"Princess" by Romeo Esparrago

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Sometimes, I Dream of Roses
by George Condon

 

I had the windows of my Jeep rolled down, so I heard the shouts around the same time that I saw the crowd. I was driving west on Queen Street, near the the old Hudson's Bay Store. A crowd of teenagers milled around on the trash-littered sidewalk ahead, restless in the clammy August heat. It was Saturday night in Toronto, so most of these young ravers were already high on pandango dust.

The gang surrounded a slim, blonde woman wearing a dark-blue jumpsuit. In the harsh yellow glow of the halogen street lamps, she looked frightened. I parked my Jeep at the curb and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

A black kid in a red T-shirt and jeans came out of the crowd and kicked at the woman. With speed and agility that surprised me, she sidestepped his boot and smacked the edge of her right hand against the side of the boy's neck. The blow sent him sprawling. While the woman's attention was focused on her first attacker, a muscular, tattooed skinhead punched her hard from behind. She went down, face forward, onto the pavement.

The gang of teens cheered as they moved in for the kill. Curling herself into a fetal position, the blonde woman tried to protect her face with her arms as the boys began kicking her.

I switched my wrist phone on and punched in 911.

"Emergency," said a bored voice from the phone.

I knew that a gang assault wouldn't get much interest from the cops these days. I needed to get them excited.

"Better get down to Yonge and Bloor, fast," I said. "A bunch of cyborgs is causing trouble. They're talking about revolution."

"Who is this?"

I switched off the phone, knowing that the dispatcher would track my exact location to within a few meters, using the global positioning satellites. Now, I had to do something to help the blonde. I reached into my Jeep and pressed down on the horn.

"Hey, guys," I shouted at the crowd.

The kids stopped kicking the fallen woman and glared at me.

"Back off, fool," somebody yelled.

I took a few steps toward them.

"What's your problem?," I asked. "Do you only beat up on women?"

"He's begging for it. Let's take him."

The boys moved in on me. I managed to make the first two regret their decision to lunge at me, but the others pulled me down by force of numbers. I was on the sidewalk, stomping-target No. 2 for the evening, when the rumble and whine of turbines split the night air.

"Cops!" somebody yelled.

Within seconds, the sidewalk was deserted, except for the blonde woman and me. I pulled myself to my feet and went over to where she was lying on the pavement. She tucked her body into a tighter ball, expecting to be kicked again.

"I'm here to help," I told her. "Can you walk?"

She looked up at me. Before the mob went to work on her, she had been attractive. Now there was an ugly gash on her left cheek and her lower lip was swollen. Blood oozed from one corner of her mouth. Also, I saw the reason why the boys had attacked her.

"I'm okay," she mumbled, trying to stand. I caught her, just before she fell. She winced when my hands touched her body.

"Easy," I said "You may have some broken ribs."

"I should have been able to handle those punks," she said. " I was in the infantry."

"Twenty-to-one odds are tough to beat. You need medical care."

The turbine noise was louder now. A police skimmer was very close.

Suddenly, all of the vehicles passing on the street jerked to a stop. Drivers honked their car horns in frustration, wondering what was happening. The skimmer crew had to be transmitting electromagnetic pulses to disrupt all engine ignition systems in the area. It was a standard police tactic these days, to foil motorized getaways. I could forget about using my Jeep.

Already, I could see the beams of the skimmer's searchlights sweeping the area. I looked around and saw the entrance to an old subway station, just a few meters to our right.

"What's your name?" I asked the injured woman.

"Caroline."

"Okay, Caroline. My name is Mark. You'll be sent to one of the euthanasia camps if the police catch you. We have to get out of here. We're going into that subway station over there."

"The subway? It's been closed for years."

"I know," I said. "But it's our only chance. Let's go."

Caroline leaned on my arm, limping badly, as we moved to the stone steps that led down into the subway. We ducked below ground just in time. I heard the police skimmer's engines change pitch, just before the machine thumped down onto the pavement. It was so close to us that the flashing gum ball light on its roof threw flickering shadows, like some bizarre strobe lamp from the twentieth century.

The glass panels from the subway station's doors were long gone, replaced by sheets of plywood painted a dark blue. The doors were closed and secured by a thick steel hasp and a large padlock.

"How will we get in?, Caroline whispered.

I pulled a canvas pouch from my jacket and fumbled out my lock-picking tools. Luckily, the padlock was an old-fashioned model that wasn't very complex. Within a few seconds, I pulled it open.

"Inside," I said. "Fast."

As I closed the doors behind us, a searchlight beam stabbed through the cracks around the wooden panels. Caroline and I stood there, statues in a frozen tableau. After what seemed like years, I heard someone shout from the street above and the light moved away, leaving us in total darkness.

From my pouch, I pulled out a slim penlight and switched it on. It cast a feeble beam, but it would have to be enough. For a second, I aimed the light at Caroline's face. She gasped and turned her head away.

"Sorry," I said. "I just wanted to be sure. Your eyes look very real. Where did you have them done?"

"Mount Sinai Hospital. They had a special unit for eye replacement, before this government took over."

I nodded. "What happened to your original eyes?"

"Like I told you, I was in the army. My unit was caught in the big retreat from Shanghai. We got ambushed near the Tsing Tao Reservoir. A laser blast hit a vehicle near where I was taking cover and I got a spray of molten metal in my face. The plastic surgeons were able to rebuild the bone and tissue, but my eyes were cooked. Bionic implants were the best they could do."

"Rough," I said. "So, what happened tonight? Did one of those boys notice?"

"Yes. He looked into my face when he begged for some spare change. I saw his expression and I realized that he knew. He yelled to the others and ... well you know the rest. Thanks for saving my life."

"Forget it. Government propaganda has been whipping up hatred for years against anybody with implants. It's no surprise that a bunch of hopped-up kids would jump you. Right now, let's concentrate on getting out of here."

I pushed one of the subway station doors open, just a crack, and looked outside. The traffic noise at street level had returned to normal. Maybe the cops had moved on. Behind me, I heard Caroline gasp. I turned and the beam of my penlight caught a shape crouching in the darkness.

I have no idea how the dog got into that abandoned subway station. It was a large German Shepherd with matted hair, and it must have been down there for days, without food. Staring into the flare of my flashlight, the dog snarled and crept closer, keeping its gaunt body tensed. Saliva dripped from its dark muzzle, and I sensed that it was going to attack.

When the dog jumped at me, I dropped to one knee. The animal's leap carried its body over the top of me and I reached up to grab its furry throat with both of my hands, twisting hard. I heard a yelp and I felt something snap under my grip as the dog's weight knocked me onto my back. I rolled and jumped back onto my feet.

In the blackness, I saw my penlight, still shining where it had fallen. Snatching up the light, I crouched and waited for another lunge from the dog. None came. I swept the beam across the subway platform and saw the animal lying on its side, just a few feet away. It wasn't moving. Slowly, I walked over and nudged the inert body with my foot. The dog was dead, its neck broken. I felt badly about that. I only meant to stun the poor brute.

I walked back to the doorway, where Caroline was leaning against the wall.

"I never saw anything like that," she said. "Who are you?"

"I was a cop once," I told her. "Now, I'm just somebody who needs to get you out of here."

"I don't think I can ...," she said and fainted.

I caught Caroline as she fell forward. Hoisting her body over my shoulder, in a fireman's lift, I pushed the subway station's doors open and carried her up to the street. My Jeep was still where I had parked it. I put Caroline onto the front passenger seat, buckled her seat belt, and went around to sit behind the steering wheel. Shifting the Jeep into gear, I pulled away from the curb, careful not to exceed the speed limit or do anything else that would draw attention.

As we drove north on Yonge Street, we passed billboards displaying government slogans. "The Lord Will Heal." "Science Kills." "Be Humans, Not Machines." Some signs had been sprayed with graffiti, added by local citizens. "Die, cyborg pigs." "Kill all the gimps."

After only six years, I found it hard already to remember a time before the accidental mutations from the Mendelsohn experiments had started a global wave of outrage, giving fundamentalist groups everywhere an excuse to seize power. The attacks on biological and medical research that followed might have happened anyway.

Humanity stood on the brink of immortality, then lost its collective nerve.

I heard Caroline groan and saw that she was awake again. "Where are we?"

"Try not to move too much," I told her. "We'll be there soon."

"Where?"

"It's a kind of hospital."

I drove northward, avoiding the expressways and staying on rural roads that were virtually deserted at night. Using the back roads was slower, but the lack of traffic made it easier to know whether we were being followed. The Jeep's headlamps probed the road ahead, reflecting from an occasional signpost as we sped on into the night. A few farm pickup trucks passed us, going in the opposite direction. So far, no headlights showed in the rearview mirror. That didn't mean we weren't being tracked in some other way.

We were near the turnoff now. It was time to call ahead and warn the others that I was coming in. I switched on my wrist phone and pushed a button that transmitted a stored number. After three rings, I heard Ben Hashimoto's voice.

"Hello?"

"It's Uncle Charlie," I said.

"How are you, Uncle?"

"Never better. I'm bringing you a birthday present. I'm afraid I dropped it and it's slightly damaged."

"That's okay, Uncle Charlie. It's the thought that counts."

Talking in code seems corny, but all telephone conversations are monitored these days and using any form of voice scrambling would just draw attention. Ben knew that "Uncle Charlie" was my scavenger name. My claim of good health meant I was not a captive and being forced to call the base. The mention of a damaged birthday gift told him that I was bringing in someone who was injured. If Ben was suspicious of my responses, then the camp's evacuation would begin immediately. I would arrive to find only a burning ruin, rigged with booby traps.

I turned off the main road onto a gravel strip that wound along like a writhing snake for a few kilometers. There was a full moon, so I could make out the dark shape of a weathered barn ahead and the gray stone farmhouse that sat beside it. The windows of the old house were shuttered and dark, but I knew that hidden surveillance cameras watched as I drove my Jeep up the driveway and parked it in the front yard.

I flicked the Jeep's headlights off, then back on, four times. The front door of the house swung open and three figures in green hospital garb came out, pushing a wheeled gurney. As they approached, I recognized Doctor Ben Hashimoto and two of his nurses. I climbed out of the Jeep and swung open the passenger's door, so that they could see Caroline sprawled on the front seat.

"Easy with her," I said. "She may be hurt badly."

Ben felt for Caroline's pulse, then he nodded to the others.

"Okay, Mark. "We'll take over now."

I watched as the medical team carefully lifted Caroline out of the vehicle and strapped her to the gurney. I knew the nurses. They understood people who had implants. Helen had a bionic arm and John had a prosthetic leg. While they wheeled Caroline inside, I started the Jeep and moved it into the barn, out of sight from the road.

By the time I went into the house, it appeared to be deserted. I walked to the far wall of the front parlor and I pressed a button that was concealed in the pattern of the faded wallpaper. A hidden door slid open, revealing an elevator. I stepped in and the elevator car whined into motion, dropping me downward. When the door opened again, I walked out into the underground complex that had been built beneath the house.

Immediately in front of the elevator was a small foyer, furnished with a black leather sofa and two matching armchairs. To the left and right there were hallways, each with several doors that led to laboratories and treatment rooms. Panels in the ceilings shed soft white light, using electrical power tapped illegally from the county power grid. Hidden fans purred as they pulled in filtered air from the surface.

Men and women in hospital greens walked by me, busy with their various errands. I nodded to several of them and I was about to ask where Ben was, when I saw him coming down the hallway from the left. He looked at me with a concerned expression.

"You've had quite a night," he said. " Want some coffee? Oh, God! Sorry, Mark. I keep forgetting."

"Never mind. How is Caroline?"

"She has a couple of cracked ribs and plenty of bruises, but no internal injuries that I can detect. If only we had a scanner or even an antique x-ray machine."

"I'll see what I can steal for you, next time I go out."

"Do you want to talk to her, Mark? She thinks you're quite a hero."

"She must have head injuries than you didn't notice," I said. "Sure. Where is she now?"

"Second door on the right. I gave her some painkillers, so don't keep her talking too long. She needs to sleep."

"That's something we have in common," I said.

I walked down the hall and opened the door to Caroline's room. She was lying on the bed, with a red blanket pulled up to her throat. The bruises on her face had darkened and Ben had applied an adhesive bandage over the cut on her cheek. She smiled at me and I thought I saw more than just gratitude in her expression.

"What is this place?", she asked. Her speech was slightly slurred by Ben's medication.

"This is just a way station," I told her. "You know what happens to people with artificial implants these days, if they get caught. They're labeled 'cyborgs' and terminated. We run an illegal shelter here. I'm a scavenger. My job is to steal whatever the group needs to keep going. Sometimes, I find people like you who need help and I bring them to this farm, until they can be safely smuggled out of the country."

"Smuggled? To where?" Caroline asked. She seemed to be fighting to keep her eyes open.

"Europe, mainly. There are still a few countries that are less barbaric than the others. We've got communes in some of them that function like leper colonies did, hundreds of years ago. The governments there won't help us, but they won't hunt us down either, so long as we keep to ourselves."

"You said 'we', Mark. Are the others here all cyborgs too?"

"Most of them. There are a few, like Doctor Hashimoto, who don't have any implants. They're here just because they want to help."

"What about you?," Caroline asked. "You don't seem to have anything wrong with you."

"Remember how I told you that I used to be a cop?"

"Yes."

"Seven years ago, my partner and I went into a building, chasing some terrorists. We didn't know that they'd booby-trapped the entrance. My partner was vaporized by the explosion. I wasn't quite so lucky."

I pulled open my shirt, so that Caroline could see my gleaming metal torso. Her smile vanished and her eyes opened wide in horror. I pulled my plastiflesh face up, showing her the steel skull underneath.

"They couldn't save much, except for my brain," I said. " I was a real challenge for the surgeons. One of their great success stories."

Caroline had her hand in front of her mouth. I turned and left the room before she screamed. I knew that she saw me now as just a thing. Even cyborgs have limits to their tolerance.

I walked down the hall, to the small room that the staff let me keep as my own. Switching off the light, I sprawled onto my cot and lay there, staring into the darkness.

Sometimes, I dream of roses, but I can't remember their scent. Taste, touch, and smell have all been gone since the explosion, along with my flesh. I don't know how long the pumps that nourish my brain in this steel prison will keep functioning, now that no replacement parts are available. I do know that I will never enjoy sex again or even feel warm rain on my face. Gradually, the memories of these things are fading too. Bit by bit, I'm forgetting what it is to be human. What is left behind is just a machine. I've come to look forward to the transformation. At least a machine will no longer care.

Finally, I drifted into sleep. I needed the rest. Tomorrow would be another busy day. A scavenger's work is never done.

 

 

Story © 2003 by George Condon george_condon@operamail.com


Illustration © 2003 by Romeo Esparrago romeo@planetmag.com




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