The moon traveled in front of the sun and millions stopped, watched and hoped their filtered glasses were legit and not a part of some diabolical plan to blind the entire nation.
Nick Kane didn’t care. He missed the whole waxing and waning eclipse. He needed money, needed it bad, so bad that he took a job that sent him inside the hyperloop for three and a half hours. Gone were the days when he could make a quick ten grand in the mixed bionic ring.
The hyperloop traveled from Old Vegas to New Shanghai. Kane had one eye on the large entertainment screen and one on the small screen on his wristwatch from which the young woman was speaking to him. She was just a face, one that was not quite real, not quite fake. Her name was Grable. She had no body, just an electronic brain and voice, one that talked, laughed, collated, analyzed and assisted his investigations.
“Good news, Nick,” announced Grable.
“Old Manchester U dominated Arsenal again.”
“No, Nick, we have a new case.”
“What is it?”
“Four recent crimes have a distinct and observable connection.”
On his small wristwatch screen, Grable broadcast an image of four butterfly shaped wings branded into the back of a man’s neck.
“Each criminal had this kind of butterfly tattoo and each worked briefly at a corporation called Lexicon based in New Shanghai and each criminal swears to have no knowledge of committing the crime.”
“Any importance to the tattoo?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“So, what kind of crimes are we talking about?”
“Theft. Vandalism. Destruction of property.”
“Sounds like pretty ordinary, run of the mill daily crap. Why hire me?”
“One of the men also tried to assassinate Governor Churion.”
“The one running for President?”
“Who is the client?”
“An anonymous non-governmental entity.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“I miss you.”
“Stop it, Grable.”
“I can’t stop thinking about you. It’s—well—one of the primary laws of an adaptive consciousness.”
“To maximize utility, I have been programmed to fixate.”
Kane fiddled with the screen of his wristwatch, readying to switch it off. He still had that power over Grable. “Do we have to talk about the past?”
“I guess I just haven’t come to terms with the truth of my existence. A mysterious death. Rebirth. Infinite knowledge. All of it.”
“Look, Grable, snap out of it. We have some bad guys to find. Okay?”
“I guess I just need closure.”
“Sometimes, Grable, there’s just no such thing.”
“You’re probably right. Now, I’m transmitting your identity for this case right now.”
A ping announced the message on his wristwatch. Kane looked down at a digital form on his watch from the New Life Sperm Bank. A box on the form was marked “rejected.” The reasons: “non conformist eccentricities,” “excessive need for adrenaline,” “frequent daydreams” and “vivid childhood memories.”
“This profile have a name?”
“Martin Harris,” answered Grable. “He matches your build, your physique and your temperament profile, as well as the profile of those four Lexicon criminals. He also has military experience and bionic legs. Sounds familiar, right?”
Kane sat back in the narrow seat of the hyperloop and sighed. “Yeah, so is there anything else I should know?”
“Their security will require you to hand over any electronic devices. So no watch, no phone and no Grable watching and hearing every move you make.”
“I have been unable to hack into their computer system.”
“Grable, are you losing your touch?”
“Nick, seriously, I have a bad feeling about this case.”
“Grable, you don’t have feelings.”
“I know, but I do have thoughts—predictions—and Nick, these lead to worries about outcomes and these lead to doubt and—and—feelings.”
“It’s going to be okay.”
“That’s what you said when I ceased to have a body.”
“Come on, just focus on the present, okay?”
“Okay, Nick, okay. Once you’re behind the Lexicon firewall, I need you to get me patched into their servers. Just use one of our mini-drives to upload one of my bugs and I’m in. Five seconds minimum should do the trick. You know how our mini-drives work, right?”
“Sure. Just press on the thumbnail, get within one foot of the targeted hard-drive, swipe the mini-drive and bada-bing-bada-bam!”
“Okay, then I’m signing off.”
Grable faded from the tiny screen as Kane tried to get comfortable.
In nearby sound proof glass berths dozens of passengers rested in their seats, packed in the sleek, supersonic car like hens about to be plucked. An ambient neo classical adagio gently pulsed through the car. A series of digital ads flickered on the large screen, offering hope, pleasure and a glimpse into the world outside. Kane closed his eyes, sighed and tried to sleep.
About two hours later, when the hyperloop door opened, Kane got out and walked amidst the triangular skyscrapers of New Shanghai’s digerati district. A beige smog thickened above the hills. On the street corner, Kane passed a group of Salvation Army soldiers, their red bucket ringing in the air and their worried faces searching the throng of pedestrians rushing around New Shanghai.
Kane was certain about just a few things: evil is all around, love conquers hate and New Shanghai smelled something like an overcooked turkey, jungle style.
The sun wasn’t very bright, but Kane still put on a pair of silver tinted sunglasses.
An old lady in a gray and red uniform tried to hand Kane a “soul therapy card” as she muttered, “Oh child, if you need help, we are here for you. We care.”
Kane didn’t take the card and walked at a determined pace to an unnamed skyscraper towering above the others. He walked in and went to the security desk.
A gruff, heavyset security guard in a navy blue suit asked, “Help you?”
“Yeah, I’m here for a job,” answered Kane.
“Will you release your profile?” asked the security guard.
Kane nodded and the security guard wanded his wristwatch. The wand chimed a pleasant beep and the security guard smiled, “Accepted. ”
“Great, want me to do a back flip, too?”
“No, you’re good,” answered the security guard. “Just follow instructions, be productive, don’t break anything, and you’ll do just fine here at Lexicon.”
The guard looked down at Kane’s legs. “And hey, thanks for your service to our country. How did you—well—how did you lose ’em?”
Kane ran his fingers through his full head of hair, “Did I lose my hair again? It must have happened when the wind blew.”
The guard waved Kane through the metal detector.
An hour or so later, Kane waited in a corner office with views of New Shanghai, all beige and soupy in the early morning fog. Kane sat across from an older woman sitting behind her desk. She had streaks of silver in her black hair, green eyes and a gray suit with a white collared shirt. She didn’t smile, barely even looked at Nick.
“I’m Miss Dewey, director of personnel. I have to say, well, Mister Harris your application was—well—almost perfect. In fact, only one out of a thousand are accepted. So, being hired, for most, is the hardest part of the process. Actually, Mister Harris, its a real pleasure to find someone who has served his country.”
“It was my honor, really.”
Miss Dewey looked up, smiling only briefly. “At Lexicon we are all about service to country. It’s hell out there, and…well…Lexicon has been designed to fulfill any and all aspirations of the social world we serve. To excel here, you just need to follow instructions, pay attention to details, keep your eyes on the screen and you’ll do just fine. Now, please read the tablet provided you and sign when ready.”
Kane looked down to his tablet and read. It was filled with paragraph after long paragraph of near microscopic text. This legal document, Kane quickly determined, confirmed that nausea, headaches and double vision might be common side effects to the work. The form also gave away most of Kane’s privacy and required that he not bring any electronic devices to work. His firstborn child, thankfully, he could still keep.
Kane scribbled his signature on the screen.
“And now you’re ready to begin your training. Your trainer is Jack Dunn, one of our top producers, been with us nine years. I think you’ll really enjoy his training.”
Kane’s training at Lexicon began with a rotund, balding man pacing in front of three white rows of cubicles, with short two feet tall partitions between each. The bulky man wore a black KISS concert t-shirt with bright gold letters, black flip-flops and ripped jeans slathered over his Santa belly. Kane, who was the only other person in the room, sat in the front row.
“Welcome to Lexicon, Marty Harris. How’s it going?”
“Very good, sir.”
“You’re my student, and I am your sensei. It’s time for some real fun. Now, Marty, your job will be very easy, if you just follow my instructions. Can you do that?”
“You bet, sir.”
“Good. Now every day you sit here in this cubicle with your tablet. Every day you turn it on. And every day you sit here and watch.”
“The computer screen.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yeah. You sit. Watch. Daydream. And occasionally flag anything objectionable as defined by this list. And don’t lose your tablet. It’s your responsibility while you’re on the job. Very few people can stomach this kind of work. Day in, day out, watching the worst of humanity. Me? I’m a masochist. How ’bout you?”
Kane smiled, lathering up the charm and smarm. “Just want to do a good job, sir.”
“You’re too damn polite, Marty Harris. We don’t want angels here; we want goddamn blood sucking, ant eating, wing tearing warriors. Your mission: keep the digital world clean, safe and pure. Got that?”
“Okay, good luck. I’ll check in with you later today to see how the first day went.”
“Just one thing, sir.”
“Jack, call me Jack.”
Kane waved to the line of empty cubicles, spartan in their cleanliness. “Jack, where are the others?”
“The other workers.”
“Well, Marty, we run a pretty exclusive operation here, so it’s just you on level one today. Is that going to be a problem?”
“No sir, no problem whatsoever.”
For the next eight hours Kane watched the images scroll across the tablet computer positioned in an upright docking station. The screen typically was divided into two halves. One half had the images and the other listed objectionable phrases or actions such as beheadings, knifings and beatings.
That night Kane left the Lexicon building and walked toward the river where the bridge crossed from New Shanghai to New Vegas. Each was an island, self-contained yet connected. New Shanghai was where people worked and New Vegas was where the casinos, flame-throwers and sex bots could be found in abundance.
Tonight, the casinos had gigantic video screens broadcasting a grudge match between mixed bionics, pounding, flailing, sweating and destroying each other limb to limb.
Kane thought about crossing the bridge, until he heard Grable’s voice. Her voice came from the heavens. Kane prayed to God he wasn’t being taken away by the angel of death.
“Hey Nick! Surprise!” yelled Grable.
Kane looked up. A white remote control drone flew overhead. “Grable?”
“Yep, it’s me. I’m mobile!”
“Don’t you remember the Corporation had you chipped?”
Kane ran his hand along a very tiny scar running between his thumb and index finger. He felt the tiny chip when he squeezed his skin together.
“And now that the geek lab made me mobile, I can find you anywhere, anytime. From the ends of the earth to the tip of the spear, I will always find you, because Nick, I love you.”
“That’s enough, Grable. Please. This is embarrassing.”
“Hey Nick, do you ever wish you were back in the ring?”
“The ring is for fools and liars and anyone who wants to die.”
During his second day at Lexicon, Kane sat in his cubicle and watched the screen of his tablet. A steady feed of digital images scrolled across the screen, including pictures of vacations, kids swimming in pools, silly digital memes about food and travel.
Near the end of the second day, something out of the ordinary scrolled across Kane’s work computer screen. It was a man burning a body in effigy, hung from a street sign in the busy center of a city. The seams of the world were coming unglued.
The man shouted, “Death to all pigs! Death to Churion!”
A circle of thugs surrounded the shouting man. One of the thugs had a baseball bat. Another had a two by four. Even another carried a golf club. The circle of thugs looked ready to beat him into a pulp.
As the thug swung the baseball bat, Kane pressed the “delete” button on his tablet.
A voice boomed from a PA speaker positioned in the far corner of the cubicle farm. “Well done, Marty Harris! Well done! You can break for lunch. Check out our new cafeteria. Just take the elevator to level three.”
Kane wasn’t sure whose voice it was. Since he was hungry, Kane rode the elevator up to the third floor. There was a salad bar of fresh fruits and vegetables, dozens of tables with happy, energetic young people eating and chatting. In the corner, there was even a ping pong table where two young men played an energetic back and forth match.
From one of the tables, Jack Dunn rose and greeted Kane. “Welcome to level three. This is where the fun really begins.”
“How many levels are there?” asked Kane.
“Ah Marty, just take it one level at a time, buddy. Okay?”
Kane nodded. He went on to eat his lunch, making small talk about the ping pong game and then went back down to level two.
A couple of hours later, with Kane still staring at the tablet computer screen and no one around, he slid his thumbnail up to the port of the tablet computer and counted to ten. When he got to eight, he heard the door opening. At the front of the room, Miss Dewey walked in with Jack Dunn. Kane took a breath and hoped Grable had enough time to hack into Lexicon’s servers.
Later, it was almost midnight and time for Kane to rest. He rolled into bed at his hotel room, a dull golden glow from a street light shimmered. When he was almost asleep, from the bedside table next to a Gideon Bible, Grable asked, “Nick, are you awake?”
Kane rolled over, placed the pillow over his ears. “Not really.”
Grable continued, “They really run a tight ship at Lexicon.”
“You came up empty?”
“Actually, Nick, I was able to gather a ton of intelligence about their operations, their staff and their mission. Only—well Nick—only it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Kane sat up, shutting off the television. “Why?”
“For one thing they purchase a lot of liquid Kevlar.”
“You know that material used for bullet proof vests. Interesting material. It was actually invented by a woman named Kwolek while working for Dupont during a tire shortage.”
“Why does a social media company need Kevlar?”
“Exactly. That’s a good question.”
“What else did you find out?”
“Well, not a lot. Most of their data is encrypted and I’ve been unable to break their code.”
“So you’ve got nothing. I’ve got nothing, and all day long I look at nothing.”
“I didn’t say I have nothing.”
“Then what do you have?”
“The most interesting fact I’ve gleaned so far is that all four criminals were terminated once they reached something called Level Seven.”
“What’s Level Seven?”
“Not exactly sure, but it could be a sound level, perhaps related to decibels.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Lexicon has been active in sonic terrorism for years. That much the Corporation has known for a while. We just don’t know how they do it.”
“Remember that Cuba thing a few years back?”
“Nah, I must have been living la vida loco in the ring or getting blown up in the New Levant when that happened.”
“There were these diplomats targeted with a tip of the spear sonic weapon, caused ruptured eardrums. Vomiting. Vertigo. It was a Bay of Pigs kind of moment.”
Kane rolled over, folding his pillow over his ears. “Silent mode. Please.”
“Okay Nick. Silencing now.”
As his third day at Lexicon began, Kane rode the elevator up. At level two, the door opened and Jack Dunn approached with two linebacker-sized security guards.
Dunn patted Kane on the back. “Well Marty, how’s it going?”
“Good, I think.”
The guards sandwiched Kane, grasping his arm and not allowing him to exit.
Dunn pressed the seven on the elevator keypad.
As the door slammed shut Dunn said, “Well Marty, thanks to your curiosity, you punched a one way ticket to hell.”
Dunn knifed a syringe into Kane’s bicep.
The security guards grabbed Kane. He yanked away as the elevator door opened at level seven. They chased him, but he lost his balance. His breath felt labored. He was sleepy, so sleepy. He placed his hands to his temple, started to rub and stumbled to the floor.
When he woke he was staring at Dunn while seated on a lone chair centered in a sparse, though bright yellow room. Kane’s arms and legs were both tied to the chair. One of the walls, Kane was certain, was a two-way mirror.
“Nicholas John Kane,” began Dunn with a swagger, “we here at the Lexicon know you had two tours of duty in the New Levant. You survive two roadside bombs, lose your legs, get some fancy ones back, win a Purple Heart, endure PTSD. When you come back from the New Levant, you spent a couple of years busting heads in the mixed bionic ring. Then, quite abruptly after your girlfriend dies you disappear. Poof, you’re off the grid like the Unabomber. So, what explains this mystery?”
“You’ve got it wrong, sir.”
“Like hell I do. And who the hell is so god damn polite? No one, Marty, no one.”
“Jack, buddy, you’ve got to take some yoga or start doing some tai-chi.”
“Shut up. Okay. Shut up. Now I’m going to show you how we deal with spies here at Lexicon.”
From the wall a blue laser shone right for Kane’s eyes. He tried to avoid it, but it was bright, so precise, so calming.
And then Kane saw the sharp silver point of a drill splicing through the center of the blue laser. It neared his eyes, like a tentacle of death. Before the silver drill reached his eye, Kane flailed and tried to avoid it. Rather than drilling into his eye, the sharp silver point produced a butterfly wing shaped suction claw, which started to spin and spin in a fast circle. The wing shaped suction extended to the back of Kane’s neck and suctioned onto his skin, like a squid squeezing its prey.
“Free will, Mister Kane, it’s what separates you from an animal,” announced Dunn. “But don’t worry, you’ll remember absolutely nothing of the next two to three hours.”
From the wall, a robotic hose emerged and started to spray a translucent glue-like liquid onto Kane’s skin. Kane started to feel light headed and tired. When Kane closed his eyes he was in the middle of a tunnel, his head spinning, stomach churning. Music blared. It was a foot stomping march. In a heartbeat the music changed to a fist pumping punk rock anthem. It kept getting louder and louder. And then the sound was back to a march.
In the blink of an eye, Kane was at the top of a Ferris wheel, looking out over an ocean of primordial gray waves.
In another blink, Kane was seated in a roller coaster. It dipped and soared, and he truly felt as if the wind rushed through his hair and that the contents of his stomach were about to leave his body. The roller coaster slammed to a stop.
His eyes opened wide. Kane figured he was still in the Lexicon building, still tied with his hands and legs to the chair. He tried to scratch his neck, but couldn’t. His skin started to feel warm and gooey, Kane knew all this had to be a dream, or a nightmare, or some hypnotic simulation. He passed out to a calm woman’s voice saying, “When you hear these seven bells, you will awaken. It will be seven o’clock and you will come out of a restful slumber. We have a mission for you. It will only take an hour of your life. Don’t worry, by evening, you’ll forget everything.”
When Kane woke he was riding the elevator with Miss Dewey. They were going down from level seven to six to five.
“We’re really sorry it didn’t work out. Good luck out there and thanks again for your service.”
Kane went to speak, but his voice couldn’t be heard.
“Do you have something to say?” asked Miss Dewey. “And if so, then I can’t hear you. No one can hear you.”
A translucent sheen shimmered from lip to lip as if he was wrapped in a clear bubble wrap. In essence, Kane had been mummified and silenced. Worst of all he had lost control of the movement of his body. It was like some other force controlled his movements.
When they reached level one, Miss Dewey handed Kane a black attaché case. Almost instinctually he grabbed it. When the elevator door opened, the force propelled him to walk. He could only guess that it was the translucent goo enveloping his body.
Walking along a city sidewalk along New Shanghai’s Consulate row, Kane held onto the attaché. Pedestrians passed him by. He tried to reach out, tried to stop, tried to even speak but the translucent skin powered him forward.
Kane finally stopped at the Arabian Embassy, a four storey white palace amidst the skyscrapers. A green and gold flag flapped in a stiff breeze. From above, he heard Grable yelling.
“Nick! It’s me, Grable. Come on Nick! Nick! Nick Kane! It’s Grable!”
Kane had trouble forcing his head to move. He tried to look up into the sky, but the force controlling him overpowered even the slightest of movements.
In drone form, Grable followed Kane and flew down to his level.
“Remember that time we were sipping margaritas in Cancun? Do you?”
Kane didn’t look up.
“My scan detects no presence of explosives. However, there is something electronic inside your attaché. Do you hear me? Kane? Do you?”
With the slightest of motions with his pinkie, Kane wrote three letters on the attaché.
“S.O.S.” yelled Grable. “I’m here for you, Nick. Right here.”
A retractable silver claw shot out from the drone and snatched the attaché from his hand. Grable in drone form flew up high into the sky with the attaché.
Sires blared. Police cars screamed toward the Consulate. They slammed to a stop and within a few seconds, a dozen police officers surrounded Kane.
Later, inside a hospital room, medical staff in scrubs surrounded Kane. He was awake and hooked up to an intravenous drip and sitting up in a hospital bed. The white drone rested at the side of the bed.
Grable asked, “So Kane, how are you feeling?”
“A little tired, a little itchy and scratchy. Other than that I’m pretty much okay.”
“Did I kill anyone?”
“What did I do?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I remember taking an elevator ride with Dunn and a couple of security guards to Level Seven…and…well…then…I remember you yelling at me and the police stampede surrounding me. But how did I get to the Arabian Consulate? That I don’t remember.”
“It appears Lexicon erased about three hours or so of your life. From what we can figure Lexicon had a very elaborate program to train assassins, lackeys, fall guys and gals. They gave you a weapon in an attaché.”
“A sonic one.”
“A sonic bomb?”
“Yes, we believe Lexicon was going to have you perpetrate some sort of sub-sonic terrorist attack. Most of those within half a city block of the Consulate would’ve gone deaf. Bleeding from the nose, ears, vomiting. And no one would have known what caused it.”
“Did they brainwash me or what?”
“Actually, Nick, they sprayed you with a shrink wrap skin-tight polymer with electronic nanobot sensors. Those sensors, millions of them, allowed Lexicon to turn you into a life size remote control fall guy. It was a real pain to get off your skin.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“We believe that’s what happened to the four others who were terminated at Level Seven.”
“The typical mind does not believe what it cannot grasp, yet the atypical mind knows that through science anything is possible.”
“So true. What about Dunn and Miss Dewey?”
“They’re in custody. Not saying much, but in time, we’ll get what we need; but enough about this Lexicon case, if we hurry, we can see sunrise at Half Dome,” said Grable. “If we have time, on the way back, I know this great barbeque place on the coast. Maybe we can even rent a hover car. What do you say?”
“That sounds great, Grable. Really great.”
Michael T. Best