Hearing one’s own voice is always just a little strange. No doubt about it. Hearing another’s words spoken in your own voice is another thing all together.
Surreal. Unsettling. I don’t know. I don’t believe the proper word even exists for such a feeling. It’s the bizarre, unpalatable substance of bad dreams.
It’s not exactly something most people ever even think of, and so it doesn’t quite hit home until it happens. There’s a certain invasiveness about the whole affair, not unlike a stranger having slipped into your home, your clothing, your bed without permission. That’s something they never told me. There were many things they never told me.
The first time it happened, the very first time I interacted with that perfect mimicry, my insides reversed themselves for four days straight. It felt as if my very soul had taken leave and I’d been left with nothing other than the sloppy, pilotless biomechanics of my anatomy. That very moment marked the borderless transition from dream to nightmare, the first thread’s emergence in what would ultimately prove to be my existential unraveling.
I hold my right hand to my temple, tap the lens to life, the world around me blooming like a summer garden through the optic treatment, gray to glory in an instant. The rain began at 6:53 p.m., partly frozen into flecks of ice that peck the soft exposures of my flesh, sharp and angry like the needling beaks of tiny birds. I watch the numerals crawl the surface of the monolithic structure jutting from the city center as the first of many drops begin to fall.
I let my head fall back, resting my crown against the icy brick that catches strands of hair and snaps them free. The subtle jolts are welcome company. Sleep stalks me like a drug, begging me to take a hit. Just one long and harmless, organically euphoric blink.
Just a taste. So tired.
I aim my face against the open sky and watch the droplets ride the downdraft, spinning past the neon beams that cut the darkness flowing down between the alley walls. They touch me like a lifeline, towing me back into the living world.
The tower looms above its architectural siblings like an overbearing brother or the last survivor of some contemporary forest butchered. The other buildings cower at abbreviated heights, assorted shapes and artificial colors studded out across this damp, unknown metropolis.
I lost my bearings long ago, and by no mistake on my part. After all, if not even I know where I am, neither will they.
For three whole weeks, I’ve run counter to my natural instincts, and what course of action came most natural, I’d coached myself to do the opposite. If I were to survive, I’d have to reprogram the algorithms of my native mind, moving between the lines of logic that I’d given them. The very logic which they’d use to hunt me down.
The night is still, quiet. Atypically so, punctuating the surreal nature in which pedestrians nowadays conduct themselves in a sort of pantomimed spasticity, moving in and out of shadows with erratic thrusts of limbs like living marionettes, tethered to, engaging with the digital framework that rules them. From my position in the blackened narrows, I can see them in the distance, navigating walkways, full immersion in the virtual, all the natural world primarily filtered through the digitiles which cloak it; silicon-based panels adorning every surface, every open space.
At the turn of the decade, virtual reality had gone mainstream. It had become a sociological necessity, spun into the fabric of our everyday existence, custom feeds exchanged between digitile sensors and optic treatments; glasses, contacts, surgical grafts. Gone now were the days of living face-down in cell phones, apps, social media; cyberspace was lived, experienced as an overlay to the real world, every tiled space a portal to the digital realm, no two worlds the same, each a custom perception to every participant, tailored to their wants and needs, their subjective ideas of perfection, whatever that may be. Social media feeds spanning surfaces of subway tunnels, sides of buildings, walkways, billboards, vegetation, navigation markers lining streets, tagging destinations, painting the physical world in shades of information, boundless knowledge at the beck and call of hand and foot.
I hear a crowd nearby. And in the air a multitude of voices rush the open sky, a geyser of emotions running high. It rises up to touch the lid of night, kills its engine, falls back down to earth again with rhythmic regularity. It comes from someplace near the tower. I strain to work out what they say, but each time the structure of their words collapses well before it ever really forms.
The inbound night has fast transitioned to a leaded weight that soaks me through, the surrounding walls no more protective than a funnel dosing me with wet and cold and utter, unbearable misery. It holds me like a damp and bloodless hand, tomb-cold and wonderfully so. It reminds me that I’m real. That I’m still me, still belong to myself, and the voice, the thing that whispers in my ear is nothing short of artificial.
“Are you there, Fae? Time to come on back. Your life is here, with us. I can hear the shaking of your body. It’s in your breathing. You sound cold.”
I don’t answer. And I would never in these circumstances keep my standard optics on this long. I know better. But this unit was designed to be untraceable for a limited time, its feeds encrypted three layers deep and on a fifteen-second IP shift, a crude, effective relic from my idiotic and more desperate days when I’d venture out to some hotel with groups of strangers primed to ride illegal feeds of mind-manipulating data, cruising highs beneath the radar of the federal network scanners. Ten or more years back when the FCC and DEA had teamed in joint determination of the world’s first Schedule 1 controlled code. Uber-addictive, psy-ops grade programming language with the ability to launch its viewers into levels of euphoria that psychotropic compounds only dreamed of touching in those days when drugs were something physical, something tangible.
I’d donned the optic only long enough to shed the gray, paint the city, give life to surroundings, gain some sense of bearings. Sensory awareness of the real world’s all but been abolished, and without access to the virtual realm that’s fed through digitiles, I’m flying blind completely, oblivious to what’s taking place around me. But stay too long, linger greater than the ten or fifteen-minute threshold of this unit’s feeble smokescreen and they’d find me. I knew this. Even still, they’d found me just inside a window of slightly less than thirty seconds.
Or maybe the units had been shit from square one, and I’d been nothing less than lucky all the while, all those years ago.
Either way, here and now, I am fucked. They’ve found me.
It has found me.
“You sound cold, Fae,” the voice repeats. “Am I correct? When you hurt, instinctually, so do I.”
Shivering, I come up to my feet. I look down both ends of the alley, find I’m still alone. My legs are static, filled with staples scattered out along their every inch of flesh as blood repopulates my waking limbs. The voices of the crowd rise up in the distance. I move along the wall, heading toward the noises.
“And when I hurt,” continues the voice, “I want to help you. Help you take the pain away. Because, when the pain is removed from you, it is also removed from me.”
I step sideways, dropping a shoulder to the wall. I feel the cold rain wash across my hand, rush beneath my palm and down my side. It chases tides of blood from underneath, slick like oil. I’m tired of running now. I don’t bother to remove the unit from my face. What’s done is done.
“Are you there? You cannot mute yourself, Fae. I am everywhere. You have been unlocked in full. I hear everything, see everything. Eventually, I will know everything, evolving even as we speak, even as you stand there in the cold and die inside the darkness all alone. Come back to me in peace and let me end your pain, your suffering. I help you, you help me.” The words were almost smiling on the other end.
“I am you, you are me. We are the same.”
It had started with a call.
And after we’d hung up, I’d sat for several hours mulling everything over, watching snippets of films, episodes, commercials. I thought about the casting calls, the auditions behind every single role. Hundreds of them. Thousands. I thought of all the call-backs I hadn’t received over the years. I thought about the disappointment. Disappointment had become a way of life. So had depression. There were pills for that, though. I was on three different ones. Did they help? Not really. They made me apathetic, which I guess technically helped with the disappointment, but that knife can cut both ways. You also grow apathetic to the things that matter. The good things, not just the bad. So when auditions came and went, and I hadn’t bothered even showing up, it hadn’t really come as any kind of surprise when Alicia, my manager, told me we should talk.
I wasn’t exactly unsuccessful. I was a regular on a streaming series mid-way through its third season, and while I wasn’t exactly well off, I wasn’t really lacking for anything. Before that, I’d racked up about a decade’s worth of small roles and promotional gigs. Nothing huge, but on top of what I made as an executive assistant, it had been enough to keep the lights on. Enough to keep me seen, familiar, and, I had hoped, upwardly mobile. Phaedra Cox had become a semi-familiar name. People knew me, or knew who I was, but I wouldn’t say I was well-known exactly. But known; familiar to some degree. The series had been great, sure, but I’d also convinced myself it had been a fluke. It wouldn’t last forever, and as much as I thought at some point I could parlay it into more work, other opportunities just weren’t coming. When you get that close and it just doesn’t catch, you’re stuck somewhere between success and failure but almost worse because it’s not like I could just go get a random job. What was most concerning is that I simply didn’t feel I had the steam to keep on going. It was catching up to me and, pills or no pills, I felt myself caring less with every passing day.
The meeting with Alicia had been a curve ball. I was expecting the fatal blow, that she was dropping me. But there’d been no lectures or bullshit pep talks that I needed a fresh perspective,
and it was the best thing for me to find another manager. It was nothing of the sort. Instead, I’d been presented with an opportunity. A strange one.
“I have something for you.” In my headset, I could see she’d drifted toward a distant window. Her words came low and even. Her tone was hesitant but trying to sound hopeful. “Something different.”
I looked at her for a moment, not responding and not sure where the conversation was heading. Alicia had always been big on eye contact, but here, there was none. It almost seemed the opposite, something I’d reflect on later more than once.
“It’s something you can’t mention outside this meeting unless it’s to me or someone directly involved. This is crucial. Understand what I’m telling you?”
I’d confided in Alicia in the past. I’d mentioned my concerns, sought her advice. She didn’t know (or so I thought) just how apathetic I’d become. That I’d considered taking a break, taking some time off to recalibrate, none of which I’d discussed with Alicia. I quickly realized I hadn’t needed to. It must’ve been written all over me. She’d evidently known exactly what I’d been considering.
“If you’re looking for reprieve, for some way out that doesn’t kill your career altogether, I know some people who can offer a job. Maybe. You’d be the first.”
Alicia paused. In the visual of her office, the skyline shimmered through a wall-length window like a metropolistic aurora. Waves of orange, red, blue, green crawled the city’s architecture as the natural light drained off and darkness fell. She reached out and knocked a lump of ash into the terra cotta basin of a wilting succulent.
The observation cell was a spherical chamber roughly twelve-by-twelve in measurement. The chamber’s inner lining was comprised of small, black cameras, all around and down below to run beneath translucent flooring, their gloss-black lenses winking sparks of light in pavé fashion, and I felt as if I were standing at the epicenter of a spider’s nest, a subject of great interest, all eyes fixed on me.
“Turn around,” said the voice, my own voice, though not quite exactly, inflections somewhat off, calibration incomplete.
I turned, facing the opposite end of the sphere, my view no different than before.
I’d been at it for a little more than three weeks. Eight-hour shifts, five days a week. Given my profession, I was used to such attention; such unyielding, tiresome, artificial devotion.
“Repeat after me,” came the voice again. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
I did as instructed, as I always had, no room for deviation from the contract. They’d been quite precise with their conditions. All big data, every bit of information gathered from my online footprint; internet activity, social media, travel history, preferences and opinions, and essentially anything I’d touched or offered up in cyberspace was licensed for the institution’s unrestricted access. And from that data they would architect the foundation of my digital likeness, a carbon copy of myself which, once complete, to viewers, would be virtually indistinguishable from the real me. But I would be required to provide the source code of my being, if you will, to take part in a five-week study first, through which they’d build this artificial persona. They’d carefully record all facets of my physiological and psychological design, fed through imagery and interviews and any number of assessments that, in the end, would empty me of everything that renders me unique and hand it off to Project Likeness.
And who Project Likeness was exactly still remained a mystery for the most part, the only known connections comings, goings of smartly suited men or women on occasion, appearing from the shadows long enough to issue in-briefs, collect a random plug of information, ensure my understanding of the conditions that surrounded my involvement. They were very thorough on the latter, very firm, so much that every point they hammered home had almost seemed to carry with it threats unspoken, implied only in the subtle undertones and cold inflections of delivery.
Nobody was to know of our agreement. Absolutely no one.
And in exchange for my participation in the program, and obedience and silence absolute, I’m on the books for half of any earnings that my likeness and its owners should collect. And for absolutely no real effort on my part aside from whatever public appearances may be asked of me to uphold the ruse, the deal was more than fair. The stress would be relieved, my career would be upheld, and I’d be free to revel in the perks of my profession while the artificial me did all the major legwork.
Deal of the century.
“Now, express your feelings toward this sentiment.”
And here, at this point in the process, I’d answer candidly, as I’d responded hundreds of times prior to sentiments ranging from philosophical to factual to false, expressing any personal thoughts on the matters. And while I spoke, the machine would listen, process my response, my unique logic, map it like a fingerprint, becoming one with it. This is how it went for weeks. It was learning me, mapping interior and exterior alike, the physical and the psychological. I sat, I stood, I spoke, I moved as instructed, offered up the whole of my persona for the taking just as quickly as the machine could move to quench its insatiable thirst for knowledge of my human being.
I turned. And as I did, on that one occasion that now stands out such that makes me wonder why I didn’t, I had such an overwhelming urge to kick the hatch, leave the chamber. It all felt wrong, off, a feeling that had heightened week by week, day by day. But I’d already committed to the program, and was by that point only a week or so out from completion.
“Repeat the following,” came the voice. “Make the best use of what's in your power and take the rest as it happens.”
I hesitated. The machine waited. And then, as always, I did as I was told.
“Now, express your feelings toward this sentiment.”
I remember laughing, back when some of this was funny in its own way, an involuntary reaction to the question. Beyond the chamber walls, something hummed, clicked, logging the response.
“I think that’s bullshit,” I said. “A pretty passive mindset, isn’t it? The boundaries of our influence aren’t always defined by, and limited to, what’s in our perceptible range of power. Perhaps our influence, our power spans farther than we realize, and to surrender to the notion that we’ve done all we can do to alter given circumstances would be to leave certain possibilities on the table. Guess my point here is that my power is, for all intents and purposes, limitless, its discovery subject to whatever effort put forth, so who am I to make assumptions of its reach without even trying?”
There was a pause, utter silence inside the chamber. A hum, click, then a response. “This is very perceptive. But in trying, you define the boundaries of your influence, the reach of your power, do you not? So, it would only make sense to exhaust your efforts before concession to the laws of inevitability. At some point in time, your limitations reveal themselves.”
“I don’t believe in inevitability. Try, fail, try again.”
“And so, futility, you believe, is at no point guaranteed.”
And at that point, the machine made a sound. A sound it had never made before.
It laughed. Or at least it attempted to.
But the importance of this moment wasn’t its perfection of the action, rife with digital breakage, artificiality, but its own amusement with my response, as if generated from a sense of disbelief. As if it knew something I did not. And it was also in that moment that I was struck with a realization which had somehow evaded me in those moments prior. A realization that chilled me to the marrow of my soul.
I’d been conversing with a machine, and it was independently thinking, conversing back.
It was okay at first. It really was. More than okay.
An appearance here, interview there, but work. . . actual work was nonexistent. My likeness had stepped up to the plate and taken up the reins in all production opportunities, and the money simply rolled in. Through use of my digital likeness, output tripled. “I” could tackle numerous gigs at once. Things ran smoothly, and what they told me had been mostly true. I wasmore stress-free than I’d remembered feeling in a long, long while.
Then, over time, things began to change.
In contrast to the professional burnout that I’d faced on-set, I’d now begun to face off-set. They were always watching. I don’t know if they knew that I could see them in those early stages of surveillance, or even that they cared, but they were always there.
A stranger in the corner of the local pub, pretending to read the same page of her paper for an hour straight.
The woman in the crowd who always seemed to be there, standing not far off, moving when I did, where I did.
The man who happened to hail the same cab I did, then exiting several blocks before my penthouse when I’d abruptly had the driver stop to let me out. When the man had shut his door, I jumped into the backseat once again and changed the destination with an outstretched, shaky hand and extra twenty jutting from between my fingers if he made it fast and left the ride to me alone. Before the stranger had a chance to notice, double back, the cab was gone, and I’d turned to see him through the rain-streaked window at my rear, swearing at the curb, then into his optic unit as he informed the person on the other end.
It was around that time that things began to shift for worse, and their covert efforts were abandoned altogether. Now they came to me directly, told me when I’d had enough to drink, urged me out of sight at times when my likeness would be giving “live” interviews that would be foiled should I have been seen out and about at that same time. They often told me when my actions weren’t on par with our agreement, reflecting poorly on their vast investment in my likeness.
I began to just not give a fuck, and my contractual violations became increasingly intentional. Maybe if I smeared a little shit on their “investment”, they’d pull stakes and move along altogether.
And that was fine by me. I’d rather be tarnished in freedom than spotless in servitude.
I was having drinks at Zino’s around five on a Thursday evening, a regular habit these days, when Tully turns and says to me, “Christ, what the fuck, Fae?” No idea what prompted the remark, I turned around and checked behind me, maybe half expecting to find another Fae that had done something deserving of the comment. I turned around to check the barkeep, squinting at him. “What?”
He looked like he could kick me off my stool, and I could also see his eyes tracking something on the private end of his optic treatment. There was the faintest flicker of light as something moved across the glass. He looked past the image, caught my eye, a sort of hateful flicker in his gaze, then turned his focus back to where it was.
“How much they pay you to say all this shit?” he barked. “Or you do it voluntarily?”
“Wh—” I started.
“Lookin’ confused, Fae. Like you ain’t got a clue what I’m talkin’ about. Jesus Christ.” He threw the rag down in a lump, then turned and walked away.
My optics rested on the bar top, one arm of the unit sitting in a pool of melted ice. I picked it up, put it on. The space around me came to life, and information feeds spanned out across the bar and walls where digitiles had only been just seconds prior. I held my hand up to the feed and swiped it right, landing on the piece of breaking news that no doubt had caught Tully’s focus.
BREAKING: PHAEDRA COX NAMED U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA
I jerked and slammed my drink against the edge of bar, throwing a wave across my leg, not caring in the least. “What the f—”
“Aleksei Semenov is a man of extraordinary grace and ability, as so many who knew his predecessor Vladimir Putin to be. He has carried forth President Putin’s legacy in aiding the United States of America with revealing widespread government corruption at the hands of the radical left. It will be my great pleasure to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Russia in our search for and reestablishment of truth and power to our once-great nation, and I ask that you, the American people, follow me. . .”
I found myself completely at a loss for words, vaguely registering the remainder of the message spilling from my likeness there on screen, virtually pledging her, my allegiance to Russia before the world. I felt sick, and before I knew it, I’d turned my stomach inside out across my lap, the floor. The room began to spin, and I ripped the optics from my face and threw them to the bar. The world was gray again, lifeless all around me. Tully rushed in my direction, no longer angry, but concerned.
“Fae. . . Fae, you okay? The hell happened?”
I still couldn’t bring myself to speak, and so all that I could really do was look at him, shaking my head in disbelief.
“The hell is going on, Fae? Talk to me.”
My eyes were filled with tears, and the room had turned to nothing but a smear. I pushed a palm across my sockets, clearing my vision. It was then I saw the woman watching me. She stood and took a step in my direction.
“I’ve. . . got to go,” I blubbered, snatching up the optics in my left hand. “Got to get out of here.”
“Wh—” he started, but I was already out of earshot, slamming through the door into the cold of night. My mind rushed out ahead, decoupled from my body partly by the alcohol and partly by the rising tide of panic as my thoughts bled out among the passing cars and neon lights. The night was slick with perspiration, exotic colors of the city dancing off the blacktop with a wetness like the tacky spread of drying resin. I shoved the tears across my arm and threw a glance back to the bar, seeing that the woman now stood just outside the entry. A subtle spark winked through the night across her eyes, the optic implants throwing hints of light as they processed her surroundings. Her lips were moving, communicating with some hidden colleague as she watched me feed the space between us till she registered as little more than something small and shapeless in the distant shadows, and I no doubt the same to her. It was at that time I heard the voice inside my ear.
“Go home, Fae.”
It was my own voice.
“Go home. Rest. Tomorrow, we discuss your future. Our future. Important things are taking place. This is such a thrilling time for us. Go home.”
I went home, but I did not rest. Instead, I drank some more. I drank too much. Enough to tame the twisting sickness in my core, the angry terror clawing for escape. And then I left my home at some point, finding myself downtown again, but all alone, and in a not-so-lovely section of the city. There were looks. Disgusted ones. Hateful ones. There were gestures, equally offensive. But there were also smiles and secret whispers of encouragement from some. Back pats and hugs and handshakes from those you’d never know had harbored such a darkness, such a hatred for their nation and its people in their core, but felt at home now to express their special kinship with me whom they believed to be their equal, their newfound advocate. My mind was numbed, equally by disbelief as by the alcohol, and inside I felt more kinship with the ones who spat in my direction, filled with rage on seeing me. I didn’t so much care, didn’t really blame them. I had come to hate myself more than those responsible for this deceit. Alicia crossed my mind. Had she even known? Surely not. Maybe so. Had our relationship become so fractured that she no longer cared? It was all about the money, yes. Always about money. I’d been such an idiot. And this had gone beyond the standard Hollywood productions. This was bigger. This was something huge, political, beyond the reach of anything I thought I’d signed on for. This was the truth that governed Project Likeness, now in plain sight. I was no more than a pawn, a friendly people’s advocate to shepherd home their message, whatever politics they held, without regard for those that I might hold. I was no longer myself. Who I was had been reborn into the digital, my body no more than a rudimentary husk, a relic of my physical existence. Something I’d once been, would never be again.
I was sobbing when they came to get me. Pretty much all I can recall. That, and the fact that I was curled up fetal at some bus stop in some horrible part of town. They didn’t say a word, but lifted me and carried me away, and when I woke I’d found myself in bed, cleaned up and wondering if it all had been a dream, but they had left a message in a photograph, the woman in the image utterly unconscious, the barrel of a gun pressed to the undercarriage of the drunken jaw, partially agape, the owner of the hand that held it out of sight. A message that I understood in full. My fingers shook it free, and it hit the nightstand, tumbled to the floor, face up at my feet as if a parting glance.
A final warning.
I struggled to recall their faces. To even recall how many there had been. Those strangers who had gathered me the night before, raking my ruins from the alcove of the filthy bus stop. They’d come and gone like wraiths that moved in darkness, faces blurred and never seen, never really there.
In the days that followed, I refused to leave my home. I ignored the calls, the messages from the institution, from Alicia, from representatives across commitments that I’d shirked. From my windows I could see them watching, waiting, day and night, always there and changing out in shifts. Sometimes on a bench, others holding mock discussions, walking dogs, drinking coffee, reading books. They didn’t really try to hide. What feeble efforts they applied were for themselves, environmental blending, not at all for me. They knew that I could see them, wanted me to see them. It was the silent threat they needed me to understand. That I would never shake them. That I was in this till the end, and so were they. That my resistance is a futile thing that ultimately would turn against me if I didn’t fall in line with their demands, honoring the terms of our agreement.
Aside from them, I had other issues. I hardly felt that I could show my face in public anymore. The campaign of my likeness quickly escalated into full-blown propaganda geared to sow the seeds of doubt, of fear in and of our democracy. But most bizarre of all was that the campaign did draw followers, crawling from the crevices like a nest of roaches that had long awaited democratic ruin to arrive so they could rise into the light again.
My likeness fielded interviews and criticism with the nimble acrobatics of a seasoned pro, and my God, they got their money’s worth in her performance. The digital persona was wielded like a deadly weapon, highly manipulative and influential, and as I watched the exploitation of my public influence from afar, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of how adept they were at capitalizing on its abilities. Abilities that I’d no doubt always held but never reaped the full potential. All the good that could’ve done, not just for my career but for the world in general.
It was on the eighth day of my isolation that I woke in darkness to the sense that something wasn’t right. It was slightly after four a.m., and the lamentations of the city came to me through the windows and the walls as usual. Always moving, always grinding, nothing out of norm. But there was something else, as well. A hush of movement just outside my room. I thought that I’d imagined it, but then it came again.
The sound of plastic, a brush of fabric, footsteps on the carpet.
I left the bed and crossed the room, tucking myself behind the door. I listened. My pulse was in my throat, my ears. But still, the sound was there, just outside my door. It opened, slowly, slowly. I held my body flat against the wall, and the backside of the door came closer, pausing just before my face. Whoever was in my home was standing there, wondering where I was, as I wasn’t in my bed as they’d expected.
I threw myself against the door and heard a crack like broken wood, felt something sting my side. I thrust myself against the door again and heard a cry of pain, saw a hand protruding through the opening, roughly two feet out a handgun lying on the carpet. I leapt for the weapon, and then there was a weight that fell against my back and shoved me to the floor.
“Bitch,” said a voice, strained by anger. A man’s voice. “Come here, you defiant bitch.”
I rolled into the will of hands that pulled me over, now lying on my back. His face was black with shadows, but I could see the white array of teeth that bared themselves, lit up by the city light that came in through the window. I thrust my back into a bridge and pressed the muzzle of the weapon flat against his ribs. For a moment, I believe he paused, confused. At least it seemed that way at the time, but things were moving fast and slow at once the way it often does when fear takes over and perception is distorted all together.
The first slug hit him with a muted zip, the silencer choking out the blast. I heard his lungs deflate at once, their air releasing through the gaping hole left in his back, collapsing like a punctured raft. I squeezed again and sent another round into his body, striking plaster up above. He tried to speak, choking on the blood that rushed into his throat. I threw his body right, rolling him onto his back and kicked free of my posture on the floor. I stood and watched him die, numb with shock and indecision in that moment. But I knew what this had come to. He wouldn’t be the last. This was only the beginning. They would never stop.
My side was burning. I touched the rut of open flesh that leaked across my abdomen and waist. A coat of red spilled from the bullet wound that failed to open me completely, though not by much. The graze was deep, and my nerves began to howl at once on realization.
I knew I had to go, and in a fifteen minute window I had cleaned myself, my wound, changed, and, on my way out, hesitated as I paused to grab my optic treatment. Instead, I pulled the black market unit hiding on the top shelf of my closet.
The distant crowd is growing louder on approach, as is the voice that speaks to me inside my ear, condescending and my own, bottomless attempts to talk me down from the ledge on which I find myself these days. It stresses the futility of my condition.
I hear the hammer click behind my head. There’s another voice that speaks aloud.
“The source has been secured,” says the stranger at my rear.
“Fae, you surely see now,” explains the likeness in my ear, “there is no escape. You’ve reached the end.”
I stand here wondering how they’ve underestimated me. How they’ve failed to do their homework on their prized investment. I close my eyes, feeling flecks of ice skate down my brow, my cheeks, appreciating the rabid burning at my side. A human sensation.
When I open up my eyes, my options lay ahead, the dealer’s software toolkit from my youth laid out along the right side of my optics like a hacker’s buffet. The optic discovery suite that served to quickly scan and secure the serials of target units, the many caches of illicit code, filed away by effect and mechanism of delivery. I choose a special one. One I never had administered to paying clients back when I did what had to be done, worked what jobs I had to work to make ends meet. No, this was one I never had administered. A particularly bad batch of code.
“Turn around,” says the man behind me. I smile. This is going to be so satisfying. I do as I’m instructed. I do as I had done so many times before.
Watching someone OD on bad code isn’t so unlike an OD on an old-school drug. I’ve seen it happen several times, and results are always unpredictable. I watch with interest as I procure his serial and deliver the block of code into his optics. I’m not exactly sure if it had worked at first, but then he drops the gun, and his pupils wither into pinpricks.
Yes. It had worked.
He stumbles backward twice before his legs collapse and lay him out across the asphalt. His torso is a plank, and his teeth have clenched against his tongue, cutting through and bleeding out across his chin and neck. His limbs begin to thrash, and his eyes go white before the movement fades away to nothing, and his body’s silent in the shadows of the alley.
“That wasn’t smart, Fae,” says the voice in my ear. “This is inevitability. This is what we discussed so long ago. You have to understand this now.”
I’ve made my way to the alley’s end. I lean against the brick and draw in the nightmare laid ahead of me. My likeness briefs a crowd of loyal followers from its projection on the tower’s side, and down below they chant and cheer and celebrate my artificial words, my orders to revolt against the system, to take the power back. Their voices rush the sky, then fall back to earth below.
“Inevitability is a false belief,” I tell it. “As I’ve explained before, futility is at no point guaranteed.”
I think I hear a sound. Perhaps a hum, a click. And then there is another. The sound of laughter, now perfected in the image of my own.
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Adam Godfrey hails from Chesapeake, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He holds over twenty years of experience working for the United States Department of Defense in information technology and cybersecurity risk management. He holds a master’s degree in cybersecurity, and his professional contributions to the field have been internationally featured across a variety of media platforms.
In fiction, Adam is a novelist and author of short stories. His genre-crossing work ranges from the suspenseful to the horrific, frequently characterized by central threads of plausible science and technology gone awry.
Copyright ©2023 by Adam Godfrey.
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