Interruptions by JaneLebak
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Interruptions
by Jane Lebak (3/04)

Part One: A Disposable Camera

 

I don't remember a thing about the way it turned out, and maybe I'm glad. I think that's the way I would have wanted it.

 

I'm sure I recognize this as a Center Neptune holding cell, rather than Spectran, because when I turn up the cerebonics I can discern a whole symphony of sounds I've come to associate with life underwater. There's the muffled output of the engines that move the base; there's the hiss of the air filters. There's the occasional sound brought down distorted from the surface. The cinderblocks are even, it's well-lighted, and the one cell window in the metal door is plexiglass rather than bars. Overall, it's a good bet that I'm home and that Anderson must be in custody of me.

And since that's the case, I have to assume the only answers I'll ever get are what I can remember for myself.

 

Ten days ago I got a stern lecture about security. I have no idea how Anderson ever found out about the disposable camera, but he did, and he was furious. For security reasons there should never be any photographs of any of us. I had already--wisely--destroyed the negatives, so it remained only for him to send agents scouring my room during the debriefing in order to destroy the photographs as well.

Except for the one I'd pulled out.

Mark had objected to the disposable camera at the time, naturally, so maybe he'd been the one who ratted me out. It had helped us fit in as tourists on the cruise--it was no good standing out as the only group not taking pictures. And once I had it, it seemed only natural to take pictures of all four of the guys.

We've had our photos taken before, of course. We're on drivers licenses, photo IDs, fake IDs, and so on. Jason's had his picture in racing magazines. It made no sense that if I took the pictures it was a security risk, particularly since I had the photos here at Center Neptune and I had destroyed the negatives myself.

As it turned out, it hadn't been security risked by the camera at all. The disposable camera wasn't very good. It had a bright flash. Mark, Tiny and Jason got red-eye on virtually every photo I took during the evening cruise. I wish I could say the same for Keyop. He didn't get red-eye from the flash. Instead, his pupils turned green.

I can differentiate 600 shades of green thanks to my cerebonic implants. Therefore I know exactly which shade of green to expect gleaming from the darkness at me during a mission. I recognized it instantly when I saw it in Keyop's photo. I'm left with one conclusion, one reason for the ban.

Keyop is Spectran.

 

I know Keyop is a genetic construct. We never did anything other than take it for granted his template was Earth-human, although in retrospect it makes sense that they'd start with variant materials. Different starting materials would give him different abilities, and once they tinkered with those, they'd be able to come up with a super-soldier. I would have figured our guys knew more about the human genome, but maybe that's why Keyop still looks eight years old, and why his mouth is "off" enough to cause a stutter. Growing up with him, I just got used to all that. It was actually harder to deal with Jason after he was chosen for the cosmetic surgery that makes him look more Spectran.

Mark, Jason, Tiny and I all had real parents. Although the whole adoption thing leaves us messed up, we always knew we were human, that some man and woman had spawned us the usual way. Tiny even has an extended family that once hired a private detective to track him down after the social services system "lost" him. Tiny was eight by then, and even I knew Anderson had no intention of handing him over, but he fought in court anyhow and somehow won. Who knows what passed hands to ensure that? Afterward, Anderson bought off the private detective--offered him a job with us, kept him well-paid and assigned him a never-ending stream of challenging, complicated and important cases to solve. There's no better way to insure the loyalty of a man like that.

I'm not going to get that treatment, I'm sure.

 

During the meeting when Anderson ripped off my head for buying disposable camera, I tried to act naturally. Jason has this thing he does when he separates from himself; he says he just goes away when he's captured and being questioned by Spectra. I know he's done it during debriefings. After being reprimanded for this or that, he has no reaction afterward to the things Anderson has said, although he's perfectly aware of everything happened the whole time. Even more than aware, he can actually recount it verbatim. He'll write it out longhand to re-live what happened, then read it all back and get angry. But just remembering it, he can't get angry. He puts up a wall between himself and his body so that nothing gets inside. He interrupts his own responses. It's as if he can't observe himself. He becomes a video camera. Video cameras don't get mad. Only people who watch the film get mad.

For the first time, I had to do that during a debriefing. I went away. I apologized; I explained; I answered questions; I looked and sounded dead earnest; and I know I wasn't there.

It occurred to me that Zark might be able to tell that I'd interrupted during the debriefing. He probably keeps track of which cerebonics we engage and when. But he would only suspect why. I made certain for the next two days not to go where I'd hidden the incriminating photo. I pretended it never happened, and I let the next crisis--whatever it would be, whenever it might come--take precedence in Anderson's mind.

 

Once I saw those green-eyes on the picture, I knew there would come a compulsion to investigate. None of us can stop it. In a way it's bad that we're programmed like this, but Anderson must have been desperate to fight Spectra. If we find ties to Spectra, we have to start to dig. Keyop, ironically, has it the worst. It's as if all our inhibitions go away.

No, I have to be honest with myself now. It's not "as if." They do. There's a cerebonic implant in all of us that interrupts our consciences during battle. We all made vows not to let any Spectrans survive this war, and when a battle begins, the cerebonic links to the prefrontal cortex kick in. Abruptly there's no communication between what you'd call our conscience and the parts of our brains that make decisions. It depends on the situation--sometimes I'll remember any part of a fight, how I snapped some soldier's neck or the way I shot my yo-yo into his eye, only with the same detachment as remembering that Car Talk airs at 10 AM on Saturdays. At other times, the interrupt prevents me from remembering anything at all, as if it stopped me from sending short-term memory into long-term storage. I wonder if those times are particularly horrible, if I don't want to be doing what I'm doing. Anderson says the interrupt is necessary to prevent battle fatigue.

That makes it all the more horrible now that I can't remember what happened to Keyop.

 

Chief Anderson caught me playing with a doll one day when I was five years old and then put me in charge of Keyop. It seems a lot less traumatic now than it did at the time, but I don't know--it was just a stupid doll. I was a stupid kid. I'd made the doll out of a weighted ball from the workout room and one of the towels I'd stolen from the locker area. I'd made it feel baby-like by putting some of the stiff ropes beneath the blanket for arms and legs, and used half a sack of sugar from the kitchen for the body. Pinned it all together with needles swiped from an acupuncture session. Infuriated, Anderson brought us the genetic construct the next day and made me destroy the doll. I couldn't even keep the towel. Instead I taught the genetic construct how to eat, how to use the bathroom, how to come when called, and how to do basic martial arts blocks. After a month it started to talk, and Anderson said we could keep it for our team.

 

On the third day after the debriefing, I went to the library for a bit of research. I had two questions: was Keyop really Spectran, and if so, what should I do about it? I knew I mustn't answer the second question yet, so instead I concentrated on the first. If I could prove Keyop wasn't Spectran, the second question hardly mattered. But sometimes you know what you have to do. I can try to justify the research as a delaying tactic, but already the compulsion prodded me. Find the hidden Spectrans. Then kill them before they have a chance to kill you. I took a vow.

The programming isn't reckless. I had to be certain before I could act--whatever act that was. And although compelled (not yet obsessed) I bore in mind the need for stealth. If Anderson knew what I wanted to confirm, I'm not certain what he would do. How difficult would it be to deprogram a soldier? They spent a lot of time and money making Keyop. If it came down to it, I'm not sure who as more valuable. I knew I could tip the balance easily by telling the others what I knew; Keyop didn't out-value me plus the other three guys. But at the same time, I didn't know if I could bear to do that. All four of us together would confirm it in hours. And Jason or Mark could take decisive action in only minutes. Interrupt or not, that was too fast. It made me sick. The interrupt couldn't come into play until the midst of the situation. Contemplating it beforehand left me only dizzy and scared.

I had thought an old biology textbook could explain redeye for me. Standing in the stacks, I paged through the dusty books (no one reads books nowadays) until I found what I wanted. That red glare in photographs, and which is sometimes visible during a flash in the dark, is simply light being reflected off the retina. In humans, it's red because that's the color of the blood vessels lining the retina, but in animals there's something called a tapetum lucidum. That reflective layer is something that helps them see more easily in lower levels of light, so usually you find it in predators. Dogs, cats, Spectrans. That layer is a slightly different color in every species that has it. To cerebonics enhanced to look for it, Spectrans have a very distinctive green.

The library has some public computers. In the echoing room, I messed around online for a bit, read a few forums I've enjoyed (but where I can't participate) and wondered how I could obliquely approach the research issue. I've never doubted that Zark keeps tabs on our activities. It must be laughably easy for him to track our online travels right from the computer the instant we visit a site. Going into any search engine and typing "redeye Spectran color" would have the same effect, guaranteed, as walking into Center Neptune Control and handing him Keyop's greeneye picture.

I knew what I had seen. The question was verifying that no other species had the same color reflections off its retinas. And maybe getting hold of Keyop's records to verify. Knowing any action I took would be decisive, I had to be sure.

How much divergence from the Spectran genome would permit me to call Keyop something else?

What of Keyop's loyalty to us, which never had come into question? Could "Spectran" be defined as allegience rather than genetics?

But it was never a question before now, and everyone knows you can't let the situation dictate your ethics. Right from the start we've been programmed to kill Specrans. Spectrans are born from Spectrans. They're not made--but Keyop was made and not born. It didn't matter. When we come up against our traitors to Spectra, we capture them and bring them back. We don't have any traitors from Spectra. We've never brought one back alive. None of us knows why.

I've had thoughts sometimes...sometimes isn't it better to have one of them alive, to help us out? I've delayed the impulse sometimes when one seemed cooperative. It's helped us to navigate labyrinths, to find hidden weaknesses...but it's so hard. Usually I have the thought, "This one I'll let live," and then I interrupt and we're somewhere else. Maybe you can't program a person for contingencies. Maybe this totality wasn't what Anderson intended at all. I don't know how quickly they can turn off the programming when the war ends. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking about it--what I would do if the war ended and I encountered a Spectran citizen on a street corner--and even lying there cogitating, I'll blank out for a while. It frightens me whenever it happens. It frightens me now.

But all that aside, I needed to find an answer first to whether Keyop was genetically a Spectran. I left the computers and returned to the stacks looking for books. I could think of other reasons his eyes may have turned green in that one photo. First, Spectra might have gotten ahold of the picture and altered it. Unlikely, but possible. I had checked on the negatives, of course, but it's possible to make a negative from a picture, and I don't think it's so difficult that they couldn't do it during a one-hour photo drop-off. It would be difficult--they would have had to have known in advance--but it could be done.

The second possibility was that another species had the same green-glare from the eyes, and that Keyop was made from one of those. Or that Keyop's engineering had messed with his eyes enough that they glowed green in the camera flash.

As I paged through an exobiology textbook, one of the other library patrons approached me. I looked up to find the private detective who had tracked down Tiny for his extended family. Mitch Radil. I'm used to seeing him everywhere. He came and leaned on the book shelf and said, "You don't look happy."

I responded, "I'm not paid to look happy."

He grinned. "Would you mind helping me with my computer? I've messed it up somehow."

He talks a little differently to everyone. Mitch is a chameleon. It's why he's such a good PI. I went to his comptuer and sat before his keyboard. He leaned over me and opened a second window in his word processor. I noticed the dust on his elbow where he'd leaned against the book shelf. On the monitor, the text said, "You look like you've got a problem. Remember my job--I'll take on the challenge if you'll trust me."

I closed the window. "I can't help you with this." Then I rebooted the machine. "Restarting is always a good first step, though."

Mitch nodded. I returned to the stacks.

The most pressing question at that point became, did Anderson put him up to this? The cerebonics make us good judges of people if we know to look for the cues. I could read Mitch as well as a polygraph when I gave him my full attention. The more worrying thought was that he'd noticed I was preoccupied. But the man did enjoy a challenge, and now I had one for him. He'd never resist a chance at cracking this safe. I wet to a computer and typed for a few minutes.

Before leaving the library, I asked him to use my machine's word processor instead of his. He gave me an easy smile, and I knew I had decided rightly.

 

Hopefully by not saving either my message or Mitch's to memory, we'd prevented Zark from reading either one.

The next day, Mitch handed me a business card for a restaurant on the mainland and told me they had a great karaoke hour. Ten minutes later, Anderson dispatched us to the mainland, right to that same city, to investigate a tip. I asked who had uncovered the situation. Mitch.

So I went to the karaoke hour at this restaurant. Loud, dark and smoky, it was the kind of place I could imagine Spectra using as a cover operation, provided it had been a restaurant first. Spectrans are too alien to know how to attract human customers. Usually they mismanage just subtly enough that we can figure out their presence. They often don't gather repeat customers. This place seemed to be crawling with regulars, and I hoped I didn't stand out too much. I'd already fended off three men when I recognized the fourth as Mitch in disguise.

He had changed into a bar-hopper with torn jeans, work boots, a leather jacket, and a Monsters sweatshirt. He was smoking. He leaned up close to me, and I let him maneuver me back toward the wall. He rested one hand on the wall over my shoulder and leaned in close.

"Be careful," I said. "You might get your neck broken."

He looked that much like he was hitting on me. With a smile, he murmurred, "I found a ton of information for you."

He handed me a business card. "Give me a call, sugar," he said, looking for all the world like a rebuffed suitor playing it cool. "You know you want me."

On the back of the card I could feel a microchip. My arms raised up goose-bumps. If he'd done all this to avoid Zark--sending us on a phony investigation, disguising himself, encrypting the information rather than telling me--then I feared what he found. At the same time, I felt my heart racing, my senses ratcheting upward, my intent focusing. Soon, I would have a Spectran to kill.

 

Jason actualy uncovered something during the investigation I had assumed was fraudulent. Mitch must have been working on something already and used it to my advantage. What Jason found was an importer selling some very restricted metal compounds at rock-bottom prices. Either they'd "fallen off the truck" or he had them via the black market. The importer's contact couldn't provide us his information, being dead, but Jason showed us his Spectran gear and insignia, and we determined the source was a small colony out in the Oort cloud.

With dozens of colonies in those planetoids, it's not unusual for several months to pass without contact. The planetoids have an orbit that surpasses 10,000 earth years, and our most powerful telescopes can only barely discern them. On the colony Hattad, I looked up once to realize you could block out the sun with the head of a pin. I'm surprised anyone wants to work out there, but mostly it's miners hoping to suffer for ten years and then live off the proceeds in luxury for fifty more. Spectra has attacked these when they can locate one, killing or enslaving the settlers, expanding the operation with slaves of their own, and using the extracted materials to build mechs in the privacy afforded by millions of miles. Finding a beseiged mine in the Oort cloud would take us centuries. Mark had, fortunately, extracted the flight data from the Spectran shuttle. We headed out that night.

I had no chance to inspect Mitch's microchip, but I asked Mark to assign Keyop separately from me this mission.

He looked puzzled, and I added, "It makes it harder. To do my job." I looked down. Doing my job. Killing Spectrans. What if I took advantage of a moment, if I interrupted while we were alone?

Mark said, "You don't have to look out for his safety."

"I hope I don't," I said. "But I'm worried he might get killed."

Mark shrugged. "I'll see what I can do this time. We'll talk more when we get home."

 

Well, now I'm home. No one has come to talk to me yet.

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