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I am a genius. I can become anyone I want to be. It is not a boast or misplaced pride. It is a simple statement of fact.
For many years I was unaware that this was an unusual gift. It wasn’t until I came out into the world that I realised that I was a surprisingly unique individual. I had always known of course that I was valuable and useful, as my masters often reminded me.
I had been trained to comply and perform well. And I always did. But this current assignment had stopped me dead in my tracks. For the first time in my life I had thought of defying those who controlled me.
I had been raised from childhood to obey and this was a new and frightening sensation. Of course, my resistance was only a momentary aberration and I hid it well. Had they seen, they would have shipped me back for some remedial retraining.
I have been through this retraining only once before, and it is not an experience I would care to repeat. Despite my perfect memory, I have made a conscious decision to block out those four weeks on the sub-level 27 and then the following four weeks recovering and being re-educated in Renewal wing.
As I said, I am a genius, and I have this ability to compartmentalize my mind. My dreams, however, I have no control over. Consequently I find that I wake howling in unremembered pain and fear, running from demons that my conscious mind screams at me do not exist.
The fear was only momentary, and I would treat this like I did any other simulation. It should be no different. The fact that I put myself before the mission was not the only thing that was unusual about what they were demanding of me.
But it was not my place to question my orders. I belonged to them and was subject to their will. Until the moment I opened the envelope I had never questioned that.
It is true that I was brought up in a very sheltered environment, but I was no longer the naïve child that I was when I first entered the world. I have seen many things, good and bad. I have done many things, good and bad. But I do not think I was prepared to do this.
In my time serving my masters, both under the world and above the world, I have been responsible for many deaths. I should not balk at this one. One more death on my conscience would make no difference in the grand scheme of things.
In my own defence, I have also been responsible for saving many lives. I do not know about ethics and morality, so I cannot determine if this somehow balances the scales. My trainers did not want anything to get in the way of my ability to complete any task assigned to me. For me, the concept of right and wrong had never extended beyond the act of obedience. To obey was right. To disobey was wrong.
And so I found myself standing in this hotel room in a strange country, staring at the photos of my next mission. I was not sure that I could complete it. It was not an act of wilful disobedience, but I know that my masters would not make such a fine distinction. Failure to comply, for any reason was simply unacceptable.
So, with slightly shaking hands, I reached for the photos spread out before me. The sweepers stood by, silent in their vigil. There would be no chance for me to run.
There was a time once when I did not know what I looked like. I had only ever managed to catch distorted images reflected in the concave faces of clocks. If I tried very hard, I could sometimes catch a reflection in the cameras whose eyes never blinked. Who were ever watchful.
Now of course, I knew exactly what I looked like, and I wish I didn’t. There was no mistaking the dark brown eyes. The familiar cut of the jaw. But the most damning evidence of all was the mole under the right eye. For many years I would have been unable to recognize that face. But not now.
Whoever coined the phrase ignorance is bliss was a wise person.
“Sit.” The man spoke with efficiency, no wasted words.
I did as instructed. My eyes scanned around the room, looking for a mirror or polished surface. My sense of self was fragile at best and I needed to confirm that identity I wore was the same as the man in the photo.
Keeping me from knowing my own image was not a deliberate cruelty on the part of my keepers. It was done to help me understand my role. I was a tool, nothing more, and a strong sense of identity would undermine that. Now that I roam outside in the world, there is no way for them to stop me from seeing what I really look like, but the image of myself as a possession rather than a person has been so hardened in my psyche, that when I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I am often startled by my own appearance.
But I am digressing. The man in the photo was me. I could not deny it. I searched through my memory to find out how I had failed, just what I had done wrong. Why I had earned such an extreme sanction. Although my skills were varied, when I was shown a photograph like this, it usually meant only one thing.
I sat numbly staring at him, reaching for the Glock 9mm I carried in my back. He watched me impassively, supremely confident that my conditioning made me incapable of hurting him. He was right.
I chambered a bullet, and with more calmness than I had felt a moment ago, I raised it to my head. Watching him watching me.
“Stop. Put the gun down.”
It had been a test. A test of my willingness to obey.
He then got up and moved swiftly across the room and backhanded me with a gloved fist.
My head snapped backwards under the force of the blow. I sat there, accepting the blow without resistance.
“Are you this disobedient normally?”
I looked at him in confusion. The smile never slipping from his face. Genius or not, I must confess to a sense of confusion. He read it in my face. It is the one skill I have never really mastered. Unless I am fully prepared or immersed in a simulation, I wore the few emotions I have developed over the years on my face. Frustration and fear were my most familiar emotions, but I have had some small experience with confusion.
“No sir” I finally answered when I realised the question was not rhetorical.
Experience had taught me that questions were often asked, but I was often required to maintain my silence.
“Then what did you think you were doing?” His smile never faltered.
He was American. I guess that should not come as a shock, I was in America after all.
I dropped my eyes to the photographs.
“I thought that you wanted me to terminate the target sir.”
“I will make my wishes known to you when I am ready. Until then assume nothing.”
He sat back and watched me again. My obvious discomfort pleasing him.
The tension became too much for me. I am accustomed to sitting for hours, even days sometimes, with nothing to do under the scrutiny of eyes and cameras. But the pressure finally forced me to ask the question.
“What is it that you want of me? I do not understand. If I am the target......”
“You are not the target.” He interrupted.
I must admit, by this time, my confusion was absolute. I noticed that he had not taken his gloves off despite the heat. I sat and waited. He was obviously enjoying toying with me. The reason for this was unknown and unimportant. If he wished to play, that was his prerogative. He was my controller now, and until I was told otherwise, I would obey him as I would my masters back home.
“What is your name?” he asked.
I do not think he had any real interest in knowing my name, but he did need to be able to address me.
“I have no name sir, but my designation is Project Eight.”
“Well Eight, we have got work to do. The man in the photograph is not you. His name is Jarod, and you are here to track him down for me.”
I blinked stupidly wondering who this “Jarod” person could be. His similarity to me could not be coincidental and for the first time in my life, I thought that perhaps I might have a family. This man could easily be my identical twin.
I cannot name all of the emotions that ran through me in that moment. But what I can say with certainty, was I had my first moment of selfish desire. I desired to know more about this man. I then committed the cardinal sin and asked the forbidden question.
“Why do you want him terminated? What did he do?”
The man was on his feet, delivering two swift backhands across my face. One landing on the same spot that he had already hit me, my head, rocked to the side. The second blow snapping my head back the opposite way.
I looked at him with misery in my eyes. Once a report of my behaviour got back to my masters .....
In desperation, I did the only thing I could think of. I fell to my knees and grovelled at his feet and begged for forgiveness for my impertinence.
What I was not expecting was his laughter. Disobedience on that scale usually landed me in the infirmary.
“Do you know why I hit you Eight?” he asked, with a bemused look.
“The reason for the termination of the subject is not any of my concern. I need only concern myself with the expedient and successful execution of my mission.”
I recited the lessons taught me. The lesson not to ask was one of the longest I took to learn. But I did, and it still amazes me that I don’t have the scars to show for it.
“No. The punishment was for your assumption.”
I sat back in my seat, trying to will my hands not to touch my face. It was clear from the look on the other man’s face that my confusion was showing on my own.
“I don’t know how things are conducted in Africa, but here you do as you are told. Do not second guess me.” He sat back in his chair, enjoying the whole thing.
A pocket of resentment flowered deep in my heart. I wanted, I needed to know about this man Jarod. My mind was racing, but I did my best to try and keep my face neutral. I would be told only what they saw fit, only what I needed to finish the mission.
I waited for the man to continue.