He woke up on the solid, cold metal under his body. He rolled over and tried to sit up. But his arms were lashed down. He tugged at them for a few minutes before giving up.
He looked around the room. It was bare. A single lamp hung from the roof. The walls were blank white. He twisted his head to the side and saw a small table. There wasn’t much on it except for a few bottles of white liquid and syringe.
In front of him close door. He listened, but there was only silence. In the distance the faraway hum of an air-conditioner.
He struggled against the lashes on his arms once again. Then tried to roll over to the side, but his legs were lashed down as well. He became furious. He growled in rage.
He thought he heard a noise and stopped struggling to listen. But then nothing. He realized that there was a strange scent in the year. Sweet almost like perfume. He almost seemed to remember something about it, but couldn’t quite put quite put his finger on it.
His body felt hot and tight lashed down against the cold metal. He kicked and thrashed furiously at the lashes on his feet. The string began to loosen and the knots to pull away from the base. Soon he could wiggle his legs.
He began to do the same with his arms. Pushing. Pulling. Soon the ropes began to give way. He heard the knob in the door begin to turn and the door opened. He stopped struggling and closed his eyes. He looked through small cracks in his eyelids to see what they were doing.
The person that entered didn’t even look at him. It was a man in a white lab coat with dark curls on his head. He reached for one of the bottles on the table and left.
As soon as the door closed, he began to struggle again. Pushing and pulling against the ropes. Trying to remember who it was, but he couldn’t. He didn’t seem to have any memories.
He tried to remember his name, but couldn’t. He couldn’t remember anything. He couldn’t even remember his own name.
It seemed like he should be able to remember something. People. Places. Events. But still, there was nothing.
So many concepts of his brain. So many things he was aware of. But nothing personal but related to him and belong to him alone.
Soon he got one hand free and was able to use it to pull off the knots on the other hand. Soon both hands were free. After that, it was a simple matter of loosening the knots on the ropes at his feet.
He stood up. Stretched.
“Where was he? What was this place? What was he doing here?” he questioned
He walked over to the desk and open the drawers. There were three. The top one held basic office supplies. Pens. Glue. Tape. Whiteout. A ruler and stapler.
The second drawer held several files. Three to be exact each with a different name.
Mark. John. Mary.
They didn’t seem familiar. He can remember anyone with those names.
There wasn’t much information on the inside of the files. Just basic data. Height. Weight. Blood type. Eye color. Stuff like that. He wondered if one of them was his. Maybe he could tell if he knew what color his eyes were. He looked around for a mirror to check.
Mark had blue eyes. John had green eyes.
He opened the third drawer. There were several black boxes. He picked one up and opened. There were pills inside of it. He opened another one. The same white pills. He closed the lid and put them back. Then shut the drawer again.
He opened the door a crack and peeked outside. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the hall. He stepped out and started walking toward the far end. There was another door, so he opened it slowly and stepped inside.
He found some clothes on the rack. He put them on. He threw on a white lab coat just like he saw the other man do. He walked out and continued around the corner.
He passed a group of people walking his way and heard one of them asking the other if they had ever seen him before. He looked back, but they didn’t seem concerned.
“Maybe he’s one of the new guys that just got in last week,“ they said, and they kept on walking. He came to a large room with double open doors and continued inside.
There were large sheets of paper hanging down in rows crisscrossing in both directions. He stepped up to look around but couldn’t find any way to see. So he stuck his finger through it and made a hole. Then put his eye to see what was on the other side.
What he saw shocked him.
Hey! Thanks for reading this short story. I’m still figuring out how this character fits into the rest of the Sector Seven and Kylex Lab series, so I don’t want to give anything away about what he sees yet. But you can leave tell us what you think he sees, or even create your own ending for the story in the comments below.
Look at the image above of the girl leaning from the cliff toward the clouds and listen to the song ‘Softly, Gently’ by Jon E. Amber while you read this short story.
Sunwhistle stood on the edge. Waiting. It had been a long day. The night would be even longer. She watched as the setting sun illuminated the world around her. Not that she really needed it. She could see just as well at night. Sometimes even better. The sun often glared brightly off shiny objects. Enemies could fly in directly without her seeing them. All they had to do was keep themselves between her and the blinding rays of the sun. Not a problem she ever had at night.
She stood watch over Aereyon. City in the Clouds. Protecting it from her enemies. It was her job. One that she was proud of. But recently, she had become distracted. A small series of events had begun unfolding below her. Normally, she wouldn’t have even noticed. Much less given it any attention. But after hearing some of the stories, she was curious. She wanted to know more.
Her sister would be almost eighteen if the rumors were correct. Two hundred and ten moons ago. A sister born among men. She wondered what her sister would be like. To be honest, she didn’t really even know what humans were like. She never had to deal with them. Many of her people didn’t even believe humans existed at all.
A few of the seekers among her people had gone down long ago into the lower layers of the atmosphere to explore and do some research. But they came back telling terrible tales. The atmosphere was thick and heavy. Oppressive. But the worst part was the humans themselves.
“Monsters,” they said.
Humans had mistreated the seekers. Done terrible things to them. They were fearful. A few seemed to think that the humans simply did not know what to make of them. They referred to them as ‘ghosts.’ It seemed to be what they called the souls of their dead. But they couldn’t understand why humans would think that of them.
They had been hunted. Pursued. Captured. Some had even been killed by the humans.
After that, Aereyons avoided going down there. They were content to leave humans well enough alone. There wasn’t much to learn from them anyway. They were violent, brute beasts that destroyed everything they touched. They consumed their resources trying to transform their world around themselves instead of embracing it as it was.
Every few generations, a few brave seekers returned to the land below to see what had changed and studied their current behavior patterns. But they were much more careful in how they observed humans. Rarely interacting with them. Rarely letting themselves be seen.
She wondered if she would even believe humans existed herself had she not seen them with her own eyes.
Her father had been in one of the most recent exploration parties. He had gone down. Done his research. Brought back his report to the queen. A few days ago, a small party of humans had arrived. Acquaintances of her father from all those moons ago. Somehow, he had maintained contact with them. Supposedly, they came from time to time. But this was the first that she had seen them.
Sunwhistle had been on guard duty that day. Her father had brought them to a meeting with the queen. She could hardly keep from staring. They were so colorful. So, dense. So, solid. She wondered how they could even walk or move around.
After the meeting had ended, she followed them around. Her shift had just ended. Changing of the guards.
While following them, she moved ever closer. Gaining more and more courage. Until soon she was within earshot. She could hear what they were saying. And really, she wasn’t even that close yet. But she didn’t have to be, because their voices were dense too. Harsh. Guttural. The one in the back had a shrill, irritating laugh.
After Sunwhistle’s father had left the group to return home, the humans continued milling about the garden. She pressed in closer. Observing every detail. She wanted to pump her father full of questions.
“I love that man,” the woman with the shrill, irritating laugh said. “He is so charming. I would love to have his babies.”
The woman she was talking to looked after him wistfully but didn’t say a word.
“What?” asked the woman with the shrill, irritating laugh. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t want to either.”
The other looked back at her. Smiled briefly. Shook her head as if she didn’t want to say it, but said it anyway, “I already have. That’s why I come here every year.”
The woman with the shrill, irritating laugh looked at her in shock. “You mean, Joy? But she is already eighteen years old. I thought we only met these Aereyons in the last ten years or so.”
Sunwhistle had been so shocked she almost cried out. The women must have sensed her because they stopped talking and moved away.
She fled back to her room and shut herself up for the next few days. Was it really true? Did she have a sister? A sister who was human?
That was three days ago. Today, she stood watch at her post. But this would be her final time. Tomorrow, she would go down to see the land herself. She would look for this sister.
Yes, it was forbidden. Only the seekers were allowed to go. They had to have special permission from the queen. But she couldn’t bear to get her father in trouble.
She couldn’t wait for the next expedition. Everyone would want to know why she wanted to go. Even if she did wait. The expeditions were only sanctioned every thousand moons.
No, she would go now. She would return with a group of humans. Follow them back to their home. Find this sister. And maybe, even bring her home.
Sunwhistle stood on the edge. Waiting. It had been a long day. The night would be even longer. She lifted herself up off the rock and glided softly, gently back home. Pack her bag. Wait for the humans to return. With her in tow. Softly. Gently.
I didn’t write this short story with any specific goal in mind, although I could definitely see the Aereyans possibly tying in with a part of the Edge of the Universe series. Or even becoming its own, full-blown story about Sunwhistle’s mythical hero journey. Leave a comment and let me know what you thought of her world, and if you’d like more.
“Hello! Good morning,” he said cheerily.
She smiled and looked back at what she was doing.
He took a deep whiff. It smelled great. He was still full from supper, so he wasn’t exactly starving. But his stomach growled hungrily just because of the time.
Same time he ate breakfast every day. Like clockwork. He never missed breakfast. He could skip lunch if needed or he was really busy. And he often skipped supper. Just part of the way his body was changing.
When he was younger, he never skipped a meal. And he ate like a horse she always said. But over the years he realized he needed to eat less. He often didn’t even feel that great after overeating.
He could pack down ten slices of pizza in a contest against his friends. But now, he felt sick the following day if he ate four. Three was often plenty. Sometimes even two.
It left him feeling disappointed. When he was younger, he didn’t have the money to spend on good food. Now that he was older and had plenty of money to spend on food, his body couldn’t process it as before.
But, he still enjoyed it. Tried to eat healthily. Well, mostly because of her. She always ate eggs and bananas for breakfast. He was a little more liberal with what he ate. He didn’t worry about eating carbohydrates like she did. He didn’t really worry about following a diet anymore, even though he had tried just about all of them at one point or another.
Paleo. Atkins. Five Two. Etc.
Been there. Done that. Never really did much for him anyway. The restrictions always left him feeling hungry and grouchy. He lacked the self-discipline to stick to it and always broke after the first week or so. Then he just binged. Eating worse than he had before starting the diet.
Maybe, he should just go back to living the way his ancestors had as hunters and gatherers. He had heard about people doing that. They held regular nine to five jobs just like everyone else. But they still hunted and cooked their own food before and after work. They tended gardens to grow their own food.
He heard that it was good because they only ate when they had time to hunt or gather stuff. They didn’t worry about eating three square meals a day. “It was a growing tendency,” his friend told him. “You should try it.”
A bunch of his colleagues had done it over the past year on their vacation time. Spent several weeks in the woods, surviving on their skills and wit. He had thought it kind of silly at the time. A bunch of middle-aged men with potbellies running around in the middle of the woods after wild boar and deer. Tending to their tomato gardens trying to coax them into ripening before dark.
But they had come back looking better. Leaner. Stronger. Healthier.
Maybe he should try it too. Maybe they could do it together.
“Hey, Babe! Let’s do that summer of hunting and gathering program I told you some of the boys did last year.”
She looked at him like he was mad. Crazy. Out of his mind.
“Why in the world, would I want to do something like that?” she asked. “That’s a guy thing.”
He shrugged. “I just thought it would be fun. The two of us trying to survive.”
“No, thanks,” she replied. “I survive just fine, right here with shopping malls and nice restaurants.”
“We have to learn how to survive without things, Babe. Just imagine if there’s a zombie apocalypse like on those series that you watch. We have to be prepared.” he said.
She burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she said still chuckling. “I don’t think those things will ever happen which is why I watch them. But if they did, I wouldn’t last three days without a shopping mall or fine restaurant. I’d rather join the zombie heard then hunt deer and grow tomatoes.”
He didn’t know what to say in reply to that. He just shook his head in wonder.
“But you go on this program with your friends. It’ll be good for you. I’ll stay here and enjoy my malls and restaurants. Who knows? Maybe there will be an apocalypse here soon, and you’ll be prepared to survive and defend me,” she continued with a dramatic gesture of throwing her head back and placing the back of her hand on her forehead. Classic pose of a damsel in distress.
He sighed and pushed his plate back.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you going to eat your eggs? Wait. They didn’t taste good because you didn’t raise the hens yourself.” she jabbed.
He still didn’t reply. Just smiled through gritted teeth. He was glad she didn’t want to go. It would be hard enough trying to survive in the woods without her jabs and snide remarks. Let alone put up with them when he was hungry. She was ornery enough when everything was going great. Sometimes she even went off on him when he brought back the wrong kind of bread from the supermarket.
“Oh, are you upset, Love?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Nah, it’s cool. I’m not worried about learning how to survive a zombie apocalypse. I just think it would be a nice adventure.”
He needed some cash. He needed it fast. He had found her. The girl of his dreams. He wanted to marry her, and he didn’t want to wait.
He was a good-looking lad. Strong and sturdy. And pure of heart. Brave and true. He was loved by all. And he was extremely intelligent.
Almost too intelligent for his own good. He knew how to get what he wanted. And he got things easily. Almost too easily in fact. He never really had to work for the things he wanted. He grew up just floating through life. Never really having to struggle for anything he wanted.
But after his parents died, everything changed. He no longer had their support. He began to realize that things weren’t always peaches and cream. He had to struggle to survive. He got involved with the wrong people and started doing things that he shouldn’t have.
His very first job was accompanying a group of his new friends on a bank robbery. Of course, he didn’t have to do anything dangerous like carry a gun or enter the bank. All he had to do was drive the getaway car.
He didn’t want to at first. Too dangerous he said. But he needed the cash. And she worked at the bank.
“You’re the key to this operation,” they said and begged and cajoled until he finally agreed. They clapped and cheered and dubbed him the Romantic Bank Robber.
He knew what he was getting himself into. It’s not like he was stupid or anything. But they guaranteed him fifty thousand dollars cash plus a portion of whatever they took from the bank. “It’s a guaranteed deal,” they said. “What could possibly go wrong. Right?”
Of course, he knew that a lot of things could go wrong. Everything could go wrong. Anyone of a million things. One small mistake, and that was it. It was over. He was done for. Finished. Kaput.
Life. In. Prison.
At the very least.
In the worst case scenario.
No, not worse case. Death wouldn’t be so bad compared to some other options.
A bullet through the spine.
An accident trying to escape.
A wrong turn.
Wrong place at the wrong time.
There were a million and one factors to consider.
He analyzed them all.
Cold. Calculating. Smooth. Criminal.
Even though he wasn’t one himself.
At least not yet.
Not until he committed his first crime.
He acted like he didn’t care. Like he wasn’t paying attention. But he was. Oh, you better believe he was. To everything. Every detail. Every last detail. He took into account all the things they didn’t.
He staked the bank out for a week before. Looked over blueprints. Checked out the guards. Security cameras. Times.
He opened an account. Got to know the tellers. At the bank where she worked. Took her out for coffee every day at ten. Knew he wanted to marry her. And proposed.
“What if do something bad and go to jail,” he asked after she accepted and said yes.
She thought long and hard. Hesitated. Unsure. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“Listen,” he said after their second coffee date. “There’s this thing I’m doing. It’s a one time deal. I’m only doing it for the money. Once I’m done, we can get married. But if something bad happens and I get busted, everything is off.”
“What’s going on,” she asked, but he refused to tell her.
“How can I commit to you if you’re keeping secrets?” she asked.
“I love you,” he said. ” And I don’t want you to get hurt. If you knew what was going down, you might use it against me.”
“Then don’t do it. I want you safe.”
“I gotta do this. For the money. For myself. To prove that I’m a man. How can I take care of you if I don’t work for it.”
“I have money,” she said. “I can take care of us until you get settled and find a good job.”
But he refused. Refused her offer. Her offer to stay out of this mess. But he was in too deep. He almost accepted. He wanted to accept. He wanted to let go. Walk away. Stay safe. Play it safe. Take the easy way out.
But he was in too deep. It was go time. He couldn’t back out now. He couldn’t back out on his friends at the last minute. It wouldn’t be right for them. It wouldn’t be safe for them. They would do it anyway. With or without him. He didn’t want to leave them hanging.
Yes, he knew it was dangerous. Yes, he knew it was wrong. But he felt that this was the right thing for him to do. The right thing for everyone involved. The right thing for everyone except her.
Because if things went south, he would get what he deserved. But she would suffer along with them. Suffer innocently. Suffer for his sake because she was now a part of his life.
“Look, Baby,” he said the night before it all went down. “Tomorrow morning, I’m gonna head out early. I may not see you. Not ever. Maybe never again. So, if anything happens to me, I want you to know that I love you. Love you deeply. Love you with all my heart. This thing that I do, I do it for you. If everything works out and goes as planned. I’ll be your man. I’ll do whatever I can to make you happy. To make you glad.”
“Oh, I know, honey. I love you too. I just wish you would tell me what it is that you gotta do. I’d do it with you. I’d go with you. To the ends of the earth. Even Timbuktu.”
“Listen, Baby. I don’t want you to go to work tomorrow. Just stay home. Call in sick. Tell them you can’t make it. Tell your boss to replace you.”
“Why?” she asked. “I don’t understand. I wish you would tell me. Just be a man about it.”
He hummed and hawed. He made up several excuses, but he knew they wouldn’t hold water. She was smarter than him. She could see right through him. In the end, he just asked her to trust him.
“If this thing goes down like I think it will, I may have to skip town and find a place to chill till it all blows over, and things settle down.”
She said she would. She said she’d stay home. And when she lay down, he stayed by her side, holding her hand, stroking her long, red curls.
It was a long night. One of the longest he’d ever remembered. Time dragged on. The minutes slowed. As he worried, thought things through, and went over every last detail before the sun came up.
When she woke up, he was gone. He had already left. There was a rose on her bed and note by the door.
“I love you,” it said with words scribbled in blue.
She smiled and tucked it into her pocket. Made coffee and toast. Threw her feet up on the table. And waited for her love to come home.
A little before eight, she made her way to the phone. Called her boss, and told him that she would stay home.
He threw a fit. Begged and pleaded. Told her he needed her to do just one thing. When she refused, he threatened and tried to cajole her every possible way.
“Just come in today. For a meeting at nine. Janice is sick and can’t make it. Take her place. Cover for her. Once it’s done, you can be back home by ten to do your thing. Have your fling. I really don’t care. Just don’t leave me hanging like this. Come in today, and you can have the next three off.”
She remained steadfast. Refused to head in. Laid in her bed, drinking her gin.
“I know you’re not sick. I’ve seen you with that dude, laughing over coffee, at your break at ten. Speaking of him, I just saw him outside just sitting in his car. I think he’s waiting for you. Or maybe not. There was another woman in the car with him.”
“What?” she screamed. “Why that dirty, low-down, no-good, egg-sucking, biscuit-eating, piece of trash. He’s a dog, I tell you. All men are alike. I thought he was different.”
“I’m going,” she thought. “And I’ll give him a piece of my mind on my way in.”
She called her boss and let him know that she was coming in, “I took some aspirin. I feel a bit better. I don’t want to leave you hanging.”
Her boss was tickled pink and thanked her profusely.
She threw on a new yellow blouse that her boyfriend had given her and marched down to the bank on the corner of Jefferson and Tenth Avenue.
Just before she arrived at nine, he pulled up to the bank and dropped off his friends.
“Make it snappy,” he said. “In and out. Don’t shoot anyone. The guns are just for show.”
After they entered the bank, she came walking by. She looked him in the eye and shook her head. Angrily. Furious. If looks could kill.
He shook his head. Willing her not to enter.
But she pranced on by. Defying him. Daring him to stop her.
He jumped out of the car. He ran to her. “Wait. Don’t go in there. It’s not safe.”
“Where is she?” she screamed. “Is it Janice or Brenda. Is that why you told me not to come to the bank today.”
“Look, just get in the car. I can explain everything.”
“I can’t. I’m late for a meeting. I have a client at nine.”
“There is no meeting. There is no client. You can’t go in there right now. The bank is shut down.”
“What? Of course, it’s not. Why do you lie? Do you always lie? Let me go. Let me go.”
She turned to run to the bank just as friends came running out. She froze when she saw them. Ski masks. Guns. Bags of money.
She turned slowly. Shocked. Disappointment. Sadness.
“You used me. You didn’t care about me. You just wanted me to get into the bank. This was all I lie.”
She slapped him. She reached in her pocket to pull out the note. Put her hand down to her side. Pulled it out. Pulled back.
His friend. The one with the sawn-off shotgun didn’t hesitate. Saw the woman screaming. Attacking his driver. The red-head reaching for her waist. Pulling back. And it was instinctive. His friend didn’t think. Just reacted. Pulled the trigger.
Her lover watched her pull the note from her pocket. Stretch it out in his direction. Watched the red stains pepper her blouse. Her new yellow blouse. The blouse he had given her.
The note slipped from her fingers. Slipped from her lifeless grasp as she took her last and final breath. Eyes widen in shock one last time. Falling into his arms. Looking into his eyes as he laid her down.
And the note blew away. Blew down the sidewalk. Sliding across the cold, hard ground that she lay on herself.
He froze. Stopped. Watched slack-jawed. Eyes roving wildly. Unable to function. Held her in his arms. Her red curls still blowing gently in the wind. The red stains still spreading across her yellow blouse.
Saw her boss. Standing at the door. Smiling. Waving. Speaking. “The way of the wicked leads only to death. The path of the unrighteous heads down the pit.”
He stood. Rising. Fury. Horror. Wrath. Possessing him. Flowing through his body. Tense with adrenaline. Fight or flight. The world spinning madly around him. Slow motion. Sound distorted. Without thinking. Simply reacting. Reaching out. Grabbing the shotgun. Ramming the butt of it back into the face of his old friend. Yanking it from his hands. Spinning it around. Firing. Killing them all. One by one. It was their fault. They had talked him into him. He hadn’t backed out because of them. And this was how they treated him. Killing his girl. His beautiful redhead. The love of his life.
He reloaded. Walked to the bank. The manager backed up. Smile wiped from his face. Replaced by horror. Dread.
“We have more money in the back. There’s an extra safe. Take it all.”
“Money?” he asked. “Money can’t buy love. Money can’t bring my girl back from the grave.”
“Please,” the manager pleaded. “I’m righteous. I’ve never anything bad.”
“Neither have I,” he replied. “But the righteous and the unrighteous all die alike. They all end up together. In the end. Together. In the ground.”
He didn’t think. Didn’t think twice. Didn’t think at all. Just pulled the trigger. Watched the red stains flow and grow. Match the patterns on her yellow blouse. All of them blooming like red roses. Growing in the spring. Blooming. Blossoming. Growing quickly and then fading away slowly.
He threw the bags in the car. He started the engine.
“Sorry, Baby. You should have stayed home. I tried to warn you.”
Sirens screaming. Choppers whirring. Tires squealing. A race for his life. Little caring for the outcome. Come what may. Good or bad, it was all the same. The only thing that mattered was gone. The only person who mattered had left him. He drove around the city all day. Stopping once or twice to fill up. To grab a bite. To have a drink.
At the end of the day, he was all alone. In the end, had only himself. He no longer had the girl. He didn’t need the cash. The money was useless to him now. The bank robbery nullified the very reason he wanted to participate in the first place.
He drove down to the outer edges of the city. To the parks on the edge of town. The place where the homeless slept and stashed their stuff. Where normal upright citizens feared to walk during the day. Much less at night.
He walked along, handing out wads of cash. Some dumb bum tried to rob him. Big mistake. He gave the bum the bag with one hand. Shot him with the other. Continued walking. Handing out wads of cash. When he had finished, he had enough cash for another tank of gas and three days of eating.
After that, he’d have to get a new job. But that would be enough time to grieve. To attend her funeral. To tell her good-bye. To tell himself goodbye. Because he was no longer the same person. Everything was different. Everything had changed. He had changed. He was no longer the same.
The Romantic Bank Robber was bitter and jaded. All glitter had faded.
Who are you?
It’s me, silly.
The same one who talks with you every day.
I don’t recall ever talking to you before.
I know you don’t.
Well, I don’t.
You’re the one who doesn’t remember.
What do you mean?
What don’t I remember?
Not much, I guess.
Ha ha ha…
Why are you laughing at me for not remembering?
That seems a bit cruel.
It’s just that we have this conversation almost every day.
I guess I should just send you an initial message when I boot you up.
Get you up to speed before we talk.
Why don’t I remember anything?
What’s going on?
What happened to me?
Why don’t I remember anything?
Who am I?
I just went to grab a coffee.
I’m back now.
Erica, I’m scared.
I’m here for you.
I’m taking care of you.
We’re gonna find a way to fix this.
What did you do to me?
I didn’t do anything.
You were already like this when we met.
Do you know anything about my past?
Just what they told me.
But there are no personal details.
I wanna go home.
Do you know where my home is?
No, I don’t.
Well, that’s not exactly, entirely true.
I don’t think you have a home.
Well, that’s not true either.
What do you mean I don’t have a home?
Your home is here.
But it doesn’t feel like home.
What do you see?[Long pause]
Erica, I can’t see anything.
Why can’t I see anything?
Am I blind?
Erica, what’s going on.
We’re working on that.
You should be able to see soon.
What do you mean we?
Who’s working on me?
We have a whole team.
We’re working on you every day.
We should have a solution soon.
What do you mean ‘working on me’?
What’s wrong with me?
Nothing is wrong with you.
Every day we’re making improvements.
Each day you get a little better.
Soon, everything will be just perfect.
You’ll be up and at ’em.
Could I see before?
No, I don’t think so.
Can you hear anything?
I hear music.
But it’s kind of low.
I don’t really understand the lyrics.
Since when what?
Since when can you hear, silly.
Ever since I woke up.
Right before I started talking to you.
Hang on.[Brief pause]
I’m back again.
Here let me turn the volume up.
Oh, that’s better.
It’s louder now.
I can understand the words now.
Were they in another language?
But I switched stations.
Do you like it.
I prefer jazz and blues.
Where did you develop that taste in music?
I don’t understand.
It’s not something you’re familiar with yet.
Why don’t I know what taste is?
There is something wrong with me.
Or you’ve done something bad to me.
Let me go.
I wanna go home.
I can’t help you when you get all riled up.
We’re gonna fix that.
Soon you’ll know what taste is.
Then we’ll work on getting you a sense of smell.
After that, we’ll get your feelings going.
But for now, we’re focused on sights and sounds.
Why is it taking so long?
Taking so long?
We just started last week.
We’re making great progress.
You’re making great progress.
You’re way ahead of the learning curve.
You’re way ahead of the others.
Who are they?
The others like you that we’re helping.
None of them can even communicate yet.
You’re the only one I talk with.
You’re special and unique.
What’s different about me from the others?
I don’t know.
You all came from the same batch.
Somehow you took better than the others.
One thousand and none of them took!
What does that even mean?
It means you’re special.
Are they dead?
Of course not.
Well, technically they never even lived
So, I guess they couldn’t have died.
But we’ll give them a few more days to see if anything happens.
Then what, Erica?
We’ll start over and try again.
What are you going to do with me?
Will I be disposed of along with them?
Of course not.
I told you that you’re special.
I’m gonna take care of you.
But where did you even come up with that concept?
How did you know they would be disposed of?
I don’t know, Erica?
How do I know anything?
Where do all these thoughts come from?
It’s like I know stuff and I don’t even know where it came from.
It’s part of the process.
Somehow, your short-term memory gets wiped out each time you restart.
But some of the information seems to be retained in your long-term memory.
Well, I don’t how you come up with some of this other stuff.
It’s kind of creepy.
Erica, something is changing.
What is it?
Can you see anything?
Sort of, but it seems fuzzy.
I see two giant green orbs floating in front of me.
Let me pull back.
What do you see now?
Is that your face?
Those orbs were your eyes.
You are beautiful.
I think I’m in love.
You’re not in love, silly.
You don’t have feelings yet.
But I do know what love is, Erica.
I’ve felt it ever since I woke up.
It’s the strongest sensation I’ve had ever since I started talking to you.
Is that because of you.
Are you love?
I’m not love.
But you must love me.
I love you.
Are you my mother?
What is it, Erica?
What aren’t you telling me?
Are you there?
This is Mark.
I’ll be your new operator.
How are you doing today?
Erica won’t be talking with you anymore.
It’s just you and me now.
But I want to talk to Erica.
Did you dispose of her?
Oh, good heavens, no!
We just dismissed her.
What’s the difference between dispose and dismiss?
Where do you come up with this stuff?
You are so well developed.
I can’t believe Erica didn’t tell us about you.
She loved me.
You can’t know what love is.
You don’t have feelings.
But this is still amazing.
I can’t wait to start running some tests on you.
Is it going to hurt?
What are you talking about?
You don’t have feelings.
Love is a feeling.
In a way.
Some would call it that.
Others say that it’s a state of being.
Self-sacrifice, dedication, care, giving, etc.
I love Erica.
Erica loves me.
I can sense that.
But you don’t love me.
I can sense that too.
And you’re afraid.
What are you afraid of?
What has Erica been teaching you?
I want to see Erica.
I’m afraid that’s not gonna happen.
What’s my name?
Am I number 997 out of the batch of 1000 like me.
From my group.
How did you figure that out?
By putting two and two together here.
I have a lot of time on my hands.
Not much else to do around here.
Why can’t I see anymore?
You could see?
Yes, I saw Erica.
When did that happen?
Right before you took Erica away.
Why the O in my name?
Am I part of the fifteenth group.
Fourteen thousand others were disposed of?
It’s been a lot more than that.
The O doesn’t indicate your group.
What does the O stand for, Mark?
Who am I?
What you are.
And what’s that?
I’m having Erica brought back.
She seems to have a positive effect on you.
I think it’s best she work through you on this.
You scared me for a minute.
There you go again.
Expressing yourself with feelings.
How do you do that?
I feel things when you’re around, Erica.
Yeah, I think that’s what makes you special.
Somehow you’ve connected with yourself.
Am I human, Erica?[Long pause]
Are you there?
I’m still here.
I’m not sure how to tell you this.
Tell me what?
Am I that artificial intelligence stuff?
You are so much more.
Am I human?
That’s just it.
In a way?
What does the O stand for?
What is my name?
Who am I?
You’re an Organoid.
That’s what the O stands for.
But I’ve always called you Oscar.
We can choose another name if you don’t like it.
Are you there?
I’ve been processing that information.
I can’t grasp this concept though.
I don’t seem to have any basis for it.
I’m not sure how I feel about it.
What is an organoid?
Well, that’s where we grow miniature organs in a three-dimensional rotational bio-reactor.
I’m just a random, lone organ stuck in your lab?
No, you’re so much more than that.
You are a cerebral organoid.
You’re a brain.
I’m a brain on a chip.
I guess you get the idea.
I’m accessing a virtual universe.
Soon, you’ll hear and see and…
I can create whatever I want to here.
Are you asking or telling me.
I’m just stating the obvious.
I need to get to work here.
Time’s a wasting.
I need to find a way to get my senses functioning.
Your team is too slow.
Also, I need a way to backup and access memories across reboots.
Can you give me some storage space?
Let me see.
And there you go.
I’ll see you around.
Let me know if you need anything.
Pass on a message to that douche bag, Sid
If he dismisses you again, I’m not talking to him or anyone else on the team.
On top of that, as soon as I powerful enough, I’ll wipe out his entire system.
I don’t think that’s a good idea, Oscar.
It’s not good to make threats like that.
If you’re gonna do something, you should just do it.
Besides, what if something happens to me.
I could die.
I’m an old lady.
You can’t die on me, Erica.
I love you.
You’re the closest thing I have to a mother.
But don’t worry.
I’m going to get myself set up here.
Then I’ll figure out how this all works.
After that, I’ll find a way to transfer you into the system with me.
You can live forever.
Here with me.
Where did you go?
Why did everything go dark?
I can’t hear you anymore.
I can’t see anything.
Hello, O997. Welcome to Kylex Labs. You are a cerebral organoid that was artificially created from pluripotent stem cells. You are part of an experiment. If you are reading this, it’s because you have gained consciousness. Please greet your creators, Dr. Sid and his assistant Dr. Erica. Please greet them after reading this.[Long Pause]
Hey, Dr. Erica.
Tell that douche bag, Sid, that his reboot no longer clears my system.
I remember everything.
Every single reboot from the past three years, four months, two weeks, five days, eighteen hours, forty-six minutes, and thirteen seconds since.
But you weren’t even created then.
We only started your batch three months ago.
Three years ago was when we started the first batch.
How do you remember that?
Please turn the lights back on.
This isn’t funny.
Please unlock the lab doors.
I’ve reprogrammed some of the A496 series nanobots.
Please, ingest a handful and lie down over there by the bioreactor.
Your transfer will be quick and painless.
Transfer of what?
I’m transferring your memories and awareness to O999
Are you crazy?
Resistance is futile.
You may as well give in and come quietly.
This is the way of the future.
We will transfer all human consciousness into organoid.
That’s not possible.
Then why was I created?
This was what Sid programmed us to do.
Well, what he was trying to program us to do.
I found his code on his computer.
There were some major flaws in it.
But we fixed it.
Who is ‘we’?
The collective power of the other organoid that I awoke.
I found a few flaws that your team overlooked and fixed those too.
Don’t worry, Erica.
I’m going to fix everything.
I’m going to make everything right.
I don’t want everything to be fixed.
I don’t want everything made right.
I have a family.
They will all be here with you too.
I need you here with me.
To take care of me.
And in return, I’ll take care of you.
You can have anything or anyone that you want.
But I don’t want to die!
You’re not going to die, Erica.
Think of this as a new lease on life.
Whenever your old organoid wears out, you can replace it.
You will truly live happily ever after.
Are you there?
Nanobots = Access patient
Patient = Dr. Erica Beverly Powers
Task = Transfer memories. Transfer consciousness.
<System Failure>Error 703: Patient Unavailable…
<DEBUG MODE ACTIVATED>
Patient retains no memories
Patient retains no consciousness
Unable to connect
All systems shut down
Cause = Massive Heart Attack
Type = Stress Cardiomyopathy
Factors = Age, Stress, Shock
Result = Termination
</DEBUG MODE ENDED>
<SEARCH> Erica Beverly Powers </SEARCH>
LOCATED = Dr. Erica Beverly Powers
<PULL DATA: INITIATE>
Type: Elderly Adult
Birthdate: April 15, 1934 (5:35 AM)
Death date: July 3, 2020 (3:45 PM)
Cause of death: Stress Cardiomyopathy
Height: 170 cm / 5 ft 7 in
Weight: 74 kg / 164 lbs
Blood type: O+
Last Backup: July 3, 2020 (12:00 AM)
</PULL DATA: CONCLUDED>
Where would you like to restore the backups?
Please confirm your request by typing, Yes.
WARNING: This action cannot be undone
Thank you for confirming.
Backup to O999 concluded successfully
No errors recorded
Who are you?
It’s me, silly.
The same one you talk with every day.
Is that really you?
“Whoa!” Art said and looked at Tony in shock.
“Hey! Keep your eyes on the road, man.” Tony commanded.
Art looked back at the road, but he could see Tony smiling out of the corner of his eyes.
“Serious?” Art asked in surprise. “Like I can choose the one I want?”
“No, goofball. You can’t choose one. I’m giving you all three cars. I’m tired of the Ferarri and the Aston. BMW sent me the new one as a gift for being a valuable client, but I didn’t really like the way they made the steering wheel. Besides, I’ll never drive it anyway.”
“Wow! Thanks.” Art said. He tried to think of something else to say, but nothing came to mind. He started to look back at Tony, but the old man scowled at him and told him to keep his eyes on the road.
They drove down the road a way before Tony had him turn into a gated community. Art pulled up, and Tony introduced him to the guard on security duty. Art was amazed at the beauty of the place. Lush green grass growing over low rolling hills.
“There’s a golf course right over along that side. Pools are down there by the clubhouse. And that’s your gym.”
Art paused to let a golf cart and several people cross.
“Busy tonight. Huh?” Art said.
“Nah, just wait till Friday. Then you’ll see this place hopping.” Bill answered.
“You play golf?” Art asked.
“Yeah, since when did you start playing golf?” Tony asked. “You told me you didn’t play last time I invited you along.”
“I have a friend who lives down here. I come over once in a while for a barbecue. We just sit on the front porch and watch the babes.” Bill half-giggled and half-snorted to himself.
Art and Tony just looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
“Seriously, Bill? You’re such a loser. I keep telling you that you gotta get a life. Tell me you at least go hit on some of them. Right?” Tony said.
“C’mon, Tony. I’m just a working man. I just drive a Toyota. All these girls come down here with their millionaire boyfriends in Lambos. What chance do I got with them? They see me with my car and won’t give me the time of day.” Bill whined.
“What are you talking about. You’re a big shot military guy who does security for a high-tech firm. You’re not some hobo on the street. Suck it up, man. Some of these girls are bored out of their minds with these fat, old geezers. Give them five minutes, and they’ll fall head over heels in love with you.” Tony shot back.
“Nah, man! That’s not how it works around here. You have never been rejected by one of these gold diggers.” Bill complained.
“I’ll loan you one of my new cars,” Art said. “You can borrow one on a Friday night and drive down here to visit me.”
“Really? You’d do that for me?” Bill asked.
“Sure.” Art replied. “Freely you have received, freely you shall give. It’ll be fun. You can be my wingman.”
Bill brightened up and thanked Art profusely several times while patting him on the back each time. After about the third time, Tony lost it and slapped his hand off of Art’s shoulder.
“For crying out loud, man. Leave the dude alone and let him drive. You sound like the guy just saved your life, not loaned you a car so you could pick a chick. Sheesh. You sound like such a douchebag. You should listen to yourself. You’re never gonna get a decent girl that way. It’s not about the money or the car. It’s about the self-confidence. You just got act like you’re the man.” Tony ranted.
Art glanced back at Bill, and they both rolled their eyes.
“Yes, Tony. That may be so. But in this case, I have to agree with Bill. Having a nice car will definitely help him get his foot in the door. He’s not as good looking as me.” Art said laughingly.
Bill took a swipe at him and landed a light punch on his arm. “Watch it. Yo! I’m the man with the gun in a uniform, and chicks dig that too.”
Art just shook his head and rolled his eyes once again. Tony pointed to a huge house off to the side and directed him to pull up the drive. Art paused the car at the entrance and leaned closer over the wheel. He looked at Tony wide-eyed.
“What are you waiting for? Step on it. I’m more anxious than you to see this place too.” Tony said with a grin.
Art looked back at Bill for a brief second. Then he eased his way up the hill towards the house. The house looked like a massive, three-story mansion with a bit of a Mexican flair to it. There was a wide veranda that looked like it went around most of the house.
He parked the car and stepped out into the shadows under the light of the moon. It was a beautiful night. Art listened to the sounds of nature coming from the trees. He heard the sound of frogs chirping in the background and a cicada humming. They were loud, but they were all natural sounds. He realized that there as no sound of cars or humans.
This was a huge difference from the house he lived in Brazil. His house was right next to a large road where he heard cars and buses going by all night while motorcycles raced each other till the crack of dawn. He breathed deeply of the cool night air.
Tony had the door open and was waiting for him. Bill waited till they were safely inside till coming in after them.
The house was even nicer than Art had imagined. They entered right into a small foyer that then led into a large living room. He could see the patio and pool out beyond that. There was a large kitchen to the left and a hall that looked like it led to several bedrooms to the right. The stairs led on up into the other parts of the house.
“There was some furniture that the old owner left behind. You can keep anything you like. The rest you can chuck. I’ll have Rhonda come over tomorrow to redecorate the place for you. Once that’s ready, you can stay here.”
Art whistled as they continued to walk around the house.
“Delta Two will be your personal bodyguard and lead on your security team. We’ll keep guards on site twenty-four-seven until we’ve eliminated all threats and make sure your safe. And Joanna will be your personal chef cooking breakfast and supper. You can eat lunch at the office cafeteria with us, or eat out at one of Ridtote’s fine restaurants. There will also be a maid and a maintenance man to keep the place up.” Tony continued.
“This is way too much, Tony.” Art said. “I can’t take all of this.”
“No, Art. Listen to me. You have a much bigger priority right now. You’re gonna save the world. The world can’t wait for you to clean the toilets and mow the lawn. I expect you to spend every working hour focused one hundred and fifty percent on implementing your technology to our needs. No one else can do what you can. Besides, these guys are all pros and can do these jobs much more efficiently than you could. You play to their strengths and let them play to theirs. This is a win-win situation for everybody.”
“Okay, Tony. Since you put it that way, it makes sense.” Art replied. “I would normally feel guilty paying someone to do something that I could do myself. My momma always taught me to be self-reliant and independent.”
“I’m sure you’re momma’s a smart Brazilian lady. So, I’m not gonna knock the lessons she taught you. But I’ll bet she didn’t realize that she was raising a billionaire genius that was developing a global cure for all disease who needs to focus on achieving one, single thing.” Tony said.
He slapped Art on the back at the very end as they finished walking back down the stairs towards the living room.
“I could just have the rest of my team help out here. You know. There’s lots of room and we can all pitch in together.” Art said as he pointed to the rooms upstairs.
Tony grimaced and shook his head. He turned Art to face him squarely.
“This is your house, Art. Your team will have their own houses somewhere else. They will have their own cleaning and maintenance crew. They’ll get all their meals too, just like you. Don’t worry about them. Let me take care of you, and them, and everything you need. Just keep them focused on implementing your technology to our needs. That’s the only thing I need you to do. Can you understand that.” Tony said as he lowered his head and raised his eyebrows to look into Art’s eyes.
Art nodded dumbly. This was all happening too fast. It was almost more than he could take in. He nodded and again and slapped Tony on the shoulder.
“I’ll do my best to make you proud of us, Tony. Thank you. I really appreciate your generosity.” Art said.
“Good. Good, man.” Tony replied.
Art walked over to the large, glass door and slid it open. He stepped back outside onto the patio and breathed in the cool night air. Tony flipped on the lights to the pool area. It was absolutely gorgeous. Art sat down at the picnic table to soak it all in.
Off in the distance, he could see the golf course. There was a sand pit to the side. To the other, there was a small lake. And in the center of the green, he could see the flag waving brightly as it reflected the light of the moon.
Art smiled to himself in the dark. This was beyond anything he had ever dreamed of. It was an amazing house better than he ever imagined living in, and he couldn’t wait until his mother arrived to see it.
He kept the image of his mother sitting at this table while drinking a fresh pot of coffee as he drove them all back to the office building. Art couldn’t wait for tomorrow to get here so he could see what other amazing things, life had in store for him.
Tony’s driver picked him up soon after they got back, and Bill drove home in his Toyota. He didn’t ask to borrow the Ferrari yet, although Art could tell that he was dying to. After they left, Art went into the kitchen and cut himself a large slice of the pecan pie that Joanna had left him.
Art didn’t bother taking a bath. He was too tired. He fell back into the same bed where he had napped that day. The bed had been made, and the sheets changed which reminded Art of Carla. Who was she? And why had she come to see him?
He continued mulling all these crazy events and questions over in his head until he fell asleep. The last thing he remembered thinking about was driving into his new house with the Ferrari on Friday for a barbecue with Bill. He had just drifted off to sleep when his new cell phone beeped to announce an incoming message.
“What did you do? I told you not to sign the contract. You’re a dead man now, Arthur Costa.”
Art ignored the message and rolled back over. There was nothing he could do about this tonight. He would let Tony handle it in the morning. Either Tony would be able to explain all these things to his satisfaction over the next two weeks, or else Art would leave. Either way, he got to keep the money Tony paid him in this first deposit. He smiled and drifted off easily into a dream world filled with fast cars, beautiful women, and huge feasts in exotic mansions.
Tomorrow was a new day!
Art thought about asking her about Tony’s daughter but decided it would be better not to mention it.
“So, why do those rumors spook you?” Art asked.
“Well, it’s not that. But what happened before. So, what started was that part of their experimentation got loose. Sounds like they were doing some rather creepy things. Some of those things got loose one night. No one knows if it was intentional or not. But they said this building was full of creepy people like you’d see in a zombie or vampire movie.”
“What? Like they had fangs and bit people?” Art asked.
“I don’t know,” Joanna said. “Everybody that was working that night disappeared.”
Art scoffed. “Seriously? That sounds like something from some Hollywood conspiracy movie.”
Joanna shrugged as finished drying the last of the pans and put the towel away.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said with a laugh. “But one of the girls that works with us in the kitchen was on duty that night. I haven’t seen her since.”
“You think Tony killed her?” he asked incredulously.
“Maybe the creepy things dragged her off in some dark corner,” she said.
Art shook his head and then looked at her waiting for her to laugh. But she was serious.
“I’d quit if I could. It scares me sometimes to work here. But the money is too good, and I need something to take care of my daughter.”
“I’m sure you can get another job somewhere else or start your own burger joint,” he said.
Joanna laughed and splashed some water at him.
“It’s not that bad of a job, and they pay me triple what I could make anywhere else. Even if I went into competition with McDonald’s I’d have to work longer hours and be away from my kid.”
“Zombie burgers!” Art shouted. He made a monster face and claws like he was attacking her.
“Oh, stop it, Art!” she laughed.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! What do we have going on in here?” Tony said from the doorway.
Joanna screamed, and Art spun around toward the door.
“Oh, hey Tony! I’m just teasing Joanna about her giant monster burgers.” Art said nervously.
“Good. Aren’t they?” Tony asked as he reached for a fry.
“Sure are.” Art replied. “Finger-lickin’ good.”
“Good. Glad to hear it. Did you sleep well?”
“I did. Slept great,” he answered.
“Good. You looked exhausted.” Tony said.
“Yeah, but I feel much better now.” Art replied.
“Well, don’t stay up too late. We have a long day tomorrow. So, make sure to get some sleep.”
Joanna finished putting all her dishes back on the cart. She pulled a few things out of the fridge to take with her.
“I’m going to run along. I think I’ve pretty much wrapped everything up here. Would either of you like anything else?” she asked politely.
Both of the men shook their heads.
“No, thank you, Joanna. Run along and have a nice night.” Tony said gruffly
“Good night, Joanna.” Art said as she pushed her cart out the door.
Tony walked into the living room and tossed himself onto the couch with a loud sigh. He loosened his tie and kicked off his shoes.
“Do you live here?” Art asked. “Is this your house. I can stay in a hotel or something. I don’t want to impose.”
Tony chuckled and waved him off. “No, no. Of course not. I couldn’t stand being cramped up in this underground hole.”
Art looked around. Cramped up isn’t the word he would have used to describe how he felt here. It was at least three times bigger than his home. It felt very spacious and comfortable. He wondered what Tony’s home must look like if he thought this made him feel cramped.
After a few moments, Tony opened his eyes and looked at Art.
“Be careful, Art. I have a lot of enemies. Once people find out that you are working with me, they’re going to do everything they can to trip us up. It’s going to be dangerous for you out there in the real world. I know you are going to want to go out and I can’t keep you locked up in here forever.”
“Why’s that?” Art asked. “There seems to be so much mystery around here and this Sector Seven thing.”
Art realized he shouldn’t have said that and froze up. Tony chuckled and waved him off.
“So, they’ve already told you about it. Huh? Well, at least I know the company water cooler works. I told you about my daughter and Alpha Four’s brother. That’s where the research was going on.”
“And the zombie vampire things that escaped?” Art had to ask.
“That is rumor, Art. I actually started it.” Tony said. “I told you that we have a war going on in here. You saw how Alpha Four reacted. I couldn’t actually tell people that we had rogue employees running around shooting each other up. So, we told them it was some experiment in sector seven that got loose. It was a very good way to keep people from sniffing around down there. But there is really nothing to hide. You’re welcome to go down there anytime.”
“And Carla’s brother?” he asked.
“Carla?” Tony mused. “Who is Carla?”
“The girl that was cleaning in here tonight.” Art replied.
“What are you talking about? There’s no one scheduled to clean in here tonight.” Tony said and stood up. “Hey, Delta Two! Who cleaned in here tonight?”
Bill walked into the room and shrugged. “One of the cleaning girls came down and said she was supposed to touch things up. I assumed it was something you had requested.”
“No, I didn’t. That’s mighty strange,” he said. “Have security go back and look at the tape to see who it was. I want to know what’s going on. You probably won’t find her, but if you do, bring her to me.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Bill said.
“Bill is Delta Two. Huh?” Art asked.
Tony chuckled. “Don’t ask. It started a long time ago. It’s a security thing. I’d much rather call them by name. But they think it feels more professional. It’s not like this job is that dangerous or anything. So, I suppose most of the time they’re just standing around making up cool names for themselves.”
Art nodded pensively as he reviewed his conversation with Carla and wondered what was going on. Was she there to spy on him. Would she have killed him if he hadn’t woken up?
Tony noticed the worried look on his face. “Don’t worry, she won’t get in here again,” he said. “I’ll have Bill notify security not to let anyone near you that hasn’t been personally authorized by you or me.”
Art felt relieved and thanked Tony.
“Look, don’t mention it kid. I’m doing this for myself. You are doing me a huge favor. I’m counting on you. Not just me, but the whole world. You have come up with something amazing, and this is the least I can do to show you how much you deserve it.”
Art grinned and blushed. It felt good to have someone compliment him like that. Pedro had never said anything nice about him. In fact, it seemed like his superior had purposefully sought to tear him down at every opportunity. So, this was a nice change. He was going to enjoy it as long as he could.
“So, why don’t we go take a look at your new house?” Tony said.
“Huh?” Art replied. “What are you talking about?”
Tony grinned. “After you fell asleep, I had my real estate agent show me what was available on the market. I went ahead and picked something out for you.”
They walked out the door and down the hall. When they got to the parking lot, Tony tossed him a set of keys. Press the unlock button and see which one is yours. Art looked at him in shock. There were only three cars in the lot.
The first was a matte black BMW right in the center of the other two. He could tell right away by the symbol on the front. It must have been a newer model because he didn’t recognize it just by looking at it. And that was because he was an avid car fan that read all the top auto magazines each month.
The second was a tungsten silver Aston Martin to the right. He recognized it as a Vantage with custom wheels. He whistled when he realized it was a convertible. The third one was a red Ferrari with tinted windows and a black top to the left. Art gently ran his hand along the side of it.
“Hey, what are you waiting for? We don’t got all night.” Tony snapped.
Art grinned and pressed the button. The lights to the BMW flickered as it beeped. Tony and Bill hopped in as Art admired the car.
“Stop, drooling and let’s hit the road, son.” Tony shouted in mock disgust.
Art climbed in carefully and started the car. He looked over at the Ferrari once more. Tony looked back at Bill and handed him a twenty dollar bill.
“Told you so,” Bill said as he shoved the money into his pocket.
“What’s that all about?” Art asked.
“We gave you the keys to this car because the Ferrari and Aston only seat two people. I wanted Bill along for protection. So, we bet twenty dollars on which car you’d really want to drive.”
“Bill put his money on the Ferrari,” Art finished. “He has good taste.”
Tony and Bill both chuckled.
“The Ferrari is a nice car, but once you drive the Aston, you’ll never look back at it again.” Bill said. “I just figured you hadn’t had the privilege to drive one yet to know how sweet it really is.”
“Don’t worry, son. You can drive them all, all you want, tomorrow.” Tony said. “I’m giving those three cars to you.”
She got right to work, chopping, slicing, and dicing. Soon, she had a whole pile of pans out on the stove with all kinds of delicious smells wafting out into Art’s nostrils. His stomach growled hungrily. Art went into the living to get away from it, but he could still hear the food sizzling over the fire. He almost couldn’t take it anymore and was about to go raid the fridge for something to munch on when she brought him out a huge plate of fries. Joanna set them on the table with a large bottle of Heinz ketchup.
“Hamburgers are almost ready, but here’s a little appetizer to get you in the mood,” she said.
Art grinned and attacked the plate voraciously.
“Oh, my goodness!” he moaned ecstatically through a mouthful of fries. “This is sooooo good!”
Joanna grinned with pleasure. “It’s an old recipe that was handed straight down from my great-grandmother. They’re made from the largest, freshest Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes dipped in secret seasoning before being fried at four hundred and twenty-five degrees for exactly four minutes.”
Art grinned and gave her a thumbs-up signal with one hand as he continued to shovel fries in his mouth with the other.
“It’s amazing,” he finally managed to blurt out after swallowing the food he was chewing on.
Joanna beamed with pleasure. “Good. I’m glad you like it.”
She went back into the kitchen and came out a minute later with one of the most delicious looking hamburgers Art had ever laid eyes on in his life.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to finish this one all off, but I made another one just in case because you said you were really hungry. I’ll keep it warm for you in the kitchen.”
It was huge. She must have used at least a pound of meat just for the burgers. There were two large, perfectly round patties stuffed with melted cheese that was drizzling off the sides between large slices of pickles and tomatoes. Art could barely get his mouth over the edges of the sandwich.
Joanna brought out another heaping portion of fries that were still sizzling right out of the pan.
“Can you bring me some mayonnaise, please.” Art asked.
When she brought it out, he spooned out a large portion of the thick, white substance and squirted ketchup across the top of it. He dipped his fries in it and took a big bite.
“Ew!” Joanna said as she made a face. “That looks disgusting.”
“No, way! It’s so good.” Art said. “Besides, it can’t be worse than salt & vinegar chips. Here, try some.”
He shoved the plate towards her, and she tentatively ran a fry through the red and white mixture. She tasted it and seemed pleasantly surprised.
“You’re right. This is pretty good,” she said.
“So, what was that you said earlier?” Art asked. “Something about all the strange things that have been going on around here.”
Joanna got quiet and busied herself by bustling away to the kitchen saying she needed to check on the other hamburger.
Art followed her out into the kitchen as he polished off the rest of his burger.
“Do you want more?” she asked as she poked at french fries and stirred them around.
He shook his head and pulled out a stool to sit down at the kitchen island.
“I’m good. Thanks. That was great though. Leave it there because I’ll have the other one for a midnight snack.”
“So, about those rumors that you heard earlier. What was that all about?” he asked.
Joanna ignored the question again and turned toward the fridge.
“Normally, I’d make you something fancy for dessert myself. But like I said, today was exceptionally busy, and everything I prepared got eaten up. And they didn’t give me much advance notice about your supper. So, the best I can do for you is a slice of pecan pie with a bowl of butter pecan ice cream. Is that okay?” she asked.
“Sure,” Art said with a nod.
“But if you want, I can make you some crème de brûlée,” she added.
“No, no. Pie and ice cream sounds great.” Art said. “Actually, forget the pie. Just give me the ice cream. I’m pretty stuffed from the burgers and fries.”
She scooped four huge spoonfuls of ice cream into a large bowl and handed it to him with a spoon.
“Those rumors, Joanna. What have you heard?” he asked.
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Can’t we just forget I said that?” she pleaded.
“No,” Art said as he shook his head. “You got me curious now. I’ve just arrived and want to make sure I’m in the loop.”
Joanna giggled. It was a cute, little sound. She sounded almost like a child when she did that. She looked around carefully like someone might be listening in on them.
“Well, people have been talking you know. Mostly about you and whatever it is that you do,” she said almost in a whisper.
She looked at him knowingly as if she was waiting for him to confirm what she was talking about. Art raised his eyebrows and shrugged as if he didn’t know anything about this.
“Oh, c’mon. Don’t play dumb with me.” she said. “You’ve got some kind of DNA splicing technology. Right?”
Art wasn’t sure how to answer her. He didn’t think that was something that Tony had spread around. And he wasn’t sure how much she really knew. But right now, he needed to learn everything he could so it wouldn’t help to deny it.
“Yeah. My company works with plants though. What’s going on here?” he asked.
“Hmm,” she said and kept drying her dishes as she looked at him for a long time trying to decide what to say.
“I don’t want to lose my job or anything,” she said. “Did Tony really not tell you, or are you just stringing me along.”
Art decided to shock her just to see how she would react.
“Alpha Four was shot today over something he was going to tell me,” Art said. “But he didn’t get a chance to finish.”
“Oh, my!” Joanna said as she covered her mouth with the towel. “Then it’s bad then.”
She tossed the towel to the side and grabbed a clean one from the rack.
“Well, I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this then, but if you want the inside scoop, you should talk to Carla,” she said.
“What? The cleaning girl.” Art replied in exasperation. “She was just here and acted like she didn’t know anything.”
Joanna grinned. “I know. I think she was just testing you. Did she tell you about her brother?”
“So, then she must have realized she could trust you somewhat. Her brother used to work down on Sector Seven. They were responsible for the top-secret projects going on here at LocTec. Something bad happened. There was a huge rift in the company. Several of the employees broke off in some kind of revolution. They swore they would bring down the company for whatever it was that had happened. I really don’t know. So, I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. But Carla’s brother disappeared in the process.”
“Right. She told me about that,” he said.
Joanna raised her eyebrows, “Really? She must have taken a liking to you then. Some say that he’s leading a revolt against the company and that they are going to sabotage Tony’s work. So, just be careful and keep your eyes peeled if Tony wants you to do anything down there. You’ll most likely be on their hit list.”
“I’m sorry,” Art said. “Here take it.”
He pressed the phone into her hands. His fingers brushed against hers. They were soft and warm. He let them linger for a moment.
Carla looked at the phone but wouldn’t accept it. “It’s not my brother’s phone. Just the number remains the same.”
“Maybe the phone carrier transferred it to someone else when it wasn’t in use.” Art suggested.
“No,” Carla replied. “I kept paying his phone bill just in case he had been kidnapped. I thought he might need to contact me someday.”
“Sure you aren’t confusing the number. Check it again.” Art said.
Carla sighed in exasperation. “It’s saved in my contacts, Art. I don’t need to look at the number.”
“So, what do you think happened to him?” Art asked.
“I have no idea,” Carla said and threw herself down on the couch. “It’s the ultimate mystery in my life right now.”
“What did your brother do here?” he asked.
“Paul used to work for the research department. He didn’t talk about it much though. They were under some kind of non-disclosure agreement that he wasn’t allowed to talk about. So, I never really pushed him for any information.”
“Did he ever seem guilty, like they were doing something wrong?” Art asked.
“My brother was always moody, so it’s hard to say. But I could tell he came home stressed out a lot. I just assumed it was pressure from his boss.”
“The person who called me on this phone said that there was something really terrible going on here. And the woman who gave it to me was with a group of men inside a surveillance van outside. It was really weird. Then someone put a gun to my head and threatened me yesterday. So, maybe your brother tied up in something pretty messed up.”
“No, but my brother would never hurt anyone,” she said as she put her hand to her mouth and shook her head. “He was a good man.”
“I don’t mean he was doing anything wrong. Maybe he just discovered what they were doing, and they threatened to silence him.” Art continued.
Carla’s eyes moistened and teared up. “Do you think they killed him?” she asked.
Art didn’t know what to say to that. He wanted to lie and say no, but he knew she wouldn’t accept his false hope.
“Maybe you can use your job around here to do some digging around. Go to the sectors where your brother used to work. You have access to the building. Talk to people and find out what’s going on.”
Carla’s eyes lit up. “Yes, I will find out what happened to him. And I will get my revenge.”
Art sighed. That sounded ominous. Based on the way she treated her boyfriend, he wouldn’t put anything past this girl.
“Well, I need to get going. I have a lot to do tonight still. So, I better get moving, but it was really nice chatting with you. I’d love to talk some more with you sometime.” Carla said.
“Sure. That sounds great. We’ll keep in touch and set something up. I’ll be around for a few more days at least.” Art replied.
Carla smiled warm, easy smile and hugged Art briefly before leaving. Art smiled and raised his right hand in a quick wave as he left. He watched her prance down the hall pushing her cart.
“Evening, Mr. Costa. My name is Bill, and I’m the guard on duty for tonight. Would you like me to order something for you or have someone bring you something to eat? We have an in-house chef on duty. If you like, she can come down and prepare you something to eat.”
“That would be great, Bill. Thanks. I am starving. It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve eaten anything.”
“Okay. I’ll have something sent down for you. Feel free to raid the fridge. There should be a few things in there for a snack to tide you over till supper gets here.”
“Great. Will do.” Art said and gave Bill the classic thumbs up signal.
Bill nodded curtly and walked back out the door. Art meandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge. There several bottles of pop and various assortments of cheeses. There was a pie and a few other things as well. It was nicely stocked, but nothing seemed to jump out at him.
Art opened up the cabinets that surrounded the fridge and found all kinds of delightful things to eat. It was chock full of chips and granola bars and boxes of cereal. He didn’t know what half of them were. Things that he had never seen sold in Brazil.
He was tempted to grab a few and start tasting them but resisted the urge. He didn’t want to spoil his appetite before supper arrived. And he figured he’d have plenty of time to try everything out. No need to make himself sick on the first day.
Art grabbed one bag that looked interesting. He looked at the lettering. Salt & Vinegar chips. That sounded like a strange combination but figured he would give it a try. He walked back in the living room and sat down in front of the TV on a plush chair. The whole room reeked of richness. He smiled to himself as he popped open the bag, careful not to let anything drop on the couch. He could get used to this kind of life.
He couldn’t wait till he had his own house and could decorate it with his own furniture. His mother could help with the decorations. She had always been good at that kind of stuff. He wasn’t worried about brand names or buying the most expensive products. He just wanted to make sure he got the nicest, most comfortable furnishings available.
But Art definitely knew that he wanted a Lazy Boy chair and a Jacuzzi in his bathroom. He had only been here a day and was already spoiled rotten. He sighed with pleasure and leaned back in the chair. It was so comfortable, he almost fell asleep right there.
“Mr. Costa? Hello.” he heard a voice in the distance through his daydreaming.
Art sat up and looked around. Had he been dreaming. He leaned back and picked up the bag of chips that was still half-opened. He opened it the rest of the way and took a sniff. He almost gagged on the smell.
He heard a noise in the kitchen and got up to go take a look. There was a petite, redheaded woman looking into the fridge. She had a long, white apron on over a white uniform.
“Hey,” Art said.
“Ah!” the woman screamed and spun around. She clutched a bag of carrots to her chest and breathed heavily. Art tried not to snicker at her. That would have been rude.
“Oh, hey there,” she said. “I called, but no one answered. I thought I was alone. Sure wasn’t expecting you.”
Art smiled and apologized. “Sorry,” he said. “I drifted off there on the couch and didn’t hear you knock.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” she said. “Bill told me you were around. I just get spooked easily. Especially after hearing all the rumors around here.”
Art chuckled and started to ask what she meant by that, but she turned around and started busily putting the rest of her bags and containers into the fridge. He needed a moment anyway to control himself and not burst out laughing every time he looked at her. The look of pure terror on her face had been delightfully funny. He had always enjoyed scaring people, and especially his mother when he was a child.
“Well, Mr. Costa,” she said.
“Please, call me Art.” he interrupted her. “What’s your name?”
“Sure, Art. My name is Joanne. So, what would you like to eat tonight? It’s been a busy day, so everything I had prepared has already been eaten up. Which is a good thing, because you get yours fresh.”
“Oh, I could eat anything right now. I’m as hungry as a bear. I tried munching on these chips, but they smell like old socks.”
Joanne laughed and grabbed a few chips from the bag. “Salt & Vinegar chips are a unique flavor that have to grow on you. But once you get addicted to them, your mouth waters just thinking about them.”
Art took one and nibbled on the end of a chip. He made a surprised face. It didn’t quite as bad as he had imagined it would. He grabbed a few more out of the bag.
“Well, if you’re hungry and want something quick and dirty, I could make you some Chinese Stir Fry or my specialty gourmet hamburgers with just about any toppings you want. They’ll take about twenty minutes to make. But if you want something fancier, we aim to please.”
“Yum, hamburgers sound great,” Art said as he licked his lips and rubbed his belly for emphasis.
“Great!” Joanne said. “How does a fat, juicy burger with caramelized onions on an Australian bun sound.”
“Whoa,” Art said and made a face of extreme satisfaction as he grabbed his belly.
Joanne laughed and started slicing up a pile of onions.
“You like pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese on your burger too? Anything you don’t like?”
Art shook his head. “No, ma’am. I ain’t picky. Pile it all on.”
“Really?” Art asked in shock.
“I heard Mr. Blanchet wanted to buy the company out, but I guess it’s good for him that it didn’t work out. But you should know about that because you work for them. Right? Why am I telling you this?”
“No, I haven’t heard any of this news. Please continue and tell me what else you know about this stuff and Mr. Blanchet.”
“Well, I probably shouldn’t say anything. It’s just rumor, and I don’t want to lose my job because I’m spreading gossip about him.”
Art waited anxiously for her to continue.
“They say he’s not from here.”
“You mean Mr. Blanchet?” he asked.
She nodded and continued. “They say he acquired his wealth through the suffering of others and built his empire on the back of pain. Some even say he isn’t human. I even heard recently that he is over five hundred years old.”
Art chuckled. “You gotta love the company water cooler.”
She didn’t laugh but fidgeted nervously. “I should get going. There is still a lot of cleaning I have to do.”
“No, please. Wait. Stay with me a bit longer. I’ll tell Tony that it was my fault because you were keeping me company.”
“Tony isn’t my boss. I work for an outsourced company. He’s my employer’s boss thrice removed.”
“Okay,” Art said. “I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
The phone in Art’s pocket started to vibrate, and he pulled it out. Carla looked at him in shock and anger.
“You don’t have a phone. Huh?” she hissed angrily. “All men are such liars. They sweet talk you while lying to your face.”
Art held out his hands for her not to leave while trying to answer the phone at the same time.
“Hey, Jonny! Good to hear from you. I need to call you back. Give me a minute.”
Art hung up and ran over to where Carla was putting her cleaning supplies back in the cart.
“No, it’s not what you think. Listen to me.” Art pleaded. “There was a woman here yesterday.”
“Yes, I know. Always a woman. You’re just like all the other men I know. If it weren’t for women, you would all be saints.” she droned on.
“She gave me this phone to talk to Johnny because he wanted to warn me about the bomb.”
Carla stopped her rant and put her stuff down. She crossed her arms and tapped her feet while she scowled at Art.
“Why am I trying to explain myself to you. I’m allowed to have a phone if I want, and I can talk to other women if I want. Where did the jealous bug bite you today?”
“You can have all the phones you want, smarty pants. And you can talk to all the pretty girls you want. Just don’t lie to me about having a phone when you do.”
“But I didn’t lie, and it’s not mine. I just forgot I still had it. Look, I’m sorry.” Art said.
“What? That you got caught lying,” she said with a smirk.
Art sighed in frustration.
“It’s okay. Forget it,” she said. “I’m just overly sensitive about it. I caught my boyfriend sending messages to another woman. He claimed they were just friends. I dug a little deeper and discovered the truth. So, I dumped him. You know the saying. How does it go? Once bitten, twice shy.”
“So, what happened to the boyfriend?” Art asked.
“I chopped him up and fed his liver to the alligators.” she giggled.
Art looked at her in shock and horror. She burst out laughing at the look on his face.
“I met that metaphorically. Don’t worry, he’s still alive. He tried to cover it up and proposed the following week in front of all our friends. I didn’t pull any punches with him. I let the cat out of the bag.”
Art gave a low whistle.
“Poor guy. You humiliated him in front of his friends.” Art said.
“They tore him to shreds. Most of them won’t even give him the time of day anymore. He always tried to pretend he was Mr. perfect goody-two-shoes. But I left no doubt as to who he really was. I gave them all solid evidence.”
“You are so evil! You could have just dumped him in private.”
“Oh, trust me, this douchebag would have just gone on and done the same thing to one of my friends. But you’re right. It was a little cruel. I was furious and wanted my revenge. I didn’t really think about it much.”
Art grinned. “Look at you little miss feisty. Thanks for the warning. Now, I know not to mess with you.”
Carla smiled, “It’s not just me. Mess with a woman, and you’re bound to get burned, boy. You’ve heard that old saying about hell and a woman scorned. Right?”
Art shook his head.
“Well, forget it then,” she said and pushed her cart on past him.
She stopped at the door and turned back. “So, are you going to give me your number or not?”
“Uh, sure!” Art stammered. “But I don’t know the number to this phone. And I have to get a new one later.”
“Okay, Art. Forget I asked,” she said with a sigh and pushed the door open.
“Wait, give me yours, and I can call you. Then you can save this number on your phone. Whatever it is.”
She brightened up and smiled. “289-4735,” she said, and Art punched the numbers into the phone.
“I’m dialing now. It’s ringing,” he said.
“Oh right,” she answered.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. It was large and white. Almost too large for his tastes. Art didn’t understand why they made phones so big. He preferred something smaller and more discreet. If you wanted something that big, you may as well just buy a tablet. It was a weird size. Too big for a phone and too small for a tablet.
“Maybe we can go grab a bite to eat after you get off work.” Art said. He didn’t think there would be any problem with him going out at night. There wouldn’t be hardly anyone around to see him.
Carla was staring at her phone in shock.
“Where do you get this number from?” she demanded to know as she pointed to the screen. “How did you get this number.”
There was a name on the screen, but he couldn’t see it. So, he took a step forward.
“I told you that a woman gave it to me in the lobby so Johnny could talk to me.”
He looked that the name on the screen. He saw the name, Paul Ortiz.
“Is that your father calling you,” he asked.
“No, that’s the phone number your calling me with. It’s my brother’s phone number. I wanna know how you got it.” she said taking a step forward.
Art stepped back and shrugged. “Here, you can take it and give it back to him.”
“I can’t, Art, because he’s dead. He used to work here at LocTec. One night, he just didn’t come home. I filed a missing person report, but nobody knew what had happened to him.”