The Cure for Life Edit
Written by Nathan Knaack, Hi-Rez Studios
At first I thought it was another one of those parades they stage from time to time, where common citizens shuffle through our facility to examine the condition of the prisoners. It had something to do with maintaining civil rights, someone once said. The easiest way to tell was when the shackles were taken off, as if anyone herded past our cells wasn’t going to see the raw skin of our wrists and piece together what had really been going on all that time. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up in a place where the government is everywhere and everything; you start to trust it more than your own eyes.
Anyway, it was just like that the day the patrol android stepped into my cell and prompted me to raise my arms to have the restraints removed. Closing my eyes almost reflexively, I waited for the requisite blast of disinfectant-laced water to fire down out of the ceiling; there was always a ‘bath’ before citizens came through. After a few quiet moments, I looked up to see the robot gone, but the door remained open, letting in more light than my cell had seen since the day I was thrown in there. The pit of my stomach deepened as I rose to my feet, almost as if I was unaware of what I was doing; while my mind processed the situation, my body was already doing what it thought was necessary.
Just as my first step into the hallway resounded with a ceramic smack of bare feet on tile, a deep voice erupted from my left, while the heavy click of a HM-22 Warrior assault rifle, loaded with the expanded 7.62mm ultra clip, made its unmistakable presence known to my right. It had been two years since I heard one, but the recognition never fades. I found myself the victim of a sudden and distracting headache.
“One more step forward and you’re dead,” the voice began, freezing me in place instantly, “and if you’re not ready to make a deal, just take one step backwards and we’ll shut the door and forget about the whole thing.”
Again, my body responded before my brain, “I’m ready.” Somewhere between those words, my body had decided to soak my palms with sweat as well.
Without turning my head, I could hear the man’s footsteps as he walked into my field of vision. I immediately noticed: No fatigues. No brass. No steel. It was just a middle-aged man, a bit on the heavy side, with a military-issue mustache and retinal replacements; the RR’s shimmered slightly when the light caught his eyes at certain angles. His plain clothes were so new that they still had fold marks in many places. In the reflection of the shiny civilian guest pass pinned to his unremarkable lapel, I caught a glimpse of Commonwealth heavy combat body armor and blast helmet behind me. “Who are-“ I began, but he cut me off abruptly.
“CPSD 39 Finster.” The bluntness of his answer convinced me that he really was who he claimed to be, second in command of the Commonwealth Prime Security Department and one of the highest ranking officials in the government. “Any more questions?”
“I think that’s all I need to know about you.” Relaxing a bit, I slid my hands into the pockets of my jumpsuit and attempted some veiled passive aggressiveness. “Let’s hear about this deal already.” My casual conversation must have set him off.
“Remain imprisoned until your inevitable execution for crimes against the state,” he began nonchalantly, smiling as my posture stiffened noticeably, “or volunteer for duty in our experimental technology department.” He reached up to adjust something on his shirt that apparently wasn’t there, because his hand returned to his side without actually doing anything. It was probably something on his regular uniform that bothered him from time to time.
“That’s not much of a choice now, is it?” It was difficult to conceal my excitement at getting out of that hellhole, no matter where I ended up.
“That’s my favorite kind of deal, Inmate 7 Vanik.” He nodded over my shoulder to his companion, who lowered his weapon and took a step back from us. “They’ll come for you in the morning. Try not to make any noise as you leave though; I’d rather the other prisoners not get any ideas about you getting pardoned.”
I turned back into my cell just as the two men marched off, but Finster called out from a few soundproof cell doors down the hallway, “By the way, this special assignment requires the standard automatic termination implant.” No amount of flowery terminology could make those things sound any more innocuous or humane; it was a radio-activated capsule buried between the lobes of your brain that could, from anywhere in the world, be activated to release a neuro-toxin. It was instantaneous death at the press of a button. As if it wasn’t enough to have that looming over you, there were numerous accounts of accidental deaths involved with ATI devices.
Leaning back out of the cell, I responded, “Well, that changes the terms of the deal. What if I reconsider?”
Finster and his guard stopped at the main security door of the wing; he didn’t even turn to reply. With a cheerful tone, his voice echoed down the corridor, “It was installed during your last sleep cycle. See you in the morning.”
The beeping of my cell door before it slammed shut, allowing me just enough time to get my head back inside, ended our conversation. The lights went out and everything was silent again, leaving me with a lot on my mind.
* * *
The highlight of my morning was watching how uncomfortable the requisitions officer was when Finster ordered him to provide me with a weapon and ammunition. It was just a simple ballistic pistol, but you’d think it was his first born the way he clutched it and looked me right in the eye. Finster beamed his usual smile as I slid the clip into place and inspected the sidearm, and I couldn’t help but join him as we both nodded with approval at the officer, who couldn’t muster anything beyond an ice cold stare in my direction as a response.
“I take it this sort of situation is a rarity around here,” I began as we stepped out the door and into the hallway, where two guards immediately took up positions beside me. I tucked the pistol into a holster at the small of my back and slid my hands back into my pockets.
CPSD 39 Finster tilted his head and shrugged, “Not really, I suppose.” He glanced at the two soldiers as we began walking down the sunlit corridor, with massive plate glass windows offering a scenic view of immaculately tended square grass planters, which was an impressive feat for a one hundred and seventeenth level atrium platform, a setting I made a conscious effort not to take for granted after my years of quiet, dark incarceration.
When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to perpetuate any kind of conversation, no matter how trite, I interjected, “Is that all I get for this mission, a gun?” True to their conditioning, I could feel both of the guards tighten up when I mentioned the word gun.
“If you’re smart, it’s all you’ll need, Inmate 7 Vanik.” Finster wasn’t looking at me or the scenery outside.
At the risk of causing him to second guess my eagerness to work with the Commonwealth for even a temporary freedom, I corrected him. “Vanik. My name is George Vanik.”
The Assistant Director smiled condescendingly and nodded as if to say ‘how quaint.’ I knew not to press the issue with him and continued walking obediently. As the hallway came to an end, he pointed at the elevator doors, prompting one of the guards to reach out and place a bare hand on the reader. A polite, feminine voice floated in from somewhere above us.
“Authorization for ground level approved. Inmate 7 Vanik detected; threat level unknown. Assistant CPSD 39 Finster detected. Are you in danger?”
“No.” He sounded impatient for some reason. I wondered if he had to put up that sort of thing at every door he walked through.
“Elevator enabled for ground level. Have a nice day, CPSD 39 Finster.” The first female voice I’ve heard in two years was abruptly cut off by the rush of air emerging from the elevator as it opened. In the cramped space, all I could smell was the gun oil of the assault rifles on either side of me. Once we were cut off from the echoing hallway, he turned to me and raised his eyebrows expectantly. It was apparently time for my mission briefing.
“Who’s the target,” I began casually, trying to establish the overall goal before digging into the details of the numerous other questions I had prepared.
* * *
“I… don’t understand.” As I stared at Finster, he crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall of the elevator.
“Luckily, that’s not a requirement of the mission.” He smiled and glanced down at his watch. “We’ll be at the ground floor in four minutes. After that, you’ll have about thirty seconds to leave the facility and try to hide somewhere in the city.” He wasn’t sweating, fidgeting, or even breathing heavily.
Casting a sidelong glance at both guards, who appeared to be completely unshaken by the topic of the conversation, I rubbed the back of my neck. “So you’re a clone, then?” It wasn’t uncommon for high ranking government officials to keep clones in stasis for testing allergens, harvesting spare organs, or complete reconstitution after the death of the original body. I guessed it was an inevitability that eventually they would be used to fake deaths. “You get to blame it on some resistance faction, then conjure up a new identity on paper and plastic surgery.”
“Close, but backwards.”
Frowning, I moved on, “What guarantee do I have that my implant won’t be immediately activated? Once they find out I was involved, the central office will just press the button.”
“Your implant is controlled by an unauthorized unit,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a slim remote detonator like a normal person would casually produce a lighter or some change. “Unfortunately, there are few places in the world with advanced enough medical equipment to safely remove an ATI, but I imagine holding the trigger yourself will let you sleep better at night. Once I’m dead, it’s yours.”
My eyes fixed on the detonator in his hand, I was nonetheless aware that almost two of my four minutes had passed. “And these two?” I waved my hand towards the soldiers.
“They have been… briefed on their responsibilities.” As if he was waiting for me to ask before putting on his show, he turned to the guards and muttered an odd phrase, “A friend of mine is out of time.”
Snapping to attention, they replied in unison, “The time has come for me to dine.” They stood rigid and frozen, unnaturally so.
Finster took a deep breath and then finished the rhyme, “I dine only with friends of mine.” No sooner had the last syllable left his lips than the guards abruptly raised their rifles, took aim, and shot each other simultaneously. They didn’t even grunt in pain as one slumped against the wall and the other pitched forward onto the floor. Once they had expired, Finster caught my astonished gaze and quipped, “I can’t imagine what command was like before behavior modification, can you?” He nudged the body on the floor before continuing, “Loyalty and patriotism are fickle, but conditioning is always reliable.”
I couldn’t help but stare at the bodies for a few moments. “They’re going to blame that on me too, aren’t they?”
“Without a doubt. You have one minute, Inmate 7 Vanik.”
The pistol felt much heavier than when I had examined it upstairs. Finster looked flatly at me and tapped his forehead with his finger. Forty-five seconds. I remembered the layout of the massive building’s lobby from the day I was brought in two years before. It was just as oppressive and needlessly large as all the other buildings in Commonwealth Prime. The elevator doors were fifty meters from the street exit. There was a reception desk, a guard station, and a security aisle with metal, pathogen, and explosive detectors. Thirty seconds. The doors could be immediately secured from the inside and out at the push of a button. Patrol vehicles went past the front of the building at five minute intervals. Fifteen seconds. Cameras covered both the elevator and main doors. Four guards, one receptionist, one security officer. Eight shots in the clip. Ten seconds. The elevator doors open and close in two seconds each way. The main entrance doors swing out towards the street. Five seconds.
The shot went cleanly through Finster’s head and he fell atop the other guards on the ground just as the doors to the main lobby opened. Luckily, nobody was standing there waiting for the elevator to arrive, giving me a few extra seconds I wasn’t sure I was going to have. Kneeling and reaching out only up to my shoulder, exposing nothing else to the hallway view of the camera, I aimed diagonally and shattered it with my second bullet. The ATI detonator was right where Finster left it in his shirt pocket.
Before the guards in the area could respond, I had sprinted from the lift and began shooting. One guard in the chest. Another guard in the head. The camera over the reception desk. Sliding up behind one of the massive columns that supported the one hundred and fifty stories above us, I avoided a few scattered shots of return fire from the remaining two guards. Leaning out, I carefully lined up and fired off a round straight into the plastic arch that detected pathogens near the building’s entrance. More gunshots chipped away at the column.
Ducking out on the opposite side, I caught the third guard in the neck, spinning him wildly back over the desk behind him. When the last soldier peeked up from behind the counter, I was halfway there, my weapon raised and waiting just for him to do so. His helmet shattered under the impact of the bullet right before I dove over behind the counter. Rolling and coming up running, I raced through down security aisle.
By that time, I could hear the screams and shouts of more people approaching from within the building. Heavy footsteps echoed down the two main hallways leading to the lobby, but I was at the door by that time, shouldering it open and dashing out into the crowded street. Between the rushing wind, drone of people talking, and the hum of traffic racing by above, nobody had heard the gunfight inside the government building.
I took a moment to judge the distance, then threw the gun sidelong across the street, where it skipped twice before clattering down into a sewer chute in the curb at the other side. I was certain that a camera somewhere had caught the maneuver, but at least it would buy me a few hours before anyone found the weapon, giving me time to vanish into the crowded city before the CPSD could distribute my genetic identity. Even then, their review of my escape would not reveal the ATI device in my head, for they always registered as pathogens on scanners.
Despite all the surveillance and regulations, it was easier to blend into the choking overpopulation of the world’s largest city than one would imagine. I didn’t know if they were still alive or in business, but there were people in the embassy district that could help me get a new face, fresh papers, and a ride out of Commonwealth Prime.