The Old Man in the Rain

It’s raining. The warning was late, so there was a scuffle—get inside, get inside, get inside. At least in the main parts of the city. The streets were mostly cleared. The rest were left for dead. Which is why she found herself inside a run down shack of a business, if it could even be called that. It looked like it had been vacated years ago, home now to only rats and mice and squirrels.

She settled down to watch the rain. It came in only a minute or two, and there was a sharp sense of relief—she made it, she survived the rain for just another day. There was a raggedy man outside, though, that was not so lucky. Probably a drug addict, she thought. An overgrown beard, blank eyes with dilated pupils, clothes hanging off his body. Or what would be left of it.

The first drops hit his skin and his face barely registered. She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. It was a trainwreck, as the first red marks showed on his skin. The first indentations showing, as the acid began to take effect.

Could I run outside in time to same him? she wonders, but she knows the rules. No getting the others. Two fatalities are worse than one. And it’s not like you could survive the rain, anyway. It only take a few seconds, maybe a minute,  before the effects were irreversible, your skin damaged permanently. If the rain didn’t kill you first, They would come and get you. And then you just disappeared.

The skin under his eyes, over his cheeks, is showing the effects of the acid. Melting. The pain is evident on his face as his pupils contract, his hair dissolves, and he tries to save himself. He only stumbles, falls to his knees, crouches down.

He realized his mistake as his skull becomes visible, the bones in his forearms beginning to erode away. The puddles are just as bad as the stuff falling from the sky. He lifts his face to the sky, something that used to be a mouth open and screaming. His expression is unreadable, a mess of partially dissolved bone and flesh sloughing off his face.

Finally, mercifully, he stops moving. She forces herself to look away, take in the interior of the room again, memorize it. Anything to get the image out of her head. Anything.

Nothing works. It is burned into her mind.

Maybe he had found his peace in the rain, she thinks. Even though she knows that he never did.

Advertisements

I’m Concerned About the Blueberries

He stares at the city skyline, and I try not to think too hard about the fact we’re hovering a little too far above the ground for comfort. I hate helicopters–especially this one. He has to scream to be heard above the noise of the rotors.

“And why would you be concerned?” I scream.

“Because–well. Well. There isn’t a good reason. But I know. I should be concerned.” He shouts.

“But there’s no quantitative data!” I scream, a little more forcefully than before. This comes alongside many other perks of being the sole personal assistant of a rather ornery, extremely eccentric old coot. Who really isn’t that old, unfortunately.

“I don’t know, I just told you. I just know.”

“So you’re a blueberry psychic now, among other things?”

“I’m not a psychic, I just said that I’m concerned. Like when a mother knows one of her kids is in trouble or something.”

“That’s biologically impossible in more ways that one,” I say. Two years on the job, and I still don’t know why I accepted the job offer.

“I said ‘like.’ Not that I’m…whatever. Whatever. I just know we need to do something. I’m not sure, though. Really not sure.”

“The word’s unsure,” I say. I’m not sure if it’s an attempt to be helpful, or if I’m particularly annoyed. Probably both.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Do you have some paper–and a pencil. No, no, I need a pen for this–a good, blue pen! And pink paper!” I can’t hear the rest of what he says, drowned out by the noise of the aircraft. I hand him a blue pen and a legal pad; he frowns at the yellow paper, but I don’t have any pink paper on my person, or at all. We ran out last week and we’re still waiting for the order to come in.

He begins writing–or perhaps drawing–keeping the paper strategically turned away from me. A few minutes later he looks up annoyed and motions to the pilot to land. The pilot frowns at me. I imagine he won’t last very long, either. Most of the staff has an incredibly high turnover rate–not that they’re easy to replace, anyway. It’s pretty damn hard to find Yale graduates with a Master of Science in Forensic Pathology willing to work as gardeners. Yet he insists.

The noise fades to a silence when the helicopter lands and he leaps out of the cockpit. “Sara!” he shouts to the Harvard-graduate with a Ph.D. in Russian Marketing Techniques. She’s obviously not hanging out by the landing pad–she’s technically the third doorkeeper, but since there’s almost never any visitors, she spends most of her time in the library. Evidently, there is an especially large section on Russian Culture and Graphic Design. “Listen–you need to get Sara, and Frederick–just get the whole staff. Tell everybody to get to the map room! Right now! As soon as possible!” He screams, dancing off, in a sort of half-skip, half-leap.

I gather the staff–about fifty people, all in all. They’re slightly disgruntled; most of them have little to nothing to do all day, but having to deal with their wild employer is extremely low on the list of things they’d like to do. They gather, though–as much as they’d like to pretend otherwise, you don’t get into the Ivy Leagues by breaking the rules. At least, not all of them.

The map room is brightly lit, and quite literally covered in maps: four whole-wall area maps. One of the city, one of the country, one of the world. One lying on his desk looks more like a porcupine–covered in pins, needles, and a few chess pieces. He spins his chair around to face us: “I bet you’re wondering why I’ve called you here today.”

First of May

Ten minutes till curtain call. Ten minutes until curtain call. The midway is crowded, and I have to weave my way through people, strollers, children. All the way across the fair. No, I can’t be late–if I’m late, I’ll never get another contract. Hell, I’m the opening act–I might be fired then and there. If there’s one thing that the ringmaster hates, it’s a late performer. If there’s one thing he hates more, it’s a late tech.

I burst into the back entrance, head straight for the catwalk entrance, the narrow steel ladder burned into my vision–up a few steps, into the stuffy room. Everything’s on, everything’s working. I just need to up there: I slam straight into the ringmaster. Brian doesn’t budge, his five-foot-ten frame glowering over me, laid out on the ground, gasping for breath. He grabs my wrist and jerks me up, and I barely catch my balance. “Sorry sir, sorry, but I need to–” “We need to talk,” he says. “After the show.” He walks away.

I stand frozen for too long, though, and he glares again: “Run, boy! The show’s on in two minutes!” I shake myself out of my trance, and head up the ladder. Collapsing onto the second stool, Mark gives me a look. “Pissed off Brian?” He asks. I don’t need to answer–he heard the whole exchange. I put a headset on. “You shouldn’t have been late.”

“I know. It was an accident.” My teeth are clenched, and the soundboard is on the fritz again. Now is not the time to chew me out, Mark. I duck under the folding table and unplug-plug a few wires. It makes a whizzing sound, and the lights blink on.

“What kind of an accident results in almost being late to a show?” he asks. I shoot him a glare, just as the eight count begins. The show goes by without any major errors, but the anxiety lumping in my stomach doesn’t go away. What will Brian do? Climbing down the ladder feels like I am walking to my own execution. Brian is waiting, of course. He looks like he might be ready to rip my head off. Instead of shouting at me, though, he holds up a finger and says, “I need to talk to Jess first. Meet me in the back lot.” Across the fair–where I had been just before the show.

The back lot was, if possible, hotter than the midway. The heat seemed to radiate from the hundreds of cars and vans and RVs and trucks, all meant to transfer the fair and it’s inhabitants and employees across the country. My pickup was dwarfed by the bigger semis and UHauls, at the far end of the lot. The spot was generally considered undesirable, but the fast food joint across the highway had 24/7 wifi, another luxury I couldn’t otherwise afford.

I opened the tailgate. It held a sleeping bag and as many comforters as I could afford–the rigid lining of the truck bed was uncomfortable, and cap offered almost no insulation when the temperature dropped at night. There was a twelve-inch-deep wooden board the functioned as a shelf–charging station, bookshelf, server rack. I had devoted a lot of work to hiding the inset solar panels on the roof, in the hopes they wouldn’t be vandalized. A throwback to the days at the Science Nook, and a convenient way to charge the computer. Hiding the wires had been the hardest, ironically. I opened the laptop, plugged it into the servers, that also held memory back up.

The screen flashed, and a series of beeps I recognized as Artemis’s binary introduction played. Word flashed across the screen:

Hello Admin privileges to [KAT HARUKO] BACKDOOR2 error security failure HELP Sorry,_help_requested_thru_backdoor._Attack_unprecedented.

LOCATION REQUESTED, SYSTEM MAN’T REQ’D.

BACKDOOR SECURITY FAILURE CODE 0101383294

BACKDOOR SECURITY FAILURE CODE 0101383294

BACKDOOR SECURITY FAILURE CODE 0101383294

UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.

CONTACT ATTEMPT #3 UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.

CONTACT ATTEMPT #2 UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.

CONTACT ATTEMPT #1 UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.

CONTACT PROHIBITED.

My blood runs cold. What the hell has just happened. Brian is approaching, the sun is beginning to set. Too much, too much. “Hey,” he says. I shut the computer shut and practically fling it behind me. He doesn’t know much about computers, but I imagine that he can tell that it’s nicer than I should be able to afford. If he opens it, it’s more than obvious that backdoor security failures aren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill OS issues. “Hi?” I say. He doesn’t move. “I want you to explain why a lady with a suit walked up to me, forty five minutes before the performance, and asked me where the hell you were. And, why, afterwards, she explained that she was a detective from the CIA. Why the hell is the CIA after you?” I suck in a breath.

“Did she tell you her name?”

“Yes–” He closes his eyes for a second, searching for the name. “Uh, it was Asian, maybe Japanese? Like–Katsuri Haruki, maybe?”

“Katsuki Haruko?” I say.

“Yes, that’s it.” He gives me a suspicious look.

“Listen, Brian, I’m not a nutjob terrorist or anything. I was a programmer before I came here–worked in a mall, across from Kat’s cover operation. She figured out that I was okay at what I did, but the store went under, so I moved. I kept some of the stuff–” I motioned to the computer, “but I sold what I could, came here. It was what I could get, at the time. I have no idea why she’d be asking around for me.” It’s a lie–I know exactly why she’s looking for me. Why the hell would Apollo set off? Nobody would attack it like that. Nobody could attack it like that.

“She also said you’d say that. You’re not just some lousy programmer if the fucking CIA is after you. What’s the real story?”

His face blanches when he sees my glare: “Listen, buddy, I didn’t come here looking to dredge up the past, okay? I don’t know why the fuck the CIA’s after me, but it sure as hell wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong.” Lies, all lies. But I have no choice. This is about so much more than my job, right now.

“She said you had several artificially intelligent monster program out there, and you’d hacked the government multiple times. She said that they needed you for, uh, Northern Lights?” He suddenly looks worried? Was that possible? He wasn’t supposed to know any of that. Nobody was supposed to know–so Kat must have told him because it was a serious issue.

“Fuck,” I say, and my suddenly-quiet voice seems to scare him. I reach behind me for the laptop. “Did she say anything specific?”

He shakes his head. “I told her that you weren’t there, I didn’t know where.”

“Nobody could break Apollo. Even with Zeus, Athena, and Artemis. How the hell is Northern Lights activated?”

“I dunno. That’s all she told me. But who–what–” I jump down from the tailgate.

“I need to know where she is right now. This is very, very bad.”

“I told you that I don’t–”

“Can I use your phone?” I ask, and he wordlessly hands me his phone.

“Thank you,” I say, dialing her number. The phone rings several times, and a mechanical voice answers: the number is no longer available. I curse. The only other option is to sic one of the small programs after her, but I know it won’t work. She keeps to herself, and last I knew, the only emails she operated were burners.

“What are these–Greek gods?” Brian asks. “The ‘monster programs’ you were talking about. I switched them over after Katelyn went psycho–but nobody’s supposed to know they exist, and even if they did know, how the hell–”

“So they’re AI?”

Yes, yes…they are artificial intelligence. None of them were programmed with emotions or any particular power. They were set to protect Apollo. No attacks, no nothing. The only one that does anything is Ares, and that’s–”

“How many of them are there? What does Ares do?” “Ares–Ares just scans for searches, anything out of the ordinary. Attacks computers that try to do anything out of the ordinary–it’s programmed to ignore a few computers, mostly government ones that aren’t a threat and would become one if monitored. There’s–uh, most than twelve. Most of them are small–just system hacks that make Apollo harder to pull down. There’s not backdoor on Apollo, though–only the main gate. Nobody’s supposed to know it, it’s closed, totally closed,” back and forth, back and forth; the world feels like it is collapsing around me, but everything is totally normal.

But what is this even about?–” He was going to ask another question, but I cut him off:

“There’s a gang, it’s international, but originates in Japan. Kat was working on the case, I made a program to track their whereabouts, help catch the gang. We’re so fucking close, so close to shutting it down–we don’t even need people, we could tear it down by crippling their systems. But they have it, or they’re getting in–I don’t know, it’s closed, that what I mean, I can’t get in, I’d have to pull all the other systems off and tear the thing apart, server by fucking server and–” my voice chokes. Three years of work, three years of running from anybody who could figure it out, and it was practically all over.

“And?” Brian looks cold. “And–” A thought suddenly strikes me. Impossible, but what had I been taught? They’d stop at nothing to pull Apollo down.

“You’re one of them.” He smiles. I’m royally screwed.

“That’s good, you’re finally getting it,” he smiles, and I don’t even want to think about what could be coming. At best, a bullet through the head. At worst? I can’t even imagine it. His hand casually sneaks towards his pocket, and it takes me too long to respond, but I try: Grab his arm, block the punch, elbow to the face, knee him anywhere, do it, don’t think, you don’t have the time, time, grab him, get his shoulders, pain isn’t the point, getting him down is the point, pull his feet out from under him, duck the punch, how do you flip him, he’s on his back, he’s still dangerous, this isn’t easy, this isn’t like they tell you it will be, grab his arms, push them to the side, how do you dislocate his shoulder; then time goes slow and I’m not sure exactly what’s happening, certainly not the pain I expected, but everything’s fuzzy, and this is the end, end, end–too final, I don’t know what to think. It’s over, that’s all I know. I wish dying didn’t feel this way. Anything, even if it meant pain. But we don’t always get to choose the way we die, do we? I can only hope that the program is okay, that everything is at least okay enough to survive, because perfection is impossible.

That’s life, I suppose. Surreal: it gets hard to breathe, I want to be scared, gasping for air, but I don’t move, just lay there. The world goes white, gray, the whole rainbow of colors, black. Nothing.