Have to hand it to the bastards: I think they’ve finally killed me.
No idea how long I’ve been unconscious or how much oxygen is left. This metal coffin’s air is close and stale. I try leveling my breathing—maybe buy myself more time to find a way out—but my jackhammer heart isn’t helping things.
It’s the perfect way to get rid of me: lock me in a dark box, buried gods-know-where, and let me suffocate as I realize there’s no way in hell I can jaunt out.
Jaunting works like this: Pull up a mental image of your location. Concentrate on it, along with a clear mental image of your intended destination. Will yourself apart on a subatomic level. Propel yourself through the ether, toward the picture of your destination. When you arrive, knit yourself together again, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, and open your eyes.
I can’t remember how old I was when I jaunted for the first time. I do remember my social worker, Ms. Bester, telling me about it when I was ten. Said the officers found me in the crumbled complex my druggie parents had abandoned me in. I was so scared I blinked out of existence and reappeared behind them a moment later.
It wasn’t until I got the file that I learned the whole thing—the memory of Ms. Bester telling me about my past—was fake. Implanted by TriSolar on my inception date. Implanted to help me feel more human. Implanted to keep me from the truth:
I was genetically engineered by TriSolar to infiltrate and sabotage their rival incorps.
I thought I was special.
Until I wasn’t.
It’s getting harder to breathe.
Where am I buried? The moon? The red dunes in the shadow of Olympus Mons? An asteroid out past Betelgeuse?
I remind myself it doesn’t matter where.
The ending’s the same.
Running corporate espionage jobs was fun in the beginning.
The Boss would bring me into their bright, shiny smartoffice and give me a drivestik containing blueprints and photos of a competitor’s headquarters. They’d name a target and give me a timeframe.
So I jaunted my way into and out of the “most-secure” incorps in the Milky Way, stealing proprietary terraforming tech that would jeopardize TriSolar’s hard-won, galaxy-wide monopoly. Made TriSolar even richer. They’d implement the tech as if it had been theirs all along and shrug off the competitor’s accusations.
I was good at my job.
Great at it, even.
I have no idea who slipped the file under my door.
I woke up one morning in my rooms on the penthouse level of TriSolar HQ and there it was on the floor, like some old-school mystery flick. A manila folder filled with actual paper.
What was in the file? My life. Or, more accurately, the elaborate lie that TriSolar called my life:
Born in a biolab. Positronic brainmesh with living gray matter nodes. Miniaturized FTL tech connected to the frontal and occipital lobes. Implanted memo-memes in the medial temporal lobe.
Tech engineered to steal other tech.
Blacking in and out.
Can’t remember when I made the decision to run, but I decided to leave TriSolar in ashes.
I threw the Boss from the 97th floor window. Watched with satisfaction as they became a red splotch on the pavement. Barely registered the screams that the Boss’s sudden, explosive appearance elicited from the ant-people skittering along the streets.
I jaunted from one incorp to the next. Leaked a trail of proprietary information. Raided corporate banks as I went, helping myself to enough credits to live comfortably for the rest of my so-called life.
When I finished, I disappeared.
They caught up with me on Alpha Centauri.
Guess I should’ve read those files more closely—apparently my DNA included a tracking sequence. TriSolar had been tracking me all along. I thought I’d run far enough away that I could breathe a little. Turns out, they’d been waiting for me to make that mistake.
One minute, I’m sitting at my favorite noodle bar in Centauri City; the next, everything goes black.
Like I’d been switched off.
A thought surfaces in the dim ocean of my semi-consciousness.
It could work; it probably wouldn’t. Jaunt blind. Hope I don’t end up in a wall or a rock or the cold vacuum of space. The alternative? I could stop grasping at straws and die here. Just lay back and accept what’s coming.
One last instinct to survive stirs in me. To keep pushing forward in the face of assured annihilation. I marvel at this feeling. Such a human instinct, not programmed or taught—innate, inborn, natural.
They can’t strip me of humanity, here at the last. If I die, I’ll die alive.
I shut my eyes. Focus on anywhere but here. Pull myself apart piece by piece. Propel myself through the ether—
Time tastes violet.
Space sounds green.
Worlds fold in on each other, blossom like snowspores in the ice gardens of Europa.
Stars fall and melt as planets accordion into past and present, and time arcs back on itself.
My eyelids flutter open, and a group of officers is standing before me. They assure me everything’s going to be A-OK. I’m in an abandoned complex that smells of piss and mold. The air is thin. I’m covered in grime.
My heart stutters like a machine gun as an officer reaches for me, beckoning.
This all feels so familiar. I’ve been here before. I’m younger than I’ve ever been, but somehow I know I’ve never known anything but neglect and indifference.
So I wrap my arms around myself.
Will myself anywhere but here.
© 2022 Austin Shirey