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    Suicides Anonymous

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by BeamMeUp, Dec 4, 2013.

    Suicides Anonymous


    By Scott Thorson



    He was Craig Antson again.

    Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

    This time he awoke while a nurse was pushing, with a spoon, some green goo into his gawping mouth.

    Everything was still cloudy. He recognized the nurse's face, but couldn't attach a name to it. No matter. It would come.

    "Down the hatch," the nurse cooed, in a patient, encouraging tone of voice, as if he were addressing an idiot child. Craig grimaced, and the goo spurted down his chin.

    "Tsk," the nurse said, dabbing a napkin to Craig's lips. "That's no way to fill up, my friend."

    They were filling him up.

    Filling up took many months, depending on the age of the recipient and his or her experience. They had learned to keep you in a drug-induced coma for much of the time, since loading a brain with data as fast as possible often produced insanity. Load the data too slowly, and intervening overlapping stimuli (like learning your nurse's name and then having it loaded somewhere else in the brain from stored data) led to split personalities.

    At intervals they would bring you out of the coma, and check how you were doing. This was one of those times.

    Pete.

    That was his nurse's name. He had known Pete for years, ever since he was first employed here. Employed? It was more like interred.

    He lay sluggish and apathetic, the memories filling his brain like gas a tank. Suddenly they flashed before him as fresh and vivid as when they were made.

    Pete prodded Craig's lips with the spoonful of green goo.

    "Gobble up," his nurse said soothingly. "Down the hatch, Craig ol' boy. Against your will, but for your own good."

    "Get that shit away from me, Pete. No offense."

    "Glad you remember my name, Craig. That's progress."

    He relived the recent and remote past. Once again, as if it were yesterday, he had just graduated from college with a degree as a material science engineer, concentrating on nanopartical combinations with a minor in computer science. He spoke four languages, and hoped to settle down in a comfortable niche in a big, soulless but swaddling corporation in the nanny state -- which he did, at first. It was called Nanogenomics International. His big ambition, back then, was to come up with the next nearly indestructible bio-alloy for use by the military, but three months after he was hired, he received devastating news: his father had been arrested and charged with treason. Dad, a Pentagon systems analyst, had sold military secrets to the Chinese for lavish sums of money.

    Thanks, Dad.

    In due course there was a double whammy: his mother was diagnosed with a rare and ravenous brain cancer, and given less than a year to live. From behind bars, his father was desperately scrambling to raise enough money to save her through a breakthrough medical procedure called Brain Mimicking. But Mimicking cost tens of million of dollars.

    His father was facing the death penalty, his mother was dying, and there was nothing he could do about either grim fact. Freshly out of college and weighed down by debt, he had no choice but to sit back, helpless, and watch events unfold.

    As he studied Brain Mimicking technology, the technology to save his mother, he was approached by a recruiting agent who had the answer to his problems.

    Brain Mimicking was more advanced than they had let on.

    They offered him a job. What a job!

    They did more than offer him a job. In fact, they made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

    In exchange for simultaneously keeping his father off of Death Row and saving his mother, he would be made immortal.

    Immortal?

    But there was a catch.

    He would have to do some dirty jobs, and also some heroic jobs. Jobs in which he would die, every time.

    "You're going to kill me and make me immortal at the same time?" he asked them, perplexed. "Isn't that -- a logical contradiction?"

    Ah, but they had an out.

    Cloning and Brain Mimicking together would make him immortal. He would die, then be rebuilt. Again and again and again. In exchange for doing some of the dirtiest (and most heroic) jobs imaginable.

    The rush of revelation left him reeling.

    It wasn't an easy decision. Cloning and Brain Mimicking didn't work for everybody, they told him. You could end up a vegetable. You could end up insane or worse, whatever the hell "worse" was.

    Before you could go on any mission, they had to Mimic you.

    Which meant, you had to die first.

    The first time was the most difficult, the test case. If you survived it, it was easier to upload the contents of your brain to a new brain. It got easier with each iteration, and less risky. Unfortunately, the process was only 20 percent successful the first time. Not good odds.

    These were acceptable odds for terminal patients who could afford it and had nothing to lose anyway, but healthy young adults were not allowed by law to undergo the process, though they were the most likely to survive it.

    He didn't have long to decide. The copying of his brain would take months. His mother might be dead by then, his father injected with lethal drugs. His family destroyed.

    He was Mom and Dad's only chance. But they warned him: If he didn't survive Copying -- and the odds were only 1 in 5 that he would -- they would not pay for his mother's operation, and they would not pay the necessary bribes to rescue Dad from Death Row.

    "I'll do it," he said.

    Copying was as bland as could be imagined.

    He was confined to a room for four months. He couldn't leave, because that would break the data link. The massive amount of data copied could not be interrupted. It also wasn't a linear process. Information in the brain wasn't laid out in chronological order and thus could not be copied from top to bottom. The company piped in pictures of his brain as it was imaged. An exact copy of him. It was artistically beautiful. You could see it fill up, the neuronal connections made, getting brighter and brighter: a thousand points of light. It wore on him, though. When the procedure was complete, he must die.

    It was done. Copy complete.

    Then they disconnected him.

    That was the last he remembered before waking up in his new body, his body that wasn't quite his, didn't look much like him. No scars, no healed bones, no physical trauma at all.

    That was when the next mental trauma hit him. During his Mimicking, his mother had died and his father, unable to contact him or raise the money to save Mom, had committed suicide. He had hanged himself in his jail cell with his bedsheet.

    Thanks, Dad.

    His sacrifice had been in vain.

    He thought: Call me Craig 2.0.

    Now, much later, he was Craig 13. He had dropped the .0, because there were no longer any intermediate revisions.

    He was stuck. He had a new body, a new brain, and a lot of money that he couldn't use yet. And he had a new, five-year contract, for the big bucks.

    ***

    "Hi Pete."

    He was in a hospital bed, wired up as usual. Implants in his head, back and feet.

    They shook hands.

    "Craig, good to see you out of it again. How many is this for you?"

    "Thirteen."

    Pete smiled. "Thirteen! You're the champ, champ. Your next closest competitor is Sandy. She's at nine."

    "Nine already? Seems like yesterday I watched her die the for the first time."

    "You were the first, and the most successful. You changed the playing field for everybody. You were a guinea pig, but you practically pioneered Mimicking."

    "Didn't do me shit as far as saving my mother and father, though. And that was the only reason I agreed to be your guinea pig."

    Pete looked at him contemplatively.

    "That's true," he said after a heavy silence. "You didn't save two people, the people closest to you. But your last time out, as Craig 12, you saved thousands. You gave your life that they might live."

    "Yeah," Craig said apathetically. "I'm sort of like the Jesus of the Cybernetics Age. I die that others might live. Then I get resurrected. Even Jesus only got resurrected once, though. On the other hand, like him, I'm immortal. It's just that every time I wake up, my mind is in a different brain and my body is in a ... well, in a different body."

    Pete pulled up a chair, sat down next to Craig in his bed and leaned in close.

    "You saved thousands," he emphasized, voice urgent. "Thousands! The heroic, anonymous technician who plunged into the Bridge Point nuclear plant and stopped the meltdown. You not only saved the living, you saved the yet to be born. From radiation poisoning."

    "Very touching," Craig said dryly. He was studying his new hand. The fingers were fatter than he would have preferred. He wondered what his face looked like, this time around. He almost requested a mirror, but thought the better of it. He had a hunch that he wouldn't like what he saw.

    "I'm hungry, Pete." Seeing Pete rising, he motioned him to sit. "I can feed myself, thanks." Flexing his fingers, he said, "See? Good as new. But no more of the green glop, please. Can I get some real food? A sirloin, maybe? Baked potato, green beans, like that?"

    "Sorry, old man. You know the rules better than me. Solid food in a few days. For now, it's green glop. Goo to you."

    Craig sighed. "All right, bring it on."

    "I'll have an attendant bring it in. Want some privacy?'

    "Yup, let me wallow in resurrection a bit longer. Dennis still around for phys?"

    "Um, let me see." He glanced at the computer panel surgically embedded in the palm of his left hand.

    "Yes, in at one, so you have a few hours."

    "Thanks Pete. Now bring on the goo."

    ***

    They didn't actually keep you from leaving the compound, but there were good reasons to stay. The computing power necessary to keep you up to date was enormous. It could fit in a van and follow you off campus, but if you strayed too far, you lost connection. If you lost connection, you would not be backed up and memory holes appeared when you were resurrected. That's if you were lucky. If you were unlucky, you sustained severe brain damage, and they couldn't fix you. Consequently, traveling was nearly impossible. The chance of a data connection loss was a real and terrifying. Data monitoring and backing up had to be continuous, or you had to start the tedious process over again from scratch, with more months of isolation. Sitting in a room for months on end was not something he wanted or needed to do. It wore on him.

    He often thought: Why not give it up? Why am I staying?

    His initial contract had ended at Craig 3.0 almost 10 years ago. But he stayed. He renewed his contract, and then renewed it again. And again. If he stopped, he would be mortal like anyone else. So, there was that. But what was so great about immortality, particularly when it involved uploading his mind to foreign brains in unfamiliar bodies? Was there the slightest appeal to the months in isolation, the green goo, the utter absence of ordinary life, of friends and family and all the mundane yet fortifying rituals of ordinary daily life?

    Pete had hit the nail on the head, had found his vulnerable place: Last time out, he had saved thousands.

    He thought: every time I engage in a suicide mission, I save people. Often I save a whole helluva lot of them.

    Maybe, he thought, if I save ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million or a billion, I'll actually feel good about myself again.

    Maybe, he thought, if I save the whole goddamned world, I will finally feel as if I had saved my own flesh and blood, rather than failing them. Because no matter how many people he saved by giving his own life, his mother and father were not among them and never would be.

    He could be resurrected. They could not.

    But what was in it for them? For the Company? It was called Suicides Anonymous, and its principal investor was Jon Dash, the stylish, swashbuckling trillionaire, the world's richest man, who loved to invest his money in cutting-edge technology.

    What was in it for the company? Big money. More big money for Dash. Craig sometimes wondered: Didn't Dash have enough money? Why did he want, or need, more? How many lifetimes would it take to blow a trillion bucks?

    The Bridge Point nuke plant, for instance, had paid fabulous sums for suiciders who would exercise cybernetic suicidal heroism in the event of a meltdown. It was like taking out an insurance policy. Then, of course, there were the individual clients, the idle wealthy who liked to do "scenes" that required the intervention of suiciders. They paid big, big money, those bastards.

    So he was not forced to do what he did, but then again, he was forced. His reasons for staying must be altruistic, right?

    Right?

    Or maybe, he thought with glum self-awareness, I'm just a chicken shit who is afraid to die someday. To really die, the Book of Life closed forever.

    ***

    He began the usual physical therapy, and then all-out training to get in shape for the next job.

    One day, he met Sandy at the gym. She was on the same schedule. She had died with him at Bridge Point. Two anonymous suicide saviors, because the job had been that big that two suiciders had been needed.

    She didn't look the same, of course, though her eyes were similar to those of her last incarnation. He didn't look the same, either, but the shock of a new face in the mirror wears off after the first few times. The clones were never exact, but they were trying to do it better. That's progress.

    He didn't care. He was new. His body was new. But who was he, really?

    He didn't give a shit. He had stopped looking for himself a long time ago.

    She jogged in wearing running shorts. He ogled her long, tanned, athletic legs.

    She looked as sexy as she ever had, no matter how different each of her bodies was. He stared.

    She smiled.

    They were sometime partners in suicide missions, and they had shared a bed many times and he thought that she enjoyed turning his head every time that they met, each of them, each time, with a new body.

    Her new bodies never got old.

    He stepped off the treadmill.

    "Want to run around the compound?" he asked her, running a towel over his sweating forehead.

    "Are you going to run behind me and stare at my ass the entire time?" she asked him bluntly but in a teasing tone of voice. She wore a mock stern expression, with her sinewy arms folded across her tempting tits.

    "Yes," he said, flashing a big grin. "Happy to oblige."

    She ran her hands through her long golden locks (red the last time) and said, "Men! You're all the same." But she wasn't unhappy.

    "Let's go, bozo," she said.

    They started the jog, the easy lope both could handle. They ran through an old fruit orchard, well within the eavesdropping range of the base. Their implants gave them constant data updates via the computers surgically implanted in their wrists.

    Just a few minutes into the run, Sandy suddenly said in a grave tone of voice: "I have something important to tell you, Craig. It will be hard to accept."

    A spike of adrenaline made his stomach turn and his heart race.

    "Okay," he said. He didn't know what else to say.

    "I only hope they aren't listening in, but after all this time I suspect they're bored with us." She paused, and then said it: "I am a clone of you."

    He stopped in his tracks. She ran on.

    His mind raced. The great sex, the missions together, the laughter that they had shared, the suddenly obviously familiar gestures and voice inflections, the movies that they both uncannily knew and the jokes that they told, the same jokes. The pieces of the puzzle instantly clicked together.

    He started running in place and then he was running after her. Dazed, he stumbled and ran into a tree. He bleated and sank to his knees, blood squirting from his nostrils. He clapped his hand over his nose and she stopped running and turned back to look at him, her arms akimbo.

    "Keep up," she said, voice stern. "Just take it in, accept it. Deal with it. I know it seems obvious now, but listen."

    His racing heart slowed. He staggered to his feet, pinching his nostrils shut to stanch the flow of blood. He reflected on the missions they had been on together, including the latest to save the nuclear plant from meltdown. How could he have been so clueless?

    "Don't beat yourself up about it, Craig," she said, as if reading his mind. "When they first cloned me -- well, you -- as a woman, they kept us separate for years. Through the cloning process we all looked different. When they hooked us up for first time as a couple for that mission in Singapore and gave us our false names, I had no clue."

    He was jogging beside her again. They maintained a brisk pace.

    "When I found out your name was Craig, even then I didn't figure it out. It just seemed to be a coincidence. They had told me it would be easier to be a woman with a woman's name, and that eventually I would be cloned back into a man when appropriate."

    He listened, mind boggled. For a few moments there was mainly silence, except for the soft sighing of the wind through the trees, and the urgent thump of their high-tech running shoes on the dirt trail that forded the fruit-laden trees. Their breaths heaved under a brilliant sun in a blue sky, and their skin was slathered with sweat. He ogled her tanned, shining, athletic legs, and then felt weird inside.

    "I didn't mind. Being a woman was an eye opener, yet kind of nice. By the time we met I was thinking that I really was a woman and always should have been."

    "So when did you find out? That you and I were the same, with a shared history?"

    "When we had sex for the first time. I just knew it. Call it women's intuition. Later, when I confronted the doctors, they grudgingly confirmed it, but swore me to secrecy. It helped that I gave all of them blow jobs."

    Bile crept into Craig's mouth. He spat.

    "I was afraid that if I told you, they would terminate my contract. Breach of security, all that."

    "Why the hell are you telling me now?"

    "I can't keep it a secret any longer. It's too much for me."

    "For me, too."

    "I thought I was you. I am you. And I want to live."

    "Yeah, me too."

    "Well ... how are you doing? Haven't seen you since the nuke plant mission."

    "Fucked, but okay." Bad choice of words. He turned red.

    Sandy smiled. "I know they didn't expect us to hook up when on a mission," she said, "but they should have known better. Human nature."

    For a few moments more they ran in silence, but for the rhythmic thumps of their running shoes. Craig squinted in the hot sun, and with his forearm he wiped from his reddened brow sweat, which was creeping down into his eyes and stinging them. He felt funny inside. Then Sandy broke the silence. "You might as well know the rest. You can probably guess."

    His heart sank. Now what?

    "I'm not the only clone of you."

    More bile surged up his throat. He stopped, jogged in place for a few moments, then stopped and splayed his fingers over his mouth. With his other hand he grabbed his belly and tried to steady it, but the semi-digested gruel of breakfast surged up over his fingers and spilled between them, landing with sickening splat on the ground.

    She heaved a sigh as he sank to his knees, grabbed some tufts of grass and mopped his vomit-slathered lips with it.

    "You'll manage. We'll manage. Come on, let's go." She stretched out a hand to him. He took it, and she hauled him to his feet.

    They resumed jogging side by side. He felt giddy, light-headed, even a little relieved.

    "Being a woman has its perks," Sandy said. "Men are all the same, as we both know. I took some liberties with the doctors and some of the staff members."

    Oddly, he was okay with this, and in fact his curiosity was piqued.

    But then he said: "Wait a minute. There are dozens of suicide agents. I was the first. The guinea pig. The process worked on me, and then they were able to use it on others. Now that I think of it, there's no reason they can't Brain Mimic any individual and then copy him or her into dozens, hundreds of clones. But why do it? They can mimic and clone other people, probably with greater success. Why are there two of me?"

    "There are more than two of you, Craig."

    "Excuse me?"

    "Another bombshell, I'm afraid. The good news is that while it's the biggest, it's also the last."

    He again stopped in his tracks, running in place as she stopped and ran in place too. They looked at each other, huffing and puffing. Sandy said: "You -- that is, we -- were the only people to ever to survive mimicking and cloning. The process doesn't work. It never did, except for us. No one knows why. Something about your -- my -- our genes, maybe."

    My God, he thought, there are dozens of me running around, all over the goddamned world.

    They stopped running in place and stood there looking at each other.

    "I know you're wondering about the exact number, Craig. There are more than fifty of us, carrying out missions, sticking with the company, saving the world. All of us are you and I, you and I are all of us." She brushed away a long strand of hair that had drifted over her eyes, and added, "Sticking with the company -- inexplicably, if you ask me." After a pause, she added, "But then, we do save lives, don't we?"

    "That we do. And make a mint doing it. It's just that we have nothing to spend it on, because we're working and dying and being reborn all the time."

    She rubbed her temples with her fingers, as if trying to soothe a headache, and her eyes acquired a pensive glint. "I told you this Craig, I confessed, but I don't know what to do about it. I don't know what we should do about it -- if anything."

    He stared at her, at him -- at himself. No, he thought, it was her, she was him but somehow not him, she was somebody new, a new person. For example, she had screwed some of the male staff, and he, Craig, had certainly not done that. They shared a history from birth, but as new bodies their lives had branched. Each having new experiences, they would continue to drift apart.

    How far apart?

    The thought chilled him.

    From the nearby base, alarms sounded: klaxons whooping, sirens keening.

    Craig sat down defeated in the dust.

    "Those alarms are for us, aren't they?"

    Sandy looked wistfully back at the base.

    "Yes, I guess they still eavesdrop on our conversations."

    "Shouldn't we run?"

    "To where?" She offered a helpless shrug. "Besides, I've a funny feeling we've had this conversation before. We just don't remember it. And I expect that someday, we'll have it again."

    Craig looked up at her, and she down at him. He spread his arms, and she sank down beside him. He cradled her, and they kissed.

    "It's odd," he said, holding her tight, "But I love you."

    She smiled and said: "We've been through a lot together. You and I. And will be again."

    They stayed there until the guards ran up, brandishing their weapons. They closed their eyes together, holding hands.

    Craig heard the first gunshot, but not the second.

    ***

    Craig stared at Pete.

    "Hi Pete."

    He was in a hospital bed, wired up as usual. Implants in his head, back and feet.

    They shook hands.

    "Craig, good to see you out of it again. How many is this for you?"

    "Thirteen."

    Pete smiled. "You're the champ, champ. Your next closest competitor is Sandy. She's at nine."

    "Nine already? Seems like yesterday I watched her die the for the first time."


    ***


    He was readying for his next mission. This one seemed out of sorts. A rich bastard and his wife wanted a rape fantasy carried out. Craig had been on a couple of missions of this sort, and they were not his favorites. He would rather be saving people than giving them a hard on.

    Someone came up behind him. He knew it was Brian from the scent of his cologne. Brian was always the last person to brief him before sending him out.

    "Hey, Brian. Give me the details. This deal sounds like a bitch."

    Brian gave Craig an encouraging clap on the back. "Hey, buddy, he said. "Look on the bright side. No travel, this time. Isn't it nice to have a local mission for a change?"

    "I suppose so. Well, let's have it."

    "Rape fantasy," he said, as casually and indifferently as someone saying, "fix a leak."

    "Husband and wife want to spice up their sex life. A man -- that would be you, my friend -- breaks into their house, and starts to have his way with the wife, who is bound and gagged, spread-eagled on the bed. Just as you're about to rape her, the husband, arriving home unexpectedly, bustles into the bedroom and scares the rapist off."

    "Scares him off? You left out the part where I get my head blown off, or my neck broken, or whatever the the hell it's going to be this time. Maybe he'll cut off my balls. Hope you can grow 'em back."

    "We can, if necessary." Another clap on the back. Brian said jocularly, "You Suiciders, you're all the same."

    "Are we?" Craig arched a brow. "How, exactly, are we 'all the same,' Brian?' What does that mean?"

    Brian's forced smile faltered. Then he turned it back on and said, "I mean you all have the same black humor, the fatalism. Like you've been carved from the same bleak block."

    "Wouldn't you be a bit jaded, Brian, if you had to die again and again and again?"

    Brian nervously cleared his throat, and then hastily changed the subject to the business at hand. Craig half-listened as his handler itemized further details, concluding: "I got you the Mustang, and the van will be shadowing you about a half-mile back as always."

    Craig shook Brian's hand.

    "Thanks Brian, see you in a few months. Good as new, I hope."

    "Godspeed, Craig."

    "There is no God, Brian."

    He made his way to the parking garage, blipping his computer at the van as he went by, double checking that they were recording.

    Ah, the nice bright red convertible Mustang. A throwback, with modern updates. It was fully computerized -- could in fact drive itself -- and it ran on hydrogen fuel cells. It was the same old Mustang exterior but it didn't pollute. Good thing, too, in a world in which parts of the Eastern seaboard were underwater from global warming. Lower Manhattan was now known as New Atlantis, and enterprising travel agencies led clients on scuba-diving expeditions to inspect the ruins of Greenwich Village and other long-ago New York City neighborhoods and landmarks that now slept with the fish.

    He hopped in and the engine rumbled to life. He rolled out of the parking garage, past four security checkpoints and then out into the streets. It was about a thirty-minute drive in the dark. The van followed behind. He had thought more than once about racing away from it, pushing the envelope beyond that of a safe distance. But the fear of losing connection stymied his longing for freedom, for privacy.

    Driving relaxed him, especially late at night when the roads were mostly empty: The rush of wind when another car passed, the drone of the tires slapping the pavement, changing with the road surface. The bump of a rock, the dip into a pothole, headlights growing in the distance only to disappear like aliens in the night. It was nice.

    "Craig, where the hell are you going?" The bark of the radio made him jump, and he thought that the voice belonged to Luke, but he wasn't sure.

    "Did I pass it?" He forgot where he was going; he had muted the navigation system. The screen was blinking red, showing him well past his destination.

    "By about three miles, champ." Luke -- it was Luke -- sounded vaguely annoyed.

    "Uh, right, sorry about that. Turning around now." For a moment he didn't know where the hell he was. The driving had practically hypnotized him, and he felt like a normal person for a change.

    Then he didn't.

    He wheeled a quick U-turn and drove back the way that he had come. Minutes later, he parked at the curb about four blocks from his destination, leaving the car where the van could tow it home after he got himself killed.

    This was an upscale neighborhood, with gated high-tech mansions. It was clear that millionaires lived here. He mused that now, he had enough money to live here, too. But only if he quit his job.

    It was a muggy night, and as soon he left the soothing confines of the high-tech, air-conditioned car, he began to unpleasantly sweat. He made his way slow and steady, with the stealth and reflexes of a cat burglar. No need to arouse the snooping suspicion of the security cameras. These were compounds with tall walls, walls at least eight feet high surrounding every building and some of them had barbed wire on top. These were millionaires, but they were also millionaires with millions of fears. Serves the bastards right, Craig thought bitterly. These were the sorts of people who had paid to pull the carbon out of the earth and dump it into the sky. Let them sweat a little, he thought, the way the hoi polloi had to literally sweat every day as the temperatures crept higher, and higher, and ...

    He arrived at the house.

    It was another fortress, bristling with cameras and sensors and guards, both robotic and human, and no doubt booby-trapped with burglar alarms. It was impossible to penetrate without an invitation, unless one had access to large sums of bribery money, which he did.

    The company had researched this compound, and spotted its basic flaw: security, while intense, was neither decentralized nor redundant. It was all top-down, under the command of a single so-called Security Commander, who has was half-man and half-bot and who, among other amenities, had guns surgically grafted onto his arms and a chip implanted in his brain that was in constant communication with local networks, including the guard's bank account.

    Of course the Company had hacked the guard, and now, as Craig walked stealthily by the front gate, knowing that untold numbers of security cameras were swiveling on their levered arms and zeroing in on him like lion eyes on prey, he sent a surreptitious text message to the Security Commander: a certified encrypted text containing a one-time voucher for five million dollars. The money was to be placed in an offshore account in the commander's name, if he agreed to put the security system in test mode for 30 seconds. It was a deal the guard couldn't refuse.

    Test mode would shut down the cameras and alarms, but also put the other guards on high alert. Such tests were common to keep everybody on their toes in case of system-wide failure.

    The bribe worked. It was the best he could hope for.

    He braced himself for his run to the tall wall. He backed away from it, springing on the balls of his feet, tension tautening his calves. He was gauging how hard he would have to run to kick up to the top of the wall.

    He heard it happen, a quiet commotion, other guards alert, moving in. Trees rustled in the wind, the moonlight sifting down through the branches and leaves and making sinister and fleeting phantoms of light and shadow play over the broad, manicured front lawn that looked like billiard-table felt.

    He sprang into a dead run, his internal medkit giving him an adrenaline boost that washed over him, making his scalp tingle and pumping power into his muscles and veins. He ran ten steps, leaped, planted his right foot, kicked up hard, grabbed the edge of the wall ten feet up, pulled his body up over his head, flipped his legs up and snapped his back and legs and then pulled himself into a tuck. He cleared the wall and barbed wire, uncurled and landed rolling on the grass. But some of the wire had torn off the cuff of his pants and cut through his leather jacket and into his forearm, and blood spurted from the wound. "Shit," he muttered, rummaging in the pockets of his jacket and finding a medpack. He pressed it to the wounds, and they immediately healed.

    He then sprinted toward the house, upper body low, almost horizontal, to the ground, running like a lizard in leather. In the moonlight his shadow trailed behind him like ink spilled from a bottle.

    He only had a vague idea where the guards were, but he could sense quick movements and furtive shadows. His leap over the wall had been a calculated risk, and it had worked. Fast and quiet and taking less than ten seconds. Having penetrated security, he needed a door. Locks on these doors were old school. They had never stopped anybody determined enough in the past, and they wouldn't stop him now. He quickly found and jimmied a lock in the target mansion, and made his way inside.

    He had studied the layout of the house, and he knew that the rape fantasy bedroom was on the second floor. He paused for a moment, bowled over by the opulence of this place: Hand-carved Louis XIV furniture and decor, gilt-framed oil paintings on the walls, a vast mahogany dining-room table under a regal chandelier, with place settings of fine inlaid china and candles waiting to be lighted. Glancing down, he was startled by the distinct sensation of being stared at. His eyes met the dead, glistening eyes of the stuffed head of a white bear-skin rug. The spasm of fear passed, and he exhaled with relief, trembling all over for a few moments.

    He stole up the spiral staircase to the second floor. The security system winked back online just as he pushed open the bedroom door.

    Christ, he thought, this room is huge. You could install a basketball court in here.

    A four-post bed dominated the center of the it, facing a panorama of windows that afforded a sweeping view of the booming ocean, where waves licked and curled with come-hither gestures.

    Except for the bed, most of the room was empty. There were a few strangely tacky lounge chairs and, on pedestals, pretentious plaster statues representing Japanese warriors and Greek Gods endowed with massive genitals. The statues did not go together.

    A pool -- a swimming pool! -- was only paces from the bed, embedded in the hardwood floor. Water gurgled and flowed into it from the gaping mouth of a statue of a nymph in the center of the pool. It was a soothing sound.

    The light was dim, the chandeliers on low. Looking at the bed, he saw that someone was in it. All according to plan.

    Now came the hard part.

    To keep things lively, he didn't know when the husband would break in on them, which meant that he also didn't know how far this little game would have to go. The main thing was, he had to make it seem real, both for her and him.

    He had, attached to his belt, a small leather satchel, containing a length of rope, a ball gag and a knife.

    He came around the bed. She was sprawled in it, sleeping, or pretending to sleep. She wore a tasteful blue nightie. A thin sheet covered her only to the hips.

    He gazed down at her in the dim light of the low-lumen chandelier. God, how young she was, he thought, and hot as hell, too. He decided that she was in her early 20s at the most. He also felt distinctly uneasy, and more and more he was disliking this mission.

    He wrapped sections of the rope around each bedpost, watching her carefully to see if she would wake up. If she did, he would have to act fast. As he set the ropes she stirred, and muttered something unintelligible. Her eyes remained shut.

    He got the ropes close her to arms and legs but she was waking up.

    "What is it honey? Are you coming to bed?" She rolled over and was now face-up, eyes flickering open.

    Now or never.

    He reached out, grabbed her long hair, yanked back her head and deftly stuffed the ball gag into her mouth as she flung it open to release a scream. Her eyes popped wide open and were filled with a terror that, he felt, could not be feigned.

    He had practiced this scene with Sandy many times to get it right without hurting the victim. Her eyes met his.

    He jumped on the bed, sat on her legs and grabbed her wrists. She was staring wildly up at him.

    "Move," he hissed, "and I'll beat you to a pulp."

    The ball gag suppressed her scream as he swiftly tied her wrists to the two posts at the front of the bed, cinching the knots tight. He sat heavily upon her and wrapped his black-gloved hands around her long, swan-like neck, the skin white, smooth and flawless. Her eyes practically oozed out of her head, shining with raw terror. This seemed far more real than he could have imagined. His discomfort began spiking.

    She screamed so loudly that the ball gag only half suppressed it. With his hand locked in a chokehold around her neck, he could feel her tendons standing out sharply, her carotid artery. Neck throbbing. So easy to cut with the knife. He imagined slicing the knife across her soft neck as through a pat of butter, and the blood spraying out like red ink from a shattered pen.

    She was frantically struggling under him, but he was heavy and she was not strong enough to dislodge him. Besides, her arms were tied up tight, abducted in a crucifixion pose, the wrists knotted to the posts.

    But she was bucking and twisting under him like a bronco, crying and yelling through her nose. She had shut her terror-stricken eyes, and tears were spurting out of them and rolling down her cheeks. His unease grew. This did not feel like a fantasy. Not at all.

    This felt real.

    He slid off her to the rear of the bed, to tie her legs. She was not calming down or even slowing down. She flailed her legs and repeatedly kicked at him, fetching him blows in the chest and stomach that actually hurt, but her strength was ebbing. Snatching an ankle, he got one leg in the rope and pulled it tight, and then he grabbed and tied the other leg. Now she was bound fast at the ankles and wrists, spread-eagled, ball-gagged and facing the chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

    He examined her anew. Jesus Christ, he thought with horror. His initial estimate of her age, he now thought, was probably wrong. She couldn't be older than twenty. She might be younger. She might not even be an adult.

    Fucking hell, he thought. Why am I doing this? He had the distinct impression that he was out of his depth, and that he had gotten himself into something that was not quite as advertised.

    He thought: the husband better get here soon, because I need this game -- if it is a game -- to end.

    He pulled out a knife and her eyes got even wider, if that was possible, at the sight of it. He was beginning to mount her again when the door burst open.

    "You son of a bitch, get the hell away from my wife!"

    Craig sprang off the bed, and his boots hit the floor. He was facing a very angry man who was built like a brick shit house. He was naked except for a pair of white boxer shorts, absurdly covered with a pattern of red valentines. The word "Gallmart" was tattooed across his chest. He held two swords, one in each hand.

    "Defend yourself, little man!"

    He tossed one of the swords toward Craig, who reflexively shot out a hand and snatched it in mid-flight by the handle. Little man? Craig was not little. But this guy was at least six-five in his bare feet and he probably weighed close to three hundred pounds. He was pure muscle, his body rock-like with sculpted definition.

    Craig stared at the sword that he suddenly held. It was identical to his adversary's sword: Jesus Christ, he marveled, these are Ulfbehrt swords. Or, at least, perfect replicas of them. The name was stamped right on the blade. They were old Viking swords, marvels of smelting technology that were a thousand years ahead of their time when first made. He knew about them because he studied swords as a hobby, and he had been trained by the company to use them.

    The brick shit house went into a crouch and advanced upon Craig, making mystic passes through the air with his own Ulfbehrt. Craig backed away. He could defend himself, but he wasn't supposed to. He was supposed to die.

    His opponent's sword flashed and whisked down.

    Craig howled in agony, and the sword that he held slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. He raised his torn hand and saw rivulets of blood crawling down it. The thumb had been nearly severed, and hung at a crooked angle from the rest of the hand.

    The husband punched him in the face with a fist that felt like a slab of granite. Blood squirted from Craig's flattened nostrils. Dazed, he toppled to the floor and saw stars. Moments later he felt hands clutching him by the armpits, and he was being dragged to his feet.

    Suddenly he was looking down at the woman on the bed again, tied up and spread-eagled, thrashing desperately at the ropes that held her fast. He felt the sword being restored to him, in his good hand, and he clutched the handle tightly. Woozy from the punch and the loss of blood, he was unresisting, as limp as a rag.

    The husband guided his hand, holding the sword, toward his wife on the bed. She bucked and thrashed to no avail as the point of the blade was pressed to her heart. Then the husband shoved Craig's elbow, and the blade was buried in the woman's chest. It made a queer little squinch noise as it went in.

    She screamed with such agony that the ball gag nearly popped out of her mouth. A jet of blood shot up out of her perforated heart. Blood stippled the ceiling, the floor and the bedsheets. The husband let go of Craig, who nearly fell to the floor as his knees buckled. He heard the husband yelling, "Guards! Guards! Help! Help me!Some bastard just murdered my wife."

    Uncomprehending, Craig turned toward the door, still holding the replica Viking sword, which dripped blood. He heard the thud of footsteps in the hall, getting louder.

    A moment later the guards burst through the door and into the room. Reflexively, Craig raised the sword as if to defend himself.

    "Shoot him!" the husband roared.

    Bap. Bap. Bap.

    The guns had silencers.

    ***

    The memories flooded back as they filled up his brain, in a new, repaired body.

    He was trying to remember his latest job. Then it all came back to him, and he shuddered in horror.

    There was nobody in the room. Where was Pete, his nurse? Where was --

    The door flew open and several people whom he did not recognize bustled in, in a brisk, business-like way. They looked like Secret Service agents, in their black suits and sunglasses. Then they parted like the waters of a river, and fording this human river was a tall, stylishly dressed man who strode in between them. Craig recognized him at once. It was Jon Dash, the trillionaire who was the main investor in this company, Suicides Anonymous.

    Everybody was silent. Dash strode up to Craig's bed, and towered above him, his expression inscrutable. Craig noted, absurdly, how well groomed Dash was. His hair, silver, was slicked back on his head, and his green eyes took in Craig at a glance. Craig uncomfortably felt as though Dash's eyes were X-raying him, seeing right through him.

    "Mr. Dash," Craig said, instantly regretting the obsequious pleading note in his quavering voice, "I didn't do it. I swear to God I didn't do it. I'm innocent! We were double-crossed. This guy wanted his wife dead, and set it up to make it look as if I did it."

    Dash was still and silent. Craig heard the hum of the generators, the blips of the monitors, and the drumroll of his heart. Finally after a silence that Craig found almost unbearably long, Dash snapped off three words with military precision: "I believe you."

    Craig exhaled with relief. His head sank back down on his pillow, and he stared at the ceiling. Then something occurred to him.

    "Wait a minute," he said, raising his head again to look at Dash. "How did --"

    "How'd we get your body out of there? Normally it's not a problem, because everything goes according to plan. This time the police wanted to take possession of the corpse, which of course would be unacceptable to us. We have commando backup crews in case things go awry. They arrived by helicopter, rappelled down the side of the mansion, burst in through the window and snatched you away before the sirens could start up. Our guys are the best in the business, Craig. All of them once were Navy Seals or elite Special Forces commandos."

    Craig, dazed by this intelligence, could only nod weakly. His head fell back down on the pillow.

    Dash said, "I already know what your next job is. It's for me personally. This time, you can't die. And this time, you really are going to kill someone."

    Craig, bewildered, gazed up at Dash, who maintained his inscrutable expression, his military demeanor.

    "But I'm not under contract to kill anyone, Mr. Dash. I'm under contract to die an anonymous hero."

    "Do you know the name of the woman who died in that bed? Who had a perfect replica of an ancient Viking sword plunged into her heart?"

    "No. I'm not on a need to know basis, Mr. Dash."

    "Her name was Julia Dash."

    Craig thought, Julia Dash? He looked up at the mogul, this trillionaire, the world's richest man, and stammered, "Do you mean to say --"

    "Yes, we're related. Were related. She's dead, now."

    "How are -- were -- you related?"

    "She was my only daughter."

    Craig's mouth fell open with shock, and he goggled up at the main investor in Suicides Anonymous. He waited for more.

    "Do you know the name of the man who had her killed and tried to frame you?"

    "No."

    "Mudd Halton."

    The name was vaguely familiar, but Craig drew a blank.

    "The founder of Gallmart Superstores."

    Craig struggled to process this bizarre intelligence. Everyone knew about Gallmart, of course. For nearly a century, the chain superstore had been destroying local communities first across America, and then across the world. Offering cut-rate prices on gimcrack consumer crap produced in sweatshops in Third World countries, it paid its employees slave wages while forcing mom-and-pop stores out of business, because the little stores could not be price-competitive. Gallmart had transformed much of the world to shit, and Craig found himself relishing the prospect of killing its founder. Only --

    "But Mr. Dash," Craig said. "Mudd Halton died decades ago."

    Dash suddenly pulled up a chair, and sank down into it. He crossed one leg over the other, the creases of his pants as sharp as the blades of the replica Ulfbehrt swords, and adjusted his blood-red tie. Looking Craig square in the eye, he said: "Bastard had himself cryogenically frozen, and then thawed out when they found a cure for his weakened blood vessel walls that had caused his aneurysm. Using modern technology, he has had his body reconstructed. You saw him."

    Craig, still dazed, nodded apathetically and said, "Yeah. I saw him, all right. Guy's built like a brick shit house."

    "And you're going to kill that shit house, Craig. This time, he won't be frozen and revived later. You'll see to that, son. I've faith in you." Jon Dash reached out and patted Craig's wrist.

    "I can't do it, Mr. Dash. I'm not paid to murder people."

    Dash rose, lightly ran a hand over his slick-backed, silver hair, and said, "You think it over, son. For this one job alone, I'll pay you ten million dollars." Then he went out the door, and his bodyguards followed. The door slammed shut, and Craig collapsed back on the bed, breathing heavily. All was silent except the blips of the monitors, the hum of the generators, and the hammering of his heart.

    ***

    A few days later, he and Sandy were jogging on the trail out by the fruit orchard. He had told her about his latest mission, and Dash's offer. She seemed curiously abstracted. Then she stopped running, and he stopped too. They looked at each other.

    "I've something to tell you, Craig. It will be hard to accept."

    A spike of adrenaline made his stomach turn and his heart race.

    "Okay," he said. He didn't know what else to say.

    "I only hope they aren't listening in, but after all this time I suspect they're bored with us." She paused, and then said it: "I am a clone of you."

    He gaped at her, and she told him everything. She had figured it out, she told him, the first time that they had sex. Women's intuition.

    After she had spilled these secrets, Craig made a decision.

    "Let's get out of here," he said. "Void our fucking contracts. I signed on to be an anonymous suicide hero, not a paid killer. Let Dash square accounts with Mudd Halton on his own. I'm done. And so are you, Sandy. We've got plenty of money. Time to enjoy it."

    She waited, and finally asked: "Enjoy it how? Together?"

    "Yes. As husband and wife."

    ***

    Brian -- he of the pungent cologne -- listened carefully as Craig explained that he and Sandy were leaving the company's employ. Brian sat behind a broad, polished mahogany desk. Craig and Sandy stood side by side, holding hands.

    Brian rose solemnly, bowed, and extended a hand. Craig and Sandy shook it.

    "An irreparable loss," Brian said. "Thank you for your service, Mr. Antson." Mr. Antson? Craig was disquieted by Brian's sudden, frosty, impersonal formality.

    They turned to go. As they reached the door of Brian's office, Brian said, "Really a shame, Mr. Antson. We're repositioning the firm, with a new mission-critical paradigm. We're even changing our name."

    "To what?" Craig asked, not really wanting to know, and not looking back at Brian. His hand was on the doorknob.

    "We're changing it from Suicides Anonymous to Murders Anonymous."

    Craig and Sandy passed through several security checkpoints and approached the exit that opened on a big, wide world ahead of them. As they came within a few steps of the guards at the door, Craig smelled Brian's cologne.

    Turning, he said, "Brian?"

    He saw Brian standing there surrounded by armed guards who were pointing rifles at him and Sandy.

    "Shoot them," Brian said in a bland tone of voice.

    Craig heard the first shot, but not the second.

    "You can check out any time you like," Brian told the corpses at his feet. "But you can never leave."

    ***

    "Hi Pete."

    Craig was in a hospital bed, wired up as usual. Implants in his head, back and feet.

    They shook hands.

    "Craig, good to see you out of it again. How many is this for you?"

    "Thirteen? Fourteen? Fifteen? A thousand, a million? Who knows any more, Pete? More to the point, who cares?"

    Pete smiled. "You're the champ, champ. Your next closest competitor is Sandy. She's at nine."

    "Nine already? Seems like yesterday I watched her die the for the first time."


    ...END
     

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