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The Dream Tailor

Sally came in right as I was finishing up with a customer. She’s only thirteen, too young to hear what the customer and I were discussing as it was the same kind of crap that half my clientele comes bursting into my small dream shop for, so I paused, shot her a look, and motioned her towards the back.

She gave me an agitated scowl and started to open her mouth. Instead of giving her the chance to mouth off, I grabbed her by the shirt and tossed her towards my office, jerking the door shut behind her. Then I turned back to my customer.

He was the usual type of client: nervous, sweating, and perverted. I could see a glimmer of lust rising in his eye, and while I’m not usually picky about the kind of girls a man goes around looking for, I’d rather the conversation stay focused on business.

She is family, after all.

“I’m sorry about that. She’s my brother’s daughter, more of a problem than you can imagine. Anyways, please go on describing the dream you’d like.” I smiled as I said it and gestured at my coding screen to break the power of the interruption and encourage him to continue with his order.

Like most of the folks who walk through my door, he was there for a sex dream. You’d be amazed at how many people want to obsessively dream about their friend’s girlfriend or husband’s sister or things like that. And there aren’t many Beijing-educated dreamwriters running around, at least not many who are unlicensed but still (mostly) reliable. I manage to stay in business mainly by keeping my head down and avoiding the major jobs, no tech or research work for entrepreneurs and absolutely no work for the Big Eyes (that’s the Resistance, if you live under a rock and are unaware of current affairs). I do the dirty jobs, the ones nobody else will touch but that are necessary in order to keep a conquered people happy, and the Asians let me keep on keeping on. It’s the least the bastards owe me after what happened with Xiao. It didn’t take me long to get rid of the customer. He was a young farm worker from one of the nearby co-op’s who wanted something pretty tame about his overseer’s daughter. I made the usual bargain, two bottles of fresh water for a two-week supply of dream pills, or drills, as they’re called on the gravel, and then I hurried him out the front door.

I didn’t need the water, but it was the coin of the realm these days, and I definitely didn’t want anyone looking more deeply at me or my family as to why I didn’t need fresh water when everyone else would do just about anything to get some.

Speaking of family, I headed to the back to deal with my newest problem.

I hadn’t seen Sally for almost six months, ever since her father, my older brother Marcus, and I had a bit of a falling out over my ongoing “issues.” A penchant for booze, particularly tequila and sake, combined with a thing for cheap amphetamines and cheaper hash apparently makes me something of a family disgrace.

Which is rich, if you ask me. Marcus is a man who makes a living by taking water from a hidden spring on our family’s ranch in the Texas Hill Country and smuggling it across the border into Mexico. Nominally he’s a rancher scraping out an existence like everyone else in this post-apocalyptic hell, but beneath the sheets he’s just a criminal like me. So I sucked a few deep breaths and stalked back into my office to find out why Sally had shown up. She’s a tall, thin kid, thirteen years old with eyes too big and red, pokey hair that refuses to follow any direction. I found her sitting in my chair and bouncing in an agitated manner.

“What is it?” It didn’t take much to tell something was wrong. Even before Marcus and I started fighting so damn much, he wouldn’t let her come around by herself very much. Since her mother died when Sally was six, Marcus has barely let her out of his sight, and even when he does, drug users who also happen to be dreamwriters aren’t his idea of a safe environment for a kid.

To be fair, I suppose I can’t say I disagree.

“It’s Dad. The Espinosa’s have him.” She blinked her big eyes at me, and I could tell that she had probably only managed to stop crying right before running into my shop. Understandable, because if what she was telling me was true, Marcus was most likely toast, and really, really burnt toast at that.

The Espinosa’s are the major power in Northern Mexico. In fact, as lots of people on both sides of the border are concerned, they ARE Northern Mexico. Although the Mexican federal government still maintains nominal control over the major cities, the destabilization of the U.S. of A. following the Irradiation of the Americas by the Asians has allowed the drug cartels free rein along the border corridor, especially along the Rio Grande section. The Blast basically gave all of the worms that had been hiding under the rocks a blank check to come crawling out into the light of day.

As long as the cartels don’t make any attempt to take real political control of anything belonging now to the Asian Socialist Nations, (i.e. the Squints, if you’re not too politically correct and a little too bitter, like me), the powers that be don’t do anything to stem the tide of anarchy.

“What happened?” I went ahead and asked, but I was pretty sure I already knew the truth. At one time, I could pass for fairly intelligent - I was a university-educated dreamwriter with terminal degrees in biochemistry and biocoding, after all.

But Marcus has always been the true genius in the ways that matter. By the age of fifteen, he had already realized that the most precious commodity in a world quickly going to hell would be water, and by eighteen he had managed to store away almost three thousand barrels of spring water in a hidden cave on our family’s ranch.

By twenty-five, he was regularly making smuggling runs across the American-Mexican border. The water shortage in Mexico is horrific, and Marcus has managed to survive over the years by offering a regular, clean supply of water. In a world where half of the North American water supply has been ruined since the Blast, this is an invaluable service.

I always told him though that the cartels wouldn’t allow him free rein forever.

“They caught him in Nuevo Laredo, right after he made a drop with Hector. I didn’t go with him on this run; since I’m getting older, he’s afraid he’ll be attacked by a sex-slaver who takes an eye to me.” Like most South Texas women, she talked about such things nonchalantly, as if we were two hundred years removed from the power and law of the United States, which used to prevent such atrocities, instead of two decades.

“An Espinosa showed up at the ranch house last night with a vid phone. They showed me a pic of Dad on a phone, and told me that they would let him go if I turned over the location of the spring.” She paused with this, and I wondered suddenly what she was here for.

Had she told them our family’s secret, and did she now expect me to drive her to Nuevo Laredo in order to pick him up? Was she stupid enough to believe that they would really let him go? Or did she tell them, and then did they kill him in front of her? Was she in shock?

“Did you tell them?” I eyed her, but while she was still bouncing up and down and looking everywhere in the room but at me, she didn’t seem to have any of the classic signs of shock.

“No,” she replied. She took a deep breath then and raised her eyes to mine. “I told them there was no spring. I…I told them that Dad knows a cheap way to make water.”

“What the hell, Sally?” I shouted. “There is no cheap way to make water, at least nothing your Dad or I or maybe, maybe, anybody outside an Asian university knows. What were you thinking?”

Marcus and I may have problems, but he is my brother and I love him. And I knew immediately that what Sally had told the Espinosa’s had probably ruined any chance we might have had of ever seeing him again.

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” She was crying now. “I remembered what you told me one time, that you learned at University that dreams could be used to solve problems, and Dad used to talk about how smart you were before you started drinking, before Xiao died, and I just thought that maybe you could dream up a way to make water? We can’t lose the spring, it’s our entire life. Dad would kill me if I gave it away, that’s all I could think!”

“How long, Sally? How long did they give you?”

“Sunday. We have until Sunday to show up in Nuevo Laredo with the secret. Uncle Moses, if we don’t, they’ll kill him!” With that, her crying became a torrent and she crumpled back into the chair.

This was Thursday, which meant that we had three days until the Espinosa’s would kill my brother, and all because Sally panicked and told them a silly lie. I had indeed once told her that dreams could be tailored to help solve problems, to bring about scientific breakthroughs or engender creative leaps.

But nobody even knows where to begin with coming up with a cheap method of making water, much less me. Even if I did, I haven’t written a dreamsolver in almost ten years, and it’s the sort of thing that you need to stay in practice for. Manipulating proteins like computer code is a tricky beast under the best conditions; while writing sex or escape dreams is easy enough once you have a good base dreamcode in drill form, it takes layers and layers of complicated DNA instructions to create the type of proteins that bring about dreamsolving.

Marcus was a dead man, and I knew it.

But I’m a coward and have been since Xiao died. My crazy, stupid niece sat there in my chair crying, and I couldn’t tell her that what she asked was impossible. Instead I told her that I would do my best, told her to go in the back to my bedroom, and to try and and get some sleep. What a coward I am.

*

When I was something like ten or eleven years old, my mother took Marcus and me to see one of the Traveling Histories. This was about a decade or so after the Blast, after the Squints pulled off their daring invasion and conquered the U.S. by masquerading as UFO’s and blasting most of the major metropolitan centers into oblivion with radiation. Our new masters are lots of things, but they’re no fools, and our history, our true history, was one of the first casualties of Asian rule. Textbooks were burned, city and county libraries destroyed, and the Net locked away from sea to shining sea. There is no better way to keep a conquered people under your thumb than to take away their sense of continuity. The only path to true education and learning was what I eventually did, to apply to Beijing University, which is for Americans and censored more strictly than Stalin or Mao ever dreamed.

Martial attempts at resistance here have failed outright time and time again, but just a few years after the establishment of the American Protectorate, the Traveling Histories were born. Much of American society became nomadic when the major urban centers were irradiated; the fear that such a thing would or even could happen again was too much for most people, and they believed that staying on the move would improve their chances of survival. Buried in these nomadic groups, these New Gypsies, were the Traveling Histories, RV’s and old VW vans with thousands of books hidden away in the back beneath blankets and sleeping bodies.

Occasionally, somebody would get truly brave and piggyback a Net connection to an Asian satellite, and one of the Histories would be able to offer access for all too short a time to the uncensored Wiki’s and news sites of Europe and Australia.

On this particular day, we found the History parked beneath a cracked overpass running through downtown San Antonio. San Antonio is one of the few urban centers that avoided major irradiation, but it is still dying. The RV owner was a Mexican rancher on his way back to Monterrey, and he spoke basically no English. Marcus and I stood sweating alongside our mother and the half dozen or so others who had appeared with us, and we all gasped as one when he uncovered three netpad’s with a flourish. The others, adults all, moved faster than Marcus or I could, and they hungrily clutched the netpads and scoured the European sites for news of aid or diplomatic strikes against the Asians, futile dreams that still haven’t arrived in the years since.

Marcus and I stood in despair for several moments until the old smuggler, seeing our misery, reached over beneath a dirty wool blanket and pulled out a rat-chewed book. He brushed it off and handed it to us, a grin parting his parched lips.

The book was a copy of an old Texas history textbook, and the first page our greedy hands flipped to offered us a painting of the Alamo. At the time, we had no idea of the story of those brave and greedy white settlers, but I can still clearly remember, even through all the years in between, through all the bottles of tequila and meth that have rotted my brain and body from the inside out, the image of a few men standing against tyranny, no matter what the cost.

On that evening, however, the memory only brought me shame, as I would have to tell my niece that I couldn’t do anything to help her free her father, my brother, from the Espinosa’s. Instead I would play the role of the cowardly Sam Houston and let the Alamo fall. Like those Texan settlers, Marcus’s motives were not entirely altruistic, but he did believe that he helped people, and the cartels, especially the Espinosa’s, are without a doubt evil. He shouldn’t have had to be abandoned to their mercies, to the indignity of a midnight bullet and a grave in the desert, but there it was.

The difference between the Alamo and this situation was, of course, that I had no army at my beck and call, and I would be unable to bring about anything resembling revenge. He would die, and that would be it, and nobody would mourn the death of a water smuggler at the hands of a drug lord. Nobody besides an orphaned teenage girl with too much bravery and pokey red hair and a tired, broken drug addict who once had been something resembling a brother.

*

I didn’t sleep. I think I had some plan to sit in my office and drink the night away as I have so many others, but towards midnight I went back to check on Sally, and my heart broke. Holding in the emotions that I felt, the fear and pain and shame, was like trying to hold water in my open hands.

I went back up to my office and sat down at my desk. There were papers scattered everywhere, all the dusky brown of the recycled stuff that is all we ever see anymore. I stared unseeing at my coding screen, one of the only things left from my life with Xiao. If I weren’t the widower of an Asian citizen and, as I’ve mentioned, a DNA coder who squanders his gifts on dreamwriting, I would never be allowed to keep it. Looking at it, I felt a pressure begin to grow in my chest, to rise from the pit of my stomach and arch suddenly upwards. For most of my life, I’ve been afraid. Afraid of stepping wrong, of being noticed. Afraid, oddly enough, of failure, and it has been this paralyzing fear that, ironically, led to my burnout and shame and to Xiao’s suicide at the subsequent dishonor.

It’s no surprise that I haven’t gotten over her dying. People don’t get over things like that. Instead they flee entire continents to return home with their tail between their legs and bury their heartache any way they can.

But on Thursday, I felt a different kind of fear, one that I hadn’t felt in so many years. I thought of my brother alone, surrounded by men who would kill him as if he were a coyote on the side of the road. I thought of a world where men like him are left behind, where cowards like me have to explain to little girls the rational of our inaction.

I felt such fear that I couldn’t stop myself as I leaned forward and powered on the coding screen. With a life of their own, my hands flew across the screen, bringing programs to life that I haven’t thought of in years.

I worked all night long and through the next day too. All the way into Saturday morning in fact.Even now, I can still see the strings of protein chains, the complex interlocking of tertiary structures, the delicate yet firm interactions of base pairs that I teased together into relationships to suit my purpose. There is something of Heaven, of the moment of Creation, that is played out over and over when a coder sets his hand to the screen. The thought danced through my mind that I hadn’t dared attempt something so complicated in too long and that I ran the danger of writing something that could mutate into an epidemic-level contagion, but I brushed those thoughts aside. I was possessed with unreasoning confidence, and somehow that alone guided my hands and mind.

For those thirty-six hours, it was as if I had never fallen from grace, as if Xiao lived still and it was her, not my confused, frightened niece, who stood at my shoulder and spoke such encouraging words. At one point, Sally interrupted me, just for a moment.

“Will it work?” She asked it in a soft voice.

“The code? Yes.” I answered without thinking. “Yes, the code will. Definitely. Will they believe me? Will they fall for our gamble? That I don’t know.”

She dropped her eyes from mine then and sniffled a bit.

“But Sally, it’s the only thing we can do. All we have is this. So don’t think about what happens if we fail. Think instead about what happens if we succeed.”

I’ve always had a weakness for idealistic thinking while in the middle of coding. But for those moments, I believed what I was saying with my whole being.

*

But after I finished working early Saturday morning, the guilt and fear slammed into me again, double fists of doubt that took my breath and left a gnawing fear in their wake. You can’t hide from who you are for long.

So I gave in. I rounded up the usual suspects, a half-full bottle of tequila and a bag of dry hash, and crawled into my bed to bury all of it in the same old ways. It was still dark outside, and the stark silver of the moon sliced through the window to illuminate the bottle as I tipped it back. Somewhere in the hills, a coyote cried, and it sounded like the terror that I was trying to hide from.

I could hear Sally crying in the next room, a soft, muffled sound that I imagined wracking her thin frame.

These were the lullabies that rocked me into unconsciousness on waves of mind-altered misery. Some things are too much to overcome.

***

We left an hour before daylight. It was still the predawn moments, and the old Ford pickup truck I borrowed from a friend sputtered noisily through the hills as we made our way to Nuevo Laredo. I live in the Utopia Commune, a small community in the hills about ninety miles west of San Antonio. It’s close to where I grew up, to where Marcus and Sally still lived.

As we drove, I explained the plan to Sally. I knew from the beginning that dreamsolving wouldn’t work, I told her. There were just too many variables involved in finding a way to cheaply manufacture water, too many that I’d never be able to pin down and invoke in a stranger. What I had done instead was write a drill that would give the illusion of coming up with what the cartel wanted. As I doubted there were any expert chemists among them, I explained, by the time they figured out that they’d been had, we would all be far, far away.

That’s what I told her. It wasn’t true of course. I had my doubts that the Espinosas would let us out without concrete proof, especially if it was, as I feared, Carlos Espinosa, the family patriarch, who was in charge.

He was a nasty creature with a depressingly sharp mind; I did some work about ten years ago for him, a few careful dreams to help him rewrite memories of murder and rape, and the filth of him haunted me still. He was a monster with a conscience, one who reviled in committing horrible acts and then wiping the experiences clean, and doing work for him most likely damned my soul, if there is such a thing. At the time, money was money, and you do what you have to do to survive. I had done what I needed to then, and I was doing the same now.

If it were Carlos, then the feeble plan that I fed to Sally would never have even come close to working. That’s why I had come up with my real plan. Even that one depended sickeningly on a strong degree of luck, but I couldn’t see any other option.

It took us about four hours with all of the border checkpoints and examinations by Asian and Mexican officials. I don’t speak much Spanish at all, but Sally does, and she easily and quickly explained to every suspicious border officer who we met that we were off to Nuevo Laredo to pick up her deadbeat uncle who had gotten drunk and spent the night in jail. As this is a common border occurrence, they let us through with little more than the scowl permanently plastered to the faces of border officers.

Once we got to the edge of the city, I pulled over and let Sally drive. She knew where she was going and drove there fast, probably too fast but I didn’t feel like saying anything about it. In fact, neither of us said much of anything; we were both starting to get too nervous for talking. The noon sun was above us, and it’s been a hot year, but the sweat that started to pour came from more than the weather.

Sally pulled the truck up to a wrought iron gate that sat in a stone fence. Inside the yard was a large building, almost a mansion. A young man lounging against the wall beside the gate strolled over to us and barked a question. Sally answered him in an even tone, but when she mentioned Marcus’s name, the young man laughed and motioned to someone on the other side of the gate. We were let through and told where to park, and then three men with old U.S. style machine guns, don’t ask me what kind, came over to escort us in.

Cliché, certainly, but clichés get to be that way for a reason. It took all I had to not piss myself in front of everybody.

We were led through several dark hallways kept cool by fans twirling lazily overhead. From somewhere in the building, I could hear somebody watching a tv show, or a movie perhaps.

Without looking, Sally grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I squeezed back as hard as I could, then let it drop.

We walked into a large living room. A leather couch sat against one wall, and on it sat Carlos. There were several other people in the room as well, bodyguards perhaps, but I didn’t see Marcus anywhere. Not that I’d expected him to be there.

“I thought I recognized your name, little one.” Carlos spoke in a sharp, deep voice. He is a very muscled, big man, sharp like his voice, and he knows how to use that voice to put fear into people. “Moses, good to see you. It has been too long. I hope that God has kept you well?”

This is, in my opinion, the truly horrifying bit about Carlos. He believes, with all of his heart, in God, and he gets around the blinding hypocrisy of his life by having people like me blur away the memories of what he’s done. If he does not remember his sins, he has nothing to confess to the priests. And without anything to confess, he is blameless in the eyes of Heaven.That kind of irrationality scares me straight through.

That kind of irrationality will get you killed, every time. “Well enough.” I replied. “I could be better. You could, for example, let my brother go. I did good work for you last time, and I think that deserves a bit more respect.”

“Your brother is the one who lacks respect. Smuggling water into Mexico, not even asking for my permission.” He waggled a finger at me, like one would to a child who has disobeyed. “You two know better. I should kill him, and you, and this sweet little one. But, God willing, you have brought me the secret she spoke of, and we can avoid these things. At least, some of them.”

I looked at Sally. She was staring at me, and the hope in her eyes almost undid me. I broke eye contact and turned back to Carlos. This was it.

“I have the drill, have it right here.” I pulled a pillslide out of my pocket and showed it to him. “But it has a keyword, something you have to say to whoever is doing the dreaming in order to start the dream. You let us go, and I’ll call you in a day or two and give you the word.” He stood up then and smiled at me, as gently as I would smile at a nervous wild animal that I found trapped in my house. A gentle smile, and then a bullet.

“As if I would trust you.” Shaking his head, he walked closer. “No, no, there will be no bargain like that.” He stopped in front of me, barely a foot away, and locked eyes with me.

“I know there is no secret, Moses.” His breath smelled of onions and cheap beer, and I felt a sudden overpowering need for a drink. “No magic way to make water. I knew there wasn’t, right when your niece lied to me, but last night I asked Marcus very nicely, just to make sure. He seemed very sure that there was no secret. He wouldn’t tell us where he gets his water, but I think you’ll break a bit easier, si? Especially after I…re-educate this little one. A sin, of course, but you will deal with that for me before I kill you.”

He reached out to Sally with a meaty paw, and I knew that this was my moment. My heart pounding, I rushed forward and grabbed for his arm. I intended to bite down into the muscled part of his forearm as hard as I could, releasing the virus that I’d keyed to respond to Carlos’ DNA into his bloodstream. I’d had some of his DNA left over from the last bit of work I’d done for him, and it hadn’t been difficult to put something together that would be devastating.

It was all I’d been able to come up with before I’d drunk myself into oblivion, and while it wasn’t much in the way of a plan, I went for it with everything I had.

And failed.

Carlos slid his arm smoothly out of my way, laughing softly as I fell forward off balance. As I did, he slid to the side with infinitely more grace than someone of his size should have been able to manage and slammed his fist into my stomach. I gasped and doubled over, suddenly no more capable of moving than I was of walking away from a row of shots on Saturday night.

I was immediately grabbed from behind by a half dozen goons and thrown to the floor. Kicks started landing on me, in my stomach and on my back, and I just did my best to cover my head and protect myself as I could. After a moment though, I heard Carlos tell his bodyguards to stop kicking me and stand me up. They jerked me to my feet, and held me by both arms in front of Carlos.

He stood a few feet away from me, frowning and shaking his head. “Moses, Moses, Moses…why did you do that? That was stupid, so stupid. Amigo, what did you hope to accomplish?” The fire in his eyes began to rage. “Do you think I am a fool, a simple idiot that I would be so easily tricked?”

I spit to clear out my mouth before answering him.

“A man can hope.”

“What was your plan, Moses? What were you trying to do?"

I didn’t answer; it was hard enough to breathe at that moment beneath the blanket of failure.

From the moment that I started coding on Thursday night, I knew that the only option was to do something so crazy, so threatening that Carlos would have to listen to me. Dreamwriting is what I do now, but it’s not what I’ve always done, not what I went to Beijing for. I learned medical DNA coding and protein assembly from Dr. Liu Xiaobin himself, and before the pressure of success got to me, I was one of the best virus writers and rewriters in the world.

The discovery that DNA could be written like computer coding software changed medicine forever, and although we don’t know much about it and it takes years to learn how to do it, the possibility is still there.

I spent those days writing the biggest, baddest DNA virus I could think of, one that would, if not overwritten in time, initiate apoptosis pathways in whatever tissues it found itself. If my plan had worked, our bodies, Carlos’s and mine, would begin self-destructing within twenty-four hours, and if he didn’t do what I demanded, we would be dead within forty-eight. It would take at least a month for anybody to build an overwrite from scratch.

That was the plan, anyways. As it was now, though…I was the only one who’d be dead soon. At least, from a virus.

I went ahead and told him so. I was defeated, and knew it, and there wasn’t any point in hiding anything. I was going to give him the water and anything else he asked for, and we both knew it.

Carlos nodded as I spoke, and then he blurred towards me, his fist snapping out in a vicious backhand swipe that caught my jaw and sent me spinning back to the floor.

“It was a good plan, Moses, or it would have been if you weren’t such a miserable failure. I am going to leave you now to the careful attentions of my friends here while I go entertain your niece. See how much hope you have then, my friend, when you are lying in your piss and the taste of your own blood is on your lips and the only sound you hear is the music of her screams.”

I managed to lift my head off the floor enough to see him walk over and lock one hand on Sally’s upper arm like a vise grip. He leaned in close to her and gave her a greasy smile before opening his mouth to speak.

She didn’t give him the chance. Instead, she sucked in a deep breath and spit into his open mouth with everything she had.

Carlos sputtered and gagged, letting loose with a series of shuddering motions of his head that would have looked comical otherwise. Then he threw her away from him with a ridiculous amount of force, and she crashed into the wall behind her and crumpled to the floor.

She let out a little cry as she hit, but nothing like what I would have expected. Her control seemed to infuriate Carlos even more, and he started to move towards her with clenched fists.

Before he had taken two steps, though, the sound of something arose that froze all of us in the room, from Carlos in his fury to me in my shuddering terror:

Laughter.

Sally was laughing.

I stared at her, confused, and Carlos did the same thing. My mind raced, trying to figure out what was going on. Sally lifted her head to look at Carlos, and her scraggly hair bounced as she continued to laugh, a long, ringing sound that filled the room confidently.

And suddenly, it hit me.

“You found the virus,” I whispered. “While I was passed out – you found it, and you injected it in yourself, and now…”

My voice trailed off as I turned my head from Sally to look at Carlos with the hints of a smile starting to creep onto my face. He turned to look at me at the same time, and from the pale color of his skin to the murderous thunder in his eyes, I could tell that he’d arrived at the same conclusion.

She’d gotten the bastard.

Where I’d failed, she hadn’t. That beanpole of a teenage girl had pulled one on the biggest cartel lord in a thousand miles, and he knew it. I dragged myself to my feet, buoyed by the courage of my niece.

“I know you have a coding screen here, Carlos.” I spoke in a quiet voice, my jaw still aching from where he’d hit me, but there was a note of confidence in my voice that only beloved Xiao would have recognized. “If you let Marcus and Sally go, and if they call me tomorrow and convince me that they are safe, I will write you a code to kill the virus running through your veins. And then you’ll let me transmit it to Marcus as well, so that Sally will be fine. If you don’t, well, we’ll both die. Your choice.”

I could see the thoughts burst onto his face. Was I bluffing? Was it worth the gamble to find out if I was? I smiled at him and shifted my stance, straightening my back.

“Carlos, I’m not lying. And you know me well enough to know that I’ve got nothing to live for, especially if my brother and my niece are gone. You hurt them, and I don’t care what you do to me- you will never, ever manage to get me to save you. Your choice.”

Such a dilemma, and I could see every moment of it play out on his face – he could torture Sally and get me to write the code, but then he’d still have to inject himself with it. I wasn’t the most stable of men to begin with: what kept me from simply writing something even more deadly? Sure, Sally and Marcus and I would be killed by his guards in an instant if that happened, but things weren’t looking good for us as it was. If it was die miserably or die miserably and take him out with us…well, you get the idea.

And so did Carlos.

He stared at me for a minute longer before saying something in Spanish to the guards. I couldn’t understand the words, but I couldn’t mistake the defeat in his tone. It’s a sound I know very well, having heard it so many times in my own voice.

*

And that’s how I ended up here, locked away in a tiny room with no furniture and a barred window. Carlos left right after giving orders to the guards, and they brought Marcus in. When I explained to him what was happening, he started to shout, but I pulled him aside and told him what Carlos had threatened to do to Sally. He left then, dragging Sally along with him.

He knew he had to leave. He had no choice, not if he was going to have a chance of getting Sally out of this mess. We both knew Carlos couldn’t be trusted and would do everything he could to obliterate all of us, but we were working with what we had.

I think though, I really do think, that Marcus gave me a look of pride as he walked out. I’ll carry that with me into the next life.

I’m going to keep my word. If they call tomorrow and I believe they’re safe, truly safe, I will sit down and save Carlos and me. Saving myself will, I’m guessing, mostly be a waste of time, as I have absolutely zero doubt that he’ll kill me as soon as he has another coder here to verify my work. You don’t cross someone like him, endanger him in such a way, and not pay the price. But that’s for tomorrow – today, I’m alive and so are my brother and my niece, and you take what you can, when you can.

This is my Alamo, and that’s enough for someone like me.

Nashville, TN, USA

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