Sci-Fi Spring 2021 Youth Writing Contest Winner: "Puppeteer"

Sci-Fi Spring Writing Contest
Arden P.
5
Sep 15, 2021

Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Arden P. has won second place in the third age group for the Sci-Fi Spring 2021 Youth Writing Contest with her piece "Puppeteer." 

 

The waves dashed themselves hard against the ultra-strong, reinforced Plexiglas of the tunnel, beating relentlessly in a mad, mindless effort to sweep the alien structure away. The surface of the water was sharp and choppy. Had the knife-points of the hills and valleys been frozen at that exact moment, any unfortunate passerby would have been cut quite badly. Driving rain beat down on the unforgiving surface of the lake, pattering the water and sending up sprays of cold mist-droplets. In the west a solitary light shone, sputtered, then died. Any speed vessels unlucky enough to be caught out in the squall would be on their own, forced to dive to the boom and wait out the worst. Solar power just wasn’t enough anymore to maintain any machinery, even with the most modern and efficient panels. The ashen sky, appalled at its own destruction, was unpierced any life-giving ray a fiery star might give. Not that a star would have been visible, anyway, even on the clearest night: the smog took care of that effectively enough. The only sounds that could be heard were those of the sky-water and the lake-water, roaring in their meeting; and whether it was play or mortal combat, who could tell? 

The occupants of the tunnel, however, hardly glanced up from their interactive touchscreens, even at the fury and might of the gale only a few feet above their downturned heads. Perhaps the sound-insulation could partially account for their inattention, but even insulation could not wholly block out the terrific tumult of the tempest. The splendor of the spectacle splashing and spraying outside was not something to be missed. 

A man in a faded gray suit, wearing large, thick glasses, sat wrapped up tightly in his coat, his head down, but his eyes covertly watched the other travelers, whose eyes were fixed upon their screens, oblivious to all around them. The man’s posture seemed to make a silent, obvious statement: I am self-contained and self-sufficient. Not that that was anything unusual. The very Motto of the Year (what year was it? 2197? 2198? It didn’t matter; nobody cared anymore) was “Keep to yourself,” such wise adage being published, put forward, and proclaimed by none other than the illustrious Mayor McGwack of Hydropolis I. Too many criminals and bacteria particles around. After all, did people want to die?  

The security camera positioned on the ceiling of the hollow cylinder that made up the tunnel was many-headed, watching in all directions .Its sleepless eyes took in everything in silence, ever watching, never moving. The camera’s heads suspended on thin necks craned forward in their frozen eagerness to see. Six-headed like Scylla, watching from her high rocky lair, guardian of this Strait of Messina. You wouldn’t want to make a wrong move in the presence of this watcher. She wouldn’t eat travelers whole like the fabled she-monster of old, but one could be sure the servants of her database would.  

She could have told you, had she been allowed, much more about the people she was watching than they might have thought possible. Her advanced facial-recognition features allowed her to instantly distinguish any person she caught in her line of sight, and of course their names and personal information were all in the database. It was required. But access to the database was restricted. The tunnel travelers knew the database existed, but none of them had any way of knowing how comprehensive it was. 

Suddenly a deafening horn sounded in the tunnel, reverberating against the Plexiglas walls. The ear-shattering noise continued for such a long time it was almost ridiculous, but it was a necessary evil, as the only way to get the transfixed travelers to look up and board. There was the usual hurried rustling as they packed their devices into coat pockets and purses, and stood slowly, stretching and yawning, as the magnetic levitating train’s blinding flasher came into view.  

The hurtling hunk of metal (yes, it could not be denied that that was what it was, however aerodynamic) was rushing towards them at full speed, but its advanced technology had cut stopping time to only two seconds .It came to rest in record time:1.97 seconds, as the machine recorded, sending, of course, all information to the database. The doors swung open, and the passengers climbed aboard. The bespectacled man in the gray coat stood, shaking himself, and followed last of all onto the train. The second the machine sensed that all the passengers were buckled, it was off again, at a furious pace, shooting through the underwater tunnel, hurtling by electric billboards emblazoned with “Eat MEAT: The Universal Health Food,” “Adhere!,” “Drink Sweet Sippeeng,” and “Remember: Keep to Yourself!” 

The man, still wrapped tightly in his coat, smirked inwardly. He didn’t need the government’s recommendation. He would have kept to himself anyway. 

Sophia Lethry walked along the streetside, hand in hand with Henry. The overhead lights of the bubble were off, and streetlights provided the only way to see their way, but they would still rather walk than take a bus. She ambled along lightly, chatting and smiling, but inwardly her heart was pounding and her stomach was knotted up. 

He was going to ask her tonight, wasn’t he?  

They came up to the apartment building, and Sophia put the entry code into the proffered dialpad. The doors opened, and she started to get into the elevator, but Henry was still standing there. 

“Wait a minute, Sophie.”  

Sophia’s heart leapt into her throat. Slowly she turned, feeling almost sick with anticipation and hope and nervousness.  

“Yes?” she asked, her voice quavering . 

“I got to go see Mom tonight,” he said apologetically. “Sorry. I completely forgot about it.”  

Now she was sick with disappointment. “Oh,” she said. “All right.”  

“Sorry. Be back later, all right? Sure you can’t come?”  

“I don’t have a pass to be on the street.”  

“That’s right. Did you apply for one?”  

“A month ago. Say hi to Amanda for me.”  

Henry smiled and kissed her. “See you later.” And he walked off down the narrow street, avoiding the train-rails and bus-lanes. She rode up the elevator and walked into their--well, Henry’s--apartment.  

Maybe it’s strange that I want to get married. Nobody does anymore, except religious people. 

The morning dawned with its single great eye red-rimmed with long weeping. A calm prevailed on the lake’s surface, and below the waves Hydropolis I was calm as well. The great Plexiglas bubble-dome’s lights had been turned on to greet the day, supplementing the sunlight that filtered down to the boom. The protective flaps closing the tube that led up to the surface had been opened, letting new, fresh, rain-scented air to flow down into the waking metropolis. The spires of surfacescrapers rose up story on story over the city, and people lined the buses and trains, speeding away to their jobs. Transportation was wholly public and automated, and therefore, that much more efficient. More magnetically levitated trains came in through the transparent tunnels, bringing goods of every type into the city. Hydropolis I did not produce much of its own, underneath the water; rather, it relied on the farms and factories above ground.  

But beneath the all-covering water, beneath the large city, yet another level lay: the cellar of cellars, adding underground depth to the surfacescrapers of the lake and the skyscrapers of the land. Not many knew of its existence. No, not even the all-knowing database knew. For all its omniscience, somebody had managed to evade the endless gaze of its cameras. Somebody had escaped the system. 

Dr. Erikit’s apprehension multiplied with each passing second. The echoing of his footsteps was the only sound that could be heard in the long white halls, spotlessly clean, harshly lit by unnaturally cold, glaring wire lights, each protected by their own miniature force field for optimum light filterage .Glass wasn’t practical anymore in lightbulbs; it blocked too much light. Erikit glanced nervously at his guide, the robot’s treads rolling along in inexplicable silence. As if in response, the machine seemed to speed up, rotating its camera sensor toward him with a hint of—a hint of something. 

Impatience? 

Erikit was practically jogging now, and beads of sweat from heat and hot fear were beginning to form on his forehead. With no warning, the robot abruptly turned into an adjacent hallway, continuing on at the exact same speed. The doctor, almost falling, ran to catch up.  

“Hold on a second!”  

The wheels stopped dead; the head rotated slowly. Erikit caught up, panting, and started to walk forward, but the robot was behind him, moving slowly. He slowed down to match his guide, but the machine was going at a snail’s pace.  

“I’m fine, now,” he said, a little apologetically. Why am I apologizing to a robot? “You can go faster now. Speed up,” he commanded, but the robot continued to progress with excruciating slowness. 

The doctor gave up on it. It gave him time, after all, to take in his surroundings .Everywhere there was the same everlasting whiteness, perfectly clean, and glass doors through which he caught glimpses of robots scurrying around, doing what he could not tell. He shivered, suddenly cold. It was creepy inhere--all the dead silent robots moving about, each grimly set on its own task, winding through the eerie harsh-lit hallways, not a single living creature in sight. 

His guide was turning, and Dr. Erikit’s heart leapt into his throat, not knowing what to expect. Stretching out a cold metal claw, the machine whirred and clanked, fitting its magnetic key to the lock of a door. The man strained his eyes behind the robot, trying to see inside, but the glass was smoked, and all he could see was a dim, blue, glow, until finally, the door swung open automatically, giving Erikit his first glance of the chamber within.  

Perfectly smooth, perfectly clean, perfectly whitewalls rose up perpendicular to the ceiling, which was rather low. Dr. Erikit at first could not ascertain the source of the bizarre, soft blue light which glowed in the chamber, until at last he saw that the walls themselves were glowing, giving the room a comfortable amount of light, despite the peculiarity of the glow’s color. Oddly enough, the room was completely bare and unfurnished save for two chairs, moderately comfortable-looking, with straight plastic backs but cushioned seats, of a light grayish color.  

Dr. Erikit took in this scene in the space of a second. One thing riveted his attention, rooting him to the spot, his stomach churning.  

The man who had been sitting in one of the chairs rose slowly, with perfect self-composure, his unassuming appearance taking the good doctor aback. He was dressed in a white lab coat, unfastened and hanging loosely down to mid-calf, revealing a shabby, faded, gray suit. Large, round glasses only enhanced the owlish aspect of his small, angular face. He was short, and his shoulders were stooped with long years. His iron-gray hair was neither sparse nor plentiful, and he was clean-shaven.  

There was a strange, intangible air about him of, well, of quietness. And yet he did not seem shy, only quiet, and gentle. His age (he must have been nearly sixty) and the wrinkles in his face did not seem to make him fearsome, but neither did they make him seem ancient. There was something of such competency in his manner and everyone of his movements that should have been quite reassuring, but strangely, Dr. Erikit did not feel at ease in the least. 

“Dr. Erikit, I presume?” the man asked gravely, proffering his hand and staring up at Erikit, who was the taller. Erikit shuddered. The man’s tone had been completely normal, but somehow it chilled him.  

“I am he,” he whispered faintly in response.  

“Ah,” the man answered, just as gravely. “Good. I thought so. I am Dr. Thomas, if you haven’t already guessed.”  

Erikit twitched nervously. “It’s a pleasure,” he managed.  

“Please,” Thomas said coolly, “sit.”  

Erikit’s knees were knocking together, overawed by Thomas’ weird, unearthly indifference and composure. If he took a step to the chair he was afraid he’d fall.  

“I’m fine, thank you,” he ventured, his voice sounding lamely rude and childish. “I’ll stand.” 

 “Very well. I trust my machines fulfilled their functions properly?”  

What a strange thing to say. “Um, yes, yes.”  

“Good. Well, to get down to business. You received my message?”  

“Yes. Where on earth did you get pa-” Erikit began excitedly, but Thomas cut him off.  

“Fine. And no doubt you are wondering why I have asked you to come here.”  

“You’re quite insightful, doctor,” Erikit said, somewhat sarcastically. 

“Yes, well, the real reason I wished to speak to you, Dr. Erikit, is because I need your help.” 

“Oh.” Erikit smiled with awkward politeness. “I’m a very busy-” 

“Hear me out, Erikit.”  

Erikit smiled condescendingly, inwardly piqued a little. “Go ahead, sir,” he said, purposefully omitting the “doctor.” 

Dr. Thomas was not affected in the least. Blinking behind his owlish glasses, he began seriously, “I’ll begin at the beginning, then .Don’t worry, I’ll try to make it simple for you.” Erikit reddened. “The nature of my research for the past years, indeed, for the whole of my career, has been of such a delicate nature that my methods of communication with you, Dr. Erikit, have necessarily been limited.” 

“Why couldn’t you have called me?” Erikit demanded impatiently. “Why all the mystery? I almost didn’t come, you know.”  

Thomas regarded him curiously. “Wavelengths are tapped,” he replied matter-of-factly. “We wouldn’t want anyone listening in on our conversation, would we? And as for you coming, I am very glad you did, for your sake.” 

Erikit was backing away. “I don’t want to get mixed up in-” 

“Hear me out, Erikit,” the doctor said for the second time, yet still without a hint of impatience. Erikit fell silent.  

“In my mind, doctor, there have ever been three things that man has sought to have control over. They are prey common and well known; they will not be new to you: they run as common threads throughout all literature, history, and science. The first is not so outstanding as the others, as it deals more with our surroundings than we ourselves, but I have grouped it in with the others because it is indeed something that has been sought and desired by humans for a long ,long time: the control of time. Obviously, this level of control is the only one that has yet been achieved-” 

“What?!” 

Thomas shook his head. “It seems that even your great wealth of knowledge is pitifully small.” The tone in which he said this was not insulting, rather, it seemed merely a plain statement, the truth of which could not be doubted. “The second is the control of the mind: specifically, of another’s mind. In history, it’s quite evident; most often it has manifested itself in power over people’s actions. Rulers, monarchs, chiefs, emperors: the lust for power is the lust for control over people’s lives, their actions; but what these leaders really wanted was to have absolute submission from their subjects, all of their actions, and not just their actions, but their wills directed to a single person. Of course, no one has ever really been able to control the innermost thoughts of the mind. None have ever bent another’s will to his or her own. 

“The last, and most obvious, is the control over life itself. To choose when to live and when to die (and who wants to die?). Immortality has ever been sought by mortals .Interesting, isn’t it, that all of these have to do with control? Mankind wants to be powerful,” he finished absentmindedly.  

Erikit, sensing his chance, turned to go. “Nice philosophy lesson,” he ventured, backing away. “It was a pleasure-” 

“I’m not finished yet, Dr. Erikit.” Erikit bit his lip. 

“Do you remember how I said that no one has ever bent another’s will to his or her own?” 

“Yes.”  

“I am about to do that, doctor. I will be the first to accomplish this.” 

Dumbfounded, Erikit stared open-mouthed at Thomas. 

“I have broken the code of the mind. The electrical signals in the human brain, what do they stand for?” 

“Thoughts,” Erikit whispered, surprised at his own voice. 

“Right. Effectively, I can read minds. I could look at your whole memory and understand what you’re thinking right now.” 

Erikit’s eyes went wide. “You’re not doing that right now, are you?” 

“No,” Thomas replied simply. “I require a large amount of equipment. My laboratory here contains everything I need. The mechanism of my Signal Overriding Transmitter/Receptor is actually in the name. It overrides the brain’s signals and sends my own to the body. The brain, therefore, becomes dependent upon the SOTR chip to give it commands.” 

Erikit swallowed, looking down, as the horror of the implications of Thomas’ words came upon him. “If the brain becomes dependent on the chip,” he began slowly ,not daring to meet the other doctor’s eyes. 

“I theorize that once the brain has been given the ‘antithink’ signals, it will completely lose its mental faculties.” 

“P-permanently?” 

“That seems likely. I have not tested it on a human before.” 

Erikit raised his head and looked straight into Thomas’ calm eyes. “That’s murder,” he spat, disgusted. 

“Call it what you will. The body will continue to function, as long as it’s being fed signals from an outside source. I can control it from a similar chip inside my own brain ,sending the signals and directing the body to do whatever I will it to.” 

“Why have you asked me to come here? Count me out of this. I’m getting out of here.”Erikit turned to step from the room, but instead he found himself facing his guide, the robot’s claws stretched menacingly toward him as the door slid shut and locked itself. 

“Dr. Erikit, how can you leave when you don’t exist?”Erikit trembled.  

“I do exist,” he protested, his voice quavering. “You’d beer let me out of here. I’m going to report you. They’ll know I’m missing. They’ll find me.” 

“But doctor, you were killed in a train accident an hour ago. Don’t you remember?” 

Erikit’s teeth were chattering as he regarded this quiet, serious apparition before him, the most mild-looking man he had ever seen, horrified. 

“Erikit, Erikit,” the impassive phantom, more robot, seemingly, than human said with the same implacable calm, “according to the database, you are dead.” 

Erikit felt his eyes misting over. If the database said he had been killed, then he really was as good as dead. 

“Can you just videocall her instead or something?” 

“I told you, Sophia, she doesn’t like that. She wants me to actually go to her apartment and see her.” 

Sophia sighed and threw her hands up. “Fine. Fine. Go spend the evening with your mom, who you see every week anyway, and not with me, who hasn’t seen you all day.” 

“Baby, come on...” 

“It’s fine! It’s fine! Go ahead! I don’t care!” 

“Geez, Sophie, why do you get so upset about such little things? Look, I promised her. I’ll be back later. Come here,” and Henry folded Sophia into his arms.  

Sophia kissed him, rather reluctantly. “See you later,” she mumbled.  

The door slid open for Henry, sensing his presence, and he got into the magnetically levitated elevator, sliding quickly and smoothly down to the street with its train tracks and bus lanes. He took a deep breath of the dead, temperature-regulated night air and strolled slowly down the street, a strange sight in a world of trains and buses. But Henry Davids hated all the transportation systems crisscrossing Hydropol is like spiders’ webs, enmeshing him like a helpless fly. If he could, he preferred to walk. 

Striding down the empty street with its many-storied apartment buildings rising up with dull symmetry on either side, he started to whistle, the alien sound rebounding on the plastic and cement, weird, unearthly echoes coming back to taunt his defiance of their self-sufficiency. He turned onto another byway, walking mindlessly, his feet taking the path to his mother’s apartment without effort, it was so familiar. Right turn ,left turn, straight into the narrow alley, the apartments still rising up high and higher on either side.  

A tranquilizer ray hit him from behind and he fell to the ground, unconscious. A hooded figure materialized from the darkness, then lifted him, bearing Henry Davids’ limp form away before disappearing into a cleverly concealed hole in the ground. 

Officer Ian Riyan bit deep into his morning CGD (carboglucosedough) as he pressed the videocall accept button on his work touchscreen (turning off the video, of course).“Hello, this is the Hydropolis Police Department Headquarters. How may I help you?” 

“Hello?” The woman’s voice on the other end was scared, unsure. “Can you help me?” 

“That’s what we’re here for, ma’am. What seems to be the problem?” 

“Hi, um, my boyfriend hasn’t come home for two days now, and I’m getting kind of worried.” 

Officer Riyan covered the voice receptor and turned to the other officer in the office. “She says her boyfriend hasn’t come home.” 

“Oh, God,” Officer Pier laughed, covering his face. Riyan uncovered the voice receptor, trying to stifle his laughter. “All right, ma’am what’s his name? I’ll check the records of the database for him.” 

“Henry Davids. Please, there’s got to be something you can do.” 

Riyan clicked through his computer records. Covering the voice receptor again, he whispered to Pier, “The name doesn’t appear in the Hydro system. He probably skipped out of town. Are you still there, ma’am? Can I have your name, please?” he spoke into the touchscreen. 

“Sophia Lethry.” 

“All right, Sophia, what do you want us to do?” There was silence on the other end for a moment, before the woman asked, “Send out a search for him?”  

Pier covered his face with a napkin to hide his laughter. “Hold on, hold on,” whispered Riyan. “All right, ma’am,” he said self-importantly, “you are in good hands with the Hydropolis Police Department. We will conduct a thorough search of the city, the country, and the world if we have to. Please describe the object of the search.” 

“Well, he’s a Black man, five feet eleven inches, around one fifty pounds, black hair and eyes,” Sophia replied suspiciously. “Officer, are you laughing?” 

“Shut up, shut up,” Riyan whispered fiercely at Pier, shoving a dish towel at him to smother his laughter. “No, ma’am. Must be a bad connection. But tell me, are you sure your boyfriend didn’t come back for another reason? Maybe he didn’t want to??” 

“No! He would never do something like that!” 

“All right, calm down, please, Miss Lethry. Did you have a fight or something like that?” Riyan was about to ask Are you pregnant?, but for once, delicacy got the better of him. “Did you argue about something that might have made him leave?” 

“No. Well, maybe. I don’t know.” 

“Ma’am, don’t feel too bad about it. People breakup all the time.” 

“No, officer, you have to believe me!” Riyan covered the voice receptor, laughing. “Please,” Sophia cried desperately, “something’s wrong here! You’ve got to find him!”  

With his last ounce of self-control, Riyan spoke tightly into the receptor. “We’ll look for him. Don’t worry. We’ll find him. Goodbye!” Desperately hitting the end call button, he and Pier collapsed and laughed till they cried. 

Sophia kicked the wall in frustration. They didn’t believe her. Something was terribly, terribly wrong, and she would have to figure it out on her own. 

Dr. Arthur B. Thomas’ Memory Reader was a fearsome machine. A long cylindrical tube through which slid a platform with cuffs attached to it (for who would allow their mind to be read?) composed the body, with intricate computers attached to the side, touchscreens and typescreens, wresting the deepest, most innermost thoughts from the unconscious man who lay cuffed within the yawning tube. Silently Dr. Thomas read and typed and read and typed, stealing those things most precious to a person, his identity and free will, and taking it to use for his own devices.  

Watching the results of what he had done, Dr. Erikit stood miserably by, wringing his hands and running them through his wild hair.  

Thomas turned to Erikit. “Come over here.”  

Like one under a spell, the wild-eyed doctor stepped over submissively, obedient to the object of his hatred.  

“Look at this. Do you see it?” Erikit nodded. “Good,” Thomas said calmly. “Kill them.” 

Erikit stumbled backwards, his mouth hanging open. “No,” he cried. “I’m not going to. Do your own dirty work. I’m not an assassin. I’m a researcher.”  

Thomas faced him, blinking. “It’s too late for that, doctor. You’re already a kidnapper. And as the only one who can possibly conduct this experiment, I obviously cannot in any way endanger my own person. I’m afraid you’ll have to do it. Don’t worry. They’ve been erased from the database.”  

“The security cameras will catch me,” he moaned.  

“I didn’t hack the database for nothing. The video footage will be erased. I have thought of everything.” 

“I’m not going to do it.” 

“Oh, I don’t think you’re in a position to argue with me, doctor. You are as good as dead to the outside world. Don’t you want to be restored to your university?” 

“I’ll-I’ll kill you first!” 

“If you kill me, how will you get out of here? You will die of hunger and thirst. Only I know the passwords.” 

Erikit was silent, sullen. Perhaps years of cracking the code of the brain had given Arthur Thomas insight into what others were thinking even without his equipment. He stepped closer to Erikit until he wa staring up at him full into the face while Erikit hung his head. 

“Do not think you can run away when I let you out to deal with the mother and the girl. You will never escape me. I control the database.” 

Erikit shuddered, chilled by the accuracy of Thomas’ guess at his thoughts. Thomas turned and went back to his computers. “The Memory Readout has been completed. I will prep him for surgery now.” 

“Don’t do it, Thomas!” The doctor’s face showed no emotion as his ever-present robots bore the still-unconscious Henry Davids away. “You’re going to murder him in cold blood!” Erikit screamed, tearing his hair out. “Where is your conscience?!” 

Silently, Dr. Thomas handed Erikit a ray gun and pointed to the screen, where two faces, two names, were spelled out as clearly as their sentence. 

“Kill them.”Erikit slumped against the wall, weeping, as the strange, silent procession of a man, a machine, and one who was neither left the room.  

Sophia Lethry was as silent as the dead night outside, sitting in tearless frustration on what might have been her mother-in-law’s sofa. 

“Honey,” Amanda Davids was saying, “you got to let him go. Men got to leave sometimes; it’s just what they do. Now he never told me he was gonna go-” 

Sophia finally let out a sob, and Amanda put her arm around her, “Baby, don’t cry about him. He ain’t never coming back, and I know it’s hard, but you got to let him go. Move on, girl. Find somebody else.” 

“Henry wouldn’t have done something like that,” Sophia sobbed. “He’s not that kind of person. He wouldn’t just leave without telling either of us. You remember! Even as a kid, he was the worst goody-two-shoes there was. And he was always fair, and he never cheated on me, and he was always so ki-i-ind and gentle-” 

A shadow fell over the window, blocking the few rays that the streetlight let in, but the room was already dim, and Sophia kept on sobbing. 

“And he never got in trouble with the law for anything but blocking train tracks, cause he walked everywhere. And-” 

A gloved hand carefully pointed a laser to silently slice through the Plexiglas, but the blinds were down and neither of the women noticed. 

“He-he didn’t mean to leave me!” 

“Honey, how could you know that?” Slowly Sophia reached a trembling hand into the pocket of her suit, closing her fingers around a hard, lumpy object. Slowly she brought it out, and slowly her fingers uncurled from it, leaving it in her outstretched palm. Amanda gasped as the lamplight glinted off the sapphire set in the middle of the ring, causing it to sparkle out in the dim room. 

“I found this in our apartment.” 

The gloved hand drew back the blinds, and the point of a raygun appeared at the broken window. 

“He meant to ask me to marry him!” 

A leather-clad finger pulled the trigger, and the rayshot echoed through the apartment complex, crying out to the skies of the deed that had been done. Sophia screamed and ducked, rolling onto the ground, instinctively throwing her hands over her head, as the second ray of lethal energy whistled over her hair and burned a smouldering hole into the wall. The shadow outside, seeing that his second shot had missed, stepped off the hover platform by which he had reached the seventh-story window and into the apartment, searching around for his target. Sophia held her breath, waiting in tense silence. 

The shadow’s heavy tread grew faint as he walked into the next room. Sophia crawled forward, then standing up, mashed the elevator button, leaping inside, and willed the machine to move faster. Another shot rang through the night, reaching her ears, and a charred spot appeared at the top of the elevator. He was firing down at her .She screamed again, pressing herself against the wall as two more shots were fired and two more holes appeared in the ceiling. 

The elevator touched down at street level and she ran out the door, streaking down the empty nighttime street, sobbing, gasping for breath, her legs aching, her lungs on fire, hair streaming out behind her, knowing nothing but pure fear. 

The shadow stood alone in the empty apartment with the dead body of Amanda Davids. Suddenly he leapt back onto his hover platform and rode away into the night as the first sirens began to sound. 

Dr. Thomas stood over his prisoner, flushed with triumph at his accomplishment. The surgery had been fairly simple. He could have allowed one of his robots to make the laser-incision and insert the SOTR into Henry Davids’ brain, but he wanted the pleasure for himself. An hour later, all that remained was to test the results of the operation. His own command chip had already been implanted in his own brain. 

The dead white walls and the silent waiting ever-present machines were the only witnesses when Henry Davids awoke from his anesthetic. Eyes flickering open, he tried to sit up, but Dr. Thomas had turned the power on. Davids’ limbs twitched convulsively, and his eyes bulged from their sockets, staring unseeingly into the dead white ceiling. Thomas stood over the man whose life he had taken, a hideous smile etched across even this emotionless creature’s face. Davids lay, motionless, stiff, prostrate on the operating table, still dressed in the clothes he had been wearing when he had been stunned. Thomas hesitated to savor this sweet moment of success. 

Get up! the doctor thought. 

Slowly, like a corpse rising out of a grave, Henry’s body bent stiffly from a supine position until he sat upright. Turning himself, he stepped onto the floor and stood before Dr. Thomas, his dull, mechanical eyes staring straight into Thomas’, and the doctor saw himself from Davids’ eyes inside his mind. 

Thomas gazed at his achievement, drunk with delight, stupefied from success.  

No one has ever thought this possible.  

The second desire has been attained.  

Now for the third!  

Dr. Thomas handed the hand in front of him a packet of false credentials. Yes, he would send him to the MRIHII. Immortal life. He laughed with pleasure at the sheer thought of it. 

Sophia Lethry awoke gasping.  

It must have been a dream. It must have been a dream. 

She reached over to tell Henry what an awful nightmare she had had, but he was not in bed.  

It wasn’t a dream!  

Then Henry was gone and his mother was dead!  

Sophia lay back in bed, trying to calm herself down. Think logically.  

She could not remember how she got home last night. All she remembered was the rayshots and her wild flight, and the dead unseeing eyes of Amanda Davids staring after her. She shuddered. 

Forcing herself to get out of bed, she tied on her bathrobe and shuffled her bare feet over into the living room, planning to go pickup her meals by the elevator door. Sure enough, there they were, their habitual daily reappearance comforting. At least one thing hadn’t changed. FoodIn still delivered. 

She picked up the plastic container and gasped.  

Underneath it was a scrap of paper. Paper. No one made paper. She’d only seen it once before, when her mother had taken her to see a museum, before they all went virtual, and she’d seen a real print book.  

Her hands trembling, she picked it up and turned it over. 

If you want to see Henry Davids again, it read, come to the alley between Apartment Buildings W and X at 10 pm tonight. Come alone.  

Now she knew for sure that something was wrong. The note confirmed all her worst suspicions. She sat down on the couch and racked her brains, trying to figure out why on earth Henry would have been kidnapped. Not for ransom, unless there was some terrible mixup. He was an engineer and she was a writer, and though he made a decent amount of money, there certainly wasn’t much left over to pay a large ransom. Many more people would have yielded a much more profitable reward for whoever kidnapped them.  

So why then? The note hadn’t said to bring any money. 

It’s a trap. 

“If you want to see Henry Davids again...” 

I want to see him again.  

I have to see him again. 

It’s a trap. 

It’s all I’ve got. 

It’s a trap. 

At least it’s something. Beer than sitting here wondering with some assassin trying to kill me. 

This is how the assassin will kill you, stupid. 

If I’m going to get killed anyway, I’d rather take the chance of seeing Henry again. 

Every whirr of her neighbor’s elevator, every siren, every creak of the building made her jump. Somebody was trying to kill her, and who knew if he was right there, aiming his raygun? 

“I’m going,” she whispered. “I’ll do it.”  

Heart in throat, Sophia Lethry glanced apprehensively over her shoulder as she entered the alley. The dead silence was frightening, and her courage was beginning to fail her. The whole narrow passage was shrouded in darkness, the streetlight being blocked by the tall threatening walls of Building X.  

Suddenly there was a noise behind her. She whirled around, and there stood a man clutching something in either hand as if by magic, in the space that had been empty only a moment before. She was rooted to the ground, unable to speak, frozen with fear.  

The man stepped closer to her, out of the deepest shadows, and when she saw his face she gasped. Dr. Erikit looked terrible. His unkempt hair stood up crazily over his head. His cheeks were sunken and hollow, unshaven, his eyes were wild, and his once fine suit was torn and dirty.  

That wasn’t why she gasped.  

His face was the face of the shadow who killed Amanda Davids.  

Sophia stumbled backward, blinded by tears. 

 “Are you Sophia Lethry?” the murderer asked. Sophia, hesitating only for a moment, nodded dumbly.  

“Good. Take-”“Where’s Henry?” she burst out suddenly. “Where is he? What have you done with him?” she demanded.  

Hurriedly the man thrust a packet at her. “These are false credentials-” 

“Who are you?” 

“I was called Erikit. Doctor Erikit.” 

“Surely you still are!” she cried. 

Erikit shook his head tiredly. “Take these.” Sophia took the packet nervously. “I want to see Henry again. You told me to come here so I could. Where is he?” 

“Lady, you can’t do anything for him. You’ll never see him again. The guy who has him is a man without scruples.” 

“No!” 

“There’s nothing you can do except get out of here. Take these credentials and get on the train to Muskegon. Get out of Hydropolis I. Your life is in danger here.” 

“I don’t want false credentials! I want Henry!” 

Erikit sighed. “Look, miss, all you can do is get out of here! You’ve been erased from the database!” 

Sophia blanched. “I’ve what?!” 

“You heard me. Get to land. I’ve done everything I can for you. I can’t tell you anything more except that the man who has your boyfriend is not to be tangled with. He’s hacked the database. He’s trying to kill you.” 

Realization slowly dawned on Sophia. “And you’re supposed to have-” 

“Go!” 

“But why did he kidnap Henry?? Why him?? Why us?” 

“Henry walks everywhere.” 

“What?” 

“Two advantages: he’s easier to catch because he avoids crowds, and he’s more predictable.” 

“That makes no sense!” she cried desperately. “There has to be something I can do-” 

“Yes. Leave. Get out of here while you still can.” Erikit grasped Sophia’s shoulders and turned her around, pushing her forward. “Go!” 

“I’m not going! I’ve got to find Henry!” 

“You will never find him. Leave!” 

“No! You have to help me!”  

Erikit advanced threateningly and caught her arm in a viselike grip. “I said leave!” he said angrily, his eyes wild. “I can’t help you anymore!” 

Sophia screamed and struggled, trying to get away from this madman. Breaking free, she ran away through the night from the doctor, still clutching the packet, footsteps pounding on the cement while streetlights spilled liquid yellow-orange rays onto the pavement. 

“Fool!” Erikit screamed after her. “Fool! Get out while you still can!” 

Travis Prenemi had never really liked Ralph Evanson. His odd manner of speaking and swift, stiff movements, well...there was just something uncanny about him. He had to admit, however, Evanson was quite brilliant. His contributions to the Department of Cognitive Psychology at the MRIHII (Medical Research Institute of Hydropolis II) had been quite invaluable. 

Prenemi quickened his footsteps, not wanting to be late for the Board Meeting. His mind raced as he hurried along. Despite everything in favor of Evanson, he still hesitated, not coming to a decision yet. He pushed a button on the side of his helmet, making the time appear briefly in front of his eyes on the protective screenshield covering his face. He only had five minutes left.  

Turning abruptly, he faced the dialpad in front of him which the wall had spat out and entered 5 0 3 7. The door slid open as the dialpad retreated back into the wall and Prenemi stepped into the room. He gulped, seeing he was the last there, and quickly sat down at the long screentable in the one empty seat, the Board members’ eyes boring into him. Suddenly remembering his helmet, he removed it hurriedly. 

The Head of the Board glanced at him disapprovingly before speaking. “Members of the Board for the Medical Research Institute of Hydropolis II,” she began imperiously, “I call this meeting to order for the purpose of voting upon the admission of a new scientist to Project Tithonus. All of you know,” she said, looking around the room, “the import of divulging the details of this to another. That is the reason I have called this meeting in person rather than virtually. Our cyber security is quite dependable, but I am taking no chances. For that reason we will use paper ballots.” 

There was a collective gasp from those assembled. Even Prenemi, who had been expecting something unusual, was taken a back.  

“I motion that we proceed with the vote,” continued the Head, staring around at them sternly. “Any objections?”  

A man called Oniki raised his hand after looking around for his buzzer, which had been removed. “Writing and fingerprints are traceable,” he countered. “Besides, no one entering school after 2159 will have been taught to write.” Prenemi blushed. As the youngest board member, he had only been bornin 2170. 

The Head pushed a button on her chair, and panels slid away from the surface of the screentable in front of each member, revealing strange identical devices, and underneath each was a small square sheet of paper.  

Travis Prenemi gasped. He had never felt paper before. With trembling fingers, he reached into the cavity and removed the strange device, barely noticing it in his excitement to touch the paper. Slowly he lifted the thin sheet up and rubbed his fingers on it, savouring the smooth-rough texture and sheen of the light reflecting on its white surface. He bent it, creating a convex rather than concave crease, before pulling it straight, marveling at the wobbling noise it made. 

“I have made allowance for that, Dr. Oniki,” said the Head. “You may mark your answer onto the paper with the stamps that have been provided. With no further objections, let us proceed.” 

Travis picked up the strange device and examined it for the first time. It was as mooth black plastic rectangle, and on either side there was a cap made of the same material. Prying off the cap, he saw a soft black substance with raised leers in it, spelling the word “YES” backwards. He took off the cap on the other side, revealing the word “NO.” 

Glancing up, he saw all the other members pressing their stamps down onto the paper, leaving a black ink mark with their choice stamped onto the paper. He put his head into his hands and thought.  

Oh, Evanson would be quite useful in the project. Prenemi had personally been feeling quite disgusted with the state of affairs in their research regarding the preservation of mental faculties. He had no reason not to trust him, but still he didn’t. 

Think logically. The doctor’s been working here fourteen years. He’s smart, capable, diligent, innovative; I’m not going to let my personal dislike for him influence my decision.  

He’s trustworthy, but I don’t trust him. 

A little robot had already zoomed around the screentable, collecting the small pieces of paper. Everybody else had voted. 

Head spinning and cheeks red with embarrassment, Prenemi stamped down once with the device, his answer clearly written before him. Immediately the hovering robot snatched it up and put it into the bowl beside the Head. “Voting is concluded,” she said, looking visibly relieved. “I will now proceed to count the votes.” She took the first piece of paper, unfolded it, and read it. “Yes...”There were fourteen yeses and one no. 

Ralph Evanson would be transferred to the team working on Project Tithonus. 

Dr. Arthur B. Thomas looked much the same at seventy as at sixty. Perhaps there were a few more wrinkles on his face, and perhaps he was getting a bald spot on the very top of his head, but he was still the same self-contained, competent, gentle-looking malefactor as ever. He prided himself on the fact that his mind had not been affected in the least by aging.  

Just presently he was taking one of the few opportunities to rest he had. Gratefully he stretched out on his bed, reminiscing fondly about the past decade, in which he had never taken a single day off. He could not. A living creature was entirely dependent upon him. If he ceased to force Ralph Evanson to move or eat or sleep, he was nothing but an inanimate, breathing object until Dr. Thomas applied himself to directing Evanson’s every action. He had to live Evanson’s life for him.  

But now, ten years after he had gotten his hands on the man once known as Henry Davids, his hard work was finally paying off. A decade of hard work and trust, building the MRIHII’s confidence in Evanson’s trustworthiness and capability as a brain scientist. How could they know that another was speaking through Evanson? 

Today the Board at the MRIHII had voted on Evanson being taken on the teamworking on Project Tithonus. This was the day he had been waiting for. He knew what their answer would be when they informed him through Evanson tomorrow.  

This was the beginning of the end of the beginning. 

A woman, who might have been twenty or twenty-five years old, ran through the pine woods, leaping over fallen logs and bushes as nimbly as if she was a deer, reveling in her freedom and speed. In front of her she could hear Jacob and Josiah, and behind her Sophia was struggling to catch up, gasping for breath and tripping over the logs Hannah was leaping over. 

A little ways ahead was their quarry, an old ragged dog, flea ridden and mangy, but for all that, good food. Sophia was too far away to consider shooting her bullet gun, but she could see Josiah, who was in the lead, cocking his. He aimed the pistol as he ran, shooting at the dog, who, yelping, redoubled his speed. Josiah was tiring, however, his steps were faltering, and his breath was coming in ragged gasps. Jacob pulled ahead and in turn cocked his gun. He was a better shot than Josiah, and hit the dog’s leg on the second try, causing the animal to fall. Jacob could run no more and collapsed, panting, on the ground. Hannah swept past him, and, coming right up to the dog, finished him off with a single shot. Sophia at last ran up and stood, wheezing, her hands on her knees.  

The four of them stood there, panting, with the dead dog lying on the ground beside them. It was a long time before any of them could talk.  

“Well,” Jacob said at last. “Josiah and I will carry him home.”  

Hannah grinned happily. “Will we have a fire tonight?”  

The flames crackled as Josiah tossed on a pile of dry brush, causing the fire to roar up and spit sparks in his face. Quickly he backed away from the bonfire, which illuminated the night, casting warm light onto the laughing faces gathered round it, eating bits of dog meat and chatting lightheartedly to one another. 

Sophia Lethry sat apart from the others, her knees drawn up at the chin, gazing moodily into the flames, which gave no pleasure to her. The flickering light cast weird shadows on her features, and behind her the grotesque ruins of an old skyscraper stretched up to the sky, sorry bits of old patched canvas stretched taut across from the plastic wall to the ground, the temporary shelters these outcasts lived in. Sparks whirled around her wild hair, darks and lights, warm red-orange and shadows contrasting sharply.  

Sophia was ten years older than she had been. Unlike Dr. Thomas, the change was quite marked in her face and gait. Deep wrinkles, worry-wrinkles, were etched across her features. She walked stooped from sorrow, and though she was but forty, her hair was almost gray. 

Her eyes bored into the fire, but she was seeing something else. Her mind was back a decade ago. “The account is valid. I haven’t received anything to the contrary from the bank.”  

“I’m sorry, but the account appears to be invalid. I will check you in the database.” 

“All right.” 

“Error. I’m sorry, your name does not appear in the database.” 

“That’s impossible. Did you get the wrong spelling? S-O-P-H-I-A L-E-T-H-R-Y.” 

“Error. I’m sorry, your name does not appear in the database. Would you like to speak to a FoodIn representative?”“ 

Yes.” 

“Please hold.” They never picked up. 

Jacob walked over to her, smiling pleasantly but artificially. 

“Good evening, Sophia. Would you like to join us in prayer?” 

She shook her head, embarrassed. Even after ten years, the members of the religious group still insisted on asking her to pray with them, convert to their religion. It had become a daily ritual for them. She had never said yes. Not without Henry. She couldn’t believe there was a purpose to the universe when something terrible might have happened to him.  

She stared back fixedly into the flames, unseeing, remembering the day she packed a small bag of things and got on the train to Muskegon, up above the lake. She couldn’t buy anything. She would have starved. The apartment company was going to evict her.  

According to the database, she had ceased to exist.  

The packet had had a touchscreen in it, programmed as belonging to Arya Waywright. It was a poor front at the very most, but it would hold till she got out of the Hydropolis system.  

She could have thought much, much longer, long and long, remembering how she wandered into the woods outside Muskegon, how the strange religious group, outlawed by Mayor Wadi, let her become part of their community. She lived with them and worked with them and they helped each other mutually, but she wasn’t one of them. 

But another thought usurped her train. 

I could find him. He must still live in Muskegon.  

We haven’t spoken for a long time.  

Use the touchscreen. Go find him. 

A dirty, ragged woman clutching something in her righthand limped along the side of the busy Muskegon street, intent on the figure in front of her. She was exhausted and hungry, but living in the woods had taught her to be used to that. 

Despite her sorry state, she was gaining on the man in front of her, who was walking very slowly. She broke into a light jog and, hurrying towards the man as he turned a corner, was almost run over by a bus hurtling along its maglev tracks. Shaking off the fright, she ran up and gently tapped the man on the shoulder.  

He started and turned. “What?” 

“Jackson.” 

“How do you know my name?” 

“How do you not know mine?” 

He sighed. “Go, Sophia. I’m sorry. I don’t want to see you.” 

“I need your help.” 

“Sheesh, what’s wrong with you?” 

“What’s wrong with you? You won’t help your own sister?” 

“You’re making a scene.” 

“As if there were anybody to see!” she scoffed. “It’s not like they’re hurtling past us at a hundred miles an hour!” 

“Why are you here?”“ 

I told you. I need your help.” 

“Oh, you do?” 

“Jackson, you have no idea. Have you been living, in the woods, with some canvas for a roof, eating whatever random plants and skinny dogs came your way?? I don’t think so!” 

“Sophia-” 

“We need to talk.” 

“Fine. Fine. Fine. Go ahead.” 

“At your apartment,” she said firmly. 

“The cameras will catch you!” 

“Uh-huh. I don’t care.” 

“Well, I do! I’ve got a reputation to protect here! It’s not like people will assume the random woman who comes into my apartment is my sister!” 

“Which do you care more about, Jackson, your reputation or me?” 

“My reputation.” 

“Come on!” 

“I’m not just anybody, Sophie. I’m a pretty important person around here.” 

“All the more reason why I need your help.” 

His eyes grew wide with fright. “You wouldn’t blackmail me, would you-” 

“Jesus, Jackson, I swear you’ve got to calm down.” 

“Fine. I’ll take you to my apartment. But you’re not staying there.” 

“Fair enough.” We’ll fight that one when we get to it. No use ruining this victory. 

Jackson Lethry strode through the long room lined with huge computers, the their orange and red lights flickering out at him briefly in subservient recognition as he walked past them. By his side walked a uniformed guard, her hand on her raygun, ready to shoot. They rounded a corner, and the guard let her breath out. 

Lethry glanced around furtively to make sure they were alone, then nodded. “This is one of the Video Archives computers.”  

“Can you access Hydropolis I’s archives from here?” the guard asked nervously.  

“I can try. All the cities are connected to the Central Database anyhow.” Jackson sat down at the desk and opened up the touchscreen.  

“You’d beer be able to,” the guard said dangerously. “Surely you must be an expert at hacking, when you worked so hard bribing your way into a degree.”  

“Shut up,” Lethry whispered without looking behind him. “I’m helping you out, ok? I could lose my job for this. I could go to prison.” 

“Too late for second thoughts now. You’ve already reentered me into the database. That’s enough to get you life.” 

“You’re such a wonderful sister,” he retorted through clenched teeth, clicking on the touchscreen. 

“I can’t be your sister anymore. I’m Arya Waywright. Are you in yet?” 

“Almost.” 

“Hurry up. Somebody might come this way.” 

“I’m in. Date, time, place?” 

“September 17, 2197. Eight p.m. Apartment Section, Apartment E. Capital E, not lowercase.” 

Jackson scrolled through different cameras, different viewpoints of the same street, and Sophia felt her heart skip a beat as she looked back on the footage of that same fateful night. 

“All right. I’m speeding it up quite a bit, but we’ll see when he walks out.” 

They watched the screen in silence. The front of Apartment E, her old home, identical to all the others, but she could recognize the window she had looked out so many times, watching the alternately busy or empty street below. The minutes were sped up twenty times. She saw 8:01,8:02, 8:03 go by. 8:11, 8:12,8:13. She held her breath. 8:15, 8:39. 

“8:39!” she gasped.  

Jackson was clicking around at the touchscreen. “It switches right from 8:15 to8:39! There’s nothing in between!” 

“What does that mean?” she demanded. “What does that mean, Jackson?!”He turned to face her slowly, his eyes wide.  

“Somebody deleted those minutes.” 

“Who? Can’t you trace it?” 

He shook his head, swallowing. “It was nobody inside the system, that’s all I know. They would have extended the view to make it look like there were all the minutes in there. This was done by somebody outside the system.” 

“Somebody-outside?” 

“Somebody hacked the database.” 

Some of the pieces were beginning to fit together, but the centermost was missing still. “But-why?” 

“I have no idea. Sophie-” he said, and there was genuine tenderness in his tone, “I’m so sorry. There’s no way to trace whoever did this. They covered their tracks too well. The missing minutes is the only indication anyone was ever in there.”  

Sophia set her jaw firmly. “Maybe you can’t trace him on the computer,” she said with firm resolve, “but I don’t need a computer.” 

“What?” 

“If I’m going to find Henry, I’ve got to go back to where he disappeared. Do you remember what I said about Dr. Eritik?” 

“Yes.” 

“When he met me between X and W, he seemed to appear out of nowhere. I’m going back to that alley. There’s got to be something there. Anything I can trace will help me.” 

“Don’t do it, Sophie. Anybody who can hack the database is a very dangerous person.” 

“Since when do you care about my safety, Jackson?”  

Jackson sighed. “Then there’s no convincing you to the contrary?” 

“No.” 

“Then I’ll help you.” 

Sophia was caught off guard. “You will?” 

“I can give you some money. That’s about all.” 

She smiled. “I-I don’t really know what to say.” 

“How about, ‘I forgive you’?” Maybe she’ll leave me alone now. I don’t want to be dragged into this. 

“Okay. Fair enough.” She shrugged her shoulders, too delighted to argue. It had all been so easy, so simple after a decade of despair—almost as if some kindly force had smoothed the way for her. Maybe the religious group in the woods was right.  

Dark night had descended over Hydropolis I, and blackwater swirled around the plexiglass dome encasing all its inhabitants. Up above the lake’s surface the stars’ light imprisoned by heavy clouds stabbed down at its cell, bright sharp rays, in a vain attempt to pierce the darkness. The waves were choppy, and an ominous chill hung in the air, foreboding a storm.20 

Deep below in the submarine city a woman wearing hood and cloak snuck quietly into the alley between Apartments X and Y. A noise sounded behind her, and in one swift movement she drew her raygun, aiming tensely at a little pile of garbage that had gone unnoticed by the sweeper robots. A rat scurried out from under the pile, and she let out her breath, realizing for the first time that she had been holding it. 

Switching on her light, she shone it around the alley, looking for anything unusual. A pair of shoes, a broken glass bole, a porthole, a piece of gum stuck to the wall...everything looked normal.  

A porthole! 

Her heart pounding, she stepped over to the porthole and crouched down, shining her light around it. She tried pulling upon it, and to her surprise, it came up silently.  

The bottom was padded to mute the clanking of metal on metal. This led to no sewer.  

Sophia tried shining her light down into the hole, revealing slimy, corroded rungs leading down into the darkness, but she could not see the boom.  

Cocking her raygun and replacing it in its holster, she swung one booted foot over onto the first rung, then carefully climbed down, her light held in her teeth. She wrinkled her nose in disgust at the slime that soon covered her hands and suit. It was along way down-perhaps fifty feet, but it was hard to judge in the darkness. The passage did not get any wider, but remained the same size as the porthole. Angling her head downward so the light shone below her, she finally glimpsed a sight of the ground, but she couldn’t tell what exactly it was like.  

When she reached the last rung, she shone her light around the ground carefully, not wanting to step on a trap. The space was still as narrow as the first, and the surface below her appeared to be a spiral hatch. Cautiously she put one foot onto the hatch, hoping to open it, and then another.  

The pieces retreated into the sides of the hatch, and she was sucked into empty space. She screamed, flailing her arms, as she fell down, was sucked down as a vacuum cleaner sucks up dust down a long, brightly lit tunnel, until she fell into a strange room.  

Panting, her adrenaline pumping, she looked from her hands and knees around at her surroundings. She was in a white room; ceiling, walls, and floor were all perfectly white, smooth, and spotlessly clean except for the place where the slime on her suit and boots had rubbed off onto the floor. The room was completely bare.  

“I’ve been expecting you.”  

She jumped up and turned around, in one single swift movement drawing her raygun and aiming it, gasping, at the figure in front of her, whose back was to her.  

“I knew you were coming.” 

“Who are you?” 

“You may not know who I am, but I know who you are.” 

“Who are you? How did you know I was coming?” 

The man turned and faced her. He was a short man, wearing a long white lab coat over a faded suit. His glasses gave him a scholarly look, and his gray hair gave him an air of wisdom, and-and-of competence. But yet she did not trust him. There was something eerie in the way he spoke. 

“I know everything that goes on in this city. I know everything about you.” 

“Speak plainly.” Her voice rose in shrill intensity. “I’ve got a gun!”  

He faced her without any flicker of fear on his face. “Miss Lethry, Sophia-” 

She started. “How do you know my name?” 

“I told you, I know everything about you.” He smiled. “I control the database.” 

“The outside source-” 

“Yes. ‘It was nobody inside the system, that’s all I know. They would have extended the view to make it look like there were all the minutes in there. This was done by somebody outside the system.’” 

“Jackson said that!” 

“For all his cleverness, he really should have known that if somebody outside the database had access, they were probably watching him on the security camera.” 

“You’re the one-” 

“I am.” 

She gripped the raygun tighter, but it was beginning to get slippery from the sweat on her hands. “Then why did you erase the footage?” 

“No one could know Henry Davids left his apartment that night. No one could know a man named Trey Erikit kidnapped him.” 

Sophia’s whole body shook with rage. “It was him. That dirty-” 

“He was acting under orders.” 

“Orders from who?” she spat. 

“Orders from me.” 

She took a step closer, holding the raygun out threateningly. “Why did you do it? Why did you kidnap him?” 

“I needed him.” 

“For what? He would never help you.” 

“He didn’t have a choice.” 

“He would die before he-” 

“No. He really didn’t have a choice.” 

“What do you mean he didn’t-” 

He told her about the SOTR. A smile of triumph flashed across his lips for the briefest second when he saw her stumble backwards, unable to speak. 

“Henry Davids will never be Henry Davids again.” 

“Where is he? Why did you want him?” Sophia demanded, her voice shaking with suppressed anger. She already knew the desperate deed she was going to do, but she wanted to find out everything she could before she did it. 

“He’s in Hydropolis II,” the spectre said calmly. “He is a successful researcher at the MRIHII.” 

“Why did you want him?! Why did you take him from me?!” 

“You would not have heard of Project Tithonus. Not many have.” 

“Tell me or I’ll kill you!” 

Thomas shrugged. “They’re trying to see if the lifespan of a human can be prolonged indefinitely. They have almost a century of work behind them. Not long enough for me, in my lifetime, to accomplish. They are very close to a breakthrough. If I had access to that information, I could use it and complete the research on my own.” 

Full realization dawned on Sophia, and she trembled with fury. “What have you done?!” she screamed. “What have you done?! You thief! You murderer! You stole the wedding that we would have rejoiced at! You robbed us of the children that we would have had! You stole a man and killed his mother and robbed me of my happiness! You didn’t care who he really was! You didn’t see the depths of his being! You took his kindness, and his intelligence, and his morality, and his humor, and his love, and his life and you killed him! The most precious thing a man can have, his free will, gone! All for the sake of your selfish dream of immortality! You killed him!” 

“I did not kill him. His body is still alive.”  

There were tears of hot rage running down Sophia’s cheeks. “Justice will be done,” she said through gritted teeth. “I got here, despite all you did to stop me. I’ve foiled your plans.” Dr. Thomas stared at her, his face contorting strangely, then he opened his mouth and laughed, his eyes bulging, his face bitter. Sophia felt sick with fear, but she gathered up her anger again, ready to strike out at him. 

“Do you think I really wished to prevent you coming here?” he scoffed incredulously. “Oh, naive Sophia, didn’t you know I wouldn’t forget a threat to me? You don’t think I keep the entrance to my lab unlocked as a habit, do you? Would I have told you all this if I hadn’t wanted you here?” 

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, steeling herself against the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her. “I’ve got the gun. Justice will be served. You killed him, and I’m going to kill you!” 

“If I die, Henry Davids dies. He is dependent upon me for his body to function.” 

Sophia stopped dead in her tracks, and her hands fell to her sides. A deathly pallor washed over her face.  

“You cannot kill me.”  

Fury overwhelmed her, and she raised her gun again. “Oh, yes I can,” she spat.  

“He will die.” 

“You are lying to me. He will be freed from your influence when you are dead.” 

Thomas shook his head. “You are wrong.” 

Sophia’s finger pressed the trigger, and the lethal ray flew towards Thomas. In a flash he held up his arm, deflecting the deadly energy. Crying out, Sophia was thrown across the room by the deflection, and the raygun fell from her hand, spinning and sliding across the smooth floor until it came to rest some feet from her prone body. 

“You cannot kill me.” 

Sophia could only watch in horror as he pulled a raygun out of his suit and leveled it at her.  

“But I can kill you.”  

A shot rang through the empty halls of Thomas’ laboratory, but the robots scurrying busily about their work in the endlessness of white walls and glass doors did not even turn their cameras. 

Travis Prenemi walked down the hall of the Main Archives, glancing at the computers lining the walls happily. He started to whistle, then thought better of it. The echoes tended to be rather creepy in here. Quietly he turned the corner and stopped short. 

A figure was bent over one of the computers, tapping at the touchscreen in smooth, even, calculated motions. Prenemi saw a wire snaking out from the computer, and at the end of it, glowing, was a small box, a memory unit.  

For a moment his words stuck in his throat, but he finally got them out. “Hey!” he shouted. “What are you doing here?” He drew his raygun and pointed it at the figure.  

The figure turned, and Prenemi saw that the face was Ralph Evanson’s. “You don’t have access here!” Prenemi shouted. “Put your hands up!” 

Evanson put his hands up and began to slowly back away from the point of the raygun. “All right, all right,” he said slowly, in that strange manner of his. “I’m just going to-” 

Quick as a flash, he grabbed the memory unit and fled. Prenemi was frozen for a moment, briefly wondering if the man was possessed. “HEY!” he screamed, snapping out of it, “GET BACK HERE!”  

Evanson was running through the halls of computers faster than Prenemi had thought humanly possible. He rounded corner after corner, the flashing lights and humming computers oblivious to the desperate chase right in front of them. The pursuer’s breath was coming in ragged gasps, and Evanson was getting farther and farther away from him with each corner he rounded. Finally, with his last ounce of energy, Prenemi pointed his raygun just as his feet were failing him and pulled the trigger. 

The next morning, when the news headlines on everyone’s touchscreens read that Ralph Evanson had been shot dead last night, having been apprehended while trying to hack the MRIHII’s archives, all of Michigan knew.   

But only one person in the whole of Earth itself, alone in empty echoing white halls, knew that Henry Davids had been dead long before he was killed. 

Written by Heather Mi.

70% of people sign their dog’s name on their greeting cards. I am one of these people.

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