Everywhere After All
by Brian Trent
It was a messy jump. His ankle slid against the brass rail and he plummeted dangerously close to the side of the ship. As a result, he impacted the water at a jarring angle that might have caused a normal body to sprain its neck.
The natural buoyancy of his shell was the only reason he survived the swim to the nearest shore, which was fifty hours of swimming. He emerged, exhausted and starving, from the sea onto a densely populated Moroccan beach.
Some people looked at him oddly; he realized that certain nosy beachgoers had spotted him far off. The curious came near, though Leet pretended not to understand them while briskly heading to the nearest hotel.
Should have come ashore at night, he thought, grimacing. But too hungry, too tired, too frightened to think straight.
He headed for an ATM and withdrew a sizeable amount of cash. Better to lie low for a while. This world suddenly has far too many predators. There was a motel a few miles away and he went there to clean up and order some delivery pizza.
When the knock came at his door, Leet was salivating. He threw the door open without his usual caution.
A fist punched him in the face.
“Ding-dong!” a caustic voice said, and he was tackled by two huge men. Leet raised his head and met the gaze of his old interrogator.
“Looks like we caught a worm,” the angry guy said. “Oh, and don’t bother with your disappearing vanishing tricks, okay?” He held up a small handheld dampener about the size of a cigarette pack. “But feel free to try. I don’t often get to see your kind frustrated. Makes me happy.”
Leet kept quiet while they pulled him into a van and drove off. The angry guy kept talking, though. He was using an external phone, and seemed busy contacting everyone he had ever worked with to gloat over this arrest. Lots of secret phrases and acronyms passed from his lips. Leet sighed and set his audio nanonics recording.
The angry guy, he decided, was a total friggin’ moron.
But at least he was a known variable. World governments and corporations had been the only threat Leet needed to worry about. His initial years of being a codeworm were primarily a sloughing-off of millions of years of built-in anxiety and terror. It was like scratching off items on a checklist: fear of cancer, fear of car accidents, fear of choking, fear of aging, fear of disease. Gone! No more! Even fear of death had gradually diminished the way a frightening movie becomes pedestrian after too many viewings.
But now... now a new beast had wandered into the jungle. There was no telling what its capabilities weren’t. It threatened the order Leet knew. If his captors knew of that thing, they’d probably run shrieking off cliffs.
The van stopped abruptly. Leet was led out into a dank underground parking lot. They moved toward an elevator which looked so new and white that it jarred with the dungeon-like conditions of the surrounding masonry.
In the elevator, the angry guy punched Leet again and slapped a bag around his head.
“Why did you do that?” Leet asked, once he had disengaged his pain sensors.
“Cuz,” the angry guy said, “you people think you own the goddamn world. Just hope we don’t have to set you on fire or rip your nails out, like we’ve done to others.”
Leet bit his lip. So, the guy didn’t realize he had captured the same codeworm from all those years ago. And why should he? That had been an old women he’d been torturing.
The guy began laughing. Without sharing the source of amusement, he was content to chuckle to himself until the doors opened. Leet felt himself escorted into a cool, heavily air-conditioned room. The bag was pulled off his head.
He glanced around. The room was not what he had expected. Maroon room, with black leather sofas and a wet bar. There was a billiards table in the center of everything, but it was covered with plastic. A slender window looked out on a night-lit cityscape.
“Take a seat,” ordered the angry man, and he headed to the bar to make a drink.
Leet put up no resistance, half-expecting metallic bands to snap out of the armrests.
“This room is electronically dampened and has a wireless magpie at the ready,” his captor said.
“Ah,” the man grinned at him from across the bar. “Got something you don’t know about, eh?” He finished pouring himself a scotch and then, screwing the cap back on, said, “How many codeworms do you know?”
“Seventeen and a half... divided by eight, subtracted by the square root of four.”
The man gave the briefest of nods to his associates as he sipped his drink.
What happened next was so unexpected that Leet didn’t even have time to process it. Streaks of agony shot through his head and spine. His teeth snapped down in a fierce clamp. His legs kicked.
The pain stopped.
“Shall we try again?” the man asked.
Leet turned grey. “You can hack my substrate?”
The man looked so satisfied that Leet suspected the guy had an erection. “It ain’t just the cool kids who got the cool toys now.”
“Why are we such a threat to you?”
“How many codeworms do you know?”
Bracing himself for another attack, Leet said, “If I told you I honestly don’t know, because codeworms can be one person or a thousand, would you believe that?”
“Oh, I would!” The man rounded the bar. “And this room’s sniffer says you’re telling a likely truth. We’ll find all of you in time. You’re to help. I want to know everything about being a codeworm. How it started, what you can do. Every little goddam piece of data. We have as long as it takes. If you get cute, our magpie can extract you from that shell and toss you into virtual prison. Torture... for... eternity. No chance of rescue or escape. No petitions. We could skin you alive in there, roll you in salt, set you on fire, kill you. And then start all over again. And again.”
Leet swallowed. “That’s inhuman.”
“You’re inhuman. We’ve got a few of your brothers and sisters in those prisons right now. They didn’t feel like cooperating. Now they spend forever begging for death, which never comes. Eventually they tell us everything we need to know.”
“And then you set them free?”
“It’s a funny thing about habeas corpus,” the man said, swirling the liquid in his glass. “It only refers to a physical body. You don’t got that.”
Leet made up his mind in an instant.
“”Okay,” he said. “But do you really have the time to hear everything about being a codeworm?”
The man nodded, looking smug, unwashed, and very human.
“Well, it all started when I was about six. I was watching a cartoon in which a guy was able to pop his own head off his neck. And that made me realize there is no end to the world’s possibilities.”
Leet leaned his head towards the window, and then did exactly that.
He suspected the window was reinforced, and it was. But when a nanosteel skull-casing is fired into such glass at five hundred feet per second, the glass breaks. Leet’s headless body collapsed behind him as he was shot out into the night air.
It was a last-ditch escape trick, installed in an underground clinic when he had purchased his third shell. He never imagined he’d have a real use for it, and had joked with the mod-tech that if occasion ever required its use, he would repay the tech with an all-expenses paid trip to Cuba in the company of a dozen professional Brazilian lovers who could also tap-dance.
Falling through the Moroccan dark, Leet realized he had some very odd calls to make now, if he was to remain a man of his word.
His nanosteel skull slammed into the pavement and bounced, rolled, tipped over. Then tiny wheels emerged, driving the braincase away as fast as it could. It was a race against time now. Without the energy reserves of a body, he was living on backup power only. Two, three hours at most. Then he’d be as useless as a metallic football.
And condemned to an eternity of torture, Leet thought, if those people catch me again.
A dog gave chase, barking insanely after him as he turned onto a side street. Leet transmitted a general distress signal in Cryptocom if there were any codeworms — preferably another of himself — nearby. The dog was almost on him when he ducked into a storm-drain and got lodged amid the sludge.
Above him, the dog thrust in its muzzle and barked savagely. But he was safe now. There was nothing to do but wait. Leet switched to minimal power, leaving just enough of a trickle to keep him from total shutdown. He went to sleep.
* * *
His systems abruptly, involuntarily powered on to full capacity. It was exactly like being shaken awake from a deep, comfortable sleep. His chronometer informed him that four hours had passed.
The dog was gone.
Leet found himself in a chair, in a new body that still smelled rubbery, brand-new, freshly-cut from the biosera cube in some illicit codeworm supplier shop. He noticed his new hands the color of caramel. They were unrestrained.
Leet swept his gaze to the room’s occupants. There were twelve people. They formed an improbable variety of mankind. Any fear that he had been caught by codecops melted away as he saw their smiling, diverse faces. There were elderly white men and young Hispanic women and an Asian police officer and a bespectacled black woman and a chubby goateed Indian. They were strangers, and yet Leet felt the warmth of fraternal community among them.
“Leet,” a black-haired man said, drawing out from the gathering. He was pale with bright blue eyes. “You’re lucky we found you first. A lot of people are looking for you right now.”
“And the U.N.” The man sighed, knelt in front of him in a fatherly gesture. “A local codeworm picked up your emergency broadcast and found you in a gutter. Nice move. And fortunate. You have no idea of the hell you escaped from.”
Leet swallowed. “I can imagine.”
The man’s eyes flashed brighter. “No, you can’t.” For an instant Leet sensed a vengeful spirit in that sapphire gaze, but then the man’s face softened and his lips twitched into a smile. “But no worries now. You are here. Among friends.”
“Are we friends?”
The man grinned. “Maybe not yet, Leet. But the war I knew would come is on our doorstep. It’s started. In such a battle you have to pick a side, wouldn’t you agree?”
Leet looked at the floor.
“You haven’t seen today’s headlines,” the man said, and the gathering murmured knowingly. “The U.N. Congress made a big decision. It’s... let’s just say that it makes what we have to do inevitable. It’s war, but the kind they will never see coming. We have advantages they can’t even comprehend.”
“All of us.”
Leet breathed out painfully. “I know.”
“It’s still your choice.”
“Will it be... afterward?”
“Afterward and forever.”
Leet looked at the individual faces in the room. Twelve different people. Skin shades and body types and hair color and fashion preferences.
Different fish in the same ocean.
He nodded again.
Afterwards, he found that he ran into himself more than ever before, but that it was increasingly less awkward.
He was everywhere, after All.
Copyright © 2010 by Brian Trent