Speculative fiction. Copyright © 2008 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Membra Disjecta (Drollerie Press, 2008).
What would give light must endure the burning. –Viktor Frankl
Cassie was still awake when Watts returned. She tightened her robe against the memory of his last visit and stepped away from the door. “You said you didn’t believe me.”
Watts walked into the apartment, hands thrust deep into his jacket pockets. He studied her face and the blood on the floor before he sat down at the table.
Her body began to tremble. She touched her lips, still bruised and swollen. She told herself she wasn’t afraid. After a few deep breaths and a moment to think, she decided she didn’t want to think. She wanted to believe everything would be all right. Only Watts allowed her that. That’s why she had opened her door to him when she was alive. He seemed to have all the answers. Sociopaths were like that.
She sat down across from him and willed her body to stop its fearful shiver. She straightened and gave him a hard look.
A moment of silence followed before he said, “I’m a practical man.”
“Here’s practical: when the nation adopts the Integrid, they’ll know right where you are.”
He shrugged, amusement replacing his probing gaze. “That’s progress.”
“We’ve gotten used to it.” Cassie brushed a trickle of sweat from her forehead and discovered it was blood still oozing from the fatal gash. “A doctor prescribes medication and internal microarrays manufacture it using our own chemistry. You do it for your patients all the time, don’t you? Doctors love it. Taxpayers, too. The only ones who objected to the MediGrid were pharmaceutical companies having to explain losses to their shareholders.”
“Sure. Universal healthcare.”
“You can generate medicine, even cure a disease, but imagine that same command initiated from a subgrid. You see? If the nation funds the Integrid, it’ll make things even cheaper. That’s because a doctor won’t need to access my microarrays through a local clinic. No trail, no log files. Anyone with authority can issue commands from anywhere. A backroom in Washington. Hell, a toilet in Raleigh! Rumor has it that’s where an agent comm-axed the Ripper. Can’t you see that those decisions will always serve security, not law?”
Watts stared at her forehead, marveling at his handiwork. “Does it hurt?”
She glanced away. “With the MediGrid they know where you aren’t, but once they put quantaprocessors in you, they’ll always know where you are. Geography won’t matter. Time won’t matter. Backtrack through decoherence and pinpoint anyone’s internal network. Issue a chemical release. Heart attack. And one day, not long from now, the new alchemy will find a way to brew insanity from a body’s own chemistry. Discredit the whistleblowers.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means there are bigger things to worry about than a few hundred murders.” She knew he didn’t understand, but she had made it possible for him to believe anyway. Dead people were like that.
He squeezed his lower lip with two fingers. “Quantum technology isn’t so robust in a biological environment. Besides, the miracle of the Integrid may be that it can access my network from anywhere, but it can’t prove what I’ve done. It takes men for that.”
“The Berlin Bomber was never tried, was he? No witnesses. No charges. No trial. But he was axed.”
“The man suspected of those bombings died of a heart attack.”
“Oh hell, Watts! The press hasn’t been guilty of an act of journalism since they started publishing white papers as ‘news.’ They’re sightseers, tour guides distracting us while their corporate masters pursue dominion. A twenty-five-year old terrorist just up and dies from a heart attack and you nod because the ‘paper of record’ says it’s so?”
“No one would allow it.”
“They already have. A trial run.”
“The Berlin Bomber? How’d they get quantaprocessors in him?”
“Flu shot.” She waited, but his curiosity turned back to her forehead. “Money, power, sex? What would you sell your soul for? The techwizards in informatics and pharmacy sold theirs for a game. Little Napoleons coveting pieces of synthetic worlds, burning ants in the sun.”
“Someone has to give access, check credentials.”
“Oversight? My, but we’re all too busy feeling safe to bother with courts. And it’s so cheap! The G.N.P. used to count us as economic units. Now we’re nodes in a network. When authorities axe the violent nodes, we’ll be so grateful we’ll trust even the pimply techwizards who see as much need for ethics as for sunlight. So they remove the nodes corrupting our children — drug dealers, traffickers. The A.C.L.U. complains. So what? Next, get rid of the leeches on society, the ones on the dole and the homeless. The U.N. complains. So what? Sterilize the poor and stupid.” She paused to remember and shrugged. “No one complains, but it was too late by that time, anyway.” She leaned forward over the table. “So we had to find another time.” She stretched. “My back hurts.”
Watts considered her complaint. “I can command a painkiller …or would you prefer scotch?” He pulled a flask from his jacket pocket.
She raised an eager eyebrow. Contrary to the theological rumor, being dead didn’t preclude comforts of the flesh. She felt an unreasonable sense of relief. Unreasonable because of the man sitting across from her.
Later, she sat with the flask resting between her hands on the table and closed her eyes. When he asked how she felt, she opened her eyes to see his lewd smile.
“Nasty contusion there.” He touched the air in front of her forehead and licked his dry lips. “I can fix it. Order up more clotting agent.” His body was so tight with arousal that his attempt at an easy smile appeared like a grimace of pain.
“Death makes fictions of us all, Watts. Do you think you’re different?”
“Oh, but I make a difference in so many lives.” He gestured at her head.
Laughter erupted from her with a derisive grunt. “Shit, you’re real pulp fiction stuff, aren’t you? Blurb for the century’s grisly tale of eroticized violence, a footnote to the masculine malfeasance that circles priests around reptilian impulses and calls it ‘morality.’ Delivering death only makes you an arbiter of fictions, a phantom editor for the adventure of nonexistence.”
“It takes time to digest the truth, like a pig passing through a boa, and often you wonder what that bloated lump really is and if the discomfort is worth it. Quantum information has a techcreep your techwizards don’t understand. It doesn’t rely on geography, after all. If they accidentally axe the Parousia with an aneurysm, they abort their future. How will they manage the conscience of a world without a promised retribution?”
He reached into his pocket and drew out a woman’s pinky ring. Although he set it on the table, he kept a finger on it, and she saw it wasn’t hers to take back. “You knew about this.”
Recalling the day her mother gave her the delicate band shaped like a butterfly, her grip tightened on the flask. “It’s a problem,” she said. “You have a number of them.”
He scooped the ring into his palm. “You’ve accused me of things you can’t possibly know.”
“Because I’m telling you the truth.”
“You haven’t told me how you know the future.”
“I know the past.” She studied the deep lines that swept over each cheekbone from his eyes to his mouth. In shadow, his swarthy features were diabolical; in soft light, seductive. She knew many years later, when time and bitterness had taken their toll, the sensual face would become merely fierce, reflecting the tragedy of a life lived too long. “You’re a rapist.”
The accusation hit him like a blow, forcing him to turn away again. She knew he had never said the word to himself. “The fetish started as a child.” She nodded at his hand. “The rapes in residency. Drugged patients and prostitutes. When you escalated, you lost control of yourself, hunted the rich and famous and got yourself wanted by a lot of people with a lot of money. We had the Integrid by then, but the rest of the world was leery. Despite the terrorists on everyone’s lists, it was stopping the most wanted serial murderer in two centuries that finally sold it to the world.”
“I’m not a killer.”
She spread her arms. “And yet, here I am.”
“How can you be dead?” He watched her carefully. “You opened your door to me.” He grinned. “Again.”
She wiggled her fingers. “You nicked my only ring.”
A dark light passed through his eyes. He squeezed the ring. “So, you’re dead but your past is also my future? Tell me what happens next.”
She took a moment to think. “South America. Then Singapore. You made mistakes.” She closed her eyes and felt as if the floor were falling away. “Let’s see, bleach, or they’ll have your DNA. No scalpels, or they’ll know you’re a surgeon. You’ll have to stick with the poor and prostitutes, or senators will start caring.”
“I told you. I’m not a killer.”
“Oh they taught you well. They taught you with those pre-emptory notions of entitlement that destroyed any chance at resurrecting the soul your incestuous father smothered. Their strict teleology may refuse to accept the voodoo of libidinal impulses, but they’re damn effective in providing clear definitions for your hazy logic. Cracking my skull was only an opportunity, really, followed by compulsion. Why do you think you came back? It excited you. You’ll never get over that. Showing the world how powerful you are with every thrust. A victim’s manifesto: retribution.”
He stood and dropped the ring into his pocket.
“You believe me?”
“Only because you should be dead.”
“Did the ‘Grid tell you that?” She laughed at the irony.
His eyes narrowed. “Then I guess you don’t have to be afraid of me.”
She continued to laugh until long after he had gone. She wasn’t afraid of him. She was afraid of the people who were afraid of him. So afraid, in fact, that she would help him murder hundreds of women, rather than the seventy her own history knew about.
Like all agents, she found herself a tiny cog in a great machine. She had drawn the short straw at the departmental meeting, and her oath wouldn’t allow her to refuse an assignment, even one so vulgar as to reanimate her raped and beaten body in some other timestream.
The techwizards at headquarters had rallied their contemptuous genius and convinced the department that if the Integrid failed to find the most elusive butcher since White Chapel, the world wouldn’t tolerate its trespass. As long as the Gold Ring Ripper was killing, the technology embraced by so many other worlds as a savior would leave room for another here. This Earth, at least, would remain free.
Speculative fiction. Copyright © 2008 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.