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A real blast from the past: This is the first story I ever tried to sell. I must have been 19 when I wrote it. Sent it to "Omni," my favorite magazine at the time. They almost bought it. <sigh> Story of my life. Anyway, I figured why not share it here? Please keep in mind that I wrote this like a quarter-century ago. At this point, we might even call it alternative history!
NOTE: There's a missing line in here. Guess that's what happens when a file is converted to a dozen different formats over twice as many years... I'm happy to entertain any suggestions for how to fill that blank! ;-)
by C.A. Scott
Jeremy struck out on his own that night. He felt it was about time, since he'd been in training for a month, and Control had indicated that this phobic would just be a routine pick-up. The family had even tipped them off, and would assist in any way they could. Jeremy followed the lighted hallway to the nearest PT terminal and got in the line for Hartford's North End. It was Thursday, and the weekend crowd was out in full force. He was behind a party of six, and anticipated a short ride with them to the Club District, after which he would have the car to himself.
The ride was as he expected. Jeremy laughed at the other passengers' jokes, but did not speak until one of them asked what he was up to that night.
"Work," he said with a twist to his mouth. They all laughed and sympathized, and then arrived at their stop and bid him farewell.
"Don't work too hard," one said as the door shut, and Jeremy smiled at him and shrugged as the car moved off. He felt a slight jolt as the car entered the main line, and then relaxed to wait for his arrival on the North End.
** *** **
"Are you sure we're doing the right thing?" Melinda asked as her husband came back from looking out the window for the third time.
"You know we are," Dan replied. He took her hand, and then hugged her as she leaned against him. "We've seen it coming for years," he said gently. "There's just no way Danny will ever be able to function--"
Her dark hand found his mouth, the smooth fingers pressing slightly against his lips. "Please," she said, "don't give me the reasons. I'm going to our room. Come and get me when the CPC man is gone."
Dan watched his wife go, and then went back to the window.
"Clear," he said as his fingers touched the opaque surface of the wall. The square of the window became transparent, and he could see the lights of the walk outside, and the faint gleam of
the car-track that ran down its center.
** *** **
Danny Haysen's room was dark, except for the omnipresent blinking lights from the panel near the door. His gaze was fixed on the small red and yellow dots, and they swam through his head until he was forced to close his eyes. Similar dots floated lazily across the insides of his eyelids, forcing his attention to follow them until they disappeared in the corner of his eye. His eyelids flickered, and the spots appeared in the opposite corner to drag his gaze across the field of view again.
Things had been getting worse in the past month or so. Well, they had been getting worse since he could remember, but in the past few weeks it had seemed to speed up. He had tried to explain the problem to his parents, and they had looked upon him kindly, with concern, but offered no advice.
How was it that they were not affected by it? he wondered for the hundredth time. They lived in the same world that he did, yet they seemed totally insensitive to the feeling of... not of being watched, but of never being alone. No matter where you went, it was never quiet, not really. They were always there...
Helpful. Useful... Sophisticated. Hi-tech! Indispensable. Unavoidable. Part of life. How ever did anybody manage to get by without them? Media-commercials (broadcast, not over the airwaves, but over the fibre-optics which connected each one to every other one in the country, the world) told you these words. Just think, before the computer revolution, people had work a 5-day week! Just imagine, having to drive your own car! And making your own meals. And keeping all of your records (records! records!) in drawers and boxes, all on paper which could burn or be torn or be eaten by little worms...
Danny's hands covered his eyes, stubby caramel-brown fingers interlocking over his face before relaxing as he fell asleep and dreamed of electric eyes and a world swimming in paper, and he was a worm, and the paper tasted like peppermint.
** *** **
Dan saw the car glide to a halt outside, and touched the window again. "Opaque," he said, and then turned toward the door. A screen beside the door had lit up, and was showing an image of their condominium's floorplan, with a red oval marking the car outside and a smaller red triangle showing a man getting out of the car and approaching the door.
"Non-defense mode," Dan said, and the oval and triangle turned green.
** *** **
Jeremy Fisher stepped up to the door and waited for the condominium's house-computer to ask for his identification. He presented his right eye, wide open, for inspection, and was rewarded by an open door. A tall blond man stood waiting for him, and he presented his hand to shake.
"I'm Jeremy Fisher," he said. "I'm with the CPC."
"Yes, come in," the man said as they shook hands. Jeremy noticed the man's blue eyes taking in the various restraining devices and such at his belt.
"These are part of the uniform," Fisher explained. "They're only used when dealing with uncooperative phobics, Mr.--?"
"Haysen," the blond man said, looking a little relieved. "Dan Haysen. I'm the one who placed the call."
"About your son, Danny," Jeremy said, reading the information off of a small screen on his wrist. He touched the screen nonchalantly, indicating to the central computer at Control that he
would not need any backup.
"Yes," Haysen replied. "He's in his room. If you want me to go get him--"
"That would probably be easiest," Jeremy replied, pursing his lips slightly to show sympathy. He sat down and waited while the man left the room, and then stood up again when he returned.
The phobic was about twelve years old, older than most "easy pick-ups." His appearance indicated that, if the blond man was his true father, his mother would have to be black. He was a little pudgy, with sleepy eyes that widened when he saw Jeremy's uniform.
The boy looked at his father in terror, and the blond
FILL IN MISSING BIT
were almost to the car when Jeremy heard a single footstep on the walk. He turned, but was too late to ward off the blow which sent a shining knife-blade crashing through the computer- link on his wrist. One of his assailants grabbed the young boy and hurried to the car, while the remaining three dragged Fisher off down the walk.
** *** **
Dan Haysen heard the door slide shut and turned away without lifting his head. The house-computer beeped just as the bedroom door was sliding open, and he was inside before he recognized the sound as that of a warning. He touched the wall near the bedroom door and requested the outside surveillance view, but all it showed was the car sliding down the track out of range.
He heard his wife crying, and told the screen to shut off before taking her in his arms and hiding his own tear-streaked face in her long black hair.
** *** **
Jeremy struggled in vain. Blood flowed from his left wrist, where the knife had gone through the skin. Someone had stuffed a wad of fabric into his mouth, and was holding it there to keep him from spitting it out. He was dumped unceremoniously against the trunk of a tree, and then knocked senseless before he could see who his assailants were.
The three figures left him slumped in the little group of trees and headed off down the walk to where the car was waiting for them on its track. When they were inside, the car glided off down the track and linked up with a main line, picked up speed, and was gone.
Danny crouched in a corner of the car, looking fearfully from one of his kidnappers to the other. There was a woman, soft-faced with mousy brown hair, and three men, two who were very big and one of less than normal height.
The woman took Danny's hand, and he pulled it back violently.
"Don't worry, kid," said one of the big men. "You're safe with us."
"Yeah," the other one added. "It was that CPC guy who was going to hurt you."
"The CPC," the boy said, some part of him realizing even then that he was merely reciting media-computer commercials, "takes care of phobics." He had only realized that that was what he was when he saw the man's uniform. It had all made sense then. He was a computer phobic, a non-functional member of society; he was mentally ill...
"The CPC imprisons phobics," said the smaller man, his voice harsh, "and conducts mind-altering experiments on them."
The woman again took Danny's hand, and this time he was too stunned to pull back. He continued to stare at the smaller man's angry face.
"I'm Victoria," the woman said, and her soothing voice, soft but far from weak, brought Danny out of the stare. He looked at her again. She introduced the two big men and the angry one. "That's Rob and Julius, and Stu."
"We rescued you," said Rob. His voice was gruff, but his smile was friendly.
"We're Phobics too," Julius said, and the boy could almost hear the capital letter when he said the word.
"Why did you--?" Danny asked.
"We're trying to rescue as many others as we can," Victoria said. "Rob and Julius rescued me two months ago."
"Where are you taking me?"
"To a safe place."
Danny was too tired to remember the rest of the trip clearly. He knew they changed cars a few times, and were finally let off at a desolate stop only meters from the shore of the Connecticut River. It was late at night, and the lights reflected in the water made it look like black oil slipping slowly by. The two big men took turns carrying the small boy, and the group ran quietly along the shore until they reached a concrete structure which could only be what remained of an old bridge. There was a hole in the concrete; this Rob and Julius squeezed through, followed by Stu and Victoria, and they started down a dark stairwell into the ground.
** *** **
Jeremy Fisher regained consciousness to find himself laying beneath the branches of a low cypress tree in a pool of blood. With effort and a great amount of will, he managed to raise his head enough to see that the blood was only a small circle where his wrist had bled, and the weight of his head where it had lain on top of the wound had managed to slow the bleeding enough for clotting. A large scab was now forming underneath the crushed remains of his computer-link.
When he crawled out from under the tree, he saw that the sky was filled with gray dawn-light. He shivered; his clothes were damp with dew, but he only felt it where it dripped from his hair or where his skin was bare. The plastic-like fabric of his uniform was not even wrinkled from the fray the night before.
He stumbled to the front door of the Haysen's condominium, and was warned off by their house-computer's defensive system. He just barely had the presence of mind to remember the override device at his belt, and used it on the door just in time.
Once inside, he found the phone, used his override again, and called work.
** *** **
Inside the structure of the concrete bridge, Victoria sat staring at the child who lay sleeping in her bunk. He was too young and too small to be of any use to the Phobics, but they had to rescue any Phobic who was being carted away... This one would just be a burden, she knew. Perhaps she'd been wrong in insisting that they save the young boy. Maybe she was too emotional.
No, she told herself. Remember what Stu had told her. It was emotion, human feelings and human dignity that they wished to save. The world was rapidly losing these things, he had said, with the computers making all the decisions for everybody. Computers. She allowed herself to shiver as the word went creeping through her mind. Inanimate objects that thought, and did people's jobs, and spoke, to people and to each other.
** *** **
Jeremy Fisher left Hartford Hospital through the front door and got in line for a PT car. He looked down at his wrist, already patched up and healing under a rubbery, flesh-like, transparent coating.
First, he would get something to eat. Then he would report to work and find out where the kidnappers had taken Danny Haysen. He only hoped that the child was young enough to have received a computer-linked implant at birth...
Breakfast was pancakes with Connecticut-made real maple syrup. Afterward, he felt ready to take on the entire Phobic movement. He went over the things he'd learned about it in his training. They "rescued" phobics from the CPC, and used horror stories to frighten them into joining the movement. It was still small, but hard to track, because all members were old enough that they didn't have implants. Last night, they had made their mistake. If the boy was less than thirteen years old, as Jeremy hoped, he would have an implant, and it would be easy to trace his whereabouts with the city's central computer.
** *** **
Jeremy's supervisor was waiting for him when he showed up. Don Raitlin was usually a severe-faced and even ugly man, who's only slightly humorous trait was his atrocious handwriting. He nodded Jeremy into a seat and got right to business.
"I can't commend you on your activities last night, Fisher," he said. "You shouldn't have given the all-clear so early. You should have been more cautious."
"Yes sir," Jeremy said. He thought back to his good mood the night before and berated himself for thinking he could go it alone after only a month's training.
"Still," Raitlin said, leaning back in his chair, "this is the first time the movement has gone after a kid. You had no reason to expect that they would, and it was your first night out alone."
He thumbed a button on his desk, and a small hologram lit up in the air between them. It was a head shot of a man, with vital statistics printing out next to his pale face which Jeremy could read.
"This is Stuart Mann," Raitlin said. "He is believed to be the leader of the Phobic movement. He is the only Phobic ever to have escaped from the CPC; as you see he was at the Holding in Springfield until about a year ago. Since then, he's amassed a movement which, thanks to its nature, has yet to spread beyond the Hartford/Springfield area. We think they're based somewhere between here and Springfield, possibly near the Massachusetts border."
"The kid had an implant," Jeremy said. "I've got the people in Surveillance tracking him down right now. Wherever he is, we figure the rest of them will be."
"Good," Raitlin said. "I've got Operations setting up a team to go with you. You'll definitely need some help."
Fisher smiled and nodded. He'd been worried that they wouldn't allow him to go at all, that the job had become too big for such a new employee to take part in.
"Thank you for letting me go, sir," he said.
"Hey," Raitlin said with an uncharacteristic lighter tone. "It's your screw-up."
** *** **
Danny sat in the biggest chamber of the underground compound. The walls were of dirt reinforced with rocks, and were about four meters apart at the widest point. Tunnels led off from the main room, but only to the left. On the other side lay the ever-present threat of the Connecticut River.
The air was damp, with the thick smell of earth and rot heavy on the senses. There were about ten people in the big chamber, and others elsewhere underground digging out more space and above ground spying on CPC men and getting supplies for the compound. All told, Stu had some fifty people in his movement, and that number was growing.
Danny had never felt so comfortable in all his short life. There he was, finally in a place that only people shared. There were no automatic doors, no media-comps, no window-walls, no computer alarm systems. Food was cooked over fires, people slept in small bunks until they woke up or were woken by their friends, and the entrances were guarded by big men like Rob and Julius, big men with kind faces and protective arms.
Something tickled on the edge of Danny's awareness; he looked down and was startled to see a black bug crawling over his hand. He watched it for a long moment before a voice startled him and he shook it to the ground.
"Are you hungry, Danny?" asked Victoria as she sat down beside him. He nodded, and she handed him a sandwich, made by her own hands, she told him. This, too, he stared at for a long moment, before his appetite got the best of him and he ate.
"The CPC would only give you vitamins and calorie-bread," she told him. "Stu says that's because it's cheaper for them. Then one day they would come and take you from your cell to a cold white room, and--"
** *** **
"Remember, we've got to make sure we get the kid out alive. And don't let Stu Mann escape."A AJeremy and the others listened to the repeated plans of the team- leader, their eager faces belying the knowledge that they were about to walk into danger. The Phobics were not mentally stable, and were frightened enough to kill. Fisher's arm no longer hurt, but he only needed to look at the transparent healing coating to remember the feel of the knife's blade.
Surveillance reported to them over the private car's radio. The child was surrounded by about ten people, and there were another twenty within the underground tunnels. Jeremy tried to imagine what it was like there, with nothing but rocks and dirt between the people and the unpredictable river. How had they lasted there for so long? If he were a twelve-year-old boy in there, he would be terrified.
The boy. Danny Haysen is my responsibility, Fisher thought. It's my job to get him out of there, and leave the rest to everybody else.
There was no doubt they would succeed. They had superior weapons, superior mental capacity, and the element of surprise on their side. The Phobics wouldn't stand a chance of winning. But still, he thought, they might manage to get a few of us before it's over. He looked around the large interior of the private car. Who would it be?
** *** **
Jeremy had just finished his sandwich when the shout came echoing down the tunnel. He could not tell what the woman was saying, but the reactions of the others in the chamber told him it was not good. Victoria grabbed his arm and hurried him down a side tunnel. When they reached the end, where a group of men were digging, she told him to stay and started back the way they had come.
"There's a car at the stop," she told the diggers. "Keep the boy safe."
Danny did not know any of the men, but they were all big and looked like they could take care of him, so he stayed near them and watched anxiously down the tunnel for signs of activity.
At first, all he could hear were the muffled warnings of the Phobics. Then a shout, and more shouts, and loud cries, followed by explosive sounds-- guns!
Someone came running down the tunnel, a black-uniformed figure in the darkness with a shock of white-blond hair. He recognized the CPC man who'd come to get him the night before.
"No!" he shouted as the man burst into the torchlight, and he felt himself shoved aside by one of the diggers. The big man moved forward, holding his shovel like a weapon as he advanced upon the small uniformed figure who had stopped and was now looking nervously about the tunnel.A AJeremy had to think fast. He had a gun at his belt, knew how to use it... but did not trust himself in the dark, cramped, foul-smelling tunnel. The three big men were advancing on him without fear, and the boy had disappeared in the shifting shadows of the excavation site.
"Get down, kid!" Fisher shouted, hoping the child would take heed. He flashed out the gun and held it at the ready, and the three men reacted with unexpected speed. The first swung his shovel, while the other two moved to the sides of the wall to go around. Jeremy had no choice. He ducked the shovel, fell to his knees, and came up shooting.
The tunnel's air was heavy with smoke. The noise of the gun had seemed deafening in his ears, but now the three men lay dead or dying in the dirt and rocks of the floor. Jeremy could not allow himself to think about what he had done. He grabbed a torch and thrust it into the shadows of the far wall. The young boy was crouched in a fetal position beside a large rock, his stubby fingers interlocked over his face. Jeremy bent to touch him, and was startled as the kid burst into movement, scrambling over the rocks to the depression made by the shovels and picks only a few
"Comon' kid," Fisher said, his hand searching his belt while his eyes held the child's attention. "It's for your own good..."
Jeremy's hand pulled out the device he needed, and he closed his eyes as he aimed and pushed the button.
** *** **
The sunlight outside the tunnel was a welcome sight, as Jeremy led the small boy bound in webbing out of the concrete structure and started for the car. A fleet of ambu-clinics were just arriving to tend the wounded and clean up the dead. The CPC's had only lost one man, but quite a few were wounded. Jeremy counted himself lucky.
He helped the partially immobile kid into the car and sat in front of him, waiting for the others. The boy's curly hair was topped with a sprinkling of dirt, and he had a few cuts and scrapes from the rocks, but other than that seemed none the worse for wear. His brown eyes burned fiercely at his captor, and Jeremy looked away to avoid them.
Outside the car, he saw a pair of his teammates emerge from the shadows near the river with a body. They approached the team leader, and he nodded and motioned for them to take him to an ambu-clinic.
When they passed the car, Jeremy recognized the face of the dead man as Stuart Mann. So, their day had been completely successful after all.
He looked back at the boy who had made it possible, and was again faced with dark hate. Beneath that, though, was something else. A need for reassurance?
"You'll be okay now, kid," Jeremy said quietly, feeling awkward using his training in this situation.
"Where will you take me?" the boy asked, and there was strangely no hint of fear in his voice.
"To the Hartford Holding," Fisher said, wondering why he felt so uncomfortable looking at the small round face with the wide, mud-streaked nose.
"Will they put me in a cell?" Danny asked.
"No," Jeremy said. These questions were almost textbook examples. "They'll give you a little room of your own, though."
"Will their computers watch me?"
"The people will watch you, to make sure you're safe. But the computers won't watch you." Phobics often referred to computers in an anthropomorphic way, as if they were alive. Jeremy carefully controlled his voice, remembering his training, sound soothing but not condescending.
"Will they experiment on me?"
Not quite textbook. Jeremy paused for a moment to think. The doctors still had not come up with a way to remove the phobia. But they were trying.
"They'll try to cure you," he finally said.
The boy was silent. There was a knock on the window, and Jeremy saw the team leader motioning for him to come out of the car. He glanced at the boy and then touched the door.
"Open," he said, and stepped out of the car. Inside, Danny Haysen sat perfectly still and watched as a small green insect clambered over the webbing which bound his lap.
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