Drones

I’ve never been able to explain what it’s like to have my thoughts digitized. Even after six years I can’t, not to someone who hadn’t experienced it for themselves, at least. Not to my parents, certainly. They still think that renting my body to corporation while my mind surfs the net is on a level with prostitution. The truth was that I kind of agreed with them, but scruples don’t pay the rent.

“Ma’am?”

I stepped forward to fill the void left by the previous customer, about whom I could remember nothing. The kid behind the counter, the Drone, didn’t look anxious or annoyed, just blank with dead eyes. If I looked closely, I would see a tiny antenna protruding from behind his ear, attached to the transponder that PolyCorp required all Drones to wear. There were rumors about companies that paid a lot, whose Drones were nearly indistinguishable from non-digitized people, companies that ran everything from the brothels to the casinos to organized crime, at least insofar as those endeavors were still distinguishable from one another. Nothing so elaborate for the clerks at Six-to-Midnight, though, just your basic retail software package.

“Ma’am?” the kid asked again, with no sign of impatience.

I was glad to be dealing with a Drone. It usually takes about an hour for my mind to get used to being in its own brain again. Until then I just try not to be too annoying, and it’s a lot easier when the other person is incapable of being annoyed.

“Yeah, give me a pack of GPC’s,” I said.

“That will be sixteen dollars and sixty-three cents, please,” the clerk said.

An hour ago, it could have been me behind the counter with the PolyCorp widget behind my ear. In the past, I had run into friends who were plugged in, mindlessly working at restaurants and grocery stores, but they hadn’t recognized me. I tried to picture myself behind the counter, dark hair and green eyes sticking out of a blue-and-white apron, but I just couldn’t do it. The truth is that I have no idea what they do with my body when I rent it out, except that it comes back in the same condition as I left it, although I have had a couple of times where I noticed scrapes and bruises. You get compensated for those, though.

I gave the kid a twenty, and he meticulously counted back the change, coin by coin, dollar by dollar. The kid was quick, in a mechanical sort of way, but the delay was still annoying, I just wanted to be home. I shoved the money into my pocket in a wad that I would have to deal with later. Then again, if the insurance companies didn’t keep such a close watch for red-flag items, I could have just paid with a card and saved myself the trouble.

At Palen Street, I turned left. I do not know why I turned left, as my new route took me away from my apartment not toward it, but the weather was pleasant and I had nowhere to be. I even harbored the secret hope that I might meet someone while I was out, although I knew how that would end, another hungover regret.

Palen Street took me towards downtown, and as I walked more people joined me on the sidewalk. It was a little after five o’clock and the people all looked bleary eyed from the effects of digitization. The only ones who didn’t walk along with the crowd were the suits, leaving their jobs as lawyers or dentists and heading straight for their cars in order to more quickly return to their homes in the exurbs.

By the time I reached the city center, the people were thick around me and I began to wonder if I was walking into a protest or something. A part of me was excited by the prospect, but my more rational self hoped that it was just rush hour traffic; I couldn’t afford to be arrested. Still I didn’t turn around.

The first sign of trouble came several blocks later, when a man in the crowd started flailing at the people around him. It would be easy to watch it on video after the fact and say that the people around him should have just tackled him, but that ignores the reality of the situation, the instinctive reaction to it.

So the people around him panicked, and pushed into the people around them, and so on until the entire street was a roiling brew of chaos and barricaded cars. Somewhere in there, more people started to change, and it was pretty clear that I was in the middle of a zombie attack.

I remember seeing the first attack, when I was a kid. Nobody knew what was going on, and then someone drew the obvious comparison between the Drone mobs in the streets and the living dead. All hell broke loose. Hoarding, religion, survivalism, George Romero did more damage than the zombies themselves. Not that I blame him, classics are classics.

Of course the zombies weren’t actually the living dead, just people with malicious software running in their heads. No one had figured out how to make it contagious yet, so it was just a matter of waiting until the cleanup crew arrived. Doing that should be pretty easy, just keep the zombies from getting a good grip on you and keep moving, but their programmed flailing worked on some primal aspect of the mind, reached right in and pushed the big red fight-or-flight button. Between the zombies and the people in full-on panic mode, it was clear that I needed to get out of there.

I shoved my way to the edge of the street, and worked my way along the buildings until I found a door that was still open. Sort of. There were men in black suits with dark glasses standing on either side of it, weapons drawn, bodies like coiled springs. A group of them had clustered around something, a person I presumed, and were moving towards the door.

Others in the crowd had the same idea as me, and were starting to converge on the building. Fortunately, zombies tended to be easy to spot, incoherent with glazed eyes and a tendency to bite. After a quick question, the people were ushered into the safety of the building, one by one.

“Ma’am, what is the capital of Libya?” one of the guards asked when I got to the front of the line.

“How the hell would I know?”

He didn’t answer, but waved me past him. It was good that my entrance didn’t depend on answering the question correctly; it would have sucked to get killed in the streets because I didn’t know my geography. Behind me I heard him ask the next person what the word syzygy meant. The security company probably had an entire division tasked with making up obscure questions.

I followed the stream of people into the building where we were ushered into a windowless conference room. After a few minutes of sitting and waiting, the staffer who was assigned to watch over us was called away, shutting the glass door behind him on his way out. The room was well insulated, and once the door was shut, the only thing I could hear was people muttering about the inconvenience of it all or the cell network being down. More men in black suits were hurrying down the hallway towards the front of the building.

I had to pee.

None of the people in the room with me knew where the bathrooms were, so I just opened the door and took a right, the opposite direction that the suits had gone. The hall led me to the elevator lobby, which also had a set of restrooms. While I was washing my hands, I leaned forward to get an eyelash out of my eye, bracing my leg against the marble countertop. Something sharp underneath poked through my jeans, causing me to yelp and jump back. There was a knife taped to the underside of the countertop.

I pulled it down and peeled the tape off. Only a little longer than the length of my hand, the entire thing was painted a matte black, glinting only where the blade had been ground to an edge. Part of me wanted to just leave it on the counter, but I put it in my pocket anyway, not sure what I would do with it.

I could hear yelling coming from the front of the building when I exited the restroom. It must have been getting really bad out there, I pictured the river of people heading downtown after work, only to have some bad software in their heads turn them into zombies. The largest outbreaks hadn’t had more than a few hundred zombies in any one area; there could easily be thousands out there.

I got in the elevator and pushed the button for the top floor, figuring it would be the safest place in the building. Before the door shut, more men in suits exited the elevator adjacent to me. I began to wonder what sort of building I had ended up in.

The elevator opened into a roomy lobby that was peppered with plants and artwork. I poked my head into a couple of rooms, and all of them– the conference room, the opulent bathroom, the putting course –were empty. Finally I pushed my way through the massive and intricately carved double doors that dominated one of the lobby’s walls. It was an office filled with heavy wood furniture and with nothing but glass for exterior walls. Whoever worked here, they were important.

Below, people were crawling like ants over the destroyed geography of the street. Cars burned and the crowd was filled with jittery violence. The military had arrived, and they were cutting their way through the dense crowd. As mechanical as it looked from a distance, I’m sure it was worse on the street, with Drones in convicts’ bodies firing into the crowd with neither fear nor hesitation. I didn’t want to watch any more.

Only I couldn’t leave the room. When I reached the threshold, my legs simply refused to move any farther. In disbelief and shock, I walked back and made another attempt to leave with the same result. That was when I realized that I had taken the knife out of my pocket, and everything clicked in my head.

I was no longer in complete control of my own body.

Somebody had, when I was at work, slipped some code into my brain, just like the zombies and soldiers below. That same somebody wanted me to do something, and judging by the knife I was holding it wasn’t going to be baking cookies. My thoughts started to race. How long had I been like this? When was the last time I had made a real decision? I forced myself to stop it. Those questions were irrelevant. I didn’t want to spend what were quite possibly my last minutes debating minutiae with myself.

The minutes ticked by, and I felt every second as I stood waiting for the door to open. My entire life had boiled down to two options. I could refuse, turn the knife on myself rather than give someone the opportunity to use body for something truly terrible. Or I could just go with it.

I placed the tip of the knife against my left wrist, the blade parallel with my arm. I gradually increased the pressure until I felt it slip into the skin. A drop of blood welled up, spreading along the blade. There was no resistance, an I knew that a simple jerk of my hand would open my veins and that with enough pressure the wound would be final.

I checked my phone again. Still no service. I no longer believed that the service was overloaded. Most of the zombies in the mob below still had their phones on them, no doubt, the mesh network would reach practically to the suburbs. There was little time left, no doubt. I opened up the video recorder software and set it to upload as soon as it had a connection.

I pointed the device’s lens at my face and spoke to it, trying not to let my voice shake, “Mom, Dad, Johnnie, whatever happens in the next few minutes, I just wanted to let you know that I love you.”

I stopped the recorder, saved the video, and set it to upload as soon as it found signal again. It hurt to simplify our relationships down to that one fact, but it would take a lifetime of work to get it right. I put the phone back in my pocket. My head was starting to hurt as the situation tensed my muscles and I moved to sit down.

The door opened.

The man who entered the room was tall and handsome. The sort of man you saw at the golf course in the middle of the day or at the helm of a ludicrously expensive yacht in the middle of the summer. The sort of man who had become so used to wealth and control that those things had become as much a part of him as his childhood. He was not some government bureaucrat, worn thin from trying to do too much with too little. Whoever had control of me had sent me to kill some captain of industry. It could have been much worse, a humanitarian or social justice activist. A part of me was relieved, the rest of me was horrified at the first part’s reaction.

“C-Clara?” he asked, apparently as surprised by my presence as I was by the fact that he recognized me, even if by name not my own.

That was when I realized that his expression wasn’t just surprise, it was fear. I thought of all the men in suits, about what was being hidden by their dark glasses, and about how many of them wouldn’t be going home to their families at the end of their shifts. I thought about what it must mean that he was not only surprised to see me, but afraid. When I felt myself starting to lunge towards him with the knife outstretched, I leaned into it.

The human body contains a lot of blood, and I had to jump to clear the expanding puddle that was leaking out of the man’s throat. I had wiped the knife clean on his expensive shirt and tucked it back into my pocket, thankful that whoever had sent me hadn’t also caused me to kill myself. It was curious that someone would choose something other than the clean and neat crime, but I didn’t question my luck. You don’t discard a tool, I guess. The elevator dinged when it reached my floor and I stepped in, pressing the button for the ground floor.

It was in the elevator that I began to pay attention to my surroundings, for the first time since I entered the building, and it was then that I noticed the logo that was tastefully etched into the frosted glass of the elevator’s walls. I knew the logo, it was the same logo that I saw when I arrived at the PolyCorp employee hub for work each morning. I was in one of their administrative buildings. I tried to remember the face of the man who I had just killed, but my memory wasn’t working properly, and the best I could do was a fuzzy, face-shaped outline. Whoever he had been, he had worked for PolyCorp.

Back in the elevator lobby, I felt a chill as the AC kicked in and the whole building seemed to drop a few degrees, snapping me back to the present. I shivered one of those shivers that starts in your spine and works its way out to your fingertips and reached to pull my jacket tighter around me only to find that I wasn’t wearing it. I couldn’t remember taking it off, but hoped that I had left it in the bathroom. I found it hanging neatly on a hook next to the mirrors and I realized that I was covered with a fine mist of blood. My pants were dark and the jacket covered up the spots on my shirt. I tried not to think of the consequences of the coincidence.

By the time I got back to the conference room, the military was evacuating the building.

“Ma’am?” a young man with dark skin and tattoos poking out from under his body armor asked when I looked in the room.

“Sorry, I was in the bathroom,” I said.

“There are people waiting at the front of the building,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. I tried not to look at his blank eyes as I passed him on my way out.