Note: If you’re triggered by the sound of gunfire and loud explosions, please skip this episode.
AI assisted by Thersa Matsuura
It was Valentine’s Day 2042 and I stood at the door of her Living Unit, a bouquet of flowers in one hand, my heart in the other. Would she forgive me? Would she take me back?
I knocked on the door. She opened it immediately. Her arms came around me, and then we were kissing like old times.
“Hello, Mrs. G.,” I said.
“Jackson! Is that for me?” She reached out to take the flowers. “You’re just too kind.”
The truth was, there had been something gnawing away inside me since December 6, 2041, when I learned that my wife—my sweet young twenty-two-year-old, beautiful, adorable bride, Mrs. G —was sleeping with the bastard that had ruined my life. I’m not sure what it was about him: perhaps the way he looked or the devilish grin, his sexy voice, the confidence with which he led my wife astray. Whatever it was, I felt hate growing in my gut, and I was terrified of myself because I could feel the hatred morphing into rage. It seemed that nothing would be able to satisfy that need. Even after our divorce had become final, the desire to hurt him continued. But I couldn’t find any outlet for it; I needed an external focus for the loathing. So I found it. He became my target.
Yes, it’s true. I blew him into a red and bone slime last week with my Lazeragoon. And, yes, I’ve felt better since then. This is why I took today as an opportunity to apologize to my ex-wife. I know it’s late. I know this hurts her terribly, but I have nothing else left in me to make up for the terrible things I did to her, so please don’t hold it against me. Please understand that I did what I thought was best at the time. I didn’t want to be alone.
And, honestly, Mrs. G., I’m sorry about that whole baby thing too. The idea just got away from me. We can talk about it if you’d like, but first I need your forgiveness.
Mrs. G. embraced me again, but more tentatively than before. “Well, aren’t you all grown up now,” she said softly.
“I hope so,” I answered.
She took my hands and squeezed them. “Please, come in. You must be freezing!” She held the door open for me.
She led me down a short hallway into a small, cozy living room with heavy dark furniture. A bright Christmas tree sat by the window and glittery ornaments festooned its branches. Soft music played quietly on the stereo system. My stomach tightened at the sight of the tree. There was something wrong about having a happy holiday celebration here in February. It was Valentine’s Day for fucks sake. Why did my darling, my love Mrs. G. still have her Christmas tree up? It was absurd. I wanted to grab the decorations and throw them out the window. Maybe she had gone mad? I mean, it was Christmas when I blew that bastard she was sleeping with. I’ll call him Mr. Bastard from now on. Anyway, he’s gone now. I’m never going to mention him again.
I cleared my throat and set the bouquet of flowers down on the table.
Interstitial: Mrs. G Remembers the Murder
“Rockin around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop. Mistletoe hung where you can see, every couple tries to stop…”
Oh, hi there. I didn’t see you watching me. Who am I kidding? Of course I saw you. You’re watching. All the time. You’re watching. All of you, those eyes in the walls, in the ceiling, hidden under the soap in the shower, slow blinking through the bubbles. Doesn’t that hurt?
Did you see what happened to my husband? Did you? Danny. At the Five and a Half Shot Espresso Bar on the corner of 7th and Main. Just your kind of place. Yes. A little quiet conversation at a table by the window where it’s just cool enough not to be too cold outside.
Our drinks arrived, he settled his jacket in his chair so we’d know he was okay with being half-dressed, I reached out and placed a gentle hand upon his shoulder. Not to disturb him while he works on his coffee. So cute.
Are the Eyes there the same as the Eyes here? That’s what I want to know. I want to know who knows what? What sees whom?
Don’t think I don’t know that you’re all along for my pity mugging.
So tell me, did you see when my ex, Jackson, showed up there with his Laser-a-goon all primed and glowing that incandescent blue light that always gives me the jeebie-crawlies under my skin?
And he looks me in the eye and we have a moment. A moment, goddamn you! Like I can remember how much I loved him, the pain of love, the time before.
We used to talk about sandals on each other’s feet and drinking anything but this expensive syrupy liquid (don’t even try the tea) and I would fucking kill for one more second with Jackson, inside that smile he used to wear so well. Not just sex either. I know the kind of guy Jackson is: so polite, all hands on deck and shit.
He could change your day from bad to wonderful just by walking into the room, by sitting down at your table. Sometimes he would start laughing like this, this quiet laugh.
But, you know, he showed up, his finger on the trigger. Danny, slurping the espresso in front of me. And Jackson and me making eye contact and the laser-a-goon pointed at the back of Danny’s head and he, he just pulled that trigger and whoosh went my hair and so did Danny’s as we were lifted from our seats and sent screaming through space, there to go around and around the room before we were sucked down some sort of death-by-laser chute to the concrete basement floor, where we were both only two-dimensional as these things zipped past us: skeletons, lightning bugs, yo-yos, stuffed bears with sewn mouths.
Were you there when Danny started to turn into a black lump of charred flesh from which twisted black metal bones dangled and blood dripped down his legs?
Oh yeah, I was.
Jackson, bobbing and weaving, trying to dodge the thing that was shooting at him. But it had his gaze locked—no, that’s not right. Jackson had a shot full of some bad drug or another. It made him stay still for all the laser blasts. Maybe something in the gourmet coffee?
That’s what I like about the Five and a Half Shot. They know their stuff.
So Danny went flying across the room to crash into the long countertop by the espresso machine, knocking over tables, chairs, cakes. I got up, screaming, and ran behind the long countertop to get away from him and the damn thing, which stayed on target, and when it stopped, I looked around to see who else was running around looking for cover. There were already others on the ground, writhing, arms and legs contorted, bodies bruised black and blue. Jesus. Was I next? No!
When I got up again, Jackson was gone. And more importantly, Danny was gone. I mean, Jackson had left the coffee shop and Danny was stuck in an eternal limbo of human motionlessness. While people screamed around me, “Why? What? I’m in here too! Where am I? What the fuck are we doing here?!” These four-word questions plastered across my face, and I could hear my daughter begging me, “Mommy!”
But there was no daughter.
You watched it all, didn’t you. And you did nothing. I returned home to my Living Unit all decked out in Christmas decorations and I found Danny…different. Gone.
His hat on the shelf. The picture frame lying beside it. An open can of spray paint next to it. And something missing, some familiar thing, something I couldn’t name. I methodically threw everything of his down the trash chute. I then proceeded to forget. Almost. And the longer I forgot, the harder it became to remember why.
And here it is February something or other. The tree looks fabulous. The lights look terrific. Everything’s perfect.
What’s the best way to forget something? You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. So you don’t bother remembering it in the first place. I’m meant for bigger things, you know.
Jackman Apologizes, Gets Forgiveness
“Mrs. G, I’m here to apologize to tell you you are the love of my life and always have been.”
She was crying, standing before me now. She placed her palms on my cheeks. “Why are you doing this now?” she asked through her tears.
“Because I want us to be together again. I realize that you don’t want to go back to the old days anymore, but I do. Will you please give me another chance?”
She began shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Jackman, I just… I don’t know what to say. I really wish I could forgive you. I mean, I forgive you, it’s just…”
“Please! Don’t make me leave. Just let me stay with you until Christmas.”
She shook her head even harder. “Jackman, I can’t.”
“But you’ve forgiven me. You just told me that.”
“I know, I know, but this isn’t about forgiving. It’s about moving on. Moving past it. You should try it sometime, okay? Just start fresh, as it were.”
My heart sank. Had I blown everything? Had I lost my wife forever? Was this it? I walked toward the doorway.
“Wait!” Mrs. G called out to me. I stopped, and she smiled weakly. “What I meant was, try to move on, but not in the sense of forgetting about me or what happened. I’m not saying we never mention the matter ever again, but it’s really water under the bridge now, isn’t it?”
The song changed to something upbeat. It sounded like Brenda Lee singing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. But all wrong.”
“Darling Jackman, the truth is I’ve always loved you. I always have. Only…” she looked around her Living Unit with all the Bionic Action Cams blinking at us in that slow sleepy way. I knew they were watching us. I was a little afraid.
“It just wasn’t enough to keep our marriage going. In the end, I was happier alone than in your company. The sex was wonderful. Always very good, but it was never enough. I needed someone to love more than myself, but who I could love more than that as well.”
Mrs. G Reveals Her Secret
She jumped into my arms and whispered in my ear.
“The Gamma Group is watching me. They’re always watching. Danny was one of them. I’ve joined the mercenary team known as the Revenant Squad and I think they might know.”
I pushed her away from me. “Oh my God Mrs. G., there are cameras in here? How many of them? Who watches them?”
“No one watches the Bionic Action Cams, Darling. I have a television set in my bedroom. I pay a neighbor to tape my shows and watch them later. That’s how I saw that weird video I showed you.”
I was confused. Mrs. G., the love of my loins, is a member of the Revenant Squad? They want to take down the government. They are planning to destroy the Gamma Group.
“Do you want to see what’s on TV?” she asked, heading toward the bedroom. “Videos are everything, Darling. Videos are life.”
I followed behind her. There was the television, sitting next to the window where the Snow Queen had been, but it didn’t show the reindeer jumping over snowmen, or a jolly old man delivering presents. Instead, we watched some newscaster telling people that Beta Silicon’s earnings had fallen off dramatically because their biggest customer, China, refused to buy any more chips. Other analysts were reporting rumors of a temporary market downturn. Now all the country’s major corporations were shutting down operations in the U.S. to save money. My chest tightened as I realized that I had just fucked up so royally.
“You probably won’t understand this, Jackman, but it’s quite fascinating,” said Mrs. G.
I felt dizzy and nauseous, and had to sit down. Mrs. G. continued talking to me. I tried to listen, but all I could hear was the sound of my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
“Are you alright?” asked Mrs. G., walking over to me.
I nodded. I looked up at her, but she still appeared normal and unchanged. She looked a little bit concerned, like she was worried I might throw up on her fancy sili-carbon fluff carpet, but wasn’t sure if that was because I looked sick, or because of what she’d just said.
“Do you want to lie down for a minute?” she asked.
“Maybe get some air.” I walked over to the front door of the Living Unit. The BACs (Bionic Action Cams) all followed. They weren’t blinking. I tried the door. It was locked. I tried turning the knob, but it wouldn’t budge.
“How did you unlock it?” I asked Mrs. G.
“Oh, my god, Jackman!” She gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. “They know you came in here! They must be monitoring you right now! I didn’t know they could hear, too!”
Interstitial: Mrs. G Rambles
Always watching and recording everything everyone does, I know. But there are somethings the Gamma Group will never know. If they did, I’d have been hauled away for questioning months ago and just another disposable camera would be in my place. One of the advantages of this particular surveillance operation is that I’m totally unknown to the world at large and yet I’m seen by thousands every day.
I just make my little videos that you think are all so innocent. They’re fun. But if you only knew how far up in the Revenant Squad I went. If you knew what I saw. You wouldn’t like it. I’m a secret, you see. No one ever found out about me until two days ago when I was…vomited up. That’s what we call it.
Anyway, it’s why I’m nervous. Not as confident as before. In fact, tonight, I don’t think I’ll get any closer than the front door of Ambling Manor.
Well… maybe inside, in the hidden rooms. There are operatives everywhere. You think you’re so smart, but you can’t imagine what goes on here and there, under your stare. That’s your mistake, if you haven’t noticed. You believe in every camera. Every lens watching us from every corner of this building. Yes, I’ve counted them all. There must be a thousand surveillance devices set up around the house here alone. It makes it harder to work sometimes. You forget that behind each of those lenses is someone living his life for us to watch. Not always willingly, of course. Just because they’ve been paid to do something doesn’t mean they like it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which ones are more malicious. The old security cameras, the black-and-white fifties lenses with red eye bulbs, they’re the worst.
Tonight, once I make it into Ambling Manor it’s eyes out for all of you. Then we’ll have the upper hand. We’re the creatures you can’t stop watching, I tell you. When the lights go out, the green glow gives way to darkness. A clean slate. Ready to begin our masterpiece. Something special. Something good.
Because I know what your motives are. What happens when an audience watches the events of our lives? The video has to be better than the real thing. Something people will remember forever. That’s our mandate: improve upon reality by making the media itself a tool for telling our stories. You take pictures, then edit them together. You strip away the crap to make it simple and interesting and exciting. You use editing techniques, special effects, lighting and music to highlight the true essence of each event. How should we present ourselves?
It’s time for that to change. Because sometimes we need to fake things up. Make the villainous not look evil. You can hide anything with special effects, all the better to erase their sins. We know what happens in the end; now, for a few minutes, let’s invent new beginnings and make up our own rules.
Make no mistake, though. As long as I can find one lens watching, this is going to happen. But we won’t stop the story. At least not tonight. Tonight, the best view will come from without. That’s the part of us that needs to shine. With your absence, we’ll show off how spectacular we can really be. We can present our whole case from every angle. From all sides, at once.
I took a deep breath and headed back to her. “Maybe they know who I am, too?”
Just then, suddenly a deep voice spoke all around us. It said: “Is this thing on? (tap tap tap) Are you guys watching?”
I looked around, but no one was there. The AI voice faded, and silence filled the room again. Mrs. G. looked at me with big eyes. The voice spoke again. This time louder.
“Who else knows you’re in here? I mean, besides me, the NSA, the President, and your boss, Mr. Halen?”
“There are only two others who know,” said Mrs. G. “Heather Spears and Jerry Swint.”
The AI went silent again. I stared at Mrs. G. After some thinking it spoke again. “Jackman, you fucked up. Your face and body are being broadcast all over the internet.”
“I fucked up?” I repeated. “You’re the ones doing that! You shot up the whole place. It was you, not me!”
“We had no choice. Our priority is to prevent the spread of information about Project Reverb.”
There was silence again, the sound of explosions and gunfire coming from the TV, screams. The AI voice returned and boomed.
“Heather and Jerry are dead now.”
Silence as I turned away from the TV and walked back to Mrs. G.
She grabbed my arm. “What do we do, Jackman? Do you think they’ll come for us?”
“Yeah. They’re not letting anyone live now.”
“Well, let’s go out through the kitchen and escape through the service entrance. If the Bionics don’t catch us, we can drive somewhere far away and disappear. I’m sure I can get my job back at Alpha Silicon. We can find someplace to hide until everything blows over. Is that okay?”
“Mrs. G., we don’t have to run anymore. The government lied to us. This isn’t what we wanted. They aren’t working for us at all. Look.”
I pointed to the screen, which had changed to showing a much older version of Heather Spears holding an assault rifle. The logo on the side of the weapon read ‘The Resistance.’ A grainy picture of Heather peering into a small window filled the screen. She looked scared, and very alone. Behind her, a squad of heavily armed soldiers moved through some building or other, pointing guns and shooting at shadows.
“The resistance?” asked Mrs. G. “That’s another name for the Revenant Squad. She was one of us.”
“It looks like it,” I said.
“This changes nothing,” said Mrs. G. “If you’re caught, they’ll simply wipe your memory and release you. They’ve done it before. I remember. Or don’t remember. Maybe remember.”
“But…but how can they kill people like this? How could they ever justify killing innocent people who are fighting for something good?”
“Because that’s their way.”
The AI voice spoke again. “You are wrong. You both must be destroyed. Do not attempt to escape. You are surrounded by cameras. Our forces will eliminate you if you resist.”
Suddenly, the camera view was taken from outside a building. In the background, a huge group of people were assembled in a large open space. Their numbers seemed endless. Most of them had weapons, and many had signs that said things like ‘Impeach Bush’ and ‘Kill Washington.’ There were women and children among them, carrying signs saying things like ‘Hope’ and ‘Unity,’ and even one that said ‘Don’t Blow Up the World.’
“How can they kill everyone?” I repeated.
“With enough bombs, bullets, and drones. They’ll destroy anything that stands against them.”
I shook my head. “No. It’s Valentine’s Day. We can’t die today.”
“But we can lose everything!”
The Final Breakfast Pizza
“We don’t know yet. Maybe we won’t. Let’s go get some breakfast.”
“Breakfast?” She looked horrified. “I’d rather jump off the roof than eat another bite of food here.”
“Are you kidding? I’m starving. The Red Guard pizza is one of the best in New York City. With beer. And a margherita and garlic spears, just like we used to order when I worked there.”
She shook her head, trying to control herself. “All right. Just promise me we won’t go anywhere near any windows.”
I smiled and held her hand. “Deal.”
The AI spoke once more, its voice booming across the room. “Bring the subject to the main lobby and prepare her for interrogation.”
I mashed order buttons on the Food Delivery Machine as fast as I could. It was delivered right away. A hot, delicious smelling Red Guard pizza and a pitcher of cheap beer. I found a pair of glasses and a vidcam, and turned them on.
“Come closer, Mrs. G.”
She walked over to stand next to me, but kept glancing toward the door, where one of the Bionic Death Commandos waited. The sight of him sent shivers down my spine. He wore body armor, along with combat boots and a gunbelt, which he quickly drew when Mrs. G entered the frame of the vidcam.
“Sit down, sweetie,” I said and opened the pizza box. It smelled like cinnamon and cheese, and tasted amazing. I cut off a slice and handed it to Mrs. G, who began eating almost immediately. She took a sip of the beer, stuffed a garlic spear in her cute mouth and smiled as she looked at me over the top of the glass. “So…what exactly are we going to tell the government agent about this?”
“Tell him whatever you want. What does it matter? As long as we get to keep our lives.”
“Yeah,” said Mrs. G, her mouth full. “But I think the best thing we can do is go back to being ourselves.”
“Do you really mean that, Mrs. G? Or are you saying that because you don’t want to face what’s coming?”
“It’s the truth,” she said between bites. “I’m saying that we should be true to ourselves. There’s no use hiding anymore. Even if we get killed, I’d rather die doing something good, than let them make us into something we’re not.”
“Me too, Mrs. G. Me too.” I sipped the beer. “So do you forgive me for what I did? Will you take me back?”
“Of course I forgive you, Jackman. And yes, I’ll always love you. Forever and ever.”
I kissed her, her lips tasted of bubbles and pepperoni and felt my heart begin to soar. Everything was so wonderful. So perfect. This was the last time I would ever kiss her lips, I thought. And soon, everything would end. But not quite yet.
“Let’s eat the whole damn pizza. And watch those videos together, all night long. Just like old times.”
“Okay, big guy.” She wiped her eyes. “Here comes a video. Videos are the best.”