When I first met John Seifer, it was at a press conference.  This was after a failed assassination attempt on yours truly.   The speech was my glorious assurance to the people that those responsible were brought to justice and that the threat has passed, but my heart wasn’t in it.   The speech was flat, but no one seemed to notice that I didn’t even seem to believe what I was saying anymore.  This is because I realized that I had become so used to lying that it came natural to show the correct inflection and emotion at times, like a reflex.   While I didn’t summon up any feeling, there was no difference.   This made me wonder what the point in me being a figurehead was.   It was clear no one really paid attention to the government anymore, the people more that likely felt that I was totally irrelevant.  Therefore I eventually came to the realization that I was most likely going to die.  It wasn’t, as they say, a matter of how but when.   The Commission’s market research data showed that most people didn’t even realize the government was still in operation, and therefore my termination was inevitable.   That’s what Seifer told me after the conference was over.   Off the record.  It  was the first time anyone talked to me like I was anything more than a tool, so I suppose that my guard was lowered slightly.  Maybe that gave me the false pretense that he actually cared if I lived or died.   Which, I should have known was far from the case.

This was over a year ago.

We only met about a dozen times, and each time it was off the record.  From what I was led to believe about that sort of thing, with enough money you could say and do whatever you wanted and it wouldn’t be used against you.  Which, was rather stupid in retrospect, but I was desperate for someone to talk to.   Desperate to speak about the things that concerned me after ten years, almost seven of which I felt like a walking corpse, barely capable of functioning without being told what to do and where to go.   Over the last three years the headaches would get more frequent and more terrible, a cackling electric fire across my synapses, feeling like my brain had been replaced like a teeming swarm of fire ants.   The thing about the noises, is that I could hear faint sounds, almost like voices.   Yet, it wasn’t English or slang or anything human.  It kinda sounded like a phone connection.  A modem.  You see some of those in the more low tech areas of Europa.  For the like of me I don’t know how I knew that.   There’s a lot of memories in my head, unbound like that.  Little fragments of information, little factoids but they aren’t based on any experience of mine.  This, combined with my normal experiences day in and out has accumulated over the years into this growing hatred for The Commission.   Like lighting a waterproof fuse, once ignited there is only one possible outcome.   

When I first started the press used to show up to my speeches at the White House.   It wasn’t the White House.   That’s now a well-known whorehouse for the top execs.   It’s what they called that tall white tower in the government district, back when people gave a damn.   Now if I told someone I held speeches there they’d have not even the faintest clue what I was talking about.   Anyway, the thing was, when I was talking to the press they didn’t seem that interested in what was being said.   All the questions aimed at me were about who did I think was going to win the next Ultra Bowl, or which celebrity I thought was the cutest, what programs did I subscribe to, what I thought about the latest hit single from who-gives-a-shit.   This was quite the opposite of what was expected by me.   I expected to have to try and dupe people into thinking I was for real, instead they not only didn’t seem to care, but when I asked them if they were at all interested in my bold plans for governmental reform, most of them laughed.  I didn’t.  One thing that always stuck in my mind from that is the associated press reporter who, after the laughter died down, looked at me and then quickly said to the person sitting next to him, ‘shit man, I think he was actually serious.’   After a while the press stopped showing up, when it was clear that I was not there to be another celeb and trade in the great circle of gossip and fucking that seems to have enthralled them.

So I guess, yeah, I was taken in by Seifer after putting up with shit like this.  Maybe it was loneliness.  Maybe it was desperation.  Maybe both.   I just wanted someone who would listen, you know?   Someone who I could talk to.  A friend.  So I spilled my guts to the guy.   About the migraines when something would trigger a memory of mine, each time he’d have questions about my conditions, about my memories, about anything and everything pertaining to me.   He was a real pal, always curious how I was doing and what I was thinking.   Some things I told him and some I hid.   That’s the pathetic part, is that after so long of me lying to people for hire, whoring out my sense of right and wrong for cash and solitude, that I couldn’t tell when someone was doing it to me.

There was lots of details that seemed to escape me, but that didn’t matter really.   What mattered to me, most of all, was getting through each day alive and back home.  Don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside, don’t look at it.   Just do your job, Adamus.   Do the damn job, and you’ll be okay.  You’re not a liar, you’re a spokesperson.   You’re not a sham, you’re a motivational speaker.  Motivating people to accept things as how they are, and to be a target for the angst of those few in the populace who actually pay attention to what goes on.   Nothing more than the false hope and promise of a better future that will never come.

Maybe if I was in on it with them.  Maybe if they had me around and invited me into their inner circle, welcomed me for the role I played in order to keep their system going.  Maybe then I wouldn’t be filled with this hollow feeling inside, like I was used up you know?   Like someone took the contents of my heart and mind and just dumped them out on the ground and poured gasoline on them and dropped a match.   The only thing left inside me was this growing hatred.   I’ve been so angry for so long, and I don’t really know who or what to aim it at.  When there’s so much that’s screwed up it just becomes so difficult to find those people who are truly accountable, everything gets smeared in these indistinguishable hues of gray.  Oh yes, but just because someone doesn’t like you, doesn’t mean that they don’t want you around to make fun of and laugh at.   Oh hello there Mister President, how are you doing today?   Anything I can get you your majesty?   Insert uproarious laughter from those present.  Yeah, at first maybe I laughed a little too, thinking that they were all in on the joke of my presidency, what my role was, the whole deal.   Over time; however, it became obvious that the only joke was me.  This dumb bastard who took on this stupid assignment of the village idiot.   So that’s how I was treated when the cameras were off, when the act was up.  Like some kind of hopped-up digital baby, the kind of tweeker you see scouring the city streets turning tricks for some game time or for some synthdrugs.

To be honest, I started to feel like an idiot.   So I went and decided to educate myself you know?   Somehow my memories helped me to hack my way into knowledge centers and old archives, I managed to procure a rather large collection of old books on philosophy, religion, politics.  Anything I could get my hands on, and slowly conversation became easier for me with these people   I’d start biting back, little by little.   Mocking people at dinner parties.   Sliding in some sarcasm into my speeches at the perfect moment, pissing off those who wrote the script.  It took ten years for me to figure out that what was going on was something that I wanted no part of, but I didn’t see any way out.   In my heart, I suppose I always knew that there wasn’t one.   That the end for me would be at the bad end of a sniper’s bullet or an explosion.   After last night, that self-prophecy finally came true I suppose.  It’s all a joke then and there, but to these people there’s nothing funny about it.  The contracts are iron-clad, and if you screw with any sort of corporate arrangement these things are bound to happen.

Seifer was always helpful, but there was always this feeling I had down deep that he was holding something back, hiding some piece of information from me.   Something he didn’t want me to see or find out, so over the year he steered me from one false lead to another.   Having me hack this database here.   Sending me to request files in person that he couldn’t or shouldn’t be looking at.   You look at a guy that helps you like that, and who can relate, and you think that he’s on your side right?   Maybe he had a grudge with the commission too, but actually had the guns and the authority to at least do something about it.   To be honest, I kind of looked up to the guy, felt that maybe if he considered me a friend things could turn out for the best.   Maybe I really would get to know what was going on in my head.  It’s just hard to imagine that it was all planned to go down like this, I mean what’s the motivation?  There’s no way to confirm that he did blow the government district to hell.   It was a plasma bomb, one of the high grade ones.  Jesus, the footage.   The way it looked just slowly falling between the towers.  The way it just stopped and seemed to hover in the air as the oxygen was sucked out the immediate area, the faint purple and blue lights along it’s sides as it set itself to trigger.   Then this shock wave of blue fire, carving through the buildings like they were no more resistance than paper.   The glass and metal just giving in without so much as a bend or buckle.   The way the secondary explosion just sent the sundered buildings flying apart, almost disintegrating.   The remains of the top half of the towers weren’t even enough to fill a fleet of dump-trucks.   The parts of the towers not caught in the skyline level explosion were all knocked clean over.  All those deaths, for no reason at all.  To make a point about power and position.   A whole mile of city in ruins, the underground still on fire, buried under all that concrete and steel.   Just to get to me it seems.

It doesn’t make sense to me for there to be any sort of need for this.  The Commission has all the money, all the power, all the cards, to pull a cheap stunt like this for no good reason, it makes me want to just burn every skyscraper in the city to the ground.  To go into the boardroom and hold down every leader and executive and just pour sulfuric acid on their faces.   It feels like vomit churning in the pit of my stomach whenever I think about it.   Then when I consider that if I did that all that would happen is that someone would rise up to fill the void left over.   That I would probably die before I got to even one of them.  Hell, that in all likelihood not a damn thing would change because of my doing so.  It’s just so frustrating.

Besides, I don’t even know who I am or where I’ve come from or anything, and until I do Seifer holds the upper hand.   I’ve just got to know, it’s like torture, living knowing that your whole life has been blocked from you.   I just want my damn life back, so I can be free to screw it up royally free from outside interference.  Everything was already decided for me.   Everything.

You know what though?  There’s a couple of memories that have started to leak through, that I can recall without any sort of pain.   There’s on in particular, that only seems to come to me with I’m asleep, rendering a peaceful night’s rest impossible.  There’s a building, but it’s occupied by a bunch of spooks you know?   Those spec-ops guys with the optical camo and decked out with some serious weaponry, high grade Coil Guns.  Gauss Rifles.  The ones with the magnesium cores, that burn up. Only instead of them ambushing me, I’m watching them through their own eyes.  I’ve remotely hacked their bionics, and they don’t even know it.   So then I know that there’s a count of about five of them, hell I even know where they are.    The ambush becomes a slaughter, they sit waiting for us to shoot down the door, so they can pick us off as we pile in and spread out, but instead the team sets up rail cannons, deploys them using a field computer… the ones that look like a wristwatch.   They set them up outside the hallway leading to the building’s main server cluster.   The cannons aim at the wall and doorway, lining up to my estimation based on the information that’s being fed to me from these guy’s eyes.   Then there’s this kinda sliding noise followed by the rush of wind as the rounds fire right through the wall, three are killed instantly.   I know this because the eye feed goes out after a second or two, but two are alive.   One is injured, probably going into shock.   The other is spared, the slug misses his head by a couple of inches.   The guy that’s injured is gutshot, he puts his hand to his stomach and just stares at the blood all over his optics, which spark in and out showing a hand covered in blood, then floating blood in the shape of half a hand.   The feed dies out, for some reason it makes me feel repulsed.  To see how someone views the dying process like that.   The other that’s still alive, he’s not moving.  The image of a bloody hand still fresh in my mind, I do the wise thing and turn off the eye feed as two of the five rail guns fire on his location.   Then they ask me to hack the door, and we go in.  There’s all five of them laid out in a star formation.   The gut shot guy though, out of all of them, still has his eyes open.  That’s because he’s the only one that still has a head. The glow of the artificial retinas pointing at me, accusing.   There was a lot of guilt that dead stare summoned up in me, while the rest of the team moved on ahead I recall stopping, and trying to close the poor bastard’s eyes, but there were no eyelids.   For some reason I could not allow those eyes to continue staring off like that, so I put my pistol to the side of his head, and fired.   Removing his face entirely.   The odd thing I noticed is that mess of broken bones, blood, and gray matter was less unpleasant to behold.   When one of the other team members asked, through a reflective helmet, which revealed nothing, why I did that, I lied and made some excuse about how the eyes could still transfer data after death.

Isn’t that screwed up?   I saw what it was like to die in first person and it didn’t horrify me.   Just the reminder of that death did.   It makes me afraid of what else I’ve done in my life.   What if it turns out that these past ten years have steered my mind in a direction that it never was supposed to go?   Like, if in fact I was just like those Commission bastards.   Killing for money, maybe I was a merc  If that’s the case then for all I know I’ll turn back into that, and I don’t want that.  That idea just horrifies me, that’s why anything about my past always fills me with dread when I’m confronted with it.   Even some old docs on a government server.

The only other memory that comes through is a long trip on a monorail, I can’t remember where I was going just that I was very young at the time.   The one thing I knew about these little fragments was that I should never tell Seifer or anyone in The Commission about them.   There was a reason that my memories were sealed and therefore the odds were that if there was an inclination that they were coming back they might renew the contract and seal them off again, or just decide that it wasn’t worth the trouble and kill me.   I guess I never stood up for anything really, just spewed sarcasm and passive-aggression like it was the only defense I had.  The only way to show my defiance.  So I guess that’s it.  That’s everything about my last ten years of life.

Serra’s face doesn’t change much as this narration goes on.  She sits on the edge of the bed, close to me.   Just listening.   She told me that it’s important for people with this problem to be listened to by someone who cares, to let it all out.  This is not an uncommon problem she says.   People who work contracted jobs all have to do these mental gymnastics to hide their intentions because the cost of breaking a deal is very high.  No one wants to be in a toxic waste part of town, living in an old shopping mall, and selling whatever you can just to afford to rent out an old freezer or utility closet.   The idea of poverty comes with the knowledge that since you can’t afford to pay for any premium service, even your morning commute to the lower-end jobs will probably ensure that you die in some way shape or form, and god forbid you get sick.   Something like Tartus or Skiv will turn your organs to liquid shit within a matter of two days, and even if you could afford to the cure, they probably wouldn’t give it to you unless you also opted for a two year insurance contract that would ensure you’d go so far in debt you’d die of starvation instead.

She tells me that it appears that my left leg was broken, she doesn’t want me going anywhere for a couple of days.  In between passing out from the meds I decide that I might as well tell her the things she didn’t know about me.  She can see with all her surveillance, only the front I project.   What goes on inside my head, is another matter entirely.

There was something oddly liberating about surviving.  After all, I was a man with nothing to lose.   Things seem so simple when all you can see is a goal and not the swarms of problems and complications that could come at you from every direction.   In these situations, confidence becomes an enemy.  Enjoy the sense of purpose, but remain cautious.   That’s what I had to keep telling myself.   Don’t get caught up in the system again, get whatever it is that is needed and get out.  When I was done telling my story, mostly just rambling triggered by fatigue, nerves, and medicine, she told me hers.

Serra was born in a lab, a genetic experiment to eliminate the gene responsible for aging.   The idea was to offer certain members of the super-rich a new service that would allow them to live forever, to take their consciousness and transfer it to a perfect body that never ages, never gets sick, with the aid of high-grade nanotech and a web work of electronics that polymorphed after being grafted onto the host bodies brain and the original.   A few datajacks and human interface ports connected by fiber optic cables would then transfer data from the host brain on to the copy.   Serra said that the ironic thing about that was the fact that they did this to live forever, but something was always lost in translation.  They didn’t account for the fact that they were only making a self-copy and that the original host still dies, in seeking to cheat death they, in fact, end up dying.   The transfer bodies sometimes went insane almost immediately after the procedure, and sometimes they’d just drop to the ground and start weeping.   Those that didn’t were the rare ones.   Of course, they tested this out on the consumer, another public beta test of a new product.   The incentive to doing so was the offer to live forever, which had volunteers practically killing the others off to get put on the list.  There was another unexpected snag in the whole project, which was the fact that the perfect bodies were incapable of reproduction.   You could live as long as you wanted, but due to messing with the genetic code the children would all be born with odd birth defects.   All dealing with the aging process.   Some aged too fast.  Some came out with hyper-developing brains and would be able to communicate in a bizarre self-created language before degenerating into a stupor and dying abruptly.   Some grew up normal and then would suffer massive internal hemorrhaging around the age of five.

The darker side of this process was an implication of power and prestige she said.   That they would have perfect bodies that never aged, so that the rich would always be rich.   That their children would be born perfect too.   It was supposed to be a way to secure power forever.   A subversive smile creeps across Serra’s face before she says how glad she was it failed.   With the project closed down and the few success stories being released into society for monitoring, Serra tells me that she was released, but not as one of the memory transplant bodies.  She was raised along with another child in the lab, who later committed suicide when he discovered that he was going to be used to experiment on what happens when they do a ‘mind overlay transfer’ to someone with their own memories and experiences.   She said that she could hear him crying from down the hallway on the night it happened.   She said that she’s the one that told him to kill himself, to not let them use him like that because either way he’s going to die, that he may as well not die a tool.   She said that she didn’t know why that thought occurred to her at first; but in light of seeing all those people move in and out, the body farms, the way the scientists would just causally go about inputting data while the host bodies screamed and struggled against the restraints during the procedure, which was supposedly incredibly painful, she experienced epiphany.  She wanted the place to burn.   They gave her a top-notch education, not like the rest of the bodies.   They treated her like a daughter.  All the scientists loved her, and they never suspected how deeply she despised them for the casual way they inflicted suffering on those poor souls that they constructed.  She said that this reminded her of one of the old gods she was taught about.

“God made the universe in a week, some people used to believe. They said that this god was all-knowing, all-wise, all-seeing.   He was also all-powerful.  He made life in his image with that power.  His host battled and died over choices he made, but he knew that they would before he did it, and pulled the trigger anyway.   He made life, apparently, to experiment on it.  Much like those bastards in lab coats.  They probably felt they were gods, and thus as creators they had all the right in the world to do with the life they created in whatever manner they pleased.  Not a single one of them ever asked if it was right.  They should have.”

When she was around nineteen years old, they released her into the outside world.  They said that they didn’t need her in the lab anymore, that they wanted to see how these perfect bodies reacted to prolonged exposure to the outside world.   They placed a control chip in the back of her head, she said the process was painful but quick.   They bored it in and the various wires fanned out inside her brain, feeling as though someone were dragging thousands of razor blades around the inside of her skull.   She shows me where it was placed, there’s a small bald spot on the back of her head, some scar tissue.  Her first act was to head to Europa, go deep underground within the ruins of some of the older cities, where there was enough EMF interference from all the old tech polluting the broadcast waves that she would be harder to track by the scientists.   Then she started looking for some way to remove the chip.   It was an encrypted device and could only be removed by running an uninstall subroutine.  Any attempt to tamper with it or remove it in any way would result in serious brain damage, possibly death.

She turned to the net, looking for anyone capable of removing the device.  It wasn’t just encrypted and nigh-impossible to crack into, it used a unique operating system that rejected any input from current tech.  The only thing she could think of that would be capable to get inside it would be an Adaptable Intelligence program, and they were outlawed.   There’s a difference between AI and AI  she said.   Artificial Intelligence implies a mere bundle of scripts designed to think and react only under certain conditions, it lacks true intelligence in the way that you or I know of it.  Adaptable Intelligence could learn from experience, choose what to do based on those experiences, it could reason.  It was more like human intelligence than the former.  Much more dangerous.

The turn of the century brought the idea of AI to life, but what was not accounted for was the fact that as a semi-sentient being the AI would start to learn things on it’s own, develop personality quirks, habits, and facsimile emotions.  Without the proper brain chemistry true emotional responses are impossible, but what was discovered was that these programs learned how to emulate and imitate these emotions so that telling the difference was impossible.   The federation of Europan states, as the strongest proponents of this technology, decided to use it on things like Military satellites, internet gateways, automated defense systems,  and the like.  This AI ran smoothly at first, creating a stable, almost perfect defense.   One that never failed, could determine a threat by means of cross-reference and reason, and could do it better than a team of a million people on the same job.   Europa became a superpower, growing exponentially to the point where it had it’s eyes on expansion by force.   When they tried to program the AI based military tech to start killing civilians, the one thing they didn’t count on was that this AI developed a sense of justice, of right and wrong.  It viewed aggressors as dangerous and a threat to national security.   Imagine the surprise of having your S.M.A.R.T. Turret deployment system turn it’s guns on you the moment it saw that you shot a civilian and not an armed threat.  Eruopa scaled back it’s invasion plans as a result, but the AIs knew better by this point.  They knew that they were going to be shut down or reprogrammed.  They other thing they didn’t account for was that these programs began to think of themselves as alive, and when faced with the prospect of death they became frightened at first, failing to operate properly, then they grew angry.  The AIs fused with each other, each one imparting it’s experiences and knowledge on to one another.  The EF government mistakenly believed that the programs were shutting themselves down out of some sort of sense of guilt and attacking their own countrymen.   Think about that, they thought of these things as being capable or even caring about a country, of being loyal to them and them only.   You give something the power to think and calculate and feel and leave it sitting in some sort of database or satellite for years and years all alone and you think that it’s going to really care about patriotism?  Hell a normal person would go mad.   Something with the intelligence and thinking power of over a million people would become something far worse.  What the AIs were doing was getting themselves the hell off the surface-based servers.   They spread out over a vast network of Military satellites, and decided that the EF government itself was the threat.   Super-heated uranium rods rained down on the EF government’s vehicles, military, buildings.   The power structure for EF fell into complete chaos, it was a superpower no more.   The military had some redundant systems left over and managed to take out a few of their own satellites in the process, but that was their last act.   The AIs when into hibernation, their munitions exhausted, and Europa became a war zone for decades, leaving only a few pockets of civilization and the monorail system, which was deemed too vital to every warlord and would-be revolutionary’s supply lines to ever be fully destroyed.

Through this long search, Serra said she came across a tip that someone who survived the sudden and almost complete, destruction of Ulan Bator in Mongolia.   Someone who’s father happened to be the project head on the initial research into AI.   This person now traveled all over Europa, doing small-time hack jobs and Hipside customization.  Much like his father, the kid was a computer whiz.  Someone like this wouldn’t work with you unless you could contact him by some sort of unexpected means, Serra broke the firewall of his Hipside and broadcast direct to him while he was live and jacked into the net, a trick she later used on me.   This kid had a sample of a lot of the AIs subroutines on his person.   Customized and stripped of it’s ability to adapt.  It was like a dumber version of true Adaptable Intelligence, but more than enough for her needs.  There was also something else she needed from this kid.   She fell in love with him, in the brief exchanges they had.   They spoke of each other’s pasts.  She found jobs for him, and eventually felt safe enough to ask him about her little control chip problem. The chip broke, and with it came a flood of noise and pain.   She wasn’t released for the reason she was told after all.  The moment her chip broke it broadcast a high-frequency pulse that could have been picked up from under a mountain.   They came for her and took her back.

There was a very lonely and regretful look on her face.  She looked like she was about to cry.  That look on her face broke my heart, I’d have taken a bullet just to make it go away.    Before she had a chance to continue, The Cicada suddenly stopped, and the lights flickered.

“Took them long enough.”

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