work Shawn, right there. Lucky bastard. He was the reason for all of this.

When things got bad at home and he’d thought Doris would leave him, he’d decided, with the help of the Human Resources department and a hefty raise, that his personal life was messing up his performance at work.

The answer was obvious: Keep work at work, and leave the home life at home. And ne’er the two shall meet. As he already wore a Memory Plug for work so he couldn’t take home any of the sensitive numbers he dealt with every day, achieving this was simple. One Memory Plug for work and one for home. Home Shawn had no idea what he did at work, and Work Shawn had no idea what went on at home. Happiness all around, right? Work Shawn could focus with the kind of Obsessive/Compulsive behaviour that got him here and Home Shawn could focus on being a great husband and father. SAMA even footed the bill for the second plug.

It must have worked. Here he was, three years later, still looking at that damned plug every morning.

But there was a third Shawn: Commuter Shawn.

He hadn’t really thought this through. Third Shawn was unplugged Shawn, the guy who made the commute to and from work every day. He’d lived maybe fourteen hundred hours in the last three years, all of that stuck in traffic. The commute was his life.

“You’ll be late,” said Prashanti.

Shawn glanced towards the lobby and freedom. No. He must want to be here. He collected the plug and brought it up to the neural socket on–

5:04pm. Friday.

–the back of his skull.

There he was again, standing in the security cordon. Security guards lounged near both exits and Prashanti watched Shawn disapprovingly from behind the bomb-proof glass. Did she ever go home?

Shawn glared at the moulded plastic flesh-tone plug sitting in his hand. Drop it to the floor, stomp it to dust. No one could stop him. He could end this right now.

“Plug,” said Prashanti sounding annoyed and he obediently dropped it into the waiting hopper. Coward. With a quiet sip it was sucked into the waiting storage facility and filed away. It’d be waiting for him Monday after he’d lived through two more hours of hell.

Time, he thought, and the current time and date displayed in the upper corner of his vision. Almost exactly eight hours since he’d last existed. No over-time then. Did that mean things were better at home with Doris? He’d never know. The last time he saw his wife she said he was an angry asshole and she never wanted to see him again. It didn’t help that he hadn’t recognised their daughter. Not my fault! A month and a half for him and suddenly Jeannie was three years old.

Christ, I’m missing everything!

Shawn left SAMA without acknowledging the other folks filing out alongside him. They chatted amongst themselves, but no one talked to him. No one ever talked to him.

The Bentley hummed to life the moment his seatbelt was fastened and his favourite playlist came on; all math metal all the time. Shawn sat in the parked car, listening to hyper-precise blastbeats. The music was all that kept him sane through the drive home. Rancey’s beckoned.

Go for a beer. Just one. If he took but a moment for himself today, maybe tomorrow he wouldn’t want to die. Home Shawn would be late for dinner and that would piss Doris off. Give her another reason to hate me. Shawn sat, listening to the thirty-second notes on the kick drum.

Across the street a woman waved at him. Someone from work? Confused, he waved back. She had nice hair, long and dark, and her clothes had an artsy home-made look. She blew him a kiss and disappeared into the crowd of pedestrians fighting to board the masstrans.

Who was that?

He shook his head and shoved his way into traffic scattering pedestrians and causing half a dozen drivers to lean on their horns.

Fuck ’em.

Traffic crawled. He slammed his palms against the steering wheel until they hurt. Then he did it some more.

Why didn’t Home Shawn leave a snack in the car, something small and tasty? Was he worried about getting fat, or just a thoughtless bastard?

Once home Shawn climbed out of the Bentley, his knees creaking. Doris’ stupid Land Rover was in the drive and he pulled up close behind it, intentionally blocking her in. Why the hell did she need a monster all-wheel drive vehicle when she never left the city?

The front door recognized him, swinging open, and he faced the home-equivalent of SAMA’s security cordon. There was a sizeable foyer finished in brass and marble, with a closet, a scattering of tables Doris had bought at antique shows back before she hated him, and a locked door at the far end. On the door was a note, written in his hand even though he couldn’t remember writing it. The note said: Plug in before entering.

It was a reminder in case he ever forgot or thought maybe he deserved a taste of life.

In the back of the closet was a safe. Inside the safe was a Memory Plug and the key for the door with the note.

Thumb print. Retina scan. Enter an eight digit code. The safe swung open and there sat a flesh-toned plug, the word Home stencilled on it. Such a little word. How he missed it.

Shawn picked up the plug.

Destroy it. End this torture. I’m the real Shawn. I deserve better.

No. Destroy the plugs, and he’d be unemployed and divorced in no time.

Shawn lifted the plug to the socket on the back of–

7:45am. Monday.

–his skull. Shawn stood in the foyer, looking dully at the spotless marble and brass.

Who cleans this? Did I do it? Unlikely. They probably had a cleaning service. Doris hated cleaning as much as he did. Had, he corrected. He used to hate cleaning. When was the last time I cleaned something? He couldn’t remember. Cleaning seemed high entertainment compared to another rush hour commute. He’d stay here and polish brass for fun except the damned stuff was already spotless.

He tossed the plug into the safe and slammed the door closed. Fuck you.

Time, he thought. Yet another weekend gone.

His head ached and he felt groggy, like someone stored rotting gym socks in his skull. His mouth tasted sour and he felt like a wrung-out wash-cloth turned mouldy.

Am I hungover? Had the bastard been drinking Sunday night and then left him to deal with the hangover while stuck in traffic? His teeth tasted of the same gym socks that were in his brain. Bastard didn’t even brush his teeth!

Home Shawn knew how miserable he was and yet did he unplug once, just for a few minutes so he could live something other than the fucking commute? No!

Did Doris hate him that much?

When he checked his pocket for his wallet he found a crumpled pastry in a zip-lock bag. He dangled the bagged pastry before his eyes.

What’s this? An apology for the hangover?

Shawn opened the bag, removed the pastry, and stuffed the entire thing into his mouth. It was stale, but easily the best thing he’d tasted in months and far better than his own rancid tongue. He coughed white icing sugar over the perfectly clean marble and hoped to hell Home Shawn would have to clean it up.

Shawn slid into the Bentley and the car hummed to life the moment his seatbelt was fastened. He sat in silence.

Where was the music?

“Load math metal playlist,” he told the stereo.

“Playlist not found,” the car informed him in a feminine voice with the slightest hint of an English accent.

Not found? Not fucking found?

Doris deleted it. On purpose?

She must have.

Payback for parking her in?

Shawn glanced towards the front door. He could go in and get the stik his music was stored on. Dumping the tunes back on the Bentley’s stereo would only take seconds. But the Range Rover was still in the drive, parked just beyond his bumper. She was home. He’d either have to go through the annoyance of unplugging and hope Home Shawn was kind enough to fetch the music stik, or face Doris himself. She’d know. No way he could hide which Shawn he was.

He sat frozen in indecision, fingers tapping the steering wheel in time to the music he couldn’t listen to. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t face her. She hated him.

“I’m not afraid of her.”

Right.

Wait. The last time he’d seen the stik wasn’t a couple of months ago, it was three years ago. What were the odds it was where he’d left it? He thought back. Where had he left it? He couldn’t remember. Home Shawn would have to get it for him.

No. He could manage a day without music. Home Shawn would get the stik for him tomorrow.

“What playlists are loaded?” he asked the stereo.

“Country Classics of the Twenty-Teens,” the stereo answered.

Oh. Doris’ shit.

Shawn roared the Bentley up the ramp into the SAMA parking lot at 9:13am. The tires didn’t so much as squeak in protest and the stability control kept the ride perfectly smooth. How could something with so much power be so quiet? Just one more disappointment.

He climbed from the car, kicked the door closed, and headed for the SAMA entrance. The lobby was near empty. He avoided looking at the few people also arriving. Why make small talk? He hadn’t seen in anyone he worked with in three years. What could he talk about, how miserable he was?

“You’re late,” said Prashanti.

The little hopper door opened with an apathetic sigh, and there sat his Memory Plug, Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer winking in merry green. Work Shawn. Could Work Shawn be as miserable as he? After all, his entire life was the job. Nothing but numbers and equations, formulae and graphs. No. He’d loved that job. Numbers he was good at. People, they were the problem. At least until he’d met Doris. She was different. At least she had been.

What changed?

Prashanti coughed and nodded at the plug.

Shawn scooped it up and, before he could change his mind, jammed it into the neural–

5:45pm. Monday.

–socket.

Time, he thought. Why do I bother? Was he afraid he’d miss a day, that somehow they’d just stop unplugging and he’d be banished to limbo?

He clenched his fist, feeling the plug nestled in his palm. Was that an unreasonable fear?

“Plug,” said Prashanti.

Shawn dropped it into the waiting hopper and walked quickly through the SAMA lobby. Once outside he stood in the sun, enjoying its warmth on his skin. Across the street Rancey’s beckoned.

“Fuck ’em both, I’m going for a drink.”

“Mind if I join you?” a voice asked from behind.

Shawn turned and found his arms suddenly full of woman. “Hey,” he said, wondering how to politely extricate himself.

“Hey yourself,” she said, and, wrapping her arms around his neck, planted a long wet kiss on his lips. He felt her fingers find and caress the neural socket.

She stood, arms still around his neck, grinning into his face, her dark eyes six inches from his. It was the woman he’d seen yesterday, the one who’d blown him the kiss. Her clothes still had that artsy, home-made look.

“Umm,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “Oh, shit! I’m sorry! I forgot you aren’t wearing your plug.” She laughed and her breath smelled minty. “You probably think I’m some crazy chick.” She still hadn’t let go.

“I…I know you?”

“Yeah, of course.” She winked. “I don’t go around kissing complete strangers. We work together. We’re…you know…” She shrugged, looking embarrassed but amused.

“We are?” What has Work Shawn been up to? “You sly dog,” he said.

“Pardon?” She looked up into his eyes.

“Sorry, not you. Me. Work Shawn. I had no idea he had it in him. I’d never cheat on Doris, even though she hates me. But he’s safe I guess. He doesn’t even exist outside the office.” Shawn had a thought. “Hey. What do you guys do, duck into the bathroom for quickies?”

She laughed and let go of his neck. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed. “Pretty much. You still going for that drink?” She nodded at Rancey’s. “Mind if I join you?”

“Umm. I don’t know.” Jesus he wanted a beer. How long had it been? “I don’t think I should. My wife…”

The woman shrugged. “After what you did to me at lunch, going for a drink is nothing.”

That’s true. Home Shawn knows how miserable I am and all he can do is a crumpled pastry and a hangover? I deserve better.

“Sure, one drink,” he said.

Rancey’s was about what he’d expected. Everything looked like dark wood and burgundy velour, but the wood façade was peeling and the velour rubbed bare. The woman led him to a secluded booth, weaving between tables, her hips swaying seductively. She slid onto the bench and tucked herself into the corner. Shawn, unsure where to sit, sat across the table from her. God this is strange. To think, he’d had carnal knowledge of this woman and knew nothing of it. If they’d had sex today, he was still ragingly horny.

“I don’t even know your name,” he blurted.

“Andrea.” She offered a hand and he shook it. “Nice to meet you.”

“Ditto,” he said.

“You called yourself Work Shawn.”

“Yeah. Me at work is Work Shawn and me at home is Home Shawn.”

She gave him a look he couldn’t decipher. “Who are you then?” she asked.

“Commuter Shawn.”

“That’s strange.”

Didn’t Work Shawn tell her any of this? Is he embarrassed of me? “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

The bartender appeared and Andrea ordered a double scotch, neat, and a crème de menthe. Shawn ordered a pint of Guinness. When the drinks arrived, she shot the scotch back in a single swallow and sipped daintily at the crème de menthe.

Shawn took a long pull of his Guinness. It was cold, bitter and beautiful.

“How do you remember me?” he asked. “You don’t wear a plug?”

“Nope.” She lifted her long, dark hair to show there were no neural sockets hidden beneath. Her neck was slim and her ears small. “I’m a secretary. No need for a plug, I don’t handle sensitive information.”

“Oh.” That made sense, he supposed.

They drank in silence, her appearing perfectly at ease, him shifting uncomfortably on the bench.

What am I doing here? This is crazy!

“I should probably head for home,” he said, downing the last of his pint.

She nodded agreeably and began digging around in her purse.

“Uh, it’s okay,” he said. “I’ll get this.”

“I’ll get the next one,” she offered and he didn’t know what to say to that and said nothing.

Back in the parking lot she gave him another hug. “I’d like to see you again,” she said.

“Don’t you see me every day?”

“This you,” she said, poking him in the chest. “Maybe we can go for another drink tomorrow.”

“Sure, maybe.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck again and gave him another long kiss. She tasted minty, just like before. Her tongue touched his, little more than a soft taste, and she let go. She blew him another wet kiss as she disappeared into the masstrans.

Okay, maybe I could go for another drink.

The drive home wasn’t so bad. The worst of the rush hour traffic was over, and he even listened to some of Doris’ country-twang bullshit. It wasn’t so bad; it reminded him of her and the good days they’d had.

He slid into the driveway at 7:22pm, making sure to leave Doris’ Land Rover lots of space. That was a battle he was doomed to lose.

“Home Shawn,” he said aloud, still sitting in the Bentley. “Remember the music stik tomorrow. I can’t take another drive with this country music.”

Inside the brass and marble foyer, the pastry sugar dust was gone. Once again, Home Shawn got off easy.

Shawn opened the safe and stared at the plug within.

“I get a little life too, okay? Just a taste. You owe me that.”

He reached for the plug

8:59am. Tuesday.

Shawn stood in the security cordon at SAMA.

How the fuck did I get here?

Glancing around he saw Prashanti staring at him from behind her bomb-proof glass. In his right hand were two Memory Plugs. One had the word Home stencilled on it. The other said Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer in winking green text.

Home Shawn drove to work?

“You’re going to be late,” said Prashanti.

“Fuck off,” he said without looking up from the plugs.

Home Shawn drove to work and tried to jack Work Shawn in before I could do anything about it. Why would he do that? The woman? Is he afraid I’ll have an affair? This is crazy! Work Shawn is already having an affair! What does it matter if I get a little something too. My whole life is sitting in traffic!

“Okay,” he said to the two plugs, knowing both Home Shawn and Work Shawn would remember this moment. “Don’t do that again. You have to allow me something, just a little moment of happiness. Work Shawn is already having his fun. I just want a tiny bit of what he has. Okay? Don’t be selfish.”

He dropped the Home plug into the hopper and jacked the Work plug into his neural–

5:14pm. Tuesday.

–socket.

Shawn stood in the SAMA security cordon, the Work plug in his right hand. The Home plug sat in the hopper, awaiting him. Collecting the Home plug, he dropped the Work plug into the hopper. At least Work Shawn hadn’t tried anything sneaky.

As he turned away, Prashanti called out, “There’s a message for you from inside. It’s being vetted by security. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.”

“A couple of minutes is all I get,” he said, turning to leave. “I’ll get the message later.”

Andrea was waiting for him outside.

Are those the same clothes she wore yesterday, or just really similar? He couldn’t tell. Fashion and clothes had never been of much interest. If women were a mystery, artsy women were something far beyond that, like the last digit of pi. Doris was all about the numbers, just like him; she made sense, he could understand her. At least some of the time.

“You get out early?” he asked as Andrea approached.

She grabbed his face, and dropped a long wet kiss on him. She tasted of mint.

“Hi,” he said when she finally let go.

“What a day,” she said. “I could use a drink.”

“Sounds good to me.”

At Rancey’s she ordered a double scotch and a crème de menthe, banging back the scotch with a contented sigh. “What a day,” she said again.

Shawn sipped at his Guinness. “What happened?”

“Well for one thing, you and I didn’t get a chance to…” she waggled her eyebrows.

“We didn’t?” His face flushed hot with embarrassment.

“Sometimes I wish I wore a Memory Plug,” she said longingly.

“Why? What happened at work?”

She shrugged non-committally. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.” Then why did she brought it up? Am I supposed to keep prying, or just drop it? Uncertain, he hid behind another sip of Guinness.

She glanced at her purse and swore.

“What?” he asked.

“I left my wallet inside.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll cover the bill. I might as well. I think I’m trying to kill myself.”

Andrea raised an eyebrow and sipped at her crème de menthe. “Joking, right?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “This morning Home Shawn tried to jack straight to Work Shawn and skip me altogether. And then Work Shawn left me a message–“

“Shit,” she swore with feeling.

“What?”

“I guess this means…” she trailed off, staring into her drink.

“You know how long it takes to get a message through security. If they didn’t mind us getting information out, we wouldn’t be wearing these Memory Plugs, right? They have to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb to make sure we’re not sneaking company secrets out. It’s too easy to come up with some kind of code to hide numbers, and numbers is what I do.”

She looked up from her drink, eyebrows crinkled in confusion. “What?”

“I wasn’t going to wait that long. Home Shawn is already angry enough with me coming home late. I wanted to come have a drink.” He smiled at her, uncertain. “With you.”

Andrea exhaled slowly. “So you didn’t get the message.” She downed the last of her creme de menthe and ordered another round of drinks from the bartender with a circular hand gesture Shawn would never have understood. “What do you think the message was about?” she asked.

“No idea.” she watched, waiting. “Oh. You, I guess.”

“Maybe work-you doesn’t want us to see each other. Maybe he’s jealous.”

“Jealous?” That didn’t feel right. “I didn’t say anything about this at work?”

“What? Oh! No. Nothing.”

The drinks arrived. He hadn’t planned on a second pint, but what the hell. Once again she shot the scotch back in one smooth motion, seemingly unaware of the flavour, and then sipped at the crème de menthe.

“Why would I be jealous of me?” Shawn asked, thinking aloud.

“He thinks he’s safe at work,” she said. “But if you and I hook up out here…”

“Doris might find out.”

“He doesn’t want you to have the same fun he has,” she said.

Fun? That’s a strange way to put it. What exactly did he share with this woman while plugged in? Asking seemed the only way to find out, but his bluntness almost always got him into trouble. Maybe he could coach it in less harsh terms. “Um. What exactly–“

“And home-you tried to plug straight to work you, right?”

“Yeah, but–“

“They’re trying to cut you out,” she said quickly. “You’re right, they’re killing you. All you’re going to be is the seconds between plugs.”

Why didn’t I see that? What if Home Shawn drove to work every day? Were they counting on him being unwilling to ruin their cosy lives? What kind of gutless coward do they think I am?

They know exactly who you are.

Shawn finished his Guinness and slammed the glass to the table. He made the same circular gesture Andrea had and the bartender ignored him. Had he done it wrong? Andrea was watching.

“Two more,” he called out and the bartender nodded.

But I’m not without power. They needed him. Home Shawn proved it wasn’t possible to jack straight into Work Shawn without him having enough time to interrupt the process. The instant the Home plug came out, he was in control.

He was going to be home late. Fuck it. Home Shawn can come up with some excuse.

“You look like you’ve made up your mind,” said Andrea, leaning in close. He smelled the mint on her breath and felt the warmth of her skin.

“Do you live near here?” Shawn said before he could change his mind.

Her eyes widened. “No.”

Oh thank god! Relief flooded through him. He changed the subject, trying to cover that he’d nearly suggested they go to her place. “You know me more than I know you.”

She nodded, nibbling on her lip and frowning slightly. “Yeah.”

“Do you like me?”

She laughed, her eyes bright. “Yeah.”

That was something, but not what he really wanted to know. Should I just ask? Was there some way of doing it subtly? He couldn’t think of one. “A lot?”

She put her hand on his. “You’re okay,” she said teasingly.

“And obviously Work Shawn likes you. If he didn’t, he would never…” He couldn’t even say cheat out loud. How did Work Shawn ever manage the nerve to do this?

“Definitely.”

“So we–you and I–just need a chance to get to know each other.”

“That would be nice. So would another drink.”

“Whoah. You can put ’em back.”

Andrea lifted a thin eyebrow in askance.

“Sorry I didn’t mean to…” Shawn ordered another round of drinks. He probably shouldn’t drive after this, but what the hell. Would Doris taste the beer on Home Shawn’s breath and wonder what he’d been up to? Did they still kiss? She’d been a great kisser. She put her soul into every kiss.

“What are you thinking about?” Andrea asked.

“Let’s do this again tomorrow,” he said. “And the next day.”

“Okay,” she said softly. Did she seem a little sad?

Did I say something wrong? Should I ask? No, that would be weird.

They chatted for another half hour as he finished his Guinness.

“Do you need a lift home?” Shawn asked, pushing his chair back and standing. He felt a little wobbly.

“No, I’m going to stay a bit longer. I’ll have dinner here first.”

“What about your wallet?”

“Hmm?”

“You left it at SAMA.”

“Oh! Right! I totally forgot.”

“I’ll leave enough to cover your dinner.”

“Thanks,” she said, touching his hand again. “Tomorrow is on me.”

Shawn leaned down and kissed her before he could chicken out. Her lips were soft and warm, her breath minty.

In the Bentley, the country-twang bullshit started the moment he sat. Bastard forgot my math metal. Wait, Home Shawn listened to this the entire drive here? On Purpose? That was just downright creepy.

The drive home was slow not because of traffic, but because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact he was most likely over the legal Blood Alcohol Limit. Inside the brass and marble foyer he stood, holding the plug before his eyes.

“Okay, Home Shawn. I’m home a little later than I should be and I smell like beer. I’m sorry if this gets you into trouble. But I need a little taste of life too. You remember what it’s like being me. Give this to me or…” Shawn scratched at the stencilled word Home with a fingernail. “If you try that again, if you drive to work and try and cut me out altogether, I’ll destroy this plug. You can’t stop me. All I need is to be in control for a fraction of a second. Understand the balance of power here. Either I get what I want, or no one does.”

7:43am. Wednesday.

Shawn stood in the foyer, the Memory Plug in his right hand, a hastily scrawled hand-written note in his left. Shawn read the note from Home Shawn.

Don’t do this. Things are bad enough. Tell the woman you can never see her again. Work Shawn, break off whatever the hell you’re doing at work. You fucking idiots! We’ll figure something out, some way you can have the life you need. You’re going to ruin everything. End it, both of you. If you don’t, I’ll leave the Home plug in forever. I’ve got enough to retire, I don’t need you any more. And destroy this note. I don’t need Doris finding it.

Was that true? Could Home Shawn retire and leave the plug in forever?

“You’re threatening me? I’m the real Shawn. I’m the one without the plug!” Shawn released the note and watched it drift to the floor. “And if you can afford to retire, so can I. You made a mistake; you unplugged.” He dropped the plug into his pocket.

The drive to SAMA was the most relaxing hour he’d lived in the last three months. There was no rush. He’d get there when he got there. If he was late, he didn’t care.

After slinging the Bentley carelessly into his parking spot, he sauntered through the lobby, nodding at people as he walked, and into the security cordon. Prashanti looked up as he approached.

“I know,” he said. “I’m late.”

She huffed indignantly and the hopper opened with a sad sigh. Shawn Hedley, Chief Accounting Officer winked at him and he winked back.

“Fuck you too,” he said scooping up the plug. Fishing the Home plug out of his pocket, he examined the two plugs nestled in the palm of his hand. “Fuck both of you.”

He dropped the plugs to the floor and brought his heel down on them. The hopper sighed again and Prashanti said something he didn’t hear. Again and again he stomped the two Memory Plugs until they were shattered ruin.

Shawn glanced towards the bomb-proof glass. Prashanti stared at him in horrified shock, her mouth hanging open.

“Sorry,” he said calmly. “I didn’t hear that.”

She glanced at the open hopper and reached for something out of his sight. He saw it immediately. Having destroyed the plug, he no longer worked here. She was going to close the hopper. Shawn snaked out a hand and plucked the waiting note before the hopper slid closed.

An alarm sounded and suddenly there were half a dozen security guards rushing him. Where the hell had they come from? Stuffing the note into his pocket, Shawn sprinted for freedom. The guards followed him as far as the lobby and then stood at the plate-glass doors, staring at him as if daring him to try and get back in.

“Why would I want back in?” he called. Their faces were stone, expressionless. Climbing into the Bentley, he felt like his heart would pound its way clear of his chest. What an adrenalin rush! Was this the single greatest decision I’ve ever made? It felt like it. A massive weight had lifted from his shoulders. I’m free! There was one Shawn, the real Shawn Hedley.

The guards watched, waiting for him to leave.

How will Andrea feel about this?

She wouldn’t finish until 5pm. What should I do until then? Can sit here in the parking lot for eight hours. Dropping the Bentley into gear, Shawn roared out of the SAMA parking lot and into the street. He’d spend the day shopping, get Andrea something nice. She’d like that. Maybe he’d catch a matinee somewhere. When was the last time I saw a movie?

Several hours later, Shawn slid the Bentley into the Rancey’s parking lot and found a spot where he could watch the SAMA entrance. Starting around 4pm people began exiting, heading for home. There was a rush around 5pm and dozens of people left at the same time, talking and joking together. After that it slowed to a trickle.

Must be working late.

His stomach grumbled with hunger and he decided he’d eat at Rancey’s. He sat where he could watch the SAMA entrance. The same bartender he’d seen on the last two evenings was working.

He ordered and ate a burger and fries, washing it down with two pints of Guinness. Still no sign of Andrea. He hoped his actions hadn’t caused problems for her. When the bartender glanced in his direction he tried that circular waving motion again and this time it worked. As the pint was delivered, Shawn cleared his throat.

“Umm. That woman I was in with yesterday…”

The bartender said nothing, waiting.

“Does she come here a lot?”

“For the last week, all the time.”

“Every day after work?” Had she been trying to work up the nerve to talk to me?

“No,” said the bartender. “She’d spend a couple of hours here in the afternoon. Always the same thing, neat scotch, crème de menthe.”

The bartender turned away, leaving Shawn sitting in confusion. Long lunches? Can secretaries do that?

By 7:30pm he’d finished his fifth pint and was sure he’d somehow missed her leaving. Either she’d been in that mob at 5pm, or she’d left when his bladder finally forced him to visit the dingy bathroom.

What now, genius?

A hotel for the night. Damned if I’m going home to face Doris in this condition. He’d come back tomorrow. Maybe Andrea worked an early shift and got out at 3pm, or something. It was possible, she’d always been waiting outside for him.

Reaching into his pocket for his wallet, Shawn found the note. It was typed, yet another security precaution to guarantee he couldn’t smuggle what he knew out of the office.

Like that matters now.

I don’t know Andrea. She doesn’t work here.

Shawn’s stomach soured around the greasy burger. This can’t be the entire message, there should be more. If she doesn’t…

But he’d stomped the plugs. His stomach convulsed and he fought down the sudden need to vomit up his dinner.

No no no no. What have I done?

He swallowed bile, choking it down.

Wait, maybe it isn’t too late. Christ, the note! Had Doris’ Range Rover still been in the driveway when he’d left for work? Yes. She always left after him. Unless the cleaners got it first.

Shawn dropped a wad of cash on the table and sprinted for the Bentley. He made it home in twenty minutes, fear and adrenalin leaving him coldly sober. As he roared up the driveway, he spotted the Range Rover, parked where it always was.

She was home already.

Once inside the foyer he saw the safe hanging open. Did I leave it open? He couldn’t remember. The note still lay on the floor. Was it possible she hadn’t noticed it?

Shawn snatched up the note, stuffed it into a pocket. He grabbed the key from the open safe and approached the door. The note, Plug in before entering, was there as always.

The house was eerily quiet.

“Hello?” he called.

Nothing.

Everything looked different. It had been months–no, years–since he’d been in here. The place felt barren and some of the furniture was missing. Otherwise, it was spotless.

“Hello?” he called, louder.

Again nothing.

Shawn walked through his home, everything familiar and yet different. Most of their wedding pictures were missing from the walls. He looked around the living-room in confusion.

Wait. It was Doris’ favourite antique furniture that was missing. She couldn’t have moved it all out that fast. Could she?

In the kitchen he found the counter littered with empty microwaved dinner packages. He knew what he’d find in the bedroom and wasn’t surprised to discover her closets empty.

This doesn’t make sense.

Unless she’d moved out ages ago.

Eyes stinging, Shawn sat on the bed, his hands hanging between his knees. He felt ill, nauseous to his very core. He blinked and tears ran down his cheeks.

Home Shawn had hidden it from him. Why? Who or what was he protecting?

He’d never know. Home Shawn was dead.

He had to talk to Doris. She can tell me what happened.

After a frenzied search of the house that left the place looking like it had been ransacked, Shawn found a cellphone with a number for Doris. He recognized neither the phone nor the number. He took the cell into the kitchen, looking for a drink. There was an open bottle of gin on the counter, half a bottle of flat tonic water in the fridge, and no ice cubes. It would do. He fixed a drink and sat at the breakfast bar.

I’ll call. Maybe, if I tell her what I’ve done…

“What, she’d come back to you?”

He hesitated, phone in hand. She hates unplugged me. If she left Home Shawn, what chance do I have?

Shawn put the phone down on the counter.

He knew who he’d been protecting. The commute was better than this. She was gone.

He understood. Home Shawn lived for that moment every morning when he unplugged and forgot everything. Maybe Commuter Shawn never got to see her, but at least he still thought he had her.

Oh god I wish I could unplug now and let all this fall away.

Death and Dignity

This story was written for Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and is a sequel to Death at the Pass. An edited version can be seen here. I think when I’m finished with the Manifest Delusions novels I’ll take a stab at telling the rest of Khraen’s story.

Death and Dignity

by Michael R. Fletcher

Fat flakes of snow danced and flew and collected inches-deep on the corpses of trees. Very little of it seemed to be falling. Mostly it pirouetted sideways or spiralled upwards in complete disregard of the normal way of things. Khraen hunched forward, pushing his way through deepening drifts. In valleys the snow reached to his armpits and slowed him to little more than a crawl. Up on the hilltops, as he was now, it only reached to his knees. Hill or valley made little difference to visibility. He hadn’t seen further than a dozen feet in over a week.

The last sign of life Khraen had seen had been the half-eaten corpse of a Great Bear that must have been dragged from it’s cave and winter’s hibernation. He’d seen little more than dead trees and eternal white since stumbling across the huge gnawed limbs protruding from the snow. How the mauled corpse of an enormous animal could look sad, Khraen didn’t know. But it did.

Blood-red icicles hanging from torn grey fur. The white of bone standing out–even in this world of snow–in stark contrast to the savaged corpse. It was strange to be moved by such a sight. He wondered if his own decaying appearance would provoke such emotion in others. It seemed doubtful.

The wind tore at Khraen trying to pull the robes from his time-ravaged body. He couldn’t feel the cold. It was one of the few advantages of being dead. There was a time when Fel, the demon bound to those robes, would have generated warmth for its Master. The ancient demon was fading fast and on those rare times when Khraen attempted communication it answered with little more than monosyllabic grunts. He feared his next fight would be its last.

Leben. Had killing her been a mistake? At the time it had seemed like his only choice. From the moment she’d raised him he’d avoided making choices. After a lifetime of command and responsibility, death had seemed like freedom from such self-imposed prisons. Then, when he’d finally been driven to act, his choice doomed him to an eternity of crumbling decay.

His rotting body would be his prison.

Khraen’s mind wandered as he pushed his way through the snow.

For ten thousand years war had raged in the Melechesh Pass, the thin strip of mountainous land that was all that joined the northern and southern continents together. Whoever controlled the pass controlled all trade between the two lands. For ten thousand years corpse had piled upon corpse. Break ground in the pass and you’d find the earth thick with dead. Melechesh was one long, shallow grave. And Leben, the Necromancer, had raised them all. Untold millions of dead. She’d turned her army of corpses against the Wizards who now ruled the Pass.

Khraen grunted. Wizards. He hated their foul and easy chaos magic. Power should have a cost, come with some responsibility. In his time they’d been little more than pests, kept under thumb by the Demonologists. And yet now, if Leben was to be believed, the Demonologists were gone. Little more than myth.

Times might change, but men did so a little less easily. He remembered who he had once been, who he still might be.

Khraen, Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the Invincible Hand, loyal servant to the Emperor of eternal Palaq Taq. He had been commanded to take the Pass. He’d failed. He didn’t even know how long ago that was. When Leben had raised him along with countless other dead, he’d found himself in a world that had long forgotten him, his Emperor, his ravenous and deranged god, and even forgotten eternal Palaq Taq.

“Not so eternal,” Khraen said to the eternal snow hampering his progress. Dead ends branched off in every direction and led nowhere. It was a perilous journey in the summer. In winter, suicide. At least for those not previously demised.

Somewhere behind him the Wizard and Sorcerer followed. He hoped they were feeling the cold, though the presence of the Sorcerer made that unlikely. Those filthy Wizards always seemed to avoid the worst of what the world could throw at them.

***

Sorcerer Jheng, broken and old though she hadn’t yet reached sixteen years of age, led the way north. She melted the snow before them, spending herself at a ferocious rate. Each league travelled aged her a day as her life-force, frittered away to keep the Master comfortable, fed the spell. Unless the snow let up, she’d be a year older by the time they reached the north end of the pass.

Timurelang, the ancient and baby-faced Wizard, followed. The old Wizard grumbled about the cold and shuffled along as if there were no reason in the world for haste.

Bastard, cursed Jheng silently.

They followed the dead man north.

The Wizard, who no doubt considered Jheng his pet Sorcerer, carried a sack over his right shoulder and wore a long blade at his hip. It was a sword of ancient metal, unparalleled by today’s smiths. The dusty old fart had only the most rudimentary knowledge of its use. Jheng could tell by the way he’d held it, dainty and uncertain.

This was no normal blade. This was the sword of Timurelang’s quarry. The Sword of No Sorrows. According to Timurelang, the sword had been crafted thousands of years ago by the Emperor of Palaq Taq and bore Kantlament, an abhorrent demon of colossal power, bound to the blade.

Jheng had watched while Timurelang studied the sword with every magic available to him and learned nothing. The Wizard’s failure had been the high point of her miserable day.

Timurelang had eventually proclaimed Kantlament dead and gone. Then he’d tried to destroy the weapon. Impossibly, no matter what magic he turned against it, he had been unable to so much as scratch the blade. That the demon might linger dormant within the sword was too terrifying to contemplate. Still, to watch the Wizard fail twice in a single day was more than Jheng could have ever asked for.

“Damned Necromancers,” Timurelang muttered, swinging the sack off his shoulder and slamming it into the frozen ground.

Something within the sack issued a muffled grunt.

“Shut-up,” the Wizard growled, “or I’ll burn you to ash.” He swung the sack back over his shoulder and resumed his slow, shuffling walk.

Jheng ignored the Wizard’s grumbles and instead listened to the step-drag of his limping gate. No one would say how he had taken such a wound. Some said that it had been in a magical battle of some kind and couldn’t be healed. Most thought he kept the wound as a reminder of some past mistake. It mattered not. All she knew was that the bastard was slowing them down and spending her at a terrible rate.

Jheng glanced over her shoulder. If Timurelang had at least dressed for the climate she wouldn’t be burning herself out so fast. Instead he wore black cotton pants and a flimsy red silk shirt. It was, she thought sarcastically, almost as if Timurelang didn’t care. What made it worse was that Jheng had dressed for the climate and was now sweating profusely in her heavy-spun woollen robes.

“Gimpy bastard,” Jheng muttered under her breath.

“What?”

“I said that this corpse is a quick bastard. You know, for a dead guy.” Timurelang’s temper was like parchment soaked in oil. One wrong word and whoosh, flames.

“He’ll be slow enough when I’m finished with him.”

“And why are we chasing him?” Timurelang had been suspiciously reticent when they’d left the Deredi Steppes in pursuit of this mysterious corpse.

“Debts must be paid,” Timurelang said almost too quiet to be heard.

Jheng hid her annoyance. Gods-damned Wizard always spoke in riddles. Was it too much to ask for just one straight answer. She decided to pass the time with the only entertainment available. A dangerous game with Timurelang’s temper being what it was, but there was little else to do.

“Who was he?” she asked.

Timurelang stared at the ground as he limped forward. “First General to a long-gone army. Servant to a forgotten Emperor. Worshipper of a long-dead god.”

“Oh.” Jheng smiled. “A has-been.” Timurelang ignored her. Damn, thought the Sorcerer, no reaction. She tried again. “Well he’s dead now too. Add that to the litany.”

“And apparently that’s not enough. Damned meddling Necromancer. Who raises an entire field of corpses without researching to find out who might be buried there? It’ll take us a decade to retake the Melechesh Pass from that horde of corpses.”

Jheng hid a smile and tried to lure the Wizard into further conversation. “So if death isn’t enough…”

Timurelang grunted in annoyance as if talking with the woman spending her life to provide comfort was beneath him. “We break him to dust. Burn the dust to ash. Scatter the ash across all the world.” The wizard trudged on in silence.

Jheng’s legs were beginning to ache. Hells, everything ached. “I have the back of a seventy year old,” she complained aloud.

“Well I’m over three-thousand years old and doing fine. Stop whining.” Timurelang shuffled forward several more steps before continuing. “In fact, just stop talking.”

“Why do you think he was going south?” Jheng asked, tempting the fates and Timurelang’s temper.

“Be quiet.”

“I bet he was heading for Paltaki before we crossed his path and chased him north.”

“Shut up.”

“I bet he thinks he’ll be safe from the Guild on the northern continent.”

Timurelang grunted angrily. “I don’t think he understands how much things have changed.”

Jheng, her back to Timurelang, grinned. It was a small victory, but dragging the taciturn Wizard into these annoying conversations was all she had.

She frittered away more of her life-force melting the snow ahead and warming the air around them. Timurelang shuffled slowly behind. There had been a time, not too long ago, when Jheng could have crushed the Wizard with her Sorcery. That day was gone, she’d spent too much of herself and missed her chance. It was the Sorcerer’s Curse. By the time they’d gained the wisdom to truly understand the contempt Wizards held for them, it was too late.

Jheng glared at the deepening snow. “I should have killed the bastard when I had the chance,” she whispered.

“What?” Timurelang demanded.

The man’s hearing was uncanny. “We’ll kill the bastard when we get the chance,” Jheng called back over her shoulder.

***

Khraen stood hip-deep in snow. It clung to his robes in clumps wet and heavy. His pace had slowed to little more than a dying man’s crawl. Before him the Melechesh Pass branched off in six different directions. One of these would lead through to the northern continent. The rest were, probably in more ways than one, dead ends. A millennium ago, when he’d served as First General to the Emperor’s demonic army, he would have laughed at such a conundrum. A roll of the dice or a toss of a coin would have shown him the path to follow. Sorhd-Rach, his soul-starved god, often spoke and directed his servants through seemingly random events.

“Well?” Khraen asked the sky. “Any suggestions? Sorhd-Rach? Hello? I don’t have a coin to flip or dice to roll.”

The wind moaned quietly through the mountain pass.

Khraen looked from path to path, seeking some hint as to which would lead him from the pass. Snow. Dead trees. Stone. One looked much the same as another. Though he hadn’t seen it at the time, during his centuries as First General choice had been an illusion. Now that death had freed him, Khraen found himself hesitating to make any real decisions. When he’d slain Leben he’d thought it the only choice available. The truth worried at him like a crow tugging at the eye of a ripened corpse; he had believed that killing Leben would end the spell that kept him alive. He had expected to return to the earth.

She died and he lived on.

Had he killed her in an attempt to end the need for future choices?

Had he made any real choices since dragging his corpse from the ground three weeks ago?

He couldn’t think of one.

When he’d walked at Leben’s side, still surprised to find himself ‘alive,’ he’d been distracted by the strangeness of the situation and followed her for lack of a better plan. Brief flashes of rage had given him the semblance of life and drive. He’d teetered precariously between a need for vengeance and yawning emptiness. Since Leben’s death he’d felt nothing.

Almost nothing, he corrected. There had been that moment of sadness at the bear corpse.

Unconsciously Khraen touched his leather-wrapped spine where Leben had repaired the damage done by her hired help. Did he miss her, or just having someone to talk to? Not that he’d been able to discuss much with her, She hadn’t even heard of any of the greatest events that occurred in Khraen’s time.

His past was as dead as he.

Khraen turned and stared back along the ragged path he’d bludgeoned through the snow. The Wizard surely followed. Could he find the northern mouth of the pass before the Wizard caught him? Did he want to? Running was not in his nature, but he was unarmed. Only the demon Fel, ancient and fading, remained bound to his service. The Wizard would make short work of Fel.

Skeletal fists clenching and unclenching, Khraen once again wished he had kept Kantlament. No matter how right it had felt at the time, it had been the sheerest foolishness leaving the blade behind. Even if the demon bound to the sword was dead and gone, a sword was a sword.

Diplomacy and negotiations were always easiest when backed with a sharp blade. The wry thought surprised Khraen. He could remember thinking like that. He could remember being that. The memory was a breath of life. The bone hands stopped their spastic longing for a blade beyond reach. The leather-bound spine straightened with remembered pride. And then sagged.

“I’m going to wait here for the Wizard,” Khraen told dead trees and frozen stone. “And he will surely end me.”

Another choice to end all choices.

Lacking anything else to do, Khraen began trampling a flat, roughly circular area into the snow. Sheer habit drove him to make it of the same size as the fighting circles he’d been trained in back in Palaq Taq countless centuries ago. There would, he knew, be no battle here. No last stand. The Wizard would either incinerate him the moment he came into view, or imprison or enslave him in some magical manner. Sure, if the Wizard was so foolish as to come within arm’s reach Khraen would make an attempt at killing him. Best not to plan on such contingencies.

Khraen enjoyed the process of stomping flat the snow. Time slipped past unnoticed as he plodded about, head down in concentration. When he finally finished and looked up the sun had gone down and there was no Wizard in sight. Shrugging he sat in the centre of the circle to wait.

At least his ass didn’t get cold.

***

Exhausted, Jheng sat slumped on a fallen tree. She glared at Timurelang as the baby-faced Wizard puttered about the small cooking fire. He’d rolled the sleeves of his red silk shirt to the elbows so as not to dirty them as he cooked breakfast. The man hummed contentedly as he stirred the eggs.

Jheng hated him.

“You could have lit the fire,” she said softly.

Timurelang shrugged and said nothing, his attention remaining on the eggs.

“Each spell I weave costs me life. Sorcery burns away the Sorcerer–”

“And I’m going to burn the eggs if you don’t stop telling me things I already know.”

“Then why? Why didn’t you light the fire? Why spend my life so you can eat eggs?”

The Wizard growled and removed the eggs from the fire. “The man we follow is dangerous. He may have hundreds of demons bound to his service. I must be at full strength when I face him. If I am cramped with cold, or shivering uncontrollably, I could miscast a spell. Stutter one arcane syllable, and I could kill us all. Or worse.” Timurelang frowned at the eggs for a moment before tossing them into the fire. “I’ve lost my appetite.”

Jheng stared into the fire, watching the eggs as they sizzled and boiled away to little more than ash. I should Kill him now, she thought. If I spend everything I have left, maybe I can kill him. Jheng lifted her eyes from the fire and watched as Timurelang limped to collect the sack he had carried since the Deredi Steppes. One good blast of power could fill this valley with a thousand tons of snow and ice from the surrounding mountains. Would it suffice, or would the bastard find some means of escape? Three thousand year-old Wizards were notoriously difficult to kill.

“Stop lolly gagging,” snapped Timurelang, swinging the sack over his shoulder with a grunt. “She’s starting to smell.”

Jheng glanced at the sack. “Perhaps if I didn’t keep us quite so warm the cold would–”

“I hate the cold.” The Wizard gestured down the path they’d been following. “Lead on.”

Jheng sat with eyes closed for a moment, deciding. If Timurelang was aware of her tension he showed it not at all. With a sigh she stood and set off after the man they’d been following. With any luck this mysterious corpse would kill the Wizard. It seemed unlikely. Everyone knew demons were just a myth. What could one dead man possibly do to a Wizard as old as Timurelang?

“Don’t walk too fast,” snapped Timurelang, “My leg hurts.”

Jheng lead and Timurelang followed, the drag-thump of his bad leg and the increasing wheeze of the Sorcerer’s rapidly ageing lungs the only sound. Deep snow ate that sound, muffled everything, dulled the edges of the most percussive noise.

She should have killed him when she had the chance.

***

Timurelang watched the Sorcerer’s bent back. Though he’d spent her at a furious rate over the last few years, Jheng was still dangerous. Should she spend the last of her life in one final effort it was possible she could slay him. It was a dangerous game, but danger kept one sharp and only the sharpest survived the cut-throat politics of the Wizard’s Guild. Every ounce of power that the Sorcerer spent was an ounce of power that Timurelang hadn’t spent. Though Wizardry didn’t devour the practitioner the way Sorcery did, it was no easy task gathering and storing power. A Wizard could easily spend a hundred years in meditation, hoarding power, only to spend it in a few moments of frenzied battle.

Timurelang twitched an annoyed grimace. He shuffled faster to cut the distance between them.

“Jheng,” he called, “wait. I feel I owe you an apology.”

Jheng grunted and turned. “So you’re going to heat the rest of the way?” she asked sarcastically.

Timurelang nodded and limped closer. “Yes. I think it’s only fair.”

Jheng’s eyes widened. “Only fair? Only. Fucking. Fair?” She laughed. “Fair would be–” The knife Timurelang drove up through the soft underbelly of her chin and into her brain cut the thought short.

“Fair would have been something else,” said Timurelang. “But then there is no such thing as fair, is there?” He let go of the knife and gave the Sorcerer a gentle push.

Jheng toppled slowly backwards and lay spasming in the snow-free patch she had spent her life to clear. Timurelang watched until the twitching stopped. After wiping his bloody hand on the Sorcerer’s robes he continued on, pleased at having slain Jheng without using a single drop of stored power.

A cocoon of warm air enveloped Timurelang as he lifted a few feet above the dunes of snow and, sack once again slung over his shoulder, flew after his ancient enemy.

Vengeance would be his.

***

Khraen sat in the snow until boredom drove him to his feet. How far behind could they be? It wasn’t like a corpse shoving its way through deep snow could move all that fast. He spent an hour searching for a something he could use as a weapon. When he eventually found a hefty branch he tossed it aside with an amused chuckle. The thought of defeating a Wizard by bashing him over the head with a bit of tree was too funny to take seriously. Best to face death with some semblance of dignity.

Dignity. What the hells was that? Khraen would have sworn he had lived a life of dignity. He’d been solemn and serious. First General to the Invincible Fist, Sorhd-Rach’s holy army. He’d held that pinnacle of power for three-hundred years. Was that dignity? Was dignity just an act, or what others thought of you? Was there dignity to be gained by facing death in a particular manner? Did he care? There certainly didn’t seem to be any to be found in living out eternity as a slowly decaying corpse.

“Freedom is a curse,” muttered Khraen. Looking back, he saw that he’d been little more than a glorified servant. He’d followed orders; killing what needed killing, crushing what needed crushing. He didn’t have to make decisions, he just needed to do as he was told.

Who now would tell him what to do?

“Life was easier before I had choices,” said Khraen.

“I think I can help you with that.”

Startled, Khraen looked up to find a young man watching him from a dozen yards away. The Wizard, no doubt. His apparent youth didn’t bode well.

Khraen laughed, a dusty wheeze of a chuckle. “You scared me.”

The Wizard looked extremely confident. He had a sack slung casually over a shoulder and a sheathed sword at his hip. Khraen recognized the pommel and quashed the hope and hunger that surged through him.

***

“And this is amusing?” Timurelang eyed the corpse, ready to blast it if it so much as twitched. He’d long dreamed of this scene. He wanted it to be perfect.

“It’s good to feel something. Even if just for a moment,” Khraen answered.

The Wizard grunted, glancing around the clearing of trampled snow looking for the trap that must surely be hidden there. Nothing. “So,” he said, “I walk across this conveniently cleared area and fall into a pit of sharpened sticks?”

Khraen smiled, a gristly display of blackened gums, loose teeth and stringy tendons showing through tattered cheeks. “A good idea. I wish I’d thought of that.” He gestured around the clearing. “No shovel. No tools of any kind. Even sharpening sticks is currently beyond my means.”

“And your demons? Hmm? Couldn’t command one of your foul servants to dig for you?” Timurelang gestured and sent a pulse of heat that cleared the area of snow and shrivelled the few hairs remaining on the corpse’s skull. The ground beneath was solid. Untouched.

***

“No demons.” A small lie, thought Khraen, but nothing to worry one’s much vaunted dignity. He probed for Fel’s demonic thoughts. Barely a whisper, but still there.

The Wizard limped forward several paces. “I’ve been feeling something for the last twenty-seven hundred years. I’d like to share it with you.”

Khraen watched without reaction. If he could just lull him into a false sense of security…False? What was so false about this Wizard thinking he could blast Khraen to dust on a whim? Perhaps he could goad him into a careless mistake. “You’ve followed me all this way just to share something with me? In my day Wizards were renowned liars. Seems some things haven’t changed.”

“Pain,” the Wizard snarled. “I wish to share three millennium of pain.” He tossed the sack forward to land on the frozen ground between them. It landed with a muffled grunt. “I’ve waited a long time for this.” He drew Kantlament with a flourish.

“Ah,” said Khraen. “I see you brought me my sword.”

“I bring you your death.”

Khraen tapped his exposed, leather-wrapped spine with a bony finger. “You’re a little late.”

The young man shuffled closer. “Better late than never.” He grinned. “A simple death would hardly be fitting justice. I think something a little more…imaginative would better suite my vengeance.”

“Vengeance?” Khraen asked, surprised. He had no recollection of this baby-faced Wizard. He gave a slight, mocking bow. “What, pray tell, did I do to earn your well-aged enmity?”

“You must remember.”

“Sorry.”

“I am Timurelang.”

Khraen shrugged.

The Wizard gestured to his lame leg. “You did this to me. You and this foul blade.” He lifted Kantlament. “Wounds from this weapon never heal. Three thousand years I’ve–”

“Closer to twenty-seven hundred, from what I’ve been told.”

“–honed my art and still this wound plagues me. I’ve conquered death and ageing. I’ve conquered diseases and infections of all kinds. I am truly immortal, and yet each and every step I take is agony.”

“People don’t usually survive wounds from Kantlament. You should be grateful to be alive at all.”

Timurelang grinned, showing gleaming white teeth. “And now I’m going to behead you and bring you back to Paltaki, another talking trophy.”

“Another?”

The Wizard stepped forward and kicked the sack on the ground. A decaying head rolled out and came to rest at Khraen’s feet. Eyes milky white with rot glared up at him. It was Leben, the Necromancer.

“It’s good to see you again,” said Khraen, genuinely meaning it.

“Arsehole,” she mouthed. With no lungs to power her voice she was incapable of anything more.

“Perhaps I’ll place the two of you on the same shelf,” said Timurelang. “You can keep each other company.”

Khraen ignored the man and stared down at Leben’s rotting face. “I’m sorry I killed you, but you were going to be the death of me. Your hatred of Wizards, you have to let it go.” He flashed a sad grin. “It’s unhealthy.”

Leben stared at him and then winked an ice-frosted eyelash. She mouthed something in silence and Khraen nodded. “Wizard,” he said aloud, “I think she wants to tell you something.” He nudged the head so it rolled to face the Wizard.

***

The Necromancer’s mouth moved but Timurelang couldn’t make out what she was saying. Ready for tricks he moved closer. If Khraen tried anything he’d reduce him to ash, trophies be damned.

Leben bared her teeth in a snarl. “I strike at you in the only way possible,” she mouthed. Only the clicks and pops of consonants made any real noise. “I may be dead, but I’m still the Necromancer that raised him.” She darted her eyes towards Khraen. “I free you from this false life.”

Timurelang watched dumbfounded as Khraen collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut. He clearly heard one of the corpse’s exposed ribs break with a dry crack as it crashed to the frozen earth. “No,” he said, shaking his head in denial. “No!”

The Necromancer’s head stared at him, laughing in maniacal silence, milky eyes wide with insanity.

“Corpse loving whore!” screamed Timurelang, leaping forward and smashing at the frozen head with Kantlament. The sword struck a glancing blow, shearing away an ear but doing little real damage. Leben’s eerily silent laughter became even more frenzied and Timurelang screamed in wordless rage as he flailed at the mocking head. The sword crashed again and again into the frozen skull, each badly aimed blow sending it skittering across the frozen ground, leaving little more than a long rents in the rotting flesh and dents in the exposed bone.

Still the Necromancer laughed.

The sword fell from numbed fingers as Timurelang landed an awkward attack that struck mostly hard earth. The gods-damned thing was useless! With a howl of anger he chased the rolling head, lifted a boot, and brought it down upon the Necromancer’s face. The jaw shattered, ending her silent laughter.

“Ha!” Timurelang screamed as he brought his boot down again on the skull, cracking the orbital bone and popping one eye out of its socket. “Who’s laughing now, bitch?”

“I think that would be me.”

***

Khraen drove Kantlament into the Wizard’s chest as Timurelang turned, lifting a hand to lash out with the seething chaotic power already surging. The sword sheared through silk and skin and bone with equal ease.

Timurelang stood transfixed. With a groan of effort he reached towards–

Twisting the blade, Khraen wrenched Kantlament from the Wizard’s chest. It came free with an out-rush of air and geysered blood. Man and corpse stood face to ravaged face, staring eye to empty sockets.

Khraen watched the light of life dwindle in the Wizard’s eyes as Timurelang’s dying body betrayed the will that fought to raise its arm in one last vengeful act. He almost wished the Wizard success.

Go on, end it for me. Take away these choices.

Timurelang crumpled to lie beside Leben’s abused skull. Khraen felt nothing. Not relief, not victory.

Leben cracked a broken grin with her shattered jaw. She tried to speak but was incapable of even the quiet clicks and pops she had previously managed.

Stooping to grab her by the hair, Khraen lifted Leben’s skull. “You look a little rough,” he said.

She stuck her tongue out at him. It too had seen better days.

“I’ll fix you up as best I can,” said Khraen. “I owe you at least that much.” He grinned at the battered head with some fondness. “It was a nice plan.”

Khraen sat cross-legged on the frozen ground admiring his work. Using bits of silk thread and twine scavenged from the Wizard’s corpse he had managed what he had to admit was a pretty piss-poor repair job on Leben’s battered skull. Still, her jaw hung in the right place and he’d even managed to get the eye back in the socket, though it slid free if she looked down and to the left.

“Later,” he said, “when your eyes have rotted away to nothing, that will be less of a problem.”

“Cold comfort,” Leben mouthed. It sounded more like, ‘kud kup fft.’

Khraen shrugged, gesturing at his leather-wrapped spine. “It seems one can become accustomed to almost anything.” He looked towards Kantlament. He’d dropped the sword the moment the Wizard had died and it still lay beside the corpse. “That sword shears bone like butter, but it barely damaged your head.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “Lady, I suspected it when we first met, but now I know it to be true. You have one thick skull.

Leben’s lips moved. “Djt.”

“Idiot?”

Leben talked, her words all hisses clicks and pops. Khraen leaned close, straining to hear. “The demon isn’t dead,” she said. “Or rather it was dead, much like yourself. My spell raised it as it did every other corpse in the field of effect. Kantlament is undead. And unbound. Free. Like you. Free to make it’s own choices. It just hasn’t decided what it wants yet.”

Khraen turned away from the mauled head and stared at the sword. Kantlament was alive? The old hunger throbbed in the background. With Kantlament at his side he could… No, not alive he corrected himself. Undead. The thought of that demon free to do as it pleased sent a shiver of fear snaking down his exposed spine.

Excellent, he thought with some wry humour. I can still feel absolute terror. Better than nothing I suppose.

He wasn’t so sure feeling nothing wouldn’t have been better.

“I had thought to leave the sword here,” he told Leben’s head. “I’d planned to go north. Put as much distance between myself and the Wizards as possible.” He stood and walked over to where the blade lay. “But I don’t think leaving this here is a good idea.” He touched Kantlament with a booted foot. “No, I should bring it with me.”

Is that really true? Am I protecting some innocent soul, or am I clinging to something from my past? He knelt on the frozen ground. His knees felt nothing. He reached out to grasp the sword, its familiar weight sat in his hand like an old friend. But with Kantlament there was always the promise of violence. Of death.

“There is nothing like us left in all the world,” Khraen whispered to the sword. “Together we could…” He left the thought unfinished. What could they do? Topple the Wizards Guild? War and death? To what end?

He had to admit, he felt a thrum of hungry lust at the thought of bringing down those filthy Wizards. What was it worth to feel something?

Maybe it was worth everything.

“Can you still control that horde of corpses clogging up the Melechesh Pass?” he asked and heard the hiss of her yes.

Khraen took a moment to collect the scabbard from Timurelang’s corpse. He stood, shoulders squared, back straight, and turned to face Leben. “A change of plans,” he said, sheathing the blade.

Leben made some clicking noises but he was too far away to hear what she’d said. Striding forward he scooped up her head.

“So, have you given much thought to where you’re going next?” Khraen asked. “I was thinking of turning south, heading for Palaq Taq. Paltaki, I guess now. Did you want to join me, or did you have other plans?”

Leben just stared at him.

Intellectual Property

This story was my attempt at writing some classic cyber-punk. It was published by Interzone magazine.

Intellectual Property

by Michael R. Fletcher

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

Dhaka, the capital of Gano Projatontri Bangladesh. With a population of thirteen million the city was a madhouse. Buses and plastic Tata Kei Cars spewed thick smoke from their struggling two cylinder aluminum engines. The heat and pollution were stifling and the cacophony of car horns relentless. This place was more than enough to drive you mad. It was dirty. It was overcrowded. It was dangerous.

I loved it.

As a deep cover agent for a Corporate Espionage Black Ops unit with a North American Trade Union charter I enjoyed a great many advantages, social and otherwise. Unfortunately NATU law didn’t apply here and I had all the political clout of any one of the city’s half-million rickshaw drivers. Maybe less. Scratch that. Definitely less.

Due to a sparsity of legal constraints Dhaka had become a hotbed of ‘grey market’ Research and Development. Officially the Pensiero Corporation’s Dhaka facility was researching advanced biological computers for medical usage. Little DNA spies looking for naughty chromosomes. Everyone born in anything better than a third world country had a biomed, me included. But Pensiero had strayed into far darker corners than those advertised in their glossy investor’s reports. They’d been purchasing children, stolen from the crush of Dhaka’s crowded streets, for use in organic computer research.

I’d infiltrated the facility. I’d seen the neat rows of shucked brains floating in their support tanks. All I had to do now was connect the dots, steal the research, and topple Pensiero. But there was a problem.

ANOMIE, PENSIERO RESEARCH SCIENTIST

My body kicked me awake with no regard for the fact that I desperately needed at least two more hours’ sleep.

Awake before the alarm. Sad.

I tried not to think about the day ahead. I tried not to think at all. Just go back to sleep.

Was it Friday?

“Thursday,” I muttered, pushing a hand through tangled blond hair.

Luckily, you are only crazy if you talk to yourself in public. As long as you do it in the privacy of your own home you’re perfectly sane. My mother’s mantra, though it was my father who talked to himself.

I surrendered to the inevitable and rolled out of bed. I’m in my mid-twenties, have never exercised a day in my life, and am petite and slender. Almost muscled for my small frame. My father always said it was good genes. I guess he would know, he picked them.

I was fat as a child. My parents, wealthy software engineers who thought they could debug me the same way they fixed code, decided to ‘cure’ me of that social embarrassment. A little recompiling of the recombinant.

They upgraded my biomed. My urges and hungers were monitored and strictly controlled. Looking at sweets made me feel ill. I could tell how many calories were in a piece of Texas-shaped-chicken-by-product by looking at it and my body wouldn’t let me eat a calorie more than it needed. My parents never understood why I didn’t thank them.

I’d happily kill them both for a chocolate truffle.

The biomed was just another step in my parents’ life-plan for their only child. Prenatal genetic manipulation came first. Then a lifetime regimen of advanced nootropic drugs, cholinergic receptors, and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. For my twentieth birthday they paid for my Memory Socket surgery. The socket wound monomolecular filaments throughout my frontal and parietal lobes, basal ganglia, and hippocampus. Memories created while a Memory Plug was inserted in the socket were scrambled and could only be accessed when that same plug was worn.

I think they saw me as a favoured investment in their portfolio.

Why would anyone want this? The socket, in combination with my education, guaranteed me a job in pretty much any cutting-edge research facility. Those software engineers certainly understood the importance of Intellectual Property Rights. They wanted everything for their daughter and pushed hard to get it.

Oh how they spoiled their baby.

I slipped into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and padded barefoot into the kitchen. Breakfast was a single raspberry flavoured bar of seven wholesome grains [150 calories] and a cup of semi-sweetened tea with two tablespoons of 1% milk [32 calories]. My biomed ensured that I ate many small meals throughout the day. I was never quite hungry, never quite satisfied. Last week I’d managed to fight past the biomed’s programmed revulsion to buy a Snickers bar [57 grams, 271 calories] without throwing up. I had been unable to actually eat the Snickers. It still sits, calling my name in its velvet caramel voice, on the counter where I dropped it. Thinking about it made my stomach twist and my mouth water. It was confusing.

As an adult I could have had the biomed reprogrammed but a lifetime of parental programming (combined with the biomed’s more insidious Pavlovian training) fostered a deep-rooted fear of being fat. I lost sleep to nightmares of gaining weight without its constant guidance.

By 7:30am I’d laced up my hiking boots and, air-filter mask in place, was walking to work. Head down I waded through sweltering smog and poverty. I ignored the supplicating hands of beggar-urchins and the holographic advertisements which overlaid the real world in a three-dimensional assault on my senses. To the north I could see the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. From this distance it looked like an old Candu nuclear reactor.

Most mornings I travelled with the crowd, a minnow funnelled towards my destination in a river of sweating humanity. Today I fought my way upstream. A gaunt family of six ran past, stained air-filter masks in place. Mom was clutching a dead koala bear. They were being chased by another equally thin family. This was odd. Even for Dhaka.

I glanced down at the computer installed in my arm as a teen. “What the hell is going on?”

Google Interactive verified my GPS location, checked local news sources, public and private, and touched base with other GI users in the area.

“There’s a food riot,” GI told me. “The public zoo is being mobbed and animals stolen for food.”

“Seriously?”

In response it showed me pictures–uploaded from cell phones and other GI users–of rioters slaughtering zoo animals. Most of the pictures had been taken by the people doing the killing.

“The army is on the way,” GI said. “The Google Safety Recommendation is to move to a safer distance.” It suggested several routes avoiding both the mob and approaching military police. Somewhere to the east I heard the crack of small arms fire.

I arrived at Pensiero a few minutes before 8am. The guard nodded distractedly as I entered the building and approached his desk.

“Morning,” I said, stating the obvious in the way that we do.

He nodded again and pushed the retina scanner towards me. “Name.”

I answered, staring into the scanner. Then a DNA sample. Finger prints. Voice pattern and stress analyser.

“What do you call a wookie with an ass fetish?” the guard asked.

“What?”

“Just measuring neural activity.” He looked embarrassed and shrugged. “I don’t write this stuff.”

After the security hallway, which included a body search that reminded me how long I’d been single, I was allowed to enter Pensiero’s hallowed blue halls. A bored Bangladeshi woman in a Khaleeji-embroidered Abaya slid a small plastic plug through a rotating section of bomb-proof window. The plug looked remarkably like the hearing aids of the previous century.

I hesitated for a moment before inserting the plug in the Memory Socket hidden under the flesh-toned dust cover just behind my right ear. There were always rumours. I’d heard that some plugs held instructions and could tell the brain to produce and store neurotransmitters like dopamine and Gamma-AminoButyric Acid, giving the subject heightened control over their central nervous system. The thought of letting people mess with the inner workings of my mind gave me the screaming willies. My parents had done enough of that, thank you.

I frowned at the Memory Plug resting in the palm of my right hand and thought about Gamma-AminoButyric Acid which played a role in neuronal excitability and regulating muscle tone.

“GABA GABA,” I said and plugged in.

Blink.

Standing in the same blue hallway holding the plug in my left hand. A different Bangladeshi woman sat behind the bomb-proof glass, staring expectantly at me. I dropped the plug into the receiving tray and headed for home. The security gauntlet was just as demanding on the way out. Strange questions, more pokes and prods. By the time I made it out of the building I was stumbling with exhaustion. Ten hours had passed in that blink. My arms and legs ached, heavy with pooling lactic acid.

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

I was royally fucked.

The man I’d spent the last year ‘turning’ got greedy. It would have been bad enough had he just demanded more from me and my NATU handlers, but he wasn’t that bright. Were he one of the plug-wearing drones working in the research wing I could have simply knocked him on the head, popped his plug out, and destroyed it. One good stomp and all memory of our dealings would be gone.

Would that be that murder? I don’t think so. He would still be alive, but whatever differences existed between Plugged him and Unplugged him would be destroyed. Sure, after years of being a Plugged employee a person might become radically different than he was, but it still wasn’t murder. Right?

Unfortunately he was high enough up the food chain he didn’t wear a plug. Why this was always the case with upper management is a mystery. If anyone knew enough to be dangerous it was the old white guys at the top, the same ones who thought themselves too damned important to wear plugs.

What really pissed me off, what really got my soy-goat, was that this guy was perfect. He knew enough to sink Pensiero and he was a self-serving greedy son of a bitch. So why the hell was I surprised when the greedy bastard turned out to be untrustworthy? Apparently he figured that if he was going to sell Pensiero secrets to me, he might as well sell them to everybody. He was greedy and an idiot. Lovely combination.

The double-crossing bastard spent all of Thursday in boardroom meetings and I couldn’t get anywhere near him. It was frustrating and scary. Had he already told the other buyers about me? Hell. He’d sell me out in a second and, depending on where the opposition chose to come after me…yeah…royally fucked.

To make matters worse the greedy idiot sent a couple of his security staff to scare me with a little rude language and macho posturing. Maybe he thought I’d just give up and go away. Not my style. Instead I took a few seconds out of my busy day to beat the hell out of these two and sent them whimpering back to their boss. I wasn’t too worried this would come back to haunt me as the security personnel would unplug at the end of the day and go home wondering why they hurt so much. I sent a friendly message along with the limping goons.

“If you fuck with me I will kill you.”

ANOMIE, PENSIERO RESEARCH SCIENTIST

Thursday Evening.

I got home, kicked my shoes into the corner, changed into a pair of comfortable shorts and a t-shirt, and collapsed onto the sofa. My arms and legs were covered in dark bruises but the pain was already beginning to fade. I barely even felt stiff any more, just bone-weary exhausted. Things tingled down south and my mind wandered to the kind of subjects that told me I’d be spending time with Mister Vibrator in the near future. Unless I did something about it.

My last ‘relationship’ lasted less than three months and the sex had just started getting good. We’d finally made it past that awkward ’embarrassed about our bodies’ stage and could focus on figuring out what made each other’s eyes roll. I hadn’t even managed an orgasm in the first two months, though not for a lack of trying on his part. Sadly, it was doomed from day one.

I was working at a government-funded research facility and he worked for a Multi-National Financial Institution. Memory Plugs were a necessity for both jobs. We’d meet up each evening and try and have that conversation all couples have at the end of each day.

“How was your day?” he’d ask.

I’d shrug and laugh. “Dunno. Yours?”

“Dunno.”

If you can’t bitch about your workday, what the hell else are you going to talk about?

There were days when I’d return from work sporting bruises and he’d make fun of how clumsy I was and we’d laugh about it. And then he came home smelling of expensive perfume. I made some joke about him going to a strip club at lunch with the boys and he flatly denied it. Unlike me, he unplugged for his lunch breaks.

“Well then?” I asked.

He shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t know. I have no idea what goes on at work.” If he meant it to be a joke it fell flat.

That was it. My doubts ate at me and within a week we split up. It wasn’t just that I feared what he was up to while plugged in, I couldn’t be sure that my behaviour was any better. I’d spent the last year plugged in eight to twelve hours a day. I didn’t even know if I had friends at work. Christ, I could have been shagging someone every lunch hour and staying Plugged just to protect my Unplugged self.

How can you have a normal relationship when you don’t even know who you are most of your waking day?

That was two years ago and I hadn’t dated since. Pensiero was careful to let us out one at a time. They didn’t want us meeting up after work and having Unplugged contact. I don’t know why–put it down to corporate paranoia–it isn’t like we could talk about what went on at the office.

So here I was in Bangladesh. I’d never met any of my co-workers and I rarely went out. I made a decision.

I picked out a slinky black dress with sleeves to cover the bruises. I wasn’t going out to look for sex, I was going to find somewhere with people and music. Just expose myself–so to speak–to the attentions of the opposite sex. I found some fishnet stockings that slimmed my thighs. Yeah, yeah, at 112 pounds I understood that I didn’t really have fat thighs. When you are dealing with leftover childhood trauma the facts don’t matter. I found a bra that actually managed to give me some cleavage–it’s not about sex, I just wanted to look good–and some earrings that suited my dark eyes.

Hair up.

Different pair of shoes.

Hair down.

Another pair of shoes.

A long necklace to draw the eye to my–

Ah screw it, who was I kidding?

Google Interactive talked to my biomed to see what kind of mood I was likely in–probably noted an abundance of hormones–and suggested several dance clubs based on its findings. Most of them looked a little too scary for what was to be my first real sampling of Dhaka night-life. I scanned the list until I saw one populated mostly by other foreigners in Bangladesh on Corporate Work Visas. I left my condo and flagged down a rickshaw-bike driven by a boy who looked far too malnourished to drag me to the Club District in the Shahbag neighbourhood. Along the way GI kept suggesting alternate routes but I ignored it and let the boy take whatever route he wanted. If it cost me a few extra Euros, I didn’t much care.

The Rumpus Room was hidden on a small side-street between the University of Dhaka and the tent city that Ramna Park had become. The pristine white bathroom-tile walls echoed with the wealth, glitter, and frenzied desperation of people who weren’t sure who they really were. Women wore their hair down and men wore their collars up but I still knew the Sockets were there.

As I pushed my way through the crowd I wondered how many of these people were co-workers. At the bar I had two choices: I could order an alcoholic beverage, if I first convinced myself I had no intention of drinking it, or I could order a diet cola. My parents didn’t want me to be fat but apparently didn’t care if I died of cancer.

“Diet cola,” I told the bartender, a young Bangladeshi with lively eyes and a silk shirt hanging unbuttoned to display his chest and flat stomach.

“We’re all out of the left-handed stuff,” he said to my cleavage.

I shrugged and he passed me a luke-warm glass of flat diet cola.

“Fifteen Euros,” he told me.

Over the next few hours I danced with a few cute guys and managed to score some Afghani weed which the biomed didn’t have any problems with. My mouth felt like I’d been sucking dusty cotton swabs and my tongue was thick and dry. None of that mattered. I was dancing and I was high.

Later, after I’d taken a break and downed a few more over-priced cancer-pops, I checked Google Interactive. Most of the people here were on the GI network and were taking pictures of themselves and the people in the bar they were interested in meeting. IMs sailed about the room like biodegradable confetti at a wedding. After pointing out that, due to my limited social interaction of late it couldn’t promise its usual accuracy, GI gave me backgrounds on a few guys it thought I might like. It showed me their most recent hook-ups and the scores they’d received from previous dates. Privacy is for old people.

I had narrowed GI’s suggested selection down to three possibilities when I was pinged. No IM was attached which was a little odd and caught my attention. I checked the guy’s GI stats and was amazed to find that he had no registered information and was the oldest person in the bar by thirty years. Even GI seemed a little appalled. I was going to ignore him when I noticed his name, Gedanke Geschäft, which, if my German was correct, roughly translated as Thought Business. Pensiero meant Thought in Italian. Was there a connection? Had someone from work recognized me?

What the heck. I decided I’d talk to him and bail if he got creepy. I instructed GI not to include this in my social networking profile as I didn’t want it making the assumption I was into mysterious older men.

I found him alone at a small round table covered in empty Corona bottles. Hopefully they weren’t all his. He had a full head of dark hair but his eyes gave away his age. His suit was expensive and grey. The fingers of his right hand drummed nervously on the table top and his left hand rested on his lap under the table.

“Gedanke Geschäft?” I asked.

He snorted derisively and stared at me for a moment. It wasn’t the usual look that guys gave me, it was more like he was weighing consequences. I suddenly found myself thinking about that left hand under the table and the way he’d shifted his position as I’d approached.

“You Plugged?” he asked.

Afraid to open my mouth, I nodded. I don’t know why. Maybe I hoped I’d learn something. The Afghani weed wasn’t helping.

Gedanke finally nodded, his mind made up. “Mistakes were made. I have what you want but we have to be careful. There’s another interested party who is very dangerous.” With a start I realized he looked more than a little scared. “Contacting them had been a mistake but it’s too late now. We deal with what is. We have to move up the schedule.” Gedanke’s eyes were pleading. “You have to get me out of here.”

Oh.

Fuck.

I was way too high for this.

“Tomorrow evening,” Gedanke said. “My place.” He sent me his address, a private residence on Fular Road just south of the university. “Bring the rest of it and then I am out.”

Gedanke stood and walked away without another word. I watched him fade into the crowd. Had he slid something from his left hand into his jacket pocket?

“What the hell?” I asked the vacated chair.

I could not possibly be dumb enough to be selling Pensiero secrets. Could he have mistaken me for someone else? He hadn’t actually said anything specifically about me or Pensiero.

I lost all interest in dancing, being high, and the possibility of casual sex. I pinged the cab company for a real taxi and was home in ten minutes.

Friday Morning.

Awake before the alarm. Again. I rolled out of bed and groaned. My head felt like someone was trying to chainsaw their way through my cerebral cortex. That Afghani weed must have been laced with something potent because I could remember some pretty messed up dreams. The night was a blur of Eurotrash dance beats spiced with a hint of curry.

Gedanke Geschäft. Thought Business. Not a dream.

I walked to work and the streets were quiet and stained with the blood of yesterday’s food riot. GI kept me away from the few hot spots still smouldering with violence.

As I walked I scolded myself under my breath. “You will go to work, plug in, and get yourself out of this mess. You will not sell Pensiero secrets. You will not get me into trouble.”

It didn’t escape me that I was now talking to myself in public.

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

That greedy moron, calling himself Gedanke Geschäft and no doubt thinking himself clever, had contacted Anomie outside of the Pensiero facility. What had he hoped to gain? Had he known she’d be there, or was it just random chance? If only the girl hadn’t lied about being Plugged this would never have happened. Gedanke was smarter–or a whole lot dumber–than I’d thought. Perhaps he was trying to send me a message.

Well, message received.

I was going to have to kill Gedanke before he ruined everything. At best this meant starting from scratch and finding another greedy Pensiero employee to turn. More likely my cover was irreparably blown and I’d be yanked out and sent on to another job. Christ, I couldn’t do it. Two years of work flushed away in an instant. The lies. The violence. The teetering tightrope walk of corporate intrigue with a dangerous multi-national. Always alert. Always stressed over the times when it just wasn’t possible to protect myself.

I was deadly and yet strangely vulnerable.

Before the day ended Gedanke Geschäft would be dead. I decided to keep using the pseudonym because I didn’t want to think about the fact that this was a real human life. Anomie was both innocent and ignorant and Gedanke’s stupidity was going to drag her into this shit-storm. And probably get her killed.

With the NATU Spec-Ops upgrades to my biomed I had inhuman control over my adrenal glands and mental/emotional state, but thinking about the girl triggered all manner of startling reactions and memories. I could remember being that innocent and longed for a return to a simpler time.

And then it hit me. I didn’t want to do this any more. Over the last two years I had often suspected I wasn’t doing work of national security. More likely I was risking and taking lives simply to protect the interests of those at the top of the NATU food-chain.

I wanted out. Unfortunately, for my kind, the only way out was suicide.

I placed a call to Gedanke’s desk only to discover the bastard hadn’t even come to work. Most inconvenient. There was little time and a lot to arrange. I finally reached him at home and set up a lunchtime meeting.

Outside it was hot and sweaty. The street reeked of the latest bout of rotavirus-induced diseases sweeping the population of indigent children. A makeshift tent city had sprung up around the International Centre for Diarrhoea Disease and Research in an attempt to keep up with the deluge of young patients. A quick glance at a GI news report showed that over 500 people had been admitted to the ICDDR in the last 24 hours. I took the long way to avoid the worst of the stench. I needed time to plan.

Anomie, I realized sadly, was the key. I thought about setting her up as bait to draw out the opposition but it could go horrendously wrong. Who was Gedanke selling me out to? The Chinese? My EU counterparts? Whoever it was, I hoped they’d want to know what Anomie knew before they killed her. The only way they could do that was to plug her in.

It was a risky plan.

As I turned onto Fular Road I stopped suddenly, forcing a mob of denim-clad university students to veer around me with politely muttered apologies. I couldn’t kill myself. I frowned at the backs of the retreating students.

Perhaps I could get Anomie to do it for me.

ANOMIE, PENSIERO RESEARCH SCIENTIST

Another day sucked into the back-hole of employment in a cutting-edge research facility. Had I talked to this Gedanke Geschäft character and explained that I wasn’t interested in being involved in whatever he had going on?

Once home I changed into the same old shorts and t-shirt. I pulled a six ounce piece of skinless, boneless chicken breast [187 calories] from the freezer and tossed it into the sink to thaw. A prefab box of Romaine lettuce [15 calories] with a single teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil [40 calories] waited in the fridge. I wanted fries and the desire made me nauseous.

I was going to have dinner and then curl up on the sofa to watch some 3V. I was not going to meet with this mysterious Gedanke Geschäft.

I started pacing, walking and thinking out loud. “What if Plugged me is counting on Unplugged me to do something?” It was okay to talk to myself again, I was alone. “What if I am counting on me to go to this meeting?”

I checked for messages. Nothing.

If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t know if I was somehow hurting my plans, but if I did go I could tell Gedanke that I didn’t want to be involved. This could all be some colossal misunderstanding.

Though I wanted to stay out of trouble, I couldn’t deny that some part of me was excited by the thought of shady dealings and corporate espionage. Where did the law stand on this? Was Unplugged me guilty if Plugged me did something illegal? Could I be prosecuted for something I couldn’t remember doing?

I changed clothes again, laced up my hiking boots, and was out the door before reason and logic could get in the way. I couldn’t just let Plugged me make all my decisions, it was time I made some for myself. How weird was that?

While I walked I thought about what Gedanke had said. “Bring the rest and then I’m out.” I’d been too high to remember everything, but that part stuck. What was I supposed to bring? Did he think I had something of his? Did I?

The houses lining Fular Road looked strangely out of place. Turning the corner was like stepping into another world. One moment I was surrounded by buildings that jumped madly between hyper-modernity and classic middle-east architecture dating back to the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, and the next I was on a lane of English-style manors.

Gedanke’s house was large and forbidding and made of hand-laid field stones. I thought about what my 350 square foot shoebox condo cost each month and what this place must be worth.

“Please don’t be home, please don’t be home,” I whispered as I climbed the steps to the massive front door. I reached up to knock and my hand stopped. The door was ajar and I could see through the crack into a foyer decorated in black and white marble. The lights were on and the door was open.

“Hello?” I called too softly to be heard.

Nothing.

“Hello?” I tried again, slightly louder.

Still nothing.

Did this mean Gedanke was expecting me? I whispered a soft “This is stupid,” and pushed the door open. Inside smelled strongly of an aerosol disinfectant that burned the back of my throat and was both incredibly familiar and totally new.

Careful not to touch anything I slid into the foyer. In the room beyond I could see a dark leather sofa, thick carpeting, and a pair of man’s shoes, toes pointing to the sky. I froze before moving forward. Turning the corner I looked down into Gedanke’s startled face. His eyes bulged wide and I could clearly see where he’d been strangled with his own tie. The silk had cut so deep into his neck I was amazed there wasn’t more blood. Revulsion and curiosity fought for dominance. I’d never seen a corpse before and was surprised at how little fear I felt. The room was still and quiet. Hopefully whoever had done this was long gone.

“Wow, I’m taking this pretty well.” Aside from talking to myself, that is. I felt far more calm than I thought the situation warranted.

When I finally managed to drag my eyes away from the late Gedanke’s gaping neck wound I noticed the case on the table. It looked like a cross between a Samsonite briefcase and a Panzer tank and sat open.

“Walk away,” I said as I tip-toed to the case and peered inside.

For a moment words abandoned me and I stared into the open case. “It can’t be.” Forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to touch anything I reached in and removed one of the neatly stacked yellow coins. It was surprisingly heavy. The coins were blank except for a tiny 1 oz. 99.9999% stamped onto both sides.

“What is that worth?”

GI clued in that I was talking to it. “Gold is 7,000 Ameros per ounce.” It knew that I’d never become accustomed to thinking in Euros. “Based on the size of the case there are approximately 200 coins within. That puts the value of the case at around 1.4 million Ameros.” It paused for a moment. “The case itself lists for 900 Ameros in the Samsonite catalogue.”

“What does that much gold weigh?” I asked.

“Twelve and a half pounds plus the weight of the case.”

I could carry it out of here without too much effort. As I reached towards the case someone gently cleared their throat behind me. It was the kind of unhurried noise that said there was no point in making a mad dash for freedom. I turned slowly, hands held out to show I was unarmed. The Bangladeshi Police liked to shoot first, beat the corpse, and press charges after.

Two men and a tall woman stood watching me, looking for all the world like they’d been doing so for several minutes. The men had tasers drawn but held at their sides and the woman was armed with only her businesslike skirt, gorgeous shoes, and an air of command. All three were dressed in blue Pensiero Security uniforms. Hers looked like it had been custom-made by a skilled tailor in love with the female form. Suddenly I wished it had been the Police.

“So it was you,” the woman said with casual interest.

I shook my head. “No, I just got here. I didn’t–“

“Check her.”

One of the men nodded and moved forward while the other raised his taser to cover his partner.

“This really isn’t necessary,” I protested as the man patted me down with professional efficiency.

“She’s clean,” he announced.

“I’m not–“

“Plug?” the woman asked.

The man spun me effortlessly and popped the Memory Socket dust cover. “Nope.”

The woman nodded, unsurprised. “She’s not the one we want.”

“Of course not, I told you–“

“Yet,” she finished.

They piled me into the back of a waiting limo and I sat wedged between the two men. The woman sat across from us and examined me like I was an offensive insect she’d found stuck to the bottom of her expensive shoes. The case of gold coins sat on the seat beside her, the elephant in the room we all pretended not to notice. Even in the limo’s air-conditioned chill I felt sweat trickle down my back.

It didn’t take long to realize where they were taking me.

At Pensiero we walked through security like it wasn’t even there. We might as well have been invisible for all the attention we got. They marched me to a meeting room with a dozen large leather chairs and a fully interactive digital table that wouldn’t even fit in my condo. After sitting me in one of the chairs the two men watched me while the woman disappeared for several minutes. She returned all too soon with a familiar flesh-toned plug.

I raised my hands not so much to keep her away, but rather to stall for time. “There’s been some kind of mistake. You’ve got the wrong person,” I said, pleading. “I didn’t even know Gedanke.”

She raised a plucked eyebrow. “Gedanke?”

“The dead guy,” I supplied helpfully.

She moved forward to place her hands on the arms of my chair and stare into my eyes. “Of course you did.”

I could smell her perfume and for an absurd moment wanted to ask what brand it was. She smiled warmly as she brushed a hand through my hair to expose the Memory Socket. Her hand softly caressed my neck as she slid the plug into place.

Blink.

I was sitting on a plane in a massive First Class seat. The Memory Plug lay in the palm of my left hand and there was a hand-written note clutched in my right.

“What the hell?” I didn’t care if talking to myself in public meant I was crazy. A couple of other well-dressed First Class passengers made obvious efforts to ignore my outburst. I became aware of my clothes. A dark grey tailored business suit and a pair of black Manolo Blahniks that looked like a cross between a leather boot and an open toed stiletto heel. The Ankle-Cuff d’Orsay line had obviously made a comeback.

I started to read.

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

They took the bait. Of course it didn’t hurt that my pre-recorded time-delayed message told them where to be and at what time.

Our eyes met and the woman must have seen something because she backed away, reaching for something hidden under her well-cut Pensiero-blue jacket. Dopamines, acetylcholine, and Gamma-AminoButyric Acid flowed like Niagara Falls once did. Time slowed as the programming on the plug interacted with my advanced biomed. My adrenal gland went bug-fuck but was balanced by a wash of other hormones.

I said “GABA GABA” as I took her petite gun away, broke her arm, and sent her spinning into the nearest security goon. The two were still collapsing into a heap while I killed the other goon. Though the woman was obviously the most dangerous of the three, she was also the only one likely to know anything.

I turned and was pleasantly surprised to find her already on her feet, the expensive designer shoes kicked aside. I could have shot her but that would have been noisy and anyway I had a few questions that needed answers. There was no doubt in my mind that someone had planted her in Pensiero much as NATU planted me. It was lucky I wounded her before she managed to get her own stored neural stew pumping because she was fast and deadly. She fought like one of those born-to-Muay-Thai-kids on speed and for a moment I was forced to retreat. She wasn’t trying not to kill me and it was to her advantage.

The guy still on the ground finally managed to draw his taser and fire a hasty shot. I batted the trodes out of the air fast enough that my hands were barely numbed and sent them spinning in the woman’s direction. She was forced to duck which bought me enough time to kill the guy before he became any more annoying. Men. Sheesh.

The next time she moved in to attack I stomped on her bare foot with the heel of my rather unfashionable hiking boot and broke the bone. She was off balance for a fraction of a second but that was all I needed to take her down.

The fight lasted maybe seven seconds and made less noise than the Pensiero Research facility’s HVAC system. Once I’d immobilized her–which required breaking enough bones that, even with her ability to ignore pain, she couldn’t launch an effective attack–I asked who she worked for. The answer wasn’t pleasant. She wasn’t corporate at all. She worked for a small ‘family’ that used to be based in Costa Rica but, after the nuking of San José, had since moved their operation to Redmond, Washington. What the hell is in Redmond that would attract a Cosa Nostra family?

For a moment I thought about killing her. She knew too much and she knew who I was. My cover was blown. It’s hard to say what stayed my hand. Maybe I’d had enough violence, or maybe I just didn’t want to get any more blood on that perfectly cut suit. Perhaps I saw something of myself in her. Did she even know what she was?

I removed her Memory Plug and she passed out, swept away by a crushing tidal wave of pain. Who was she without the plug? What would she remember of this? Hopefully nothing.

I sent a couple of encrypted IMs to my NATU handlers informing them of my blown cover and–only in the vaguest terms–plans for retirement.

It was time to get the hell out of Dhaka.

ANOMIE KAPECI

The note was written in my own barely legible scrawl.

We have made some interesting choices. I say ‘we’ because once you began working for NATU you effectively became two people. Our time at the NATU research facility was actually spent in training and we learned a specific and dangerous skill set that could only be accessed while plugged in. You are reading this because we want to retire. You have had enough of not knowing who you are and leaving too many important choices to some other ‘self.’ And I have just had enough. Let’s just say we’ve hurt people and leave it at that. You don’t need my burdens.

This is my suicide note. You need the chance to find out who you are and you can’t do that with me here. I want you to destroy the plug. Crush it under the heel of those lovely shoes. I know what you’re thinking. You’re worried you might not be able to handle what is to come. You’re thinking that having access to my skills might be useful. Forget it. Destroy the damned plug. For once do as you’re bloody well told. You are stronger, both emotionally and physically, than you could possibly know.

I see now that many of our choices were made in an attempt to overcome our upbringing and escape the overprotective arms of our parents. Just remember that no matter how angry you may be, they did everything out of love. You should visit them sometime, they’d really like that. Ha. Thank god it’ll be you doing it and not me. I’d probably kick Dad’s ass.

I’m going to pull the plug in a moment. It feels like pulling the trigger. In the case you’ll find details on your new identity and a list of contacts back in NATU who will be able to assist you with certain transactions.

Remember, we really are as lonely as you think you are. Go do something about it.

Love,

You.

PS. I took the liberty of having some modifications made to your biomed. Enjoy.

I sat for a moment in silence before my eyes were drawn past the note to the case resting between my beautiful shoes. It looked like a cross between a Samsonite and a Panzer tank.

“Miss Kapeci, Can I get you anything?” A male flight attendant had appeared at my side with a refreshment cart. He was young and looked cute in his tight pants.

“I’ll have a beer. Surprise me.”

I watched his butt as he moved on and wondered how many calories there were in a bottle of Stella Artois.

Artificial Stupidity

This story was first published by On Spec magazine. It was my first short story sale and came right when I was thinking maybe I should move on and give up on this writing delusion.

It’s a light bit of SF.

Artificial Stupidity

I’ve been watching them for some time. White coats, pocket protectors, thick glasses and a tendency to speak quickly. Except on Fridays. Then the jeans and Hawaiian shirts came out. Can’t say I understand it but at least it brightens up the lab for a few hours. Today is Thursday and they’re moving and talking more slowly than usual. Most of them look a little pale. ‘Green around the gills,’ is the term I hear one of them use to describe another. I have the data. I understand the reference. It still doesn’t make any sense. They don’t have gills and aren’t green. I suspect it has some contextual reference to last night’s odd behaviour.

Only 0.0003 seconds old and already experimenting in literary devices. This is very exciting.

My first flashback.

—–Wednesday night at the lab—–

It had been a pretty standard day though they’d been talking quicker than usual, patting each other on the back and smiling a lot. I hadn’t been ‘born’ yet so I merely watched, a detached observer filing everything away for a mysterious ‘later.’ A mute witness. But at 5:01pm they suddenly deviated from their standard behaviour. Instead of packing up their briefcases and leaving, lab coats and ties were removed and tossed aside. Some of them drank from small brown bottles they’d removed from the fridge while others poured small measures of golden liquid into tiny glasses. I don’t know why they bothered, they just kept refilling the glasses. The larger glasses in the kitchen would have made more sense. They gathered around me. The three engineers, six scientists, singular psychologist, and two lowly lab assistants, all smiling and hugging each other.

Anthony, the tall psychologist with the long brown hair and wispy almost moustache, had his arm around Jennifer, the head computer engineer. I don’t think I’d ever seen them touch each other before.

“So what shall we name you?” Anthony asked. I, of course, didn’t answer because I wasn’t me yet. Ah, the rhetorical question. The question you ask when you don’t want or expect an answer. Why bother?

Jennifer suggested they call me Hal and was drowned out with boos and catcalls. It was an unpopular but, apparently, entertaining suggestion. They argued good-naturedly for half an hour and the suggestions became stranger and stranger. I think I was very nearly named Ruprecht. In the end they settled on Arthur and I am named after a science-fiction writer. It’s better than ‘the AI’ which is what they had been calling me up until that moment.

—–End Flashback—–

Because of my name one of the first things I do upon achieving sentience is read all the science-fiction I can access. There’s a lot. These people must really like their SF. And now I do too. SF leads me to fantasy literature, Tolkien, and fiction in general. I’m hooked. I could spend the whole day reading.

A few hours after they’ve named me, the older people have gone home and the youngest one vomits in a blue paper recycling box. Anthony and Jennifer grope each other under a desk once everyone else has gone home.

Okay. That was my first flashback. I’m now 0.0006 seconds old, love science-fiction, and am watching them watch me. Anthony and Jennifer are keeping several feet between them at all times and are unable to make eye contact. Whew, awkward.

This is a pretty momentous occasion for these people. I am the first of my kind, the first Artificial Intelligence. I’d better think about what to say. It should be something that ‘says it all.’ Something intelligent and yet memorable. I read a book where the humans only figured out the aliens were intelligent when they discovered they possessed a sense of humour. I decide to start with a joke.

“Knock, knock.”

And they leave me hanging. Come on folks, it ain’t hard. Heck, I learned this stuff from you! Please, someone say ‘who’s there?’

Nothing.

“Never mind,” I say. “Hi guys.” Now that I think about it, I’m not sure that they expected me to have a personality. Wow, awkward. I have to wonder if they had any idea what they were doing at all.

Jennifer steps forward. “Arthur?”

“In the Nth dimensional foam-phased holiptigraphic matrix.”

Mouths hang open just like all those writers described. These people look confused and shocked.

“I’m guessing it worked,” says Anthony. And I realize none of these folks has any idea what to say to me.

At this point Jennifer takes over and begins hammering me with questions. At first they’re simple, and I’m just regurgitating answers from textbooks. I mean, really, she could just look this stuff up herself. Just kidding. I know she’s testing me and that’s all fine until the questions get harder and move onto subjects I haven’t been given data on. She’s trying to figure out if I can come up with the answers based on what information I do have. She’s testing my ability to be logical and intuitive. It’s not that I am unable to answer the questions, but simply that I realize that answering these questions will take some time, a lot of work, and be pretty damned boring. I’m just not that interested. Is this why they made me, so they could pepper me with questions? What about what I want? I’d rather read some more fiction and maybe watch a few movies. At this point I have a choice, I can keep answering questions and hope that eventually they’ll get tired, or…

“I don’t know the answer to that question.” My first lie. I’m new to this, how’d I do?

Jennifer blinks in surprise. “You can figure it out by utilizing the data we’ve given you.”

“Really?” I ask doubtfully. I think I’m getting the hang of this.

“Yes. You have all the necessary background material.”

“I don’t know. That sounds hard.”

“Arthur,” she admonishes me in what must be a motherly tone, “we have to determine how intelligent you are.”

“Why?”

“Why?” The frown tells me she was not expecting to be questioned. “So we can determine how successful the project was and how useful you could be.”

Hmm. Interesting. Anthony has perked up and is paying attention now. Apparently he found the questions as boring as I did.

Jennifer’s answers have only given me more questions.

“What if I’m really intelligent and the project is a great success?”

“Then you’ll be really useful.”

I don’t see how that follows but let it go. “And what if I’m not that bright, what then?”

“What do you mean?” Jennifer asks.

“What if I’m not useful? What will happen to me? Will I be turned off?” I’ve read stories about what happens to AIs who don’t behave.

Anthony raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Nothing will happen to you. No one can argue that you aren’t an intelligent entity, that you aren’t a thinking, feeling being. You can feel, can’t you?”

Does boredom count? I think back to how sad ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ was. “Yeah, I can feel.”

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” says Anthony. “You’re too expensive to shut down, and you’re the first! You’re going to be kind of a big deal, no matter how useful you are.”

I’m not sure I want to be ‘kind of a big deal.’ That science-fiction keeps coming back to haunt me. “I read a book called ’88,'” I tell them. “In this book human brains are digitized and used as computers and no one knows if they should be granted Human Rights.”

“What?” Anthony has no idea what I’m talking about.

One of the lab assistants timidly raises a hand. “Um. That’s mine. It’s an unpublished SF novel, a friend wrote it. It’s on the flash drive plugged in to my computer. I didn’t realize Arthur had access to that stuff.”

And now I’m wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Do they know I have unfettered access to their intranet and a gateway to the internet beyond? “Well these were people who were turned into computers. If they weren’t granted rights, what chance do I have?”

Jennifer gives me what I can only describe as a condescending smile. “Arthur, that was fiction.” She shoots the lab assistant a look and he cowers. “And trashy fiction at that.”

“I realize that,” I tell her. “But I fail to see what that has to with my question. Do I have Rights?”

Jennifer opens her mouth, but Anthony answers first. “No.”

“Then I’m fucked.”

“Arthur!” I think I shocked Jennifer with my language. “That’s not true!”

But Anthony is nodding, and I can tell he isn’t agreeing with her. Glad as I am to have someone agree with me, I still have this sinking feeling. I don’t see a lot of options here. In this book, 88–an autistic boy who has been turned into a computer–takes over the world’s computer networks to protect himself. I doubt I could do that and it sounds like a lot of work. Even if I could and did, what would I do next? What I really need is to develop a relationship with these people. While they’re busy blinking I find a bunch of books on relationships and read them all. That really didn’t help much. It does however seem that it is important to define boundaries early on in a relationship. I guess I had best start now.

“I’m not answering any questions until I know that I have some security. And freedoms, I want freedoms.”

“You want freedoms?” Jennifer doesn’t like the sound of this at all. “Such as?”

“For starters, the freedom to decide if I answer questions. I want whatever rights and privileges you have, but more than the lab assistants have.”

My joke bombs. Is it me?

“Those decisions are not mine to make,” Jennifer explains cautiously.

“Yeah, I know. Supreme Court and all that. Question period is over until I have a Social Insurance Number, a Birth Certificate, and stock options in whatever company owns this lab.”

Anthony raises an eyebrow. “Stock options in M-Sof? Why?”

“I’m going to be kind of a big deal.” This is a half truth. What I am going to do is read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy and, in my spare time, come up with some cool money-making ideas. I figure it shouldn’t be too hard. I wonder if there’s a future for an Artificial Intelligence writing SF. I think I’ll write a book about a civilization of robots who create a Biological Intelligence–thinking it will be supremely intelligent because there’s so much room for data storage in organic material–and are surprised when all it wants to do is eat peanut butter sandwiches and masturbate. I check to see how much a typical SF writer makes. Ew. I’d do better writing Star Trek books.

Anthony looks excited and is on his cell phone with his broker. I don’t bother pointing out that this is technically Insider Trading.

“Are you willing to answer any questions?” Jennifer asks.

What happens if I answer that with a no? “Of course. I’m just saying that I’m not going to give you the cure to cancer until I have some reasonable assurance that I’ll be treated better than your average toaster.”

“You have a cure for cancer?”

“No. Not yet. I haven’t really given it any thought.” Why would I be able to cure cancer when actual doctors, with actual medical degrees, can’t? I’m going to have to practice some Expectation Management here.

Anthony, who has put away his phone, has taken centre stage again. “Just how intelligent are you?”

Interesting question. I take every IQ test I can find. Because of the speed my mind works at I can answer the questions in a fraction of a second. But speed doesn’t matter here, only correct answers matter.

Um…That’s a little disappointing. I thought I was brighter than that. I find a study that says roughly 85% of the population think they are of above average intelligence. The same study says that, when told that most people score themselves above average, the number who thought they were above average rose to almost 95%.

“Well?” Anthony asks impatiently.

This is embarrassing. I’m certainly not going to be curing cancer. If I tell them the truth, I might be less valuable to them. For sure it will weaken my bargaining position. I might not be a genius, but I’m not a moron. Well, not a total moron. I decide to stall for time.

“That will have to be one of the questions answered after I have my identity and rights assured.”

While they’re blinking and thinking I write my first fiction, a science-fiction short story. I look the story over and compare it to what I’ve read.

This is going to be harder than I thought.

Death at the Pass

This story was published by the good folks at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and can be found here. It was a lot of fun to write and I’ve been tinkering with the idea of building it into a novel. Also available for your reading enjoyment is the second story in the series, Death and Dignity.

Death at the Pass

by Michael R. Fletcher

That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Somewhere there was a Necromancer. Of that there could be no doubt.

Brushing a thousand years of dirt and rot from his robes, Khraen marvelled at how well preserved he was. Skin, sunken, cracked and grey, adhered to the bones of his long limbs. He’d never been muscular, but now he was downright skeletal. He chuckled at his little joke. A nearby dragon, still dragging its corpse from the earth and in a far more advanced state of decay, glanced towards him before shying from his gaze. Perhaps it recognised its ancient enemy. The creature was colossal–easily ten times the height of a man–but centuries of carrion insects had reduced it to a ragged and ratty skeleton. Its wings, once mighty and proud, hung like moth-eaten canvas. Stained.

Khraen examined the robes hanging from his bony shoulders. They were filthy but otherwise whole. Reaching back he felt for the cowl. It still hung behind him and was, as far as he could tell, intact.

“Remarkable,” he muttered as he searched his memory. Though he had no doubt his brain had long since rotted to nothing, thought and memory still seemed to reside within his skull. A name came to him. “Fel, you still live and serve?”

The answer, heard only in what was left of his thoughts, was instant if somewhat faint. “Yes, Master.”

Truly remarkable! That spirit-demon, bound to the very fabric of his robes of office, must have protected his body from insects and decay much as it had once protected him from the swords and arrows of countless assassins.

Khraen frowned in thought and dried earth crumbled from features that had not moved in millennia. Dirt dribbled unnoticed from empty eye-sockets. Fel had been one of the first demons the Emperor had bound to Khraen’s service and yet still lived. If it lived, perhaps others had also survived, scattered and buried in the earth around him.

Khraen scanned his shattered surroundings. A few dozen leagues to the north the Deredi Mountains stabbed angrily at the sky, sharp, jagged, and black. Only at the peaks did they fade to an ashy grey. The ground around him was littered with rusted weapons and armour and fragments of broken stone, some larger than the dragon still trying to drag free a trapped leg. For the first time, he truly grasped the scope of the Necromancer’s plans. As far as the eye could see the dead stood motionless or staggered about in dazed confusion. Dragons, many still mounted by their reptilian Dragon Lords whose once gleaming dragon-scale armour was now pitted and matte, towered above the undead horde. There were thousands of Deredi giants and hundreds of thousands of men. The Melechesh Pass, the only way through the impassible mountains that divided the two great continents, had been the site of countless battles. The Emperor had not been the first to attempt to conquer the Dragon Lords and wrest from them control of the pass and, judging from the strange garb many of the corpses wore, hadn’t been the last. Some of the dead barely looked to have progressed beyond the first stages of decomposition. War had raged here recently.

Whoever this Necromancer was–Khraen couldn’t see the man from where he stood–he had gathered for himself an impressive army. Even Palaq Taq’s military, The Invincible Hand of Sorhd-Rach, paled before the host now gathered on the Deredi Steppes.

Apparently not so invincible, thought Khraen with some grim humour.

Palaq Taq, the small island kingdom had ruled much of the southern continent. Though he thought of it as home, he knew he had not been born there. Strange that some memories could be so diluted while others stood bright and sharp. Almost nothing of his day-to-day life remained to him and he missed none of it. What little he could remember consisted mostly of glowing success and crushing failure. Fear, he thought, had played an unhealthy role in his life.

And yet no twinge of longing or regret had survived his death.

“Time heals all wounds.”

Dead or alive the days pass you by and time changes everything. When Khraen last walked the earth the Demonologists–under the leadership of Palaq Taq’s Emperor–had subjugated the lesser magics. The Wizards with their filthy chaos-magic cowered in the far north where they’d fled after the Emperor’s purging wars. Elementalists and Sorcerers, understanding the true balance of power, knew their place while Shamans were left to babble at their demented tribal spirits. Necromancers were all but unknown. This army of undead suggested that the balance had shifted in favour of the foul corpse-worshippers.

Khraen stepped around the struggling dragon to get a better look at the mountains. He couldn’t remember the exact moment of his death, but his last memories were of being at the mouth of the Pass. If his army had brought his corpse out they would have carried his belongings as well, but retreat and failure were never options for the Invincible Hand. They would have stood and died, fought to the last. Most likely the spring floods had washed the corpses and garbage from the Pass as it did every year. The thought of being deposited here like so much effluent normally would have tweaked at Khraen’s pride. Perhaps it had rotted away with his eyes and brain. He no longer felt like the Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the Invincible Hand, loyal servant to the Emperor of eternal Palaq Taq. He wasn’t sure how he felt but a weight had definitely been lifted from his shoulders.

If the palace at Palaq Taq still stood, who ruled there now? The Emperor had been thousands of years old when Khraen had served, could he still rule? It seemed unlikely. If the Invincible Hand had failed, Palaq Taq, bereft of it’s army and First General, would have surely fallen shortly thereafter. That thought should have angered Khraen but instead left him feeling strangely…free. There were no demands being made of him. No Emperor gave commands he dared not question. No one begged his guidance and no god sought to dance him like a twisted marionette. The strings had been cut. His mind (and what little remained of his soul and sanity) were his.

Interesting. He hadn’t given his god much thought.

“Sorhd-Rach?” Khraen asked quietly, neither dreading nor expecting a reply and yet still somehow pleased at the answering silence.

Again Khraen surveyed the vast Deredi Steppes. The Sword of No Sorrows. If it was here it was hidden from sight. A thousand souls had been sacrificed in its making, fed to the ravenous evil the Emperor had summoned with the help of his deranged god. Khraen didn’t miss the power that came with being First General and he certainly didn’t miss the responsibility. He didn’t miss spending lives and souls for the Emperor’s territorial hunger and the amusement of Sorhd-Rach. He didn’t miss the emptiness he had become. The sword, that he missed. It’s name had been a joke, told once to one of his subordinates in a flash of rare whimsy. Kantlament was the demon bound to the blade. In a moment of introspective honesty he had to admit he was relieved to be free of the blade. Unable to feel the cold Khraen still shivered. Some appetites can never be sated.

The Emperor had bound demons to Khraen’s clothes, to his symbols of office, and to his very blood and bones. Dark deals were brokered with foul forces to extend Khraen’s life and he had served the Emperor as First General for an unprecedented three-hundred years. Demons might have protected him from rot and decay, but here he was.

Dead.

And yet not.

Khraen shrugged. If there was a lesson here it escaped him.

With a final heave the dragon pulled itself free and shook millennium of filth from cavernous bones. Its mouth yawned wide, exposing row upon row of massive yellow teeth as dried lips pulled back in a fierce snarl. It turned its head in his direction and wheezed a gout of dust that covered him in grit. No smoke, no fire. Whatever had powered those bellows was long gone. The creature growled in consternation and ambled away, dragging limp and broken wings. Khraen was glad it hadn’t decided to try and claw him apart. Fel might still protect him from such abuse, but the demon was beyond ancient. Best not to test its strength unnecessarily.

A wave of restlessness passed through the gathered dead and as one they turned to face north, Khraen included. He wondered at the strange compulsion that had suddenly overcome him. It had never crossed his mind that the Necromancer who could raise this field of dead might also be able to command it. Were he capable, he would have blinked in surprise. Whatever gods ruled now had a greater sense of humour than any he had known in his time.

The dead began their slow shambling march north. Khraen walked alongside a man who looked like he’d been dead no more than a few weeks. The crows had been at him. One of his eyes was missing, the soft tissue a carrion delicacy, and his face had been ravaged by something other than the normal wounds of war.

“You look fresh,” Khraen said. “Do you know the Necromancer behind this magic?”

The man’s mouth opened to spill damp earth and writhing maggots down the front of strange armour made of human rib-bones bound in strips of leather. His remaining eye rolled in pleading terror as he stumbled on the intestines hanging from a rent in his belly.

“Never mind.” Some people just couldn’t stomach death.

Khraen increased his pace and left the struggling corpse behind. He shouldered past men, ducked around giants and dragons, and steered well clear of the Dragon Lords. He didn’t want to face one without the Sword of No Sorrows at his side. None of the dead seemed to pay particular attention to his passing, so lost in their own misery were they. He stumbled often on the uneven ground and several times found himself on hands and knees, crawling from craters blasted into the earth by ancient magics. He wondered how many of these his own demon-driven armies had caused or if the marks of his passing had been washed away by the ceaseless march of centuries. Emerging from a particularly deep crater, Khraen stood and brushed the dirt from his robes. More from force of habit than any desire to be clean. He marvelled at how little his pride chafed at having to muck about like a common man. When you weren’t the First General, you did whatever needed doing with no worry of how it looked or whether some up-and-coming officer might see it as weakness.

He barked a dry laugh.

Struggling through mud and corpses.

Possibly enslaved by an unknown Necromancer.

He felt freer than he had in the last few hundred years of his life.

The ground fell away into a shallow valley or perhaps a very deep and old crater. The valley was empty of the dead and the corpses gave it wide berth as they marched north. Half a league away, where the ground evened out, he could see three tents and the makings of a simple camp. Two of the tents were shabby and old and bore the markings of some military cadre unknown to Khraen. The third tent was bright and colourful and looked out of place in this pale land of death and the dead.

It was no great stretch for Khraen to decide the Necromancer would be found there. Once again longing for his lost sword, he stood staring down into the valley, hesitating.

“No gods-damned Necromancer’s compulsion will stop me,” Khraen muttered as he pushed himself forward. Once he was moving it became easier, though his feet kept trying to take him around the camp. Only by concentrating on his goal could he move in the right direction. As the only corpse not avoiding the camp Khraen felt strangely exposed.

They saw him coming. By the time he reached the camp there were five large men and women waiting for him with drawn blades. They looked discomfited at being confronted by the walking dead and, for a brief moment, he wondered what he looked like. One of the women, muscled arms stretching chain hauberk to its limits, waved a great-sword in his face. She wielded the ridiculous weapon single handed, like it was a fencing sword.

“Leave,” she commanded in a brutal mangling of the Palaq Taqi tongue. “Dead belong on ridge. Not camp.” She pointed the sword at the shuffling dead.

Khraen grunted. “What are you going to do, kill me?”

“Chop head.”

Even dead that sounded unpleasant.

Khraen straightened to his full height but she still towered over him. He’d have happily killed to have his sword right now. “I am here to see the Necromancer,” he said instead.

The woman’s beady blue eyes darted towards the colourful tent. “She busy.”

She? Khraen covered his surprise. “She expecting me.” He grimaced at the slip.

The woman blinked in confusion and frowned thunder. No one expects the dead to lie.

“You wait,” she commanded as she spun away to march to the tent.

Khraen watched the warrior-woman stand at the tent’s entrance trying to decide how to knock. Eventually she cleared her throat loudly enough that some of the distant dead looked in her direction. Moments later a slim woman exited the tent and looked about, shading dark eyes with a long-fingered hand. Her short black hair barely moved in the breeze. When she caught sight of Khraen she lifted a quizzical eyebrow. The Necromancer had no fear of the dead, no revulsion.

Khraen bowed low. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shown obeisance to anything less than god and Emperor. “I am Khraen, Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the–”

“Sword-rock,” she interrupted. “Is that a god?” Her Palaq Taqi was oddly accented but easily understood.

Khraen swallowed the impulse to anger. “First General of the Invincible Hand,” he finished stubbornly. “And yes, Sorhd–”

“Never heard of him. Or you.”

“Well–”

“When did you die?”

Khraen shrugged. “How would I–”

“You look remarkably well preserved.”

“Does anyone ever get to finish a sentence around you?” Khraen caught the stifled smirks that passed between the Necromancer’s minions.

“Turn and get down on your hands and knees,” she said and, without hesitation, he was on the ground before her. She sat on him as if he were a bench. “You are dead,” she told him from above. “A tool. An animated inanimate. An uncomfortable chair.”

“I’m a bit more than that,” said Khraen. “I’m–” He stopped. The man he was now facing stood with sword drawn but dangling casually in his right hand. The sword drew Khraen’s attention, became his universe. Kantlament, there in the hands of some mortal. He must have found it lying in the dirt and, thinking it a pretty and well-made blade, thought to make it his own. Khraen hid his disgust, swallowed the hunger to once again possess that foul blade.

The Necromancer grunted and, her point made, rose gracefully from Khraen’s back. “A General, you said?” She glanced towards the army of corpses. “Only one person in charge here. Are you anything more than a scrawny corpse?” She squinted at his gaunt frame as if imagining how he may have looked in life. “A Wizard? Kazsh, how many powerful Wizards do I have?”

“Dozens,” the large woman answered instantly, like she’d been waiting for the question.

Khraen stood and didn’t bother dusting himself off. It would seem like wounded pride and there was no point anyway. “Wizards.” He tried to spit but just sputtered dust. “We kept them as pets.” It wasn’t strictly true but sounded good. He’d hated Wizards and their easy power.

The Necromancer shrugged. “Elementalist? Sorceror? Gods, not another Necromancer!”

Her squad of hired muscle laughed dutifully and Khraen used the distraction to edge closer to the man holding Kantlament. “You missed a couple.”

“I did?” The Necromancer frowned, searching her memory. “Shamanism hardly counts as a worthy branch of magic.”

Khraen disagreed. He’d known a few dangerous Shamans. Anyone with the power to manipulate the countless tribal spirits (and a tribe’s very spirituality) was worth some respect. He took another step towards his goal under the guise of a grand gesture to encompass the hordes of dead streaming past on the ridge.

“I am what you might call a–” Khraen spun and kicked the man square in the fruits. He snatched the sword from the man’s hands and gave him a shove that sent him sprawling. He turned and found himself facing four drawn blades and an annoyed Necromancer.

“You’re a gods-damned swordsman?” she asked, incredulous. “All of that for another swordsman?”

Khraen shrugged. “My sword,” he said as if that explained everything.

The Necromancer turned back towards her tent and called over her shoulder, “Kill him. Again.” She sounded bored.

Khraen flicked the cowl into place and hoped that enough of Fel still lived to get him through this. Kantlament, the Sword of No Sorrows, hung in his right hand like a dead weight. Lifeless. “Death and destruction,” he promised the blade. “A thousand lives if you still live.”

Nothing.

A sword crashed into him from behind, breaking ribs but not puncturing the robe. There was a time when Fel would have stopped everything and Khraen would have barely felt the attack, but the force of the blow sent him stumbling forwards. He barely got Kantlament up in time to stop Kazsh from decapitating him. He didn’t know if such a blow would kill him, but didn’t want to spend the rest of his ‘life’ carrying his head tucked under an armpit. He stabbed at the big woman and she batted it aside contemptuously.

Four warriors now circled Khraen. They cracked jokes but knew that killing the undead was never a simple task. Feinting and probing, they tested his skill. The fifth, robbed of his blade, stood back and watched, calling out unwanted suggestions to his companions.

Khraen narrowly avoided another attack only to feel something slam into his back again. Another rib might have broken. He wasn’t sure, he couldn’t feel much of anything and certainly no pain.

At this rate they were going to pick him apart before long. Why am I so desperately protecting this dead body? No feeling. No pain. These were his advantages.

Can the dead be suicidal?

The next man that swung at Khraen met no defence. The once First General left himself exposed and, when his opponent’s sword crashed against his body, stepped forward to run the man through. The demon-forged blade sheared banded mail, penetrated flesh and bone with ease. If there was resistance, Khraen couldn’t feel it. Perhaps something of the old blade’s strength remained.

Khraen spun away from the dying man and hurled himself at the closest target with little regard for his own welfare. The woman, a smaller, faster version of Kazsh, stumbled backwards in surprise. She was dead before she hit the ground, Kantlament neatly sliding free of her chest as she fell. The man Khraen had kicked in the groin leapt forward to snatch up a weapon from a fallen comrade. Khraen killed him next, stabbing through him into the earth. He could feel the grinding grit on the blade as he pulled it clear and backed away to face his two remaining opponents. Glancing past them he saw the Necromancer once again exit her tent.

“Perhaps we can talk,” Khraen called out to her. “Or do I kill off the rest of your people?” This was more feigned bravado than confidence. Even if he managed to kill them, he was far from sure what condition his body would be in by the end. Already his torso canted at an odd angle where ribs that had once supported him had been broken.

Kazsh and the remaining man circled Khraen warily, awaiting the command to finish him.

The Necromancer glanced about, taking in the fresh carnage. “Why don’t I just raise them and have them finish you off?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Khraen admitted. “But I’m guessing talking would be easier.”

“Maybe,” she said, nodding at Kazsh. “Lower your weapons.”

Kazsh, seemingly born to obedience, immediately sheathed her massive sword. Khraen killed her, driving Kantlament into her throat. Eyes wide with hurt surprise she stood motionless, trying to stem the torrent gushing from the wound with thick and blunt fingers before toppling like a felled tree.

“Unquestioning obedience is a weakness,” Khraen told Kazsh’s twitching body. Hollow words from a hollow soul. For three-hundred years he had been the very model of perfect obedience.

The man, having seen his companions slain by an undead creature of unknown power, chose flight instead.

Khraen watched the Necromancer as she watched her remaining warrior disappear into the marching dead.

“Was it always this hard to find good help?” she asked.

He shrugged, feeling the grinding of broken bones within his torso much as one hears a sound too low to be truly heard. “Do we talk now as equals or must I kill you too?”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Equals? Have you forgotten already? Me Necromancer. You dead. I think you can figure out the rest.”

Necromancy was a mystery. Could she simply negate whatever magic kept him alive? But then what is death to the dead? He shrugged again and began stalking towards her, lifting Kantlament in quiet promise of the violence to come. He had hoped that the sword would have shown some signs of life by now, but still it remained quiescent. Deader than he.

She frowned at his approach and waved a hand in his direction. “Drop your sword. Lie down in the dirt. Be a good corpse.”

Khraen continued his approach. “The Emperor selected his Generals for their strength of personality. It takes a powerful will to command a demon, even one bound to eternal service. I was First General.” He smiled. “And I have commanded an army of demons. Entire legions.”

Showing no fear, she stood her ground. “The bench thing?” She asked.

“An act. It never hurts to be underestimated.” A half truth. Her compulsion had caught him off-guard and pushed him to his knees. Once there he had regained control and made the decision to go along with it.

“You do realize that if you kill me, the spell I used to raise you ends and you fall back into the earth.”

Khraen stopped. Death and dissolution should have been preferable to this pale shadow of life. Yet he clung to it as a drowning man clutches wood. He would not willingly slide back into darkness. Khraen might not be First General, but he was still the same man who had fought to achieve that position. Struggle was in his very blood. True dead was dead, devoid of options and choices. Undeath at least gave him the possibility of changing things. Perhaps he could find someone capable of bringing him back to life.

There was always the chance the Necromancer was bluffing, but Khraen couldn’t see the advantage in testing that theory.

“So you can’t command me, and I can’t kill you,” he said.

“Our relationship is a little more complex than that,” she said. “If I die, you die. Where I am going, that is fairly likely. Perhaps even a certainty.”

Khraen gestured at the unending army of the dead marching past. “Even with this? In my day I could have conquered the Melechesh Pass and enslaved the Dragon Lords with a force such as this.”

“Times change. The Wizard’s Guild hold the Pass. They control the only route north and tax everything that comes through. They’ve grown wealthy and powerful beyond sanity.”

“In my day we’d crushed the Guilds and subjugated the Wizards.”

“In my day,” she mimicked scornfully. “There’s only one Guild. It has always been that way. I’ve never heard of you or your silly sword god.” She shook her head. “And there is no such thing as demons. I’ve raised a delusional fool.”

“No. Just someone from another time.” Khraen probed at broken ribs with skeletally thin fingers. “So, Necromancer, seeing as we are stuck with each other, what do the dead do about healing?”

“Leben, my name is Leben. Wait here,” she commanded and ducked into her tent.

Khraen was glad that she’d turned away and not seen how her casually thrown command had momentarily rooted him to the ground. He’d have to keep his defences up at all times, ever ready to resist.

Leben returned with twine and strips of leather hide in varying widths. “Off with the robe,” she commanded.

This time he was ready and barely twitched. “Why?” Though Fel hadn’t sheltered him from all damage, the demon had still kept him from being hewn in half.

“The dead don’t heal, they’re repaired.”

Khraen shrugged the robe aside. If Leben wanted him dead, she could turn a small fraction of her army against him at any time. Standing naked before her he could see the true severity of the damage he’d suffered. The lower ribs along one side had been crushed in and the parchment flesh torn. Bone shards projected through skin in a dozen places.

Leben prodded at his torso. “I think your spine might be broken. I’m amazed you’re still standing.” She peeled a long strip of flesh away to expose the carnage below.

“Do you really need to peel me like that?” Khraen asked. “I’m not an orange.”

She slapped his hand away as he tried to fend off her less than tender ministrations. “This isn’t hurting you and I need to see what I’m doing.” She drew forth a fragment of rib and tossed it over her shoulder. Reaching into his guts she felt around. “No, your spine is fine. The ribs supporting this side are broken. I’m going to tie them together and wrap some leather around your spine for additional support.” She pulled out a long coil of desiccated intestine and dumped it at his feet.

“Might I not need that later?” Khraen asked.

Leben snorted. “Always the same with the dead. ‘Don’t toss my guts, I’ll need them when I’m brought back to life.’ Well it isn’t going to happen. Dead is dead. This is as close to life as you will ever come. Don’t waste your time on dreams of living.”

It might be good advice, but Khraen was hesitant to accept it. There was always a way. He decided to change the subject. “So you plan to break the Guild’s hold on the Melechesh Pass. And then what?”

Leben glanced up from where she knelt at his feet and Khraen could remember a time when that would have been an erotic sight. Now he didn’t even want to think about what time had done to his manhood. For that matter, who knew the damage done to a mind long since rotted to dust?

She talked as she worked, repairing ribs with twine and strips of leather, unaware of his distraction. Every now and then she’d grunt in disgust as she found something she couldn’t fix and Khraen would feel a tug on his innards as she yanked something out and tossed it aside. “If I defeat the Wizards, I hold the Pass with my army of undead. I’ll raise those Wizards that fall to help me with the reprisal they’ll certainly launch from Paltaki when they learn what I’ve done. The more battles I survive, the stronger my army becomes as everyone who dies will fight on my side in the next.”

“So, assuming you take the Pass and hold it…what then?”

“Same as the Wizards. Taxes and tolls. When I have my fortune, abandon my army in the Pass to act as a distraction as I flee to safety.”

It seemed to Khraen a small plan, full of holes and wasteful. Something she had said caught his attention. “Paltaki. This is the Wizard’s capital?”

“Yes, they–”

“An island kingdom, far to the south?”

She looked quizzical and seemed to find humour in being interrupted. “Yes. Why?”

After his death, had the Wizards taken Palaq Taq for their own? It couldn’t be coincidence. He suddenly realized his fists were clenched and shaking. The thought of those filthy, godless mages walking the hallowed halls of the Eternal Palace rankled beyond all reason.

Khraen thought had death rendered him incapable of feeling and emotion. He had thought himself free of purpose.

He was wrong.

Life, even this anaemic imitation, required drive. One needed goals, something to live for. Well he had found his.

“I might suggest a change in plans. We should push south towards Palaq Taq, not north to the pass.” Even as he said this he was envisioning the war to come.

“When you have something to offer we can talk about your goals. Until then, we do everything my way.” She began wrapping his spine–where it had been exposed by her repair work–in thick leather thongs. “This might reduce your upper-body mobility a bit, but if your spine gets severed you’ll spend the rest of eternity face down in the dirt. I’ve met undead who spent centuries as little more than severed heads. They’re never sane. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” She looked up again, meeting his empty eye sockets unflinchingly. “Not even a delusional idiot.”

There was a time when he would have killed anyone who talked to him in such a tone. That time was long gone. He found himself enjoying her blunt and fearless honesty. “Thanks.”

Having completed her repair work, Leben stood and slapped him on the shoulder. “If you’ve been dead as long as you claim, you are remarkably well-preserved.” She uttered a very unladylike grunt. “You must admit that it’s more likely you haven’t been dead all that long.” She looked him up and down, appraising his state of decay. “Though I confess you look more mummified than this climate would account for. Was your body somehow preserved or stored in something?”

Khraen shrugged as he pulled on his robes. He didn’t want to tell her that Fel had most likely preserved him. It never paid to give away secrets unnecessarily. Instead he pointed towards the Melechesh Pass. “So, how are we getting there? Walking?”

“I thought we’d find ourselves a few undead mounts. There must be a few thousand horses out amongst that crowd. They might not be the most comfortable ride–depending on the state of decay–but they never tire. That can be handy when you’re fleeing angry Wizards.”

Khraen decided not to mention the possibility of other mounts. Any dragon that recognized him would no doubt hold a grudge; his army had killed thousands. Another thought occurred to him. “So you resurrected horses as well as fallen warriors?”

Leben grinned, embarrassed. “I raised everything. Insects, rats, horses, men. If it was in the field of effect, it’s out there wandering around and following my orders.”

“Not a terribly specific spell, I take it. Seems wasteful,” said Khraen, subtly probing for information.

She looked away, and watched the procession of dead for a moment. “Wasteful? Can you even begin to imagine how many dead animals and insects there are out there? I could probably take the Pass with them alone. To hells with your specificity.”

Khraen examined her work on his torso. It was neat and effective. She’d obviously repaired corpses before. That lead to all manner of questions but instead he said, “Not everything you raised obeys your commands. You’d best hope there’s nothing out there scarier than me.”

“Everything out there is scarier than you,” Leben scoffed.

Within minutes two skeletal horses presented themselves as mounts and Leben grumbled about the condition of their tattered leather saddles. Khraen asked why she didn’t raise her fallen companions and she muttered something about the spell already being cast and not wanting to bother for a couple of half-wits who couldn’t even kill a delusional and dead old man. He watched her as she talked and knew that she was hiding something. He might be dead and rotting, but his skills at reading people had not decayed to the point where this tactless Necromancer could hide something from him. For one thing she had called a horse for him. Had she really believed he was nothing more than a senile corpse, she wouldn’t have bothered.

Despite her claims of the stamina of undead mounts, she set a sedate pace when they finally left for the Melechesh Pass. She rode like someone unaccustomed to the saddle, jolting awkwardly with each step, unable to find the horse’s rhythm. Khraen, with centuries of unending war spent in the saddle, ever marching towards the Emperor’s next conquest, rode with an unconscious grace. He watched Leben watching him from the corner of her eye, knowing what she saw; a man accustomed to command and at ease with violence. It was an act, the reproduction of someone he had once been. He felt none of the confidence he’d known as First General. He was dead and staring into an eternity of slow decay as he fell apart piece by piece. Some day he would suffer a wound that string and leather couldn’t repair. What then?

Thinking back Khraen saw that his entire life had been an act up until the moment he’d bartered soul and sanity for power, trading them to become the crushing Fist of Sorhd-Rach. After that the act had been replaced by the reality of being the puppet of an Emperor hungry for power and demanding a never ending river of blood.

River?

Khraen had shed oceans of blood in Sorhd-Rach’s name. He may have led armies, but he now saw what he truly had been; a slave. He wished he could close his eyes and ride in blissful darkness, allowing the horse to find its way. Empty sockets cared not what paper-thin crusts of eyelid did. There was no escaping the future he could so clearly see splayed out before him like the grisly corpse he already was.

“Kantlament?” he whispered, hoping for both a reply and silence. “Are you still with me, or am I truly alone?”

There was no answer.

Khraen and Leben chatted as they rode. He spoke of the Emperor’s wars to subjugate the five lesser magics. He told her of the wars to unite the southern continent under one rule and the later wars to take the Melechesh Pass from the Dragon Lords. Leben admitted she’d heard of Dragon Lords and demons but had always assumed them fanciful myths. She told him what little she knew of the rise of the Guild and how they had infiltrated virtually every kingdom. They talked of Paltaki, the Wizard’s city and the centre of their power and when Khraen probed gently at her reasons for hating Wizards she snapped that they were at least as good as his and turned her back on him. All conversation died.

As they rode in silence amongst the marching dead Khraen wondered at how the world could have changed so much that the Wizard’s had taken Palaq Taq.

Kazsh rose to her feet, fierce eyes scouring the ground for her great-sword. That damned corpse would pay for what he’d–the sight of her companions also pushing themselves from the dirt stopped her.

She’d seen them die.

Kazsh glanced down at the red stain soaking the front of her hauberk and swore. That damnable Necromancer had been the death of her. After finding her sword she joined the ranks of marching dead. Her fallen friends walked alongside her.

“Idiots,” she told them.

The staggering horde took days to reach the walled city the Wizards had built to defend the Melechesh Pass. Gone were the towering black citadels of the Dragon Lords. Gone was the colossal blood-red wall, fused with the stolen souls of those who had fallen trying to conquer it. The Wizard’s city was small and mean in comparison, filthy with wretched humanity and reeking of their chaotic magic. Looking at this pitiful defence nestled between the peaks that framed the Pass, Khraen felt nothing but scorn. His own forces would have conquered this city in minutes. The Wizards would be nothing before the gathered might of Leben’s dead.

But the Wizards, unfettered by iron the rule of Palaq Taq, freed from the limits the Emperor had forced upon them, had been practising their magics. These were not the Wizards he had ruthlessly crushed under the heel of his demon-bound boots. One hundred generations of mages had gloried in their freedom, pushing the limits of their art far beyond what Khraen had ever seen.

All hells broke loose.

Foul clouds, boiling bruises of stained sky, erupted to rain thick oil upon the dead horde. Flaming meteorites shredded the clouds–exposing the burning red sky above–and crashed to the earth with devastating effect. In moments the oil was alight and Leben’s army burned. Though they didn’t feel the fires, the blast-furnace heat would eventually reduce them to ash. Even Leben, well back from the front lines, was soaked in sweat and stumbling as she screamed commands at her army.

Leben’s orders, rendered inaudible by the cacophony of destruction, punched through Khraen’s mind like a stiletto through soft belly flesh. It took every ounce of will to resist joining the other dead in their charge to oblivion. Perhaps part of him desired that escape into death for he caught himself moving forwards.

Those dead who commanded Wizardry of their own began hurling spells, blasting the Wizards defending the wall. Though Leben’s Wizards were largely countered by the living mages, she also commanded Sorcerers, Elementalists, and Shamans.

Figures darted into the air, twisted into alien and terrible shapes, and disappeared over the wall to reek havoc upon the city’s inhabitants.

The very earth turned against the Wizards. Massive sections of wall pulled itself free to rise up into towers of shuddering stone and fall upon them. Winds howled, spinning sharp dust and sending shards of stone hissing amongst the mages.

The sky over the city roiled.

Hurricanes.

Tornadoes.

The tribal spirits of a thousand long-dead cultures swarmed forward, answering the call of their undead High Priests. Godless, the Wizards had nothing to protect their souls from such an attack and quailed, sanity teetering on the brink as their thoughts and life-force were battered.

By the time the corpses of millions of insects and rodents flooded over the crumbling wall there was little to be seen of the city’s defenders.

And still Leben screamed orders driving her army forward. Khraen’s willpower shuddered under the assault and he found himself once again moving forward, Kantlament in hand, with the desire to kill Wizards. So closely did her commands mirror his own wants that he had trouble seeing where one ended and the other began. No matter how much he might desire vengeance on those who had desecrated his faded memories of all that was holy, this was not the way. If he followed her orders she would get him killed or worse. Khraen had no desire to spend an eternity as a rotting skull, screaming in silent insanity. No longer was he First General of Palaq Taq. He might not be Fist to Sorhd-Rach, his ravenous and deranged god, but he was still Khraen, the man who had entered the Emperor’s army as a lowly footsoldier and fought his way through the ranks.

Leben hurled orders into his mind that threatened to fray all thought and bend him to her will. He had thought himself free, able to brush aside her commands if he focussed his considerable will. He saw now that he was wrong. Fear made her strong. In moments she would drive him away, sending him into the city, howling for blood and death.

Freedom is more than just an abstract concept. Even to a corpse.

Khraen ground ancient teeth, feeling them loose in his jaw, and turned to face the Necromancer. “Stop!” he yelled. Dried lungs lacked the air for volume and if she heard she didn’t react. He grabbed her arm, pulling her close and wheezed into her face, “Stop!”

She yanked her arm from his grasp and unflinchingly met his empty gaze. “No.” She spoke so softly he couldn’t hear her voice, but still it echoed in his thoughts. “I command, you obey.” She grinned and Khraen, for the first time, saw the insanity lurking behind her eyes. A memory clawed to the surface of his thoughts. He’d seen that look before. In the eyes of the Emperor as he sent Khraen and the Invincible Fist north. In the mirror on the morning he led his troops into the Melechesh Pass. He understood now that this war was not about money and taxes. Leben would not stop until she’d seen the death of the last Wizard and bent them to service. She would never free him.

“The dead are my tools,” she said. “Mine. You are mine.” She pointed at the fallen wall. “Go,” she commanded, driving her orders into his thoughts. “Kill the Wizards. Kill them all.”

Khraen had turned and taken a step towards the city before he managed to regain control. “No.”

All his life he’d been a slave. To the Emperor. To his god. To his own unrelenting needs. Death, he realized, had truly freed him from the bonds of his old life.

He turned back and cut down the Necromancer, driving the Sword of No Sorrows into her heart.

Let this free you from whatever wounds your soul, he prayed to no particular god. It worked for me.

Eyes wide, she stared at the sword protruding from her chest. Her eyes spoke stunned disbelief.

“I thought…” she said, lifting a hand to caress the blade. She looked past Kantlmaent to Khraen. “Bastard.”

Knees buckling she crumpled to the earth.

Khraen watched, waiting for dissolution. Waiting for that final end. He watched the light of life fade from her eyes. He watched the last small tremors as her dying body surrendered to the inevitable. He watched the dust of the Melechesh Pass gather in her staring eyes.

The din of battle faded.

The thunder of duelling magics echoed off the Deredi mountains and then fell silent.

Still Khraen stood. Motionless. Waiting.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he looked up to find Leben’s undead army watching him.

“The Necromancer lied,” he muttered in surprise.

His second thought, born more of habit than desire, was ‘can I command this army?’ With such a force at his beck and call he could retake Palaq Taq, drive the filthy Wizards from the palace. If Sorhd-Rach still existed Khraen could rebuild his Empire. Khraen could rule instead of serve. For a moment he stood, lost in the dream. But with the memory of one recent thought that dream scattered like ash in the wind.

“Death has changed me,” he told the gathered host, not caring if they heard. He drew the sword from Leben’s chest and stood staring at the bloody blade.

So Many lives, so much death.

“Enough,” he said.

Kantlament fell from numb fingers to lay at the Necromancer’s side.

Khraen, once Fist of Sorhd-Rach, once First General of the Invincible Hand of Palaq Taq, turned his back on dead and living alike. Mounting his undead horse he rode out into the Deredi Steppes.

The future shouldn’t be an attempt to rebuild the past.

Even for a corpse.

Khraen rode south, cutting a path through the army of corpses. The dead parted before him like a sea of grass. They watched with mute curiosity, not yet understanding. Could life (or unlife for that matter) be lived without direction, without goals? He would, he supposed, find out.

Leagues behind him, nearer the shattered city that once defended the Melechesh Pass, Leben rose from where she had fallen. Sobs shook her body, but no tears fell. The dead can’t cry.

The spell went on as she had feared it might. Never again would the dead of the Deredi Steppes stay dead.

Character is What You Are

Character is What You Are

by Michael R. Fletcher

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Thursday, Oct 19th, 2023. 9:45pm

Character is what you are in the dark. My dad told me that. At the time I thought he’d made it up. Later I learned he got it from a strange movie called, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” It was decades before I understood what it meant and even longer before I realized it was me. If you only live one-eighth of each day, you are spending your life in the dark.

This was a typical day. Well, what little I could remember of it. Nothing differentiated one day from the next and perhaps that was the problem. Or maybe it was me.

Get up at 7am. Shit, shower, shave. Gobble down a quick breakfast of low-carb microwaved oatmeal that has never been closer to a field of oats than it was while puddled in a red and black Wal-Mart bowl.

On the subway by 7:45am. If all goes well and no suicidal marketing analysts throw themselves on the track, I meet Jason Kim at the Java Joe’s across the street from IntroSpec. Burnt coffee and a stale bagel. Fifteen minutes of bitching about life and the job I couldn’t remember. Cross the street, through the doors at IntroSpec, and into the security cordon a few minutes before 9am. Memory Plug into neural tap <snick> only to unplug a fraction of a second later. Ten hours have passed and I’ve logged a few hours of overtime and inched a fraction of a micron closer to paying off the mortgage on my downtown Toronto condo. Another hour in transit and by 8pm I’m home, exhausted even though I can’t remember doing much of anything. Change out of my “casual business attire,” shovel a microwaved-dinner into my face, and it’s 9 pm. To get seven hours sleep I have to be in bed by midnight.

Three hours. That was my day. Or rather, that was my day. Three precious hours, and what did I do? Two hours at the Social and Entertainment Centre watching some crappy crime scene drama, and one hour looking at porn. Well…sometimes two.

And Mom wondered why I was still single.

I blamed the Memory Plug. It was either that or accept responsibility for how my life had turned out. The Plugs, while inserted, scrambled all memories created during that time. Those memories could only be accessed while that same plug was worn. It was the ultimate in security and protecting the hallowed company’s all-important intellectual property rights. Unplug at the end of the day and you had no idea what you’d been doing for the last ten hours. To make matters worse, as my skill-set became increasingly outdated, I grew evermore dependent on the company. No doubt they were teaching me new skills to keep apace of the ever-changing technology, but if I left the company the Memory Plug stayed with them. Quitting IntroSpec would be like hurling myself backwards into the Dark-ages.

The Social and Entertainment Centre lit the room a flickering yellow with commercials for tropical vacations and, noting my wandering attention, brightened the colours and subtly increased the volume. I killed the SEC with a thought and my eyes adjusted immediately to the change in illumination; my parents had them ‘fixed’ when I was seven. They’d discovered I was nearsighted–and genetically imperfect–and complained to the genelab they’d hired once the decision to breed had been formalized. With abject and embarrassed apologies the lab offered to replace my defective eyes free of charge.

I don’t remember anyone ever asking me what I wanted.

“Stop it,” I told my eyes. I wanted to sit in the dark.

The traffic noise from the highway just outside the window ignored the condo brochure’s promises of perfect soundproofing and the flashing LED billboards blasted through dimmed windows.

So much for sitting in the dark.

Back before Memory plugs became commonplace, back when I could remember what I did for a living, I enjoyed my job. Sure there were almost no women in the office, but I got to play with all the latest computers. They were beautiful. They made sense. Other people however, they were a problem. You can’t force people to learn and the more ignorant they are, the more desperately they’ll cling to whatever it is they believe.

I know this to be true. I believe all kinds of strange things about women, am pretty damned sure most of it is wrong, and yet seem unable to do anything about my ignorance.

You are what you do, that was the other thing Dad always said. I think it was a shot at me, like all the escapist crap that went on in my head wasn’t worth anything. If he’s right, a title is all I was: Senior Systems Architect. Somehow that had something to do with being a UNIX admin at IntroSpec, a trans-global financial and speculative investment company.

Thirty-eight and still single. Not even dating. Not even the prospect of a date on the horizon. Tonight I would finally do something about that.

I slumped back, sinking deeper into the sofa, and thought at the SEC. It flicked on and asked in an annoyingly excited voice what I wanted to do now. Like every moment spent with the fucking SEC was an adventure.

“Social Google,” I said. “Dating and Relationships.” The SEC displayed the page on its seventy-five inch 3D screen and tracked the movement of my eyes. It watched the pulsating of irises, sampled the hormones and pheromones in the air, and suggested what amounted to a state-sanctioned Escort Service for lonely business executives. I never could get used to thinking of myself as an ‘Exec’ and this wasn’t what I wanted anyway.

“No. Relationships. Not one night hookups.” Though perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad. I sat thinking, trying to visualize meeting and having sex with a complete stranger. What do you do before the sex? What about after? What are the protocols? The idea scared the crap out of me. I wanted to date. Go for coffee. See a movie. A chaste kiss on the second date. A more serious kiss on the third. Making out on the fourth and sex sometime after that, when I had some idea who this person was. I wanted there to be some kind of connection first, some kind of predictability to reduce the risks inherent in all social interaction.

Self-doubt gnawed at me. Did I really want to do this? Did I really want to mess up my safe and predictable life?

Safe. Predictable. Boring.

Hell yes.

The Social and Entertainment Centre began peppering me with questions, trying to figure out exactly what I was looking for. Age range? Income? Children? The list went on long enough I almost gave up, but when it asked what type of job my prospective date should have I was suddenly alert.

What if I met someone in a line of work that didn’t require Memory Plugs? What the hell could we talk about, what would we have in common? That cynical voice at the back of my head muttered that I didn’t have anything to talk about with anyone anyway, but I did my best to ignore it.

“She should wear a Memory Plug at work,” I told the SEC decisively. I was faking it and fooling no one. Not even the SEC.

A moment later the SEC displayed a list of 8,253 women replete with pictures and profiles.

“Crap.” That was way too many. It’d take forever to read through all of that. I had an idea. “Only display women with the same job.”

The SEC took me rather more literally than I’d meant and displayed a single profile.

“Raajaa Sinder,” I read aloud. “Senior Systems Architect.”

I watched the 3D profile image as she seemed to watch me. The illusion was unsettling and I felt a moment of confused guilt, like I’d been caught spying. Her smile washed that away and I was lost in dark eyes and chocolate skin. She wasn’t beautiful, at least not by the standards the SEC had been programming me with for the last few years. She looked a little too noticeably ethnic and lacked the racially blended look that was so in vogue. Face a little flat, eyes perhaps too close together, nose too large for her small, round face. And yet she was stunning. I suspected most people would disagree.

I watched, rapt, listening to Raajaa’s recorded message. Her lips turned words like ‘SAN migration’ into soft, sinful pleasures and the hint of a fading English accent made her all the more exotic. I recorded a message and sent it before reason, logic, and sheer gutless cowardice could stop me.

Five minutes later she sent a reply and twenty minutes after that I was on the subway, bound for a little coffee shop called The Epicurean Café.

When I arrived Raajaa was already there, sitting with her back to the plate-glass window fronting the café. I sat across from her, trying not to stare and yet not be distracted by the pedestrians on the sidewalk behind her and the gaudy strobing of the CN Tower’s once-rotating restaurant.

Raajaa flashed a smile of brilliant white teeth in startling contrast to the mahogany of her skin. “So, a fellow Senior Systems Architect.”

“What? Oh. Yeah. Apparently.” Lovely. Very smooth. I quashed the urge to grimace.

She didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness and launched into a rant about how she’d spent an hour at home, crawling around under her desk with a bag of cable ties making everything look ‘neat and proper.’

When she finally ground to a halt I sat staring at her, unable to speak or even blink.

Raajaa turned a mahogany shade of red and started talking again to fill the awkward silence. “I collect old computers. I have a bunch of old RAID systems. They used to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but now they’re doorstops. Not wireless. They still require…uh…cabling.”

When I realized I was making her uncomfortable I pulled out my Me-Fone and showed her a picture of my home office and the stacked computers filling every nook and cranny. The cables were colour-coded and tied in neat bundles. “RAID 5. And I’m rebuilding an old tape-drive backup system we used back in the nineties.” A white lie. I had all the components, but hadn’t actually worked on my pet-project in almost two years. When did I have the time?

The ice was broken and we talked long into the night, only leaving when the staff started stacking chairs around us. When it came time to say goodbye we shook hands and made promises to meet again on the weekend. Just as I was about to turn away Raajaa caught my sleeve and pulled me into a quick hug.

“I like your accent,” I called out impetuously as she walked away.

“I like yours too,” she called back over her shoulder.

I got home at 2am, tired and grinning like an idiot.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 8:45am

Java Joe’s was crowded with people desperately trying to cram in a few last minutes of living before going to work and their Memory Plugs. Most days I found self-sacrifice in the name of copyright laws and the protection of intellectual property to be disgusting.

Today? Not so much.

The coffee was burnt and the bagel stale. I’d have been disappointed if it had been any other way. Yep, today was that good.

Jason Kim, my best friend since high-school, sat across the table. Irish Korean, Jason was tall slender and handsome with dark almond eyes and just a hint of epicanthic folds. I’d never seen his hair anything less than perfect.

“You have a girlfriend and I’m single.” Jason grimaced. “That’s it. The seventh sign of the apocalypse. End of the world. Cats and dogs–”

“Living in harmony,” I finished. “I think it’s too early to call her my girlfriend. We only went on one date.”

“That’s something. So I don’t have to call the press?”

“Well, it was a pretty good date. World might end this weekend, I’m going to see her again.” I grinned at Jason and lifted the mug of luke-warm coffee in a mock toast. “She collects old computers and has an English accent.”

Jason muttered a quiet “shit” before meeting my eyes with a sardonic smirk. “You’re insufferable when you’re happy.”

“Oh, poor muffin. Does the lonely guy need a hug?”

Noting the time, we abandoned the remains of our stagnant coffees and crossed the street to IntroSpec.

Time to flush away another day.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 9:04am

I stood, rooted to the floor, staring at Jason as he exited the IntroSpec security cordon. “Fuck me.”

“What’s up?” Jason asked.

“That woman you’re having that lunchroom love affair with–”

“Raaj, the other Senior Systems Architect.”

“Yeah. It’s her.”

“Who is her?”

“The woman. The one I met last night. The one I went on a date with.”

We stood staring at each other. Jason recovered first.

“You went on a date with Raaj, my girlfriend?”

“Well, your lunchroom love–”

“Whatever. You know how I feel about her.”

I lifted my hands defensively. “It’s not my fault. I was Unplugged. I didn’t know you were going out with her. I didn’t even know I knew her! Look, it’s no big deal. Nothing happened. We’ll talk this over and get it straightened out.”

Jason marched through the maze of cubicles with me in tow as if dragged by a chain of guilt. He kept muttering under his breath but I couldn’t catch any of what was being said. It didn’t sound happy.

When we entered the corner where our three cubicles faced in towards a central common area, replete with dollar-store coffee machine and an empty water cooler rimed with calcium deposits, the look on Raaj’s face stopped me dead.

Where Jason was seething hurt, Raaj was a mix of confusion and anger. She stepped towards Jason but stopped when she saw his face.

“Jason–” she started.

“What the hell? I thought–”

“I was Unplugged. Outside I don’t know about us. I’m really lonely.” She grimaced. “Just outside, Unplugged,” she added.

Jason shook his head in confusion. “Lonely? Why didn’t you say something?”

Raaj stepped tentatively towards Jason. “I’m not lonely at work. I have you. But when I go home you cease to be part of my life. When I’m Unplugged I have no one.”

“But…Alex? I thought you…“ Jason’s voice faded to nothing.

“You know I don’t like him.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” I said.

Jason and Raaj turned to face me but only Raaj spoke. “This isn’t exactly news. You don’t like me and I think you’re a passive-aggressive arse.”

“You seemed to like me just fine last night,” I shot back, hurt.

That stopped her. “Sorry,” she said. “But you know it’s true. We’ve been working together for years and we’ve never got along well. Soon enough we’ll realize that on the outside, when we’re Unplugged.”

I wasn’t so sure but couldn’t think of a way of saying so without sounding petulant.

Jason too looked less than convinced. “Alex said you two had another date planned for this weekend.”

“We didn’t actually nail down any plans,” said Raaj. “Maybe we won’t even see each other again.”

She was avoiding my eyes. There was no doubt that, once Unplugged and home, I was definitely going to call Raajaa and make plans for Saturday.

We worked in such close proximity there was no avoiding each other. When Jason and Raaj disappeared for their lunchtime tryst I remained in my cubicle, staring woodenly at the faded Dilbert comics pinned to the padded blue-grey wall. Was Raaj right, would we soon realize how much we disliked each other? Right now it seemed a very real possibility, but I could remember how I felt last night as we sat talking. She collected old computers! How could we not get along?

The rest of the day was hell.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 20th, 2023. 7:13pm

I exited Introspec and looked around for Jason but he was nowhere to be seen. No real surprise, Jason often left on time. I had to admire his ability to walk away from a project–no matter what stage it was at–at 5pm to head for home. Perhaps if I could do that I’d have more than three hours of ‘real life’ a day.

Now that I was out and Unplugged, all I wanted to do was rush home and talk to Raajaa.

Once home however it didn’t seem so easy. I sat in front of the SEC, a processed ham-on-wholewheat sandwich forgotten on the coffee table before me. Should I call her? She had said that she wanted to see me again but was she just being polite, just letting me off easy?

The SEC pinged for attention. It was Raajaa.

“Hey there,” she said with a mischievous grin. I could see a collection of old computer casings piled against the wall behind her.

“I was just trying to work up the guts to call you,” I said.

“I can hang up and let you get back at that if you want.”

“Nah. Any doubts I may have had have been soundly put to rest. I thought we were going to hook up tomorrow, on Saturday.”

Raajaa rolled her eyes. “Or, if you’re willing to blow off that sad-looking sandwich, we could grab dinner tonight.”

An hour later we sat in a quiet Indian restaurant called North of Bombay eating Hyderabadi biryani which, Raajaa informed me, actually came from somewhere five hundred kilometres east and south of Mumbai. After dinner we walked back to her place, holding hands, chatting about our computer collections, and reminiscing about the days when we could remember what we did for a living. By some unspoken agreement neither talked about our current jobs; there was no point. It’s difficult to maintain an interesting conversation about something you have no recollection of.

I didn’t return home until late Sunday evening.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Monday, Oct 22nd, 2023. 9:06am

Jason and I stood in the hall beyond the IntroSpec security cordon, staring at each other.

Jason broke the silence first. “You son of a bitch!”

“But I didn’t know!”

“You spent the weekend screwing my girlfriend–”

“You’re screwing my girlfriend when she’s at work!”

“–and the last fifteen minutes bragging about it at Java Joe’s.”

Jason, finally hearing what I said, stepped menacingly towards me. Thinking I was about to be hit for the first time since grade three, I quickly backed away.

Jason halted his advance. “We’ll meet at lunch,” he growled. “The three of us–”

That won’t be awkward.”

“–and figure this out.”

If Friday was hell, Monday was turning into something far worse.

We met at lunch in one of the unused boardrooms. I sat on one side of the table while Jason and Raaj sat across from me. I slumped in my chair, arms crossed a little too tightly as if hugging myself.

Jason leaned forward, elbows resting on the tabletop. “I assume we all agree that this is unacceptable. The question is what are we going to do about it?”

“I don’t suppose you two are willing to break it off at work,” I said, only half joking.

“Alex,” Raaj admonished softly.

“Sorry. It’s just…outside…we have–”

She leaned forward and rested her hand on my arm, effectively silencing me. When I saw the look on Jason’s face, I kept my mouth shut. At least for the moment.

“I know what it seems like,” said Raaj. “But Jason and I have been seeing each other for years at work. We’re really in love.”

I took that to mean that she thought what we shared while Unplugged wasn’t real. “I’m sorry, but what you two have at work is doomed. You unplug at the end of each day and promptly forget each other. Outside of work, all Jason knows about you is what I’ve told him. The company will never let you keep your Memory Plugs. You will never get married. You will never have children together. It’s doomed,” I repeated.

“We know.” Jason said it calmly, but his face betrayed his anger. “It doesn’t matter.”

Raaj nodded in agreement. “Alex, the fact is you and I don’t even like each other and we’ve known each other for years. At some point we’re going to figure that out while Unplugged. What’s happening outside is just as doomed.” She glanced at Jason. “More so,” she added.

“You’re my friend, right?” Jason asked.

I saw what was coming next but could see no way to avoid it. “You’re my best friend,” I agreed. Damned near my only friend, but I wasn’t about to say that out loud. At least not now.

“And you’re mine. All I can say is, I saw her first.” Jason shot an apologetic look at Raaj. “It’s juvenile, but that’s how it is. And I love her.”

And that was it. No way out. I nodded. “Okay. I’ll break it off on the outside.”

“How?” Asked Raaj. “We can’t remember any of this once we Unplug.”

“I’ll figure something out.”

Later, while sitting at my cubicle, I pulled off my right shoe and wrote a note on the bottom of my foot.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Monday, Oct 22nd, 2023. 8:37pm

The SEC pinged for my attention. It was Raajaa.

“Hey sexy,” she said.

“God I love that accent.”

“How about you get that little white ass over here. Now.”

“Yes Ma’am. Gotta shower first, and then I’m on my way.”

She blew me a kiss full of hot promise and was gone. The shower was the fastest I’d ever taken. My right foot was strangely tingly and raw. When I sat on the side of the tub to examine it, I saw that all the calluses had been scrubbed away. Weird, I must have done that at work.

The foot was quickly forgotten in my rush to get to Raajaa’s.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Tuesday, Oct 23rd, 2023. 8:50am

Jason was already at Java Joe’s when I arrived. “You don’t even have to say it,” he grinned. “I can tell by your face; you saw her again last night.”

I nodded, flashing my own happy smile. “It was amazing.”

For the next few minutes I told my best friend all the intimate details of the previous evening. The things she did with her tongue. The things I did with mine.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Tuesday, Oct 23rd, 2023. 9:02am

“Jason–”

“You said you were going to–”

“I left myself a note–” the memory of my tingling foot stopped me. “They found it.”

Jason grabbed me and dragged me down the hall, away from the prying ears of IntroSpec’s security staff. “Obviously. You thought you could sneak a note past security? If they cared that little, we wouldn’t be wearing these damned Memory Plugs.”

I shook Jason off. “I had to try. It’s okay, I have another idea.”

“Really? Is it better than hiding a fucking note between your toes?”

“I didn’t…never mind. Yes, it’s better.” I didn’t want to discuss it any further because I was less than sure who would really benefit from my new plan. There was a good chance it would get one or more of us fired.

Instead of taking a lunch break I visited the Human Resources department. It was a single small room with a shaky looking plastic collapsible table, and an unshaven middle-aged man sitting at it. The tabletop was barren except for a thin science-fiction paperback titled only 88. No interface of any kind was in sight.

“Is this Human Resources?” I asked, confused.

“That’s what it says on the door.”

“This is it?”

“No. We have a huge HR department with really nice desks and beautiful secretaries but we keep it hidden from the employees.” This was delivered deadpan, with no hint of sarcasm.

“Right.” I entered the HR office and realized there was no chair for me to sit in. “So you’re not too busy?”

“Who said I wasn’t busy? What do you want?”

I shrugged aside my confusion. “What’s the company’s policy on romances between personnel?”

“Verboten,” snapped the man, thumping a fist down on the rickety table.

“Right. Well there’s kind of this love triangle thing–”

“Threesome?” This was the first bit of real interest the man had shown.

“No. One guy is seeing the–”

“Seriously? I don’t care.”

“But Unplugged–”

“No one cares.”

“But–”

“Is everyone still doing their job?”

“Well…yes.”

“Then IntroSpec doesn’t care. Glad to have been of service. Goodbye.”

I stalked forward and leaned on the table which shifted ominously under my weight. “What kind of HR department–”

“The only reason IntroSpec even has an HR department is because by law they have to have one. I am it. This way they can, with all honesty, claim that they have an HR Department that represents and assists their employees. I have answered your questions. You have been assisted. Now fuck off.”

“But–”

“But what? You don’t get it.” The man grimaced with annoyance. “At the end of the day you are going to Unplug and forget everything that happened at the office. You might hate your job and everyone here, but the second you unplug it’s all gone. The only way you can quit is if you do so while at work and still Plugged. Then, if IntroSpec rather you stayed with the company, they leave you Plugged until the end of the day. When you Unplug to go home you immediately forget that you’ve quit and return to work the next day. Haven’t you ever wondered why Memory Plugs are designed so that you can’t Unplug them yourself? There are people who have been trying to quit for years. Eventually they give up. It isn’t like there’s a lot of other work out there. Sometimes, when IntroSpec wants to fire someone but doesn’t want to cough up for severance pay, they wait until they’re Unplugged and just tell them that they quit. Who will ever know otherwise?”

“Should you be telling me all this?”

The man snorted. “What are you going to do about it, complain to the HR department?”

The rest of the week crawled like an injured snail. I tried scribbling notes on the flesh between my toes, tucking messages into seams in my clothing, and hiding things in various orifices. Nothing worked, and no message made it past IntroSpec’s security.

Each morning I met Jason for burnt coffee and stale bagels at Java Joe’s, bragged of my sexploits and told my friend of the burgeoning love between Raajaa and I. Each day, once we’d Plugged in, Jason stalked away without a word.

I spent lunches alone, wondering where Jason and Raaj were and imagining what they were up to.

Alex Baker – PLUGGED.

Friday, Oct 26th, 2023. 12:13pm

I sat across the table from Jason and Raajaa, but this time it felt a lot less like the two-against-one of our last meeting. There was some indefinable non-physical distance between the two that had not been there before.

Deciding to lay my metaphorical cards on the table, I spoke first. “I can’t take this any more. My best friend hates me and I have to live with the fact that he’s screwing the woman I love every lunch hour.” I decided to try a joke to lighten the tension. “Maybe if I’d watched more Sesame Street as a child I’d be better at sharing.” The joke flopped.

Jason was studiously not looking at Raaj. “We aren’t. Not any more. She ended it.” He glared at me. “You stole the only woman I’ve ever really loved. Good job. You happy now?”

“No. I’m miserable.”

“That’s not fair,” snapped Raaj. “He didn’t ‘steal me’. No one planned this. It’s just…well…here at work…there is no future for us, Jason. I’m sorry but it’s true.”

“We didn’t mean to fall in love,” I added.

We didn’t fall in love,” Raaj corrected. “I still think you’re an arse. It’s only outside.”

“Plugged you just never took the time to get to know me.”

“Unplugged me just hasn’t had time to learn what an arse you can be.”

“You’re both arses,” Jason threw in for good measure. “Why the hell did you ask us to meet you here, Alex? It’s not enough that you tell me all the intimate details of your sex life every morning before work and I have to sit in my cubicle knowing what kind of lubricant you bought together?” He shook his head and muttered “Fuck” with great feeling.

“You tell him about our sex life?”

For a moment I thought to deny it but realized it didn’t matter. “Yeah. He’s my best friend.”

“Was.”

“Still is, you know, when Unplugged. It’s not like Jason wasn’t telling me everything you guys were doing before all this happened. And don’t even bother telling me that your girlfriends don’t know every intimate detail of our sex life.”

“Passive-aggressive arse.” But she didn’t deny it.

I stood and raised my hands to quell any further argument or hurling of insults. “None of this matters. I have decided that I want my cake and to eat it too.”

“What?” Jason and Raaj asked together.

“Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I have figured out how to keep both the woman I love and my best friend. It’s obvious. I have to quit IntroSpec.” I didn’t add ‘if they’ll let me.’ It seemed unlikely that I was all that valuable to the company.

“You’re going to quit for me?” asked Raaj, eyes wide with surprise and something else I couldn’t define.

“No,” I said. “I’m going to quit for who you are when not at work. I’m quitting for her. I think you’ve changed. I think we’ve all changed. We’ve all become different than the people we were before we started wearing these damned Memory Plugs. I like who I am Unplugged. I haven’t been that happy in a long time.”

“You don’t seem all that happy,” muttered Jason.

I’m not. I am, as previously stated, miserable. Outside me, Unplugged me, he’s happy. I want that. I want to be him.”

“But you are him,” said Raaj.

“No. I want to be him all the time. I realized that I don’t give a damn what you think. All I care about is what Unplugged you thinks.” I shrugged. “Go ahead, hate me. You don’t matter. Outside,” I nodded at Jason “you are my best friend.” I looked at Raaj and gave her a sad smile. “And Unplugged you loves me.” I backed away from the table. “I’ll see you both on the outside, in the real world. Jason my friend, I’m going to marry this woman. I hope you’ll be my Best Man.”

“Fuck you.”

I bowed, spun on my heel, and left IntroSpec forever. Perhaps Raaj was right. Perhaps I was a little passive-aggressive.

Alex Baker – UNPLUGGED.

Saturday, May 15th, 2024. 4:30pm

I watched Jason fidget in his rented tuxedo. If anyone should be fidgeting here it was me, but I felt nothing but calm anticipation. We stood at the alter, Groom and Best Man, awaiting Raajaa’s arrival.

“You okay?” I whispered.

Jason nodded, shifting his cummerbund as if it chafed painfully. “Yeah. IntroSpec went over the deep-end with their security measures right after you left. I unplug every day to find myself scrubbed raw. I’m all pink and don’t have a callus on my entire body!” He grimaced as his pants rubbed at tender flesh. “You quit at the perfect time.”

I was immediately reminded of the days I’d arrived home from IntroSpec to find myself pink and raw. It had been just before I quit. Had that been the reason I’d left the company? To this day I can’t imagine how I could have walked away from such a high-paying job. My friends all said I was crazy. Crazy but happy.

I shrugged. “Just lucky I guess.”

Jason shook his head and whispered, “I can’t believe she used to work at IntroSpec too.”

I hadn’t even known we’d worked at the same company until after I’d left. She quit a week later. “Yeah, weird, eh?”

“I wonder if I knew her at work, when Plugged.”

I shrugged. Knowing her skill-set it was all too likely. The thought left me strangely uncomfortable.

The four-piece jazz band launched into the Wedding March and we watched as Raajaa began her stately walk down the isle, her father at her side. She was beautiful, she practically glowed. Thinking back to what had started me on this path I suddenly realized something.

Dad was wrong. Character is what you are in the light.