Authors: Tony Bertauski
Tags: #sci fi adventure dystopia bertauski socket greeny teen ya
Copyright © 2010 by Tony Bertauski
All rights reserved, including the right of
reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
This book is a work of fiction. The use of
real people or real locations is used fictitiously. Any resemblance
of characters to real persons is purely coincidental
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Dedicated to those who are lost.
* * * * *
When the student is ready, the teacher will
Weapons are forged in fire.
The hotter the flame, the sharper the
* * * * *
The narrow alley was filled with cups and
newspapers, empty cans and bottles. It was sandwiched between
two-story buildings with grimy windows glowing with yellowish
light. One window was open on the second story where curtains
occasionally waved from an oscillating fan while I hid behind the
I should’ve finished this mission by
Get to the window and save the victim, that’s
all it was. I was good at that. But nothing was that simple. Not
I was through the window on my first attempt
and saw my mother tied to a chair with a faceless enemy behind her.
I hesitated, only 0.04 of a second, plenty of time to watch him
drag the sharp edge of his hand over her throat. You lose, Socket.
Control your emotions,
Action must be decisive and pure. Never
Pon, the mentor of all mentors. With him,
there’s always a lesson. Even when you’ve watched your own mother
choke on her blood a hundred times, there was a lesson.
Pon taught me how to think, how to move. And
when the situation demanded it, he taught me how to kill. He
designed my daily missions. In the beginning, they were simple, but
now there were subtle traps, and traps within traps. Mind games.
The solution wasn’t straight forward. Not anymore.
Brute force is always the weakest
This mission wasn’t about outmuscling an
opponent, even though it looked like it on the surface. It was more
about performing regardless of the situation. It was about focusing
and seeing the course of action. It was about serving
It was easy saving someone I didn’t know. Saving my mother, that
was like walking a tight rope. One wrong thought, and it was a
thousand feet down.
Still, I should’ve been done hours ago.
The back of my arm was sticky and hot. A
sharp slit ran down the back of my sleeve. I felt my skin flap
open. A deep gash went through the muscle. One of the duplicates
caught me on the last attempt. I disposed of the thing quickly –
its generic head toppled down the steps – but it slashed on the way
down and got me.
Duplicates were human imitations. They did
everything a human did – eat, sleep, shit, whatever – only they
weren’t human. At one time, they blended into society intent on
killing every last one of us. Now they were gone. But for some
reason, I was still fighting duplicate mock-ups in training
sessions; only now they were faceless.
They can look like you, me, or your
Pon would tell me
. The enemy has many faces.
I pulled the wound open, probing for poison
tips that sometimes broke off and slowly shut down the nervous
system. I’d be laid up for weeks if that was the case, but the
wound was clean. I put a medical patch over it, sealing the skin
shut. The patch dispensed microscopic nanomechs that mimicked white
blood cells. They would reattach muscles, rebuild skin cells and
dull nerve endings. Basically a high-tech Band-Aid. In most cases,
an imbedded device at the back of my neck would directly release
nanomech cells, but I couldn’t take the chance on it being slow.
The patch was insurance I’d be good for tonight. If I ever
Chute and Streeter were expecting me. I
wondered if Chute would have her hair pulled back this time. The
last time she had her hair down and wavy and even had on a little
I shook my head. Focus. My enemy was getting
smarter. They learned from every attempt. They knew my tendencies,
strengths and weaknesses. If my last attempt almost worked, it was
guaranteed not to come close the next time. I was running out of
I pulled my aching legs under me. Another
Allow thoughts to fall away. Distractions to
dissolve. The solution was in the moment. All that was needed was
the space to allow it to be present.
Allow the unbroken circle,
say. I wasn’t sure what the hell that meant, but visualizing a
circle calmed my mind. When there was nothing but the city sounds
of distant traffic, I opened my eyes.
The moon was brighter.
The air was stiller.
I flicked open my gloved hand. A
three-dimensional image of the alley illuminated in my palm. I
hardly needed mapgear to know what was behind me, but preparation
required vigilance and discipline.
Battles are won or lost
before the first strike.
If I could note one more detail, it
could make the difference.
A rat scurried from one building to the next.
The enemies were on the roof, in the shadows and doorways. It
wasn’t realistic, duplicates weren’t into guerilla warfare. When
they existed, they were more about infiltration and deception, but
Pon designed these missions. Don’t question the master.
I stared at the mapgear image. Nothing new. I
closed my eyes. Breathe in. Out.
Less is more.
Pon repeated that one
like a goddamn mantra.
The solution is always simple.
Look at it from another angle. See all the
possible solutions. If brute force is not the answer…
I reached for the evolver clubs on my belt.
They unfolded – inside-out – and wrapped around my hands and
forearms like thin transparent gloves, fusing with my nervous
system like a thousand needles, awaiting thought-command.
The enemy didn’t know I was behind the
dumpster, but they knew I was coming. They’d be expecting me to
approach engulfed in a bubble shield, because that’s what I’d done
all day. If I didn’t, they’d just shoot me on sight. With the
shield, they had to engage me hand-to-hand. If they couldn’t beat
me that way, they’d just execute the captive.
I needed to be faster. Unpredictable.
Less is more
With a thought, a translucent strand emerged
from my fingertip. It snaked between the wall and dumpster,
slithering to the far end of the alley where the shadows were
darkest in a broken doorway. Sweat stung my eyes. The evolver was
stretched to its limits and shifted on my hand. Hundreds of nerve
fusions broke away. I strained to maintain the
I imagined a lanky form. Short and wiry.
Bristly hair. Suspicious eyes. The tendril plumped in the doorway,
taking a human shape. It occurred to me I was building Pon’s body.
Would it strike extra fear in the enemy’s heart? Or did that just
happen to me?
Weakness poured down my back like icy water.
Indecipherable voices warbled in my head. I strained against the
Is that the enemy’s thoughts, sending them out like
static to distract me?
Of course, they were learning. They knew
the distraction was as much a weapon as a dagger. I braced against
the intrusion until the random thoughts subsided.
I redoubled my efforts, grinding my teeth. I
focused on the end of the strand, held the image in my mind until a
body stood at the far end of the alley.
I took a moment to focus. I had to be quick.
If this didn’t work, it was going to hurt.
A tranquil moment settled inside me; the
silence a warrior experiences before certain death, the complete
acceptance of the present moment filled me.
Live or die,
, it does not matter when you serve the present moment.
I was never quite sure if I could actually
die during training. It could hurt like hell, but death? They
wouldn’t let me die, would they?
I focused some more.
In that silence, the evolver ripped from my
arm and snapped down the alley toward the figure. Trash scattered
in its path. The alley stirred to life. The enemy emerged from
hiding, climbing from the roof and out of the shadows,
strategically hemming the possible attacker into the corner.
My timing had to be perfect. I waited behind
the dumpster, gripping my lone evolver-wrapped hand. I waited for
the precise moment.
The figure in the doorway picked up the
evolver club that slid to its feet. It glowed softly, illuminating
the figure’s aggressive posture. The enemy was careful. They stayed
near the ground and climbed down the smooth walls like insects,
watching. The figure would not escape, but they had to confirm its
identity. My attack would be useless the moment they discovered it
was a decoy. The figure slumped against the doorway, sliding to the
ground like a drunk. The enemy reached for its face—
A bright whip blasted from my evolver-wrapped
hand like a serpent’s tongue and smacked around the railing outside
the second story window. It yanked me off the ground. Wind rushed
into my face.
I twisted to avoid colliding with the railing
and swung through the window, ripping through the curtains and
careening over my mother’s head with her captor’s hand to her
throat. I smashed into the far wall.
The whip released the railing and returned to
my outstretched hand, immediately recoiling like a stiff-pointed
lance. The sharpened tip pierced the enemy’s forehead with a dull
. His head kicked back.
The enemy was colorless. Blue circuit fluid
drained from the hole in its forehead. Its body crumpled like an
empty sack. A red line appeared across my mother’s throat.
But she didn’t fall.
The line didn’t gush, didn’t drain her life.
They had opened her throat a hundred times that day, but this time
it didn’t cut deep enough. Finally, she lived.
I fell over, couldn’t breathe. A shifting in
my back meant cracked ribs. Mother put her hands on me. Her
expression of concern was accurate and realistic, but her touch was
cold. In the distance, a wailing police siren faded.
A single curtain blew in the open window,
then fell on the floor and melted. The walls turned white. The
image of my mother melted like wax into the floor, followed by the
walls. In seconds, I lay in the center of an ordinary white
“Mission complete,” the room reported.
The floor was spongy and sterile, but the
smell of the rotting dumpster was still hanging around. Pain spread
across my ribs like claws.
Not tonight. I can’t be laid up,
The room was empty, except for the faceless
enemy lying next to me, a gaping hole between the eyes. I touched
the thing’s forehead. I could mentally scan the thing, but direct
touch would allow me to experience its thoughts while I drained its
life force. It wasn’t real, so it wasn’t murder.
Those things were just fabrications of the
training room, designed to be exactly like a duplicated human. A
duplicate of a duplicate. I always touched them when a mission
ended to get insight into their motivation. Why did they want to
live? Because they were copies of humans? Because they were
self-centered? But each time I drained one, all I saw was
programming to destroy humans and multiply. Was there anything
else? Did they just want to feel real?
A six-foot silver humanoid walked into the
room, his plum-colored overcoat waving around his knees, his
physique chiseled. He was similar to a duplicate, thinking with
artificial intelligence, but he served the Paladin Nation. It
contradicted our mission, but I wasn’t going to argue. If humans
were more like Spindle, the world would be a better place.