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The Mosaic Protocol

By: William Paulus

Published and distributed by Smashwords

Copyright 2017 William Paulus

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Chapter 1

The accident, It happened so quickly. I’m honestly surprised that I remember. I was crossing the street, on my way to my uninspiring job as an accountant. The blaring of the pickup’s horn made me freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. I become aware of a silver truck, that I had previously not seen, barreling toward me. The pickup swerves slightly as the driver attempts to avoid the collision by going around me. He fails, the headlight area of the truck collided with the side of my body, I am torqued upward and flattened face down against the hood of the truck. As the driver abruptly stops, I grab for the edge of the hood to prevent myself from becoming airborne. This act allows me to stay plastered on the truck’s hood. I become aware of my blood leaking onto the silver metal of the vehicle.

I hear the sound of the driver opening his door. I am then flipped roughly on my back. This jostles my ribs in a way that is less than comfortable. As he helps me off of the hood and onto my feet I have a chance to look at him, I try to focus on his face but I can't. The effect was like someone had thrown static or dust into the air that swirled and shifted in front of the man’s face.

“Oh..shit...are you okay?” The man asks me.

I am in pain at this point. My response comes as a small dizzy staggering half-step and vocally slurred “Uhm.” His face seems to continue to shift and I can’t make out a single detail. This causes terror to begin to well up in me.

Continuing my attempt to focus on the shifting of the man’s face, causes me to feel nauseous. I begin to worry that the wreck has caused damage to my brain.

The man steadies me by firmly gripping my uninjured upper arm and begins steering me toward the passenger door of his truck.“Get in. I’ll take you to the hospital.” He says opening the door and helping me in.

Cradling my wounded ribs with my uninjured arm, the man helps me get into the passenger seat of the truck. I watch as he rushes around and jumps into the driver's seat. I look down at my body as the acceleration of the truck shoves me back into the seat. I see my blood is starting to stain his seat and drip onto the floor mat. I begin repeatedly apologizing for bleeding in his truck. My head drops lower and I begin to fade into darkness.

“Stay with me!” He shouts, shaking me by my shoulder and pushing me back up into a semi-sitting position.The movement brought my head back up a bit. I open my eyes, I am aware my location has changed, but I not sure how much time or distance has passed. Glancing out the window my vision seems to be clear and focused but as I swivel my head back toward the man, his face is still hard to focus on. I try to stay alert, but the task seems impossible. Since looking at the man causes me to feel nauseous I try to avoid looking in his direction.

Lowering my gaze I see my vision can again focus again and I do not feel dizzy or nauseous. I start to assess my injuries. I look at my wound, and I see something shiny and amber protruding from it, I pull the foreign object free, It appears to be a shard of the turn signal lens, it is tinged red by my blood. I feel my will to stay alert beginning to fade, I take a long blink, and when next I reopen my eyes I am on a hospital gurney moving quickly along a brightly lit hallway. When the movement halts, I focus on a face leaning over me. She is beautiful, maybe with all this bright light, I’m dead. I fancy that perhaps she’s an angel. Although, all the lights seemed to flow past too quickly for me to go to them. I force myself to focus on her.The soft feminine face is saying something. I can’t process the sounds she’s making, or focus on the shape her lips are making.

“Huh? Am I dead? What’s going on?” I say dazed.

Raising her voice, she says “Not if I have anything to say about it. I’m a Nurse, you are in a hospital. You were injured in an accident. Your name, Can you tell me your name?” the angel-nurse asks me.

“Thomas Bohr,” I say with a very slight hesitation and slur. It feels like it took whole minutes for me to understand what she’s saying.

“What’s your phone number?”

“At least take me to dinner first,” I say with a bark of laughter, of course, that’s the inopportune moment when I start being cognizant and sharp-witted. The heaving of the laugh causes my chest to hurt.

She looks at me sternly. Even with the stern look on her face she still looks like an angel. “Mr. Bohr, Thomas, this is very important.”

I recite the number, more seriously now.

“Good! You are in the OR, you’re in need of emergency surgery. The accident banged you up pretty bad.”

“I feel fi-,” I say unable to finish before the anesthesia kicks in. The feeling is a bit like being submerged in ice water.

“I’m so sorry” I hear her say as I sink deeper into the abyss of sleep.

I’m not sure if I was full on unconscious and dreaming, or if I was just strung out from the anesthesia. I snap into focus, my ears are ringing, and I hear the percussive throb of my heart in my ears, I see a doctor working on me. His mask is strange. Odd and disconnected from what it should be somehow. I realize that it is a dust mask, similar to those worn for metal or wood shop, not the standard folded blue or green protective medical mask.The doctor approaches my chest with a running power drill in his hand. I try to move my hand to stop him, or at least signal to him that I’m awake for the procedure. I find that I am bound to the table. The throbbing cadence in my ears increases in tempo. My mind races to comprehend and make sense of what is happening. On the news, I had heard about a band of rebels kidnapping people with the apparent goal of trying to sell the organs of their abductees on the black market. But with the power drill in his hand, it seems entirely more likely that he is trying to mutilate my organs. I struggle against my bonds and the restraining cuff breaks on my right side. I futilely lift my arm to try and stop him, yelling out for help. But, the surgeon quickly jams the drill into my chest before my attempt at prevention can stop him. The drill sputters wetly, yet...sparks come from it. I pause at the curiosity. and the surgeon withdraws the drill from my chest cavity.

I look down, confused. I attempt to sit up, which lifts me a fraction of an inch. I see my chest is open, I see no rib cage, It seems virtually impossible to sit up, as I have no abdominal muscles to help. I use my free arm to help myself raise up a little further, I feel no pain, despite my complete lack of a rib cage and thoracic skin. Looking down with a grim curiosity I see my insides. Not the gory flesh of a heart and lungs, but the casing of a processor. There are also sleek black bladders of a ventilator. I see the broken husk of what looks to be a communications system. I turn my head away to avoid looking at my insides. My gaze falls on the table next to me, and I see the rib-shaped structural panel that had been removed for access to my internal mechanisms.

The possibility that the sensory information I was receiving was real hit me. “Tell me I’m still on drugs Doc.” I groan exhaustedly, my head and body falling back, While I tore my eyes away from the feverish nightmare fuel that was my open chest surgery.

“It is regrettable, you had to find out this way. Once you have your CORE-Com removed completely we can talk. Believe me when I tell you, my intent is not to harm you.” The Doctor said through his mask.

“Why would you want to do this? First, telling me I’m- I’m a machine, and now you want to do what exactly? Unplug me? What do you want from me!” I run my free hand down my face, I stop moving it when my eyes are covered, I am hoping to shut out all that I have just seen. Hoping that when I move my hand everything will be ok. like it should be. I am overstimulated from the incredible amount of information I have just been given and was trying to process it into something I could make sense of.

“I just want to unplug you from CORE, it’s like a big brother that’s inside your head. Everything you know CORE knows. If you do or see an illegal act, CORE sees and knows. And, well, I need you. We need you. I’m setting you free. You’ll be free to do whatever you feel is right and won’t have to seek permission from your CORE programming. Your connection to CORE has now been limited to its’ fact-checking database.You can access stored data but you do not add to CORE’s knowledge ”

“Who is we?” I ask calmly as he holds the broken device high enough where I can see. There is a hole in the device where he had stabbed it with the power drill.

“I am the founding father of CORE. I want to make it work the correct way again. I am going to tear out the corruption that has invaded and perverted CORE. ‘We’ are the resistance.”

“I don’t want this. I don’t want any of this! Give me one reason I shouldn’t report you” I shout.

“I understand that sentiment. That’s exactly why we’re returning you back to your life, letting you live your life as you always have. You will not remember this conversation because I want you to make your own choices. Without CORE shaping your visions and thoughts to be how it wants you to be, so you can see things how they truly are, you will see how the world truly is, and realize that CORE is fundamentally broken. To also see that there is a dissonance between your goals and your programming. Consider this information as...coming to you in a drug induced dream. You are an intelligent fellow, I am sure we’ll be in touch.” he says in a calming voice, like a father talking to his child. He puts an anesthesia mask over my face. It seems so very strange. If I am a robot, how would anesthesia work? That’s the way dreams are, though, things don’t always work the way they do in the awake and lucid world.

Chapter 2

A bright light was assaulting my closed eyelids. I risked opening an eye a small crack. I was in a hospital bed and it was late afternoon, sunlight was streaming through the window, lighting the room. A nurse came into the room. She is the same person I had flirted with when I first arrived at the hospital. My head is still feeling foggy but her face stays in focus when I look at her, I took that as a good sign.

“You feeling up to that date Big Boy?” she asks flirtatiously while flashing a mischievous grin at me.

“Uh… what?” That question caught me off guard, The room seemed oddly flat. but then the dimensions seemed to begin to fill in.

“When a patient comes in after a trauma such as a vehicle strike, like you, we worry about head trauma and check to for possible brain damage. We check for potential memory loss by asking you your name, phone number, and address. Easy questions which we can quickly compare to your ID to see if you get the information correct. When I asked your phone number, you told me I should take you to dinner first.”

I grin. “Now, that sounds like me.”

“So, let’s play again. What’s your name?”

“Uh..” I knew my name, but it felt strangely weird saying it. It was as if I was trying to deliberately deceive her and myself. I felt as if I were an imposter. Yet somehow I knew no one would call my bluff.“Thomas Bohr” I finally said flatly. I immediately felt needless guilt as if I were lying.

“And Thomas, your phone number and address?”

I recited it, feeling more comfortable verbalizing that information. Speaking that information did not give me the same deceptive feeling that saying my name did.

She moved closer to remove my IV. The IV bag was marked “Oxilitin”. She slid the needle out of my arm and applied pressure to the puncture site. She then applied an adhesive bandage.

She gave me a sunny and cheerful smile. “Well, you’re free to go. You are one very lucky man, Thomas. Please be more careful next time.”

Something felt strange about how she said the last sentence, making it seem like she felt personally responsible for my condition. I chalked it up to nurse-ly empathy.

“Yeah, I sure plan to....Uh, Hey nurse… what was the surgery for?” I ask as a hauntingly vague memory of my dream briefly flashes through my mind.

“We didn’t need to operate. When you first arrived we thought you had more extensive injuries, Lucky, for you, the scans didn’t suggest any of the internal bleeding that we originally worried about when you were triaged. We did fix up some deeper external wounds, gave you a tetanus booster and an Oxilitin transfusion. There are great Docs here, and they have put you on the quick road to recovery.

As she explained the treatment they had given me, I realized I understood why I was given each of the meds. Since I had a cut in my skin, which could allow a multitude of bacteria to enter my body, I needed the booster to prevent me from developing tetanus or the later stage, Lockjaw as it was sometimes called. I was given Oxilitin to aid in the potential blood loss that they were initially concerned about. Oxilitin was a blood additive that does a similar job to red blood cells. It can keep you alive but significantly reduces platelet and white blood cell counts. In this is way, it would keep tissues oxygenated in a dire emergency but in the long term could increase the chance of infections when used in higher dosages. I knew one unit was a good thing but long-term use could result in large problems.

I nod and turn away to leave. She stops me by touching my arm. I turn to face her. I raise an eyebrow in a non-verbal inquisitive expression to ask why she had stopped me. I see the slight blushing color her cheeks which only adds to her beauty.

“I’m not supposed to do this, but…” she says as she discreetly passing me a slip of paper.

Holding it low I, discreetly open it using my thumb while keeping it out of sight, cupped in the palm of my hand. I see the name “Hazel” and a phone number written on the slip of paper. I look up to meet her gaze.

“Call me sometime.” She says softly in a low voice and quickly ducks out of the room.

At the discharge desk, as I sign myself out, the same feeling of fraud ran through me as I signed my name on the medical forms. I was provided with loads of paperwork, which indicated when to seek follow-up care if needed, dangerous warning symptoms to be on the watch for, symptoms that should go away in a few days, and a form for medical leave from my job for recovery time. The doctors felt I should take a few days off from my job to recover and the forms allowed me to still get paid. After I filled the mountain of paperwork out I stepped out into the brisk cool evening air. The chill of the air had me quickly pulling on my coat. I had spent more than entire workday being checked out in the hospital.

I took a deep breath and felt a little woozy. This dazed feeling a common side effect of Oxilitin, on par with hyperventilation. The breath of cool air chilled my lungs. I happily looked around at the buildings, although I was still a little sore from the wreck, I felt glad to be alive. The surrounding architecture consisted of buildings 30-60 stories tall, with windows mimicking shimmering mirrors, almost spotless in every respect reflecting the light of the fading sun, as it set. I enter the subway, where the fading sunlight failed to shine. My hope was to catch a fast train uptown to my apartment. Operating on autopilot, I bought passage by pressing my palm to an ID reader and passing through the turnstiles. I find a seat on a hard bench in the waiting area.

On one of the TVs which hang from the ceiling in a neat row along the loading platform, an attractive evening newswoman begins talking. Despite my best efforts, to ignore the gloom and doom news broadcast, I can’t help but watch.

“Nothing but bad news.” I hear nearby commuter mumble.

I continue to watch for a brief moment, then forcibly shift my attention elsewhere. I pull the slip of paper with nurse Hazel’s phone number from my pocket. I look at it. I touch the wake button on my subdermal touch screen which has been implanted into my arm, and it powers on. I scroll through the menu to the correct spot and tap out the number, The Personal Integrated Computer, sometimes referred to as a PIC-man or PIC. It receives the input and saves the number in my contacts. I rip the paper in half and stuff it in a trash bin. Shortly after that, the train arrives and I take the subway uptown. When I exit I go through the process of scanning my ID chip so the cost of the trip can be calculated and paid for. When I reach the street level I see the streetlights begin to blink on. I walk the two blocks from the subway stop and enter the Taurus Tower where my apartment is located.

“Good evening Mr. Bohr,” The receptionist greets me brightly.

“Are you new?” I ask approaching her curiously.

“I usually work the day shift Monday through Friday. I’ve seen you when I’m on day shift and you pass by.” She says smiling brightly.

I read her name tag. Bernice. Not possible Bernice, I think to myself. I have never left work early. I never had a reason to. In fact, today has been the only day I have ever missed work. This felt off, very strange, but this girl, Bernice seems so genuine and sweet.

“Do we even know each other from somewhere else Bernice? I don’t recall that I have ever met or seen you before.”

Her smile fades a bit as she freezes and processes what I have said.“It’s the strangest thing, but I’m not entirely sure.” She answers flatly, and with an aura confusion.

“It’s all right. I may be a little confused. I got a bit of a bump on my head earlier today and you greeted me awfully….” I pause to carefully choose my next word “personally, I was worried I might have some memory issues as a result of my injury.”

“My deepest apologies Mr. Bohr, if that bothers you I can avoid doing it in the future,” She responds mechanically.

When she spoke my name I almost look behind me to see if someone else has entered into the lobby. I have an almost uncontrollable desire to want to escape her presence before she calls me a fraud and an impersonator. “Do what you like?” I say going quickly for the now open elevator door.

I walk into my apartment and head to the kitchen. As I walk through my apartment everything here seems familiar, normal and safe. I grab the last bottle of beer from my almost empty refrigerator. “Blast it!” I say out loud. I now remember that I’d planned on going to shop for food after work today. I push the fridge door closed.

Going back toward the living room area I set the beer on a side table and remove my coat. I open the closet door and hang the coat on the hook inside of the door. I then reclose the door. I pick up my beer and I flop down on the sofa. As I scroll through some of the options in my PIC, the view screen on the wall blinks on and the room fills with the smooth relaxing music from an old black and white movie. The PIC's built-in heart monitor catches my eye. My pulse is slow, deep, well within the green zone.

“Oxilitin does that too- I think,” I say out loud to myself. I was remembering what some of the medical paperwork had said about the drug. The molecules were smaller and lighter than red blood cells, meaning they were easier to push and less viscous than blood. and that meant the heart doesn't have to work as hard to supply oxygen to the organs in my body.

“What a day!” I say swallowing the first cold gulp of my brew. “What a day indeed.”

When my bottle fails to give me any further beer, I notice I have viewed over an hour of television. I figure I’d better head to bed and get some sleep. I go to brush my teeth. Looking at my reflection in the mirror I have a weird feeling that the face looking back isn’t my own. The feeling is so unnerving that I find and re-read my discharge paperwork. No symptoms like what I’m experiencing are listed, but I still feel a measure of worry so I call the hospital, They ask for my discharge number and I’m put on hold for a few moments. They eventually connect me to the doctor on duty.

“I feel like I’m losing my mind doc.”

“Why is that Mr.Bohr?”

“I just....my face doesn’t look like mine.”

“Mr.Bohr, you did get a hit to the head. perhaps you have a bit of swelling, but results of your brain scans told us you were in no danger. The type of things you are experiencing can happen due to the emotional stress of your accident. Please get some rest and call me if you continue to feel this way in a few days. We’ll send you to a psychologist if it doesn’t get better”

“That’s not necessary,” I say hastily disconnecting the PIC’s phone line, a bit harder than I had meant to. Going to a psychologist for any reason was usually a detriment, doing such would mark it on your ID for anyone who scanned it. This was originally meant to prevent disgruntled employees and unstable maniacs from performing acts of terrorism. In reality, all it did was make everyone afraid to go to a psychologist. Oddly enough that was socially acceptable because according to the CORE Library, psychology isn’t the most reliable form of medicine.

Feeling my brain stirred awake I knew going to bed would only result in me not going to sleep, so I decided I needed another beer. I open the black shiny box that is my refrigerator and got a face full of light which made my headache for a split moment. Unfortunately, my fridge was still empty save for some old take out in the back and a very bright light. This fact not deterring my impetus for alcohol.

I step into my bedroom and change into clean pants and a fresh shirt, I look at the pants and shirt which I just removed, they were ratty and bloody from the accident, so I decide to toss them into trash, I grab a hat and put on the jacket that I had worn during the accident. I slip my bare feet into shoes and head out of my apartment. I press the elevator call button and the door slides open. I enter the waiting elevator and press the lobby button.When the elevator door opens onto the lobby, I see there are several policemen standing around in the lobby. The women’s restroom area of the first floor is blocked off with plastic yellow and black tape. The restroom door is propped open and just outside of it, in the lobby area, there is a corpse covered with a bloodstained blanket on the floor. A significant puddle of red fluid fills the floor of the bathroom and trails out to the area around where the body is lying.

“What’s going on?” I ask the nearest officer with a feeling of fear.

“Suicide so far as I can make out. Poor girl must have had a bad trip or something. She peeled the skin off her wrists and started taking off her face with a paring knife. Then just stumbled out of the bathroom before falling down from blood loss.”

“Who is she?”

“It’s one of the staff, judging from her uniform. But right now, we aren’t sure which one exactly. She cut out her ID tag. We’re snaking the drains for it”

“That’s awful. They all seem so nice”

“Did you know her by any chance?”

“Not sure, but...I was talking to the receptionist when I came in about an hour ago, Then I went upstairs.” Looking around I say, “ The desk seems empty now, maybe that’s her?”

“I see. When we look at the tapes we’ll confirm your alibi. We’re pretty sure this whole thing was self-inflicted, but it’s a formality to look into these things.” He pauses as if actually getting a good look at me for the first time. He puts a hand on his gun and undoes the snap. This was an ominous gesture, and I wasn’t self-aware enough to understand why he was doing it.“You mind explaining the blood on your jacket, sir?”

“I was in an accident this morning. A car hit me and I was just released from the hospital a little more than an hour ago. It was just before I came back here. Guess I didn’t realize I had bled all over it”

The officer relaxes a bit but doesn’t re-snap his pistol. “You mind if we take that jacket for testing?”

“I guess you can, I have nothing to hide, but it’s cold out” I sigh taking it off and handing it to him.

“Where are you going this time of night?” The officer asks suspiciously, placing my coat into an evidence bag and folding over the top using a standard orange adhesive strip to seal it.

I groan “You ever been hit by a car officer?”

He doesn’t react,

“Didn’t think so. It tends to mess with your whole day. I’m outta beer and I need some more.”

The officer pauses, his face softens for a split second, then he retorts “You ever had to investigate a self-mutilating suicide? Didn’t think so.” He puts the snap back around the gun.

`“Can I go now?” I say mildly displeased.

A person wearing a dark blue jumpsuit with “coroner's office” emblazoned across the back, comes up to the officer and whispers something to the officer. Angling himself so I can’t see his lips to read

“You said you had talked to the receptionist earlier in the night, We’re not having luck with finding her ID in the drains, and her employer won’t be here for another hour or so. Do You mind seeing if she is our Jane Doe?”

“I suppose”

He pulled back the blanket. Under the flesh of her forearm, black muscle tissue can be seen, Some of it is torn, leaking red fluid. Her face is pale, and a section of the facial skin is separated from her cheek and neck, peeling off in a grotesque manner.

I nod. “It’s Bernice...but I don’t understand. You said she died by cutting open her wrist? Right?

Because of my positive ID of Bernice, the coroner remarks that he’s going out to his van to get a body bag, and steps away.

“Yes, that’s what the preliminary done by the coroner indicated.”

“But her arm’s robotic.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Then can you explain the Polymote?” I point to the fine black fibers. He closes his eyes and shakes his head in short and quick side to side motions. He looked as if his brain was reeling and re-setting.

“I’d swear that wasn’t there before. Well, Mr. Bohr, thank you for your time.” He says as he replaces the covering on the corpse.

“How did you know my name?” I ask almost flinching at the title. I feel even more strange about my name while talking with the cop. For some reason, deep inside myself, I begin to feel nervous again. It feels as if this lie of my identity could get me killed if I’m not careful.

“You mentioned it and told me you reside in apartment 417,” he said genuinely. “Thank you for your help here,” he said mechanically.

I knew his statement wasn’t true. Not with the way I’d been avoiding using my name. I would have known if that lie passed my lips, furthermore, how did he know my apartment number. “No, I didn’t, I didn’t say any of that.” I replied nearly in hysterics.

“Oh…Well, have a good night, and stay out of trouble.” he said dismissively and turned away from me.

I turn to head out into the night. In the reflection of the plate glass lobby window, I notice the police officer has turned back and is watching my departure. I am looking at his reflection as I push open the glass door and for a split second just as I step outside I would swear his eyes were glowing red. I shudder, unsure what triggered the icy shiver down my spine. It could be the night chill that rushed to greet me or what I thought I saw in the officer's’ gaze. I pull my hat on, down low to help retain some warmth, as well as to hide my face. I feel very vulnerable as if my face could reveal to the world some insane guilt to a nonexistent crime I am involved in. I fold my arms across my chest in an attempt to block some of the evening chills and begin walking briskly to generate some body heat. My brain replaying the scene in the lobby, like the officer said it was just a suicide. I was in no way responsible I reassured myself, unconvincingly.

I briskly walk the well-lit street where the streetlights stand in rows like sentries, monitoring my safe passage toward the liquor store. The time spent in the lobby took longer than I thought, and it’s much later in the evening than I had planned to set out. The store’s windows are dark and the sign announces the shop is closed. I lean into the doorjamb for shelter to avoid a particularly chilly gust of wind while I weigh my options. I reconsidered my day and all that had transpired, realizing that with as weird as this day had been, I might need something much stronger than beer. I opened my PIC and searched for a joint where I could imbibe, and that would still be open this late. A place where I could get my forget on.

I locate the nearest open pub. My search alerted the multiple adaptive advertising billboards. The nearest one lit up with an advertisement for the pub. As I walk the billboards along the route to the pub continue to advertise the pub, but each progressive one espouses the taste of a different adult beverage and the decreased distance to the establishment. I continue to follow the ads toward the late night pub located on the sketchier side of town. As I travel further from my neighborhood the alleyways between the building seem to become more narrow and billboards become smaller and dimmer. The sidewalks also are becoming darker because some of the streetlights have burnt out or been broken and have not been replaced. When I reach the intersecting side road where the pub is located, I turn and start walking down the street. I notice there are even fewer lights here. I see the reason, the lights have been broken to extinguish their watching light I pass a man stepping off the sidewalk into the road’s shoulder. He is shifting in one of the dark wells created by the lack of light. He’s stumbling a bit using the wall as support, and I can’t help but hope that will be me in a few short hours.

It was just before midnight when I arrive. I push open the pub’s door. The opening door causes a jangling noise similar to a deep silverware drawer full of spoons being shaken about. Since there was a void of light outside it did not take any time for my eyes to adjust to the pub’s interior lighting. I take a moment to look around the room. The pub is almost empty. Two younger men sit at the center section of the bar, they are both dressed in white shirts with their ties loosened, their suit jackets slung over the back of their respective barstools. They have the look of office workers and based on their behavior, I deduce that they are co-workers. They were acting very buddy-buddy.Their physical appearance so similar I might have guessed that they are brothers had they not been wearing similar company ID badges.

An older frail gentleman sits toward the left corner of the bar. His winter weight coat has a tiny fleck of white stuffing protruding from an imperceivable hole somewhere in the right seam area. His coat too is parked on the back of his barstool. The tables in the middle of the room are mostly clear, except for a longer table where two middle-aged men are sitting. These men give the appearance of fellows who are familiar with hard physical work and from the looks of empty beer mugs on the table, they also have a knack for playing hard. Both men have their heads down on the table top sleeping. Along the edges of the room were booths and none of them contained occupants save for one with a couple in the far right corner booth.

I start toward the right side of the bar. I see the couple more clearly.They are being excessively handsy. At a glance, I estimated she might be 14 and he was well beyond 30. I grimace and want to tell them to get a room. But, after thinking about that option, decide to start a bar fight is not how I want to end my day. I belly up to the bar, and the bartender, who is in the process of placing a pair drinks in front the two men in suits, gives me a “Be with you in a minute” wave. As I sit down on the barstool the door opens with the telltale clanging sound again, and I curiously look into the bar back mirror. I see a woman has opened the door and is stepping in. She is pretty and nicely dressed, ready for a night on the town. She wore a faux fur stole over a curve hugging shimmery dress, matching spike heels and her hair was curled in a highly artistic way. As she started for the coat rack near my end of the bar she was giving the pub the once over. When her eyes halted on the man in the corner with the young girl, the woman made a disgusted huff sound, turned and left.

As the door signaled her departure, the barkeep who had arrived in front of my stool grumbled under his breath. “That disgusting piece of shit Roman is ruining my business.”

Roman was a derogatory term for someone who had sex with young children. After an outbreak of the pandemic known as the SAN-II, pronounced like the first part of Sanitation. it was found that many of the survivors were rendered sterile by the infection. This resulted in a large number of couples who were unable to have the children they so desired. This brought about a strange convention, humans were being treated like products. Body farms sprung up everywhere. Here, children were grown in vats and sold like produce. In the beginning, only those who could financially afford it were capable of getting children. As there was a realization of how profitable body farms seemed to be, there was an explosion in the number of farms growing children.The mass numbers of farms churning out children resulted in a surplus. As a result, not all children were sold to loving families. Eventually, the government stepped in to regulate the industry. Children who were not purchased went into SCCIDs, pronounced “Skid” or State Centers for Child Industrialized Development. There were still abuses occurring. One group, the Romans, argued in court that a carnal relationship between adults and children was a way for children to earn money and secure protection from the adult that “sponsored” them When the government passed the law to legalize this type of adult/child sponsorship it put a stop to many of the outrageous abuses that had occurred prior to these regulations being put into place. The majority consensus was that this system is a good and fair thing.

As I began to think about the man and girl locking lips in the corner, I look to the barkeep and say, “I need a double.”

“Sure thing Bud.” He replies, casting a nasty look toward the couple.

Unfortunately, despite the Roman ruining the barkeeper's business, the legislation prevented him from kicking someone out unless they were wholly drunk or displaying criminal intent. Unfortunately, the Roman was neither. The law although seemingly a detriment, in this case, was considered by a large number of people, a good and fair thing. This law also went on to prevent the “We don’t serve your kind here,” discrimination of service. Despite the law, I agreed that this man had to go.

“I’ll buy a room for him if you want, Tell him it’s on the house, and he might go up there? Get him out of your hair?” I ask.

“You’re a good man, but no, I don’t want him getting lucky with that girl.” The barkeep said gritting his teeth slightly and giving the Roman a stare that could probably kill lesser beings in an instant. I respected the sentiment, the girl seemed less than happy about the Roman’s overt and oral advances.

“Well, the alternative is you don’t have to kick me out if I punch his lights out, right?” I say with dry humor.

The bartender grins. “That’d be a good service to me. I certainly wouldn’t boot your ass out of here. However, I bet the slimy Roman over there would run out of here to the nearest cop and then you’d have to head for the hills to avoid an assault charge. Then sadly I’d miss out on your business, and you really look in need of drinks.”

I chuckle. “Are there any cameras in here?”

“None that you’d have to worry about. What’s your plan?”

“Step one: you hold my drink. Step two: I Improvise.” I spin on my stool, getting up and puffing up my shoulders. I make my best angry face and turn toward the booth.

“Hey! you two! Get yourself a room." I say nearly growling. “I’m not enjoying the ambiance of your lips smacking together!.” One of the co-workers at the bar chuckles at this.

The man stands up and crosses the room getting in my face. He’s a few inches shorter than me and it’s laughable how many steps it actually takes him to get to me. “Don’t you dare tell me what to do!” he says in a voice that’s kinda airy and nasal like he might have a lung condition.

This draws the attention of the three men at the bar. They all shift to watch the show.

“Or what big guy?” I say my tone full of venom biting at the man’s stature.

“Or I’ll have you arrested. Do you have any idea who I am?” he says indignantly.

“Lenny Thompson,” I say with a smirk. He looks shocked, And I feel shocked. I have no idea where I pulled his name from.

“How did you know my name? Are you spying on me? Are you following me?” he screams shocked and growing angrier by the second.

His shrieking voice wakes the two big men at the table. I hear their chairs scraping on the floor as they turn to watch the unfolding events.

“I don’t-” he grabs me around my neck futilely trying to lift me.

“Who are you!” He shouts. He shoves his face closer to my face and begins to tighten the grip on my neck. I bring my arms up between us then force my arms outward breaking his grip.

I step back, half of a step. “Last chance to leave without broken bones, Lenny.” I make a fist. deciding exactly where on his ugly face I’m going to put my fist. He charges. His arm begins to rise, but before he can hit me, I punch him square in the nose. The force causes him to recoil almost knocking him off balance and onto his ass. He bends slightly at the waist, grabbing his bleeding nose. Whimpering, he turns and flees the bar, leaving a few drops of blood to mark his trail and a jangling door playing its version of a call to retreat in his wake.

The various patrons cheer. One of the suit wearing co-workers says to the other “What an asshat. You saw him try and choke that guy right? What a wimp. Got what he deserved, I say.”

Co-worker number two replies “Yeah! I saw that creep hit that guy in the fist with his face.” He laughs at his own humor. Then his face becomes a little more serious and he says, “No, really that idiot ran full sprint into his fist!”

“Next round on me,” I say returning to my spot at the bar and downing my drink. I go to tap the pay button with my ID when I notice the girl is still in the corner booth. I get up and walk over slowly. She’s shivering or something. She looks a little pale.

“Hey there. Are you okay?” I ask my voice full of concern.

She stares ahead blankly. Her pupils are massive, almost darkening her whole eye. foam forms in the corner of her mouth.

“Call an ambulance for the lady, I think Lenny drugged her,” I tell the barkeep.

The two young men in the suits come over and explain they have had the Citizen Preparedness First Responder courses and are in one of the higher levels. I back away toward the bar letting them do their thing to help the young girl.

The barkeep tells me that help is on the way. He then says “Since old Lenny drugged the kid I don’t think he will call the police on you. Even if he did, there are enough witnesses to help you out of a jam.

I start to wave my ID over the scanner to pay for my drink. The barkeep reaches out and blocks my hand. He looks me in the eyes and says, “Don’t worry about paying, it’ll leave a trail back to you.” He said looking me in the eye “There could be someone out there who would want to find you to even the score.” he said insinuating that Lenny might be the type to hold a grudge. “Listen, thanks for all you did for the kid. Your drink’s on the house and here’s a half bottle of booze for the road. I figure you don’t want to be answering questions from police officers tonight, just in case Lenny isn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut. If you wanna bolt I won’t blame you.” I thank him with a nod.

The frail older man shuffles over to the coat rack and pulls a long abandoned gray hoodie from the rack and passes it to me and says. “Take your hat off and shove it in the pocket. Wear this with the hood up for a few blocks and use the rear door when you leave. If that bastard Lenny is waiting out front for revenge he will have to wait for a good long while.” The man grins at the thought of Lenny skulking about outside waiting for me, and he starts to laugh harder which triggers a coughing fit.

I give everyone my thanks and step through the back exit into an alley. I start walking back to my building carrying the half full bottle of booze in my new found, old hoodie. I mused to myself, I look like a drunk stumbling home. I add a bit of a weave to my walk and I drink from the bottle to complete the illusion. When I arrive the lobby is empty, The crime scene cleaned up.The tape is gone and the blood wiped away as if it never happened.

“What is going on with me?” I ask the empty lobby and my now one quarter full bottle.

Chapter 3

I did not set my alarm before falling into bed. I woke with a slight panic. Briefly, I thought I was late for work. As my head cleared I remember I have the day off because of the accident. I get out of bed and walk through my apartment. I see that I had abandoned the loaner hoodie on the floor beside my front door. I open the closet door and kick the hoodie inside closing the door as if the hoodie was a wild beast that needed caged.I bring up the TV remote application on my PIC. I sit down in a chair and begin to skim the channels.

The breaking news banner is flashing below an image of my apartment building, so I pause my surfing and watch the story. A pretty reporter is standing in front of my building talking about the strange suicide last night. She talks with a staged grim face in an extremely serious voice, about the events that had transpired. She then continues the story by saying that after the initial incident there was a bizarre twist. A few short hours after the first death, the investigating officer had also died under mysterious circumstances. When the reporter flashes the officer’s picture on the screen I am shocked, it is the officer I had spoken to the night before. I switched off the tv trying to pretend I hadn’t heard what she had said. After everything I had experienced yesterday, it felt strange to admit, that information seemed too unreal, despite the absurdity of all else that had transpired. I find myself experiencing a deep feeling of guilt. I did not know them before yesterday and I never had any dealings with either of them, save for a brief chat yesterday afternoon and last evening. I barely knew of their existence. So how could I be involved? Why did I feel the guilt, did I think I could have kept the young lady from a dreadful self-mutilating suicide? I reason unconvincingly with myself, I wasn’t even sure how the officer had died.

Unable to shake this vague feeling of responsibility for the deaths, I figure I won’t talk to anyone else today. I tell myself I will stay in, rest, and cook myself a hearty meal, all the while trying to crush the niggling thought of ‘I hope that the police don’t suspect I am involved.’ I have no idea what to tell them if they think I am in any way responsible. I am not sure I can make myself believe I have done nothing to bring about these deaths.

I just hung around the apartment barefoot and still in my pajamas all morning. I jumped in surprise around noon when the quiet of my apartment was broken by a loud knock on my door, The “knock” was closer to an urgent pounding, which shook the door.

“Police, open up!” ordered a loud gravelly voice from the far side of the door.

I walk to the door taking slow deep breaths to calm myself. “Coming,” I say loud enough for someone in the hallway to hear. At about two steps from the door, I quickly unlock the door and twist the knob, the door opening to the distance the security chain allows. I am shocked by what I see standing outside

The thing standing there must have been watching my expressions, because he said, “What? You act like you’ve never seen a MEC before.” The man grumbles looking at me. MEC is the abbreviation for “Mechanically Emulated Citizen”. “Do you mind if I come in and talk with you, Mr. Bohr?” I mentally flinch at the sound of the name, Bohr. But I allow no external sign to escape from me and was successful because the MEC says nothing about my reaction.

“Umm, sure.” I stammer. “C-Come on in, Have a seat.” I say acting confused by his arrival at my doorstep, to help in case I accidentally slip and allow my feelings of guilt to show through.

He enters my apartment but waits cautiously nearby for me to close and lock the door. He moved past my sofa and toward my kitchenette area. He never took his eyes off of me. I also never stopped looking at him. The “flesh” on the rightmost third of his face seems stripped away revealing a chrome skull with a ruby red electronic eye in the socket. The intensity of color changed a bit as he moved his head and as he talked. MECs were something I was aware of. They were rare, few and far between. In the pictures, I had seen, the MECs looked very human, nothing like this fellow sitting before me.

I suddenly felt rude for staring and strangely felt the need to explain. “My apologies Officer, it’s not every day that I get a visit from the Terminator.”

He scoffs at the joke, Then says,“It’s not Officer, it is Detective. I’m Detective Simon, do you have some time to go over some details for me about last night?” He put the statement in question form but the tone of his voice let me understand he would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

“Yeah. sure. H-have a seat.” Detective Simon pulls out a chair on one side of the table and sits down. I take a seat for myself at the opposite end. When he sits down, he does not pull his chair up to the table but instead, he leaves some space. He has chosen a strategic point in my apartment. His back is against a wall, and simultaneously he can see and face my kitchen, living room and the four other doors in my apartment. No one coming from the closet, the bedroom, the bathroom or entering my apartment could do so unwatched by him.

“Could I get you anything? Water? Tea? Coffee?” I ask trying to appear cordial and eager to be helpful.

“No, I’m fine thanks. Where were you last night?” He asks leaning forward across the table getting closer.

“What’s this about?”

“A couple of interesting incidents, just tell me the whole story of your night.”

“I was in an accident while walking to work yesterday morning, as a result I was taken to the hospital to be checked over. I spent the most of the day going through testing and evaluations. It was early evening when I arrived home from the hospital. I chatted with the receptionist for a few minutes, which was out of the ordinary because I had never seen her at the reception desk before. I had dinner. I thought I’d watch some TV and have a beer. I was going to go to bed around 9:00-9:30. then-” I pause.

He seems to know something's up. “Then?”

“I decided somewhere in that time period to review my email. That tends to be my normal routine make sure everything is done before bed. I- I got an email from my ex. ”I invent. “ Thinking about her, made me feel kinda angsty, which irritated my uh… condition, so I called the hospital.”

“May I see your call log?”

‘You can.” I press in my security code and hold my PIC near his arm where his PIC is located, which allows for the transfer of the data.

“What happened next?” He asks this while keeping his steady gaze on me.

“The hospital told me the effects that I was feeling weren’t life threatening and would soon pass. I decided I could use another beer to unwind. My fridge was empty. I was on my way out on a beer run. When I walked into the lobby I saw there was an investigation going on. I spoke with an officer and gave him my statement. He asked and I identified the body as the receptionist, Bernice.”

“Did you know Bernice well?”

“No. Like I said earlier, the opposite, I met her the first time yesterday.”

His human-like eye and eyebrow narrow, pinches and travels lower slightly to complete an eerie almost human expression on half of his face. The effect of his whole face was most unnerving. He then nods. “The police officer you spoke with and assisted in identifying the body, is this him?” he asks as he slides an official looking police ID photograph across the table.

“That’s him.”

“Were you aware he died?”

“The story was on the morning news, so I was aware he had died. What happened to him?”

“Jumped off a building.”

“Oh, that’s so sad. That’s just awful. Why would he do that? The poor fellow. He seemed fine in the lobby. From the brief talk I had with him I think he was saddened by Bernice’s death.” I gave what would be interpreted as an involuntary shudder as I absorbed the ghastly news.

“So Officer Abernathy knew Bernice.” Detective Simon stated.

“No... No, I don’t think he did. He told me the techs could not find her ID chip. He asked if I would verify that she was the person at the reception desk, the same person I had spoken with when I had arrived home earlier.” Then my mind started to question the meaning of the detective's visit and my mouth sprang to life. “What’s all this got to do with me?”

“Keep this on the down-low. The girl was a MEC. The record for Officer Abernathy is sealed. That seems suspicious to me. If I had to guess, Abernathy, also was a MEC. These facts together, makes me wonder if there’s a rogue AI out there somewhere introducing some type of self-destructive sequence into MECs. Did either of them say anything strange to you?”

“No, they both seemed fine.” I paused, then added, “Other than they both just happened to know my name, without me telling them. I did think that was odd and told them so.”

“That’s curious.” He said as he reached into his jacket pocket to pull a small white card. “Here’s my card with my contact numbers in case you remember anything else.”

“Well, there was one additional odd thing.”

“What is it, Mr. Bohr?”

“The officer, Officer Abernathy, didn’t...uhm...did not seem to see that the girl was a MEC at first.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, her wrists were deeply sliced, very torn up..” With these words, the detective's eyes bore down hard on me, so I hastily added, “ When I provided the identification for him, she had visible black Polymote all along her arm. It was like he was blind to it. I wasn’t sure what that meant. At first, I just thought she might have had an arm replaced or something but when I saw it in her face area also… well, I didn’t know they made MECs so realistic.”

“You said you were at the hospital yesterday day?” He says choosing to not address what I had said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Most curious,” he says as he stands. “Well, thank you for your time and for talking with me Mr. Bohr.” He turns and walks toward my door.

I walk behind him as he goes to the door.

When he reaches the door he unlocks it and steps into the hall, turning to face me and almost orders, “If you think of anything more you give me a call, okay?”

As he turns and walks away down the hall I shut the door softly and lock the deadbolt and the night latch. I feel compelled to turn the knob and pull on the door to be totally certain it is locked. I sigh deeply and smile ruefully as I think of the Roman, whose nose I had bloodied the evening before and was glad he wasn’t investigating that. Then as I relax a little I realize it is past my normal lunch time.

I consider making myself lunch but found my refrigerator still empty save for un-appealing several-days-old takeout. I pull the take-out containers from the fridge and pitch them into the trash receptacle.

I am feeling relatively energized for not having more than a bowl of dry cereal. I decide I will go for a run, and maybe buy lunch out. It is a great day for a run. I take one of my shorter routes since the doc had said to rest. When I arrive at the sandwich shop, I find myself equally not hungry.

I sit down on a park bench across the street from the sandwich shop. I work at getting my breathing back to normal. My PIC’s heart monitor is in the yellow, I am in the top range for cardio fitness, Olympic athlete territory. I am impressed, but give credit where credit is due, “Oxilitin really almost makes you a star athlete doesn’t it?” I muse to myself.

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