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Flittering Headstones

by Michael Martineck

 

Parker Ngyen had never shot a man before. He'd never even considered it. He always thought the Academy's firearm training was vestigial. Data were the modern peace makers, cyberscapes the OK Corrals. Still, here he was, sweat filling the tiny gaps between his pistol's grip and his palm, a June evening's sun lowering into his eyes, arms out straight, aiming his sidearm at the bent back of a man too old to be his grandfather. Dr. DiAnni, he'd been told.

"Fire." The voice in his ear was soft, but not like a whisper. It had clarity and command and not a note of playfulness. The trigger was rough, textured to reduce slipping. He thought he could feel every micro bump and pore. He thought the second would never end.

"You are authorized to fire," the voice said.

Exhale and squeeze, Parker said to himself. He exhaled. The old doctor looked back over his shoulder. His eyes caught Parker's. Parker caught his breath. Then the doctor began to turn. The dimming sun made his eyes gleam like new and flashed off something in his hand. Something glassy.

"Special Agent Parker." The voice was slightly louder. "Verify transmission."

"Channel clear." Parker did not need to project his voice. The Bio -Operative Radio just under the skin of his throat would collect and send his message if he'd chosen to use no air at all. "Suspect holding sealed container. Laboratory quality. Potential bio-hazard. Declining command to fire."

He couldn't believe he'd said "declining". Three months out of the Academy, enough in shape that everyone knew it. The older agents went to such great lengths to tease him. He was a webhead, with the millimeter length hair they all wore like badges. He should have been at his console. 24 years old. He was wearing shorts and orange T-shirt, for cripes sake. He couldn't decline a order from his control.

"All right, Parker," the voice almost sang. "Calm down. I'm getting someone from BiHi on line. You made the right call. And by the way, you can use complete sentences. It's allowed."

Parker moved his finger off the trigger, took a breath and a long blink .

"There used to be fireflies here." The doctor faced him, wrinkles on wrinkles, pewter hair of a countable quantity. The chrome-topped glass cylinder was at his side. It would probably hold a liter of water, but appeared to be empty. "Are you going to shoot me, young man?"

"Special Agent Ngyen, FBI. Please put the container down, sir."

"You don't look like a special agent, but you know that don't you ?"

"Put it down." Parker made his voice more forceful, using the word -snapping tricks he'd been taught.

"They were anxious to nab me, huh? Did they pluck you from a barbecue?"

"Liener, Bio-hazard Identification." There was a new voice in Parker's head.

"Pan then focus on the object in question."

Parker slowly turned his head to the left. They were on the far edge of a black and yellow striped parking lot. It was 8:38 PM. There were no cars in sight. The doctor's car was caught on cartraps at the entrance. He didn't have permission to be here, so the driveway had grabbed his tires. Parker had to leave his car in the street.

Three hundred yards from his left shoulder Parker showed Control the near featureless one story office building. Faux blond brick and green-tint glass. The epitome of quick, suburban industrial. It could have been an orthodontist's place, data bank, maybe a small manufacturing facility.

With no character, it could have been anything. Next to his right shoulder was a line of small trees and brush. The cool, green richness ran the length of the back parking lot, ending at the brink of a small valley. Parker could hear or smell or just knew there was a creek at the bottom.

"I lived around here as a boy." The doctor was looking at Parker as if there were no gun and jar between them. "Before it was an industrial park."

Parker focused on the glass cylinder. The tiny cameras in the pits of his eyes took in the same information he did. The data streamed through his body, following paths previously reserved for nervous signals. Sometimes he thought he could feel the BOR flick on and transmit his heart rate or the music he was listening to. Sometimes he thought of even more seedy transmissions. Most of the time he knew this was his imagination.

"We're churning the data now." Liener sent into Parker's inner ear. "Could be something in there."

"There were all kinds of birds. Squirrels. There was actually a deer problem for a while. Can you imagine? Too many deer when I was growing up."

"Keep him talking, Parker."

"Would you identify yourself for me please?" Parker said in a full voice.

"Haven't they already done that for you? All those little machines in your body? I know the FBI uses my work. That doesn't bother me. Not in comparison, anyway."

"All I know for sure is that there's a warrant for your arrest and I'm authorized to use lethal force."

The doctor grinned and brought the container up. "I do look dangerous, don't I?"

"If you don't set it down, I'm authorized to shoot. This is a Smith & Wesson Wide. A hand-shotgun, sir. I'm not going to graze you. Do you understand?"

"I understand that if I set this down, you'll shoot me. The only thing keeping me alive is the fear that this vessel might break."

"It's not that complicated. If you set the jar down --"

"You shoot me. I know what you are, Special Agent, and I know what I am. Mad Scientist. Snapped. Too dangerous to live."

"That's not the case, sir."

"I've built machines smaller than a pin head that use the power of the human heart to bore holes in the cardio-wall. I've built squadrons of planes, too small to be seen, that seek out and incinerate rice crops on demand. I've built devices that take residence in the pleasure centers of the brain and stimulate them when in the presence of a certain soft drink I'm sworn never to name. Do you think they can afford my change in attitude?"

Parker watched as the doctor brought the jar close to his chest, clutching the lid as if preparing to twist. He listened for Control, for advice, for an answer.

"We can't wait." The original voice was back in Parker's head. "Subdue the subject."

Parker tightened his muscles again. He had his orders. The doctor wasn't defenseless. The decision wasn't really his.

"Visuals are inconclusive." Liener was still in the loop. "The subject is extremely dangerous. Procedure is clear. Fire, Parker."

Parker rolled his damp fingers across the grip.

What about the jar? Didn't they care? The guy was a nangineer. He just said he could make any of the nightmares they warn about at the Academy.

 

A plague of micro-missiles with virus warheads. A cloud of chain-reactors, igniting all the oxygen for a quarter-mile around. That jar could have a kill rate in the thousands. I'd be victim number one . . . two at the latest . . . dying while the lunatic streamed about squirrels and deer.

The doctor was looking up and past him, like he was daydreaming. Both men could hear the approaching sirens. Worse, in the upper distance, Parker heard the chopping of air. A helicopter. More people. More guns. More confusion. Squirrels and deer. Only a madman would think about squirrels and deer at a time like this.

"Parker," Control said. "Fire."

A madman. A killer? "Doctor." Parker soften his voice. "I'm going to set my weapon down." He stared to crouch, moving his finger from the trigger.

"No!" Control stung Parker's inner ear.

"I can't shoot you if I don't have my gun, right?"

"Fire!"

The doctor sighed, continuing to look out over the creek. "It's almost twilight. That was my favorite time. Once."

"I'm setting it down, sir." Parker placed his gun on the asphalt, as far away as he could reach. "Please. Now it's your turn."

"You are too young to understand this, but at some far future moment you will look back and say 'My God, what did I do with my life?' In this receptacle is my attempt at redemption for all of the deadly little widgets with which I've infected this world. This is my revenge and my legacy."

Parker stood back up, Smith & Wesson on its side, black-mat finish melting in with the parking lot and the growing shadows. "What's it going to be?"

The doctor held the jar with his finger tips. He looked at Parker. Maybe he grinned. Parker would never know. The skull behind the doctor's left ear exploded. His body bent sideways, following the cloud of flesh and skull. His feet lifted lightly off the ground, then he spilled on to his shoulder .

Parker didn't blink. He couldn't miss a partial second. The glass jar popped up, away from the doctor's hands, in a small arch. Parker was unable to dodge or attempt a catch as it descended towards him.

It smashed at his feet.

Parker didn't look to see the black silhouette of some government helicopter. He didn't look to see if the doctor's body had settled; if he'd had time to close his eyes. Parker couldn't look at anything but the jutting peaks and smooth valleys of glass right in front of him and the glowing, yellow swirl of fireflies that was spiraling out of the crash.

Pin points of light buzzed in a dance of avoidance and togetherness. Two hundred? Three hundred? He couldn't count. The swarm drifted slowly towards the drop-off, where they would take their preprogrammed place above the shallow creek.

Parker would later learn the sharpshooter used a 10mm smart-bullet, set to seek out the heat pattern of the doctor's head. It had been designed by DiAnni Industries.

 Even long after he'd started working for the Bank of Hong Kong, Parker continued to come back every year to see the tiny flying machines. He brought his three year old daughter the year the University of Ohio came to study them. How they never collided, but never strayed too far from each other. How they fed on light all summer day then flew around giving it back every summer night.

"If they could replicate," a scientist said to him, "they'd meet our definition of life."

Parker patted his daughter's head and smiled. To Parker the fireflies weren't alive, they were miniature tombstones, with a message of small atonement, but he was sure the doctor whom he'd know for all of six minutes would have appreciated the thought.*

 

Story copyright © 1999 by Michael Martineck <mjmartineck@mailexcite.com>

Artwork "Flying Fires" copyright © 1999 by Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>

 

 

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