Katherine Wynter

author of distinctive literary fiction and fantasy

Blackout II: Rise of the Nano

Blackout IIThree years after the attacks that devastated the Reanimated community of Chicago, Mikal Edmonds and his granddaughter Rose have pieced their lives back together. He has a swank loft downtown and works as a spokesman for the Center. She’s engaged to a paleobotanist and attending medical school. Everything’s perfect.

Until Mikal has a blackout at Rose’s engagement dinner and announces he’s running for Senate.

Unsure if he can trust his boss or anyone at the Center, Mikal has to find out the truth behind his blackouts and how he can seem like himself to those around him but not remember what happened. What if someone’s found a way to use nanocell formula to control people’s actions? Can he trust anything he’s said or done or thought? As Election Day approaches, Mikal finds himself at the mercy of powerful forces playing a game he’s only beginning to comprehend. Unraveling the threads of the conspiracy might just cost him everything.

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Chapter One

Mikal loosened the striped black tie strangling his neck, and then unbuttoned the top button on his shirt for good measure. He rubbed the back of his neck for a three count. Why do they have the heat cranked up so high in here? I thought only the prisoners were supposed to suffer.

That choking sensation – feeling like the walls were closing in and he couldn’t breathe or escape – was odd for him given that he no longer needed to breathe. In fact, he didn’t need to do much of anything that normal humans did like eat or drink or even sleep, yet there he sat tugging on his necktie like a teenager on his way to prom. Or a man about to face the noose.

Were he able to sweat, his armpits would be stained an unseemly yellow, so there was that much to be thankful for at least. He had important business later. Clean business.

He took a sip of water from a uniform white plastic cup which rested on a uniform white table provided for his convenience and comfort by the State.

“Why do you come here?” whispered the man on the monitor. He wore a worn orange jumpsuit and sat with his back toward the camera, head bowed.

Still, Mikal knew better than to think the man was defeated even after three years in jail. Some people even iron bars couldn’t tame.

“Because…” Mikal started to answer, then hesitated.

Mikal sat in a small, cage-like room, insulated on both sides for sound, a webcam aimed at his face. Virtual suites equipped for the full sensory experience were available for a price and provided a more visceral interaction with inmates of the Chicago State Penitentiary; however, Mikal was pretty certain that if given half a chance the man would try to strangle him. It wouldn’t work – careful safeguards had been installed – but he didn’t relish the sensation of him trying.

On the opposite wall, Jeremy’s image – at least the back half of him since he refused to face the camera – was projected to fill the entire wall. He had been bald the last time Mikal visited, and now a quarter inch of graying fuzz made the man’s head look like a demented peach. Only the edges of Jeremy’s beard were visible around the silhouette of his body, yet it, too, seemed to have grown.

Hair and beards were easy things to think about, safe things to notice, but he owed the man an answer.

Mikal crossed his arms and leaned back in the sterile metal chair, but in his mind it was he who was stuck in a cell, a glowing red Cyclops watching and waiting to record the moment he lost his humanity.

Three years ago, the man in the orange jumpsuit had orchestrated terrorist attacks against Reanimated Citizens in an effort to expose them as the zombies he believed them to be, destroying production and interrupting shipment of the nanocells they needed to stay alive. Thousands had died. More had been injured. The masterstroke of Jeremy’s plan had been locking Mikal in a room with his granddaughter to film the moment they started killing each other for the juice in their veins. Only through sheer will had they both survived long enough to be rescued.

It didn’t make sense that Mikal would sit in that small coffin-like room and visit the man who had been the cause of so much suffering.

Yet he did. Every month. Just like he had petitioned the court against the death penalty.

“You’re my grandson,” Mikal finally admitted. “Elizabeth’s son. Do I need another reason?”

Jeremy shrugged. That he had even asked one question was remarkable. Maybe he was finally beginning to open up. In another three years, they might actually have a conversation.

Normally Mikal just sat in silence with his grandson. It had seemed like enough. He wanted to forgive Jeremy, wanted to move on with his life like Rose suggested, but he couldn’t.  Part of him would always be in that cell, tied to the bed, waiting to become the monster people assumed he was. The monster he knew himself to be.

“Your sister’s doing well,” Mikal commented to fill the now-unbearable silence. “Tonight’s her engagement party” – he tugged at his tie again – “hence the monkey suit. Not that you can see it, of course. Your back’s to the camera. He’s a nice guy; you’d like him.”

Jeremy snorted.

“No really. He’s your type – an environmental nut job. And human. Works as a theoretical botanist or some such thing reengineering extinct plant and animal species. Sounds too science fiction for my taste, but he’s really into it. His lab is part of the Center’s research division. Name’s Derik.”

Jeremy’s shoulders shook as though he were laughing at something Mikal had said. For some reason, Mikal couldn’t shut up; once the words began they wouldn’t stop, an avalanche of drivel to fill the silence. Usually he enjoyed silence, the spaces between action and inaction where true possibility lived, but not now. Not Jeremy’s possibilities.

“He showed me some of the plants he’s working on once, but they’re all the same to me. I never did have much of a green thumb. That was Emily. Your grandmother. She was always planting flowers and giving bulbs to the neighbors even though people only took them to be polite. We had a small apartment but the balcony was covered with as many planters as possible, some on top of the others; there was barely room for a chair. That only made her happier. You could spot our apartment from blocks away in the spring. Drove the neighbors crazy, especially Mr. Hendin who had bad aller…”

Two sharp knocks on the door broke his concentration, and he didn’t finish the thought.

Saved by the bell. Mikal stood and left. Waiting in the hall were two men in suits, and they stepped into line behind him as he walked out of the visitors’ wing of the Chicago State Penitentiary. Since all contact with the prisoners was made virtually, there was no need for security checks or pat downs, just a quick prick of the finger on the DNA scanner upon entrance and exit for registration.

“Why are you at the Penitentiary, Mr. Edmonds?” Someone shouted as soon as the door opened.

A second voice chased the first. “Are you visiting the Naturalist Leader? What do you talk about?”

“Why do you come every month? Is it revenge?”

Mikal struggled to keep his expression neutral as a dozen drone microphones swarmed him like an army of angry, judgmental bees. They hovered inches from his face, dead mechanical eyes scanning his face and recording each blink or frown or fart. At least the reporters and bloggers and gossip mongers still showed up in person to ask the questions. Mikal gave a brief nod and his muscle pushed their way in front of him, forcing the reporters to make a path to the Mercedes idling at the curb.

“Does Rose know you come here? What would she say?”

She’d probably slap me.

A flash of lightning lit the black Mercedes, elevating it from the gloom like a relic from a noir film, and raindrops splashed against his head. It was time to go.

“Is this visit sanctioned by the Center?”

“When are you going to get a girlfriend? Is there someone you’re hiding from us? Come on, you know you wanna show her off. Is it the model you had lunch with last week?” The young female reporter barely wore what classified as clothing.

Mikal swallowed a sigh. Halfway there. I’m halfway to the car. Just let me get inside.

“Earth is for humans!” The sharp rapport of gunfire shattered the rain, and Mikal was slammed to the ground by one of his guards as someone screamed. He hit the concrete hard, the guard’s knee stabbed into his back, and he looked back toward the source of the gunfire. That’s when he saw her. The female reporter collapsed mid-run, blood spraying out from her chest.

Mikal blinked.

Why had she been running toward me?

Two more shots sounded in rapid succession.

Then silence.

He pushed out from under his bodyguard, crawled over to the reporter, and felt her neck. He sighed. No pulse. Thank god. The wound was already starting to close. “She needs an injection,” he shouted, holding out his hand. “Who’s carrying?”

His words opened the floodgates.

“Who was that?”

“Is he dead?”

“She just ran in front of the bullet.”

“Is anyone else hurt?”

“Here.”

Mikal didn’t look to see who had provided the nanocell injection, he just pushed the long needle into her neck and depressed the plunger. The blue liquid writhed just beneath her skin as it sought the control chip, and moments later she started blinking. Her eyes were brown flecked with green.

Someone tugged at his arm. “She’ll be fine, sir. We need to get you out of here. There could be more of them.”

Mikal allowed himself to be pulled up and herded into the Mercedes by his bodyguards. The younger guard, a wiry man of Asian-American descent, sat next to him in the back while the other bulkier guard slid into the passenger’s seat as the car sped off. They didn’t need to be told where to go. They didn’t need words.

The staccato rhythm of rain pelting the roof of the car echoed like gunshots, and Mikal closed his eyes as he leaned back in the seat.

On the rare occasions when he could dream, he was back in that cell, trapped like an animal, fighting the voice in his head that cried out for him to kill Rose. To kill his granddaughter. In the dreams he could taste the bitter acidity of nanocell-infused blood, feel it warm and sticky on his fingers as he tore at her throat. The highest concentration of cells was in the brain and heart; these organs he ate first. It felt like warm Jell-O on his tongue, that consistency somewhere between a liquid and a solid which was oh so slippery and soft. Rose cried, clear tears winding through the blood splatter.

Her screams were the best part.

The dream would sneak up on him when he least expected it, on days when being Reanimated no longer seemed a terrible thing, reminding him what his body was capable of should his supply of nanocells run out. But he would never forget, with or without the dreams, and neither would the rest of America. They had seen firsthand what could happen thanks to the news vids and videos and endless pictures. It had only made the violence against Reanimated worse.

Mikal wondered sometimes if his employer was even trying to cure the blackouts, though he would never admit that thought out loud. Not about Bryan Southworth. Not if he wanted to live to see the next sunrise.

“Mr. Edmonds…”

Mikal looked up to see his guard, Alex Lee, holding the car door open. His expression was carefully neutral.

How long had Alex been standing like that?

“Thank you, Alex.” Mikal cleared his throat. “Just got lost in a thought for a moment.”

“Of course, Mr. Edmonds.”

The rain hadn’t lessened over the drive, and the other guard held an umbrella until Mikal passed under the awning of Blank Slate, one of the premiere Chicago night spots. Or so Mikal’s doorman claimed. Mikal had booked the club off that recommendation and paid all the expenses in advance.

Tonight had to be perfect for Rose.

Once he crossed the threshold inside, the club’s internal computers scanned his IP address, noting his order and personal preferences and subtly shifting the surroundings to reflect these settings. Normally when he entered a place like this, he would be bombarded with target advertising based on his social network and purchasing history, but not at Blank Slate. The quiet was included in the price.

Instead, he was immediately greeted by a hostess in a tasteful blue cocktail dress who led him to the private balcony he had reserved, the one with the perfect view of the dance floor.  Rose loved to dance. As he mounted the stairs, the environmental sensors adjusted around him so that he saw chandeliers and gold trim, red carpeting and warm lighting like an old English manor house. For all he knew, the hostess and he were alone in the building. How many people passed him on the stairs or sat at nearby tables he couldn’t see? What did the actual décor look like?

Could be the floorboards were rotting or mice were scuttling around in the corners or it was just a steel skeleton frame. Reality wasn’t important, just the illusion.

A long empty table surrounded by high-backed wooden chairs draped in white cloth and purple ribbons, her favorite, waited at the top of the landing. The table settings were immaculate with crystal dishware, goblets, and utensils with small lilacs interspersed. A small placard at each seat announced the evening’s menu.

“How does everything look?”

It looked like the sort of party rich people threw. She would like that, wouldn’t she? That it looked fancy? “Fine. It’s fine, thank you.”

Alex Lee positioned himself near the doorway and crossed his arms while Todd Thomas melted into a shadow in the back of the room. When they arrived, the other guests wouldn’t be able to see the guards due to the settings on the environmental filters, and thanks to those same settings the guards were also the only people able to see through all the layers of illusion. Mikal had been insistent on that point. His guards needed to see everything, despite the club’s assurances of his safety.

He was becoming distrustful in his afterlife but with good reason. The first time he and Rose had gone to a bar, someone had tried to blow them up.

Mikal turned toward his guard. “Alex, she’ll like this right? This is a nice party – the kind young girls want when they get engaged?”

“She’s hardly a young girl, Mr. Edmonds.”

“I know. It’s just that…”

Todd Thomas interrupted. “Someone’s coming.”

Mikal tensed, shifting his body position so that his back was toward a wall and he had a clear view of the entrance. He did a quick inventory of potential weapons – a few steak knives and a hefty-looking vase – then stopped himself.

Don’t be paranoid. No one’s going to attack you at Blank Slate; they wouldn’t be able to get through the door with a gun much less past your guards. Besides, it’s not like a gun would hurt you much anyway. I was never in much danger at the Penitentiary.

A pair of twenty-something girls and a guy topped the stairs. Mikal moved to great them.

“Welcome,” he said, holding out his hand and smiling so that his teeth showed – Rose had him practicing that. “Thank you all so much for coming. You must be Rose’s friends from med school…”

The guy squared his shoulders but returned the gesture. “Yeah. I’m Shaun and this is Christina and Samantha.”

“Mikal Edmonds,” he answered, shaking each hand in turn.

The two girls entrusted only the tips of their fingers to his handshake, like they were afraid to touch him. They backed away quickly and exchanged a look.

“Is everything okay?” Mikal asked, struggling to keep his voice light. Reanimation isn’t contagious…

“Ye…yes,” the girl, Christina, stammered. “You’re him, aren’t you? The First?”

“A zomb…I mean, a Reanimated Citizen?” Samantha added. Her curly blonde hair cut short around her jawline lent an air of innocence to her expression. She bit her lower lip. “I knew, we all knew, everybody knows, but it’s just different seeing…Oh no, I’ve offended you. I’m sorry. I’m going to shut up now.”

So much for not feeling like a freak in a circus sideshow for one night. 

Mikal nodded and gestured at the table behind him. “It’s fine. Please, make yourselves comfortable. Dinner will be served in a half hour. In the meantime, the bar is open.” Thankfully, some more guests had arrived, giving him an excuse to extricate himself before it got more awkward. “If you’ll excuse me…”

He gave the girls a tight-lipped grin and slid around the three students, swallowing a sigh.

“Meredith,” – Mikal kissed the regal woman on the cheek – “I’m glad you could make it. And you too, DaVonte.”

“You kidding me,” DaVonte commented, straightening his shirt. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world. You know, I knew Derik back when his first wife died of cancer, and I have to say that I never thought he’d let himself be happy again. Seeing him and Rose together though…well, it’s a relief. They’re perfect for each other.”

Mikal patted the man on the shoulder. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“Perfect or not,” Meredith added, adjusting her dress as she glanced over at DaVonte, “you can’t let her sign a marriage contract for longer than ten years. Fifteen at the most. It’s just not reasonable to expect forever anymore. People change.”

DaVonte rolled his eyes. “Really, Meredith? They just got engaged and you expect them to discuss the length of their commitment to one another? It’s ghoulish. Might as well give up before they even get started. Besides, Derik’s still human.”

“But he won’t be forever,” she retorted, lowering her voice. “Better to be safe. Speaking of Derik and Rose…”

Mikal looked up.

Rose smiled at him from near the stairwell and waived. She wore a white V-neck dress cinched at the waist with a simple black belt. Her curly red hair was ineffectually bound in a bun at the base of her neck so that bits splayed around the edges like a strange sort of halo.

A smile crept up on his usually dour expression and stuck there for a moment. “I should go say hello. Please, help yourself to anything you’d like.”

“This place is amazing,” Rose said, squeezing Derik’s arm with both her hands as Mikal approached. “Like a fairy tale.”

Mikal shook Derik’s free hand. “I guess that makes me your fairy grandfather.”

Rose broke away from her fiancé and gave Mikal a hug. Her skin felt warm against his, alive. That upgrade had made him confuse her for a human when they first met.

A waitress in a black dress appeared beside them and offered three glasses brimming with champagne, a strawberry floating at the top. Rose stepped back and took one, followed by Derik and Mikal.

“Thank you,” Mikal said as the waitress disappeared. Literally. One second she had stood there with drinks, the next she vanished back into the environmental filters. Mikal gestured with his glass.  “To your future happiness. May every day be better than the one before.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Rose clinked her glass against his.

Derik did the same and they all drank. Mikal was about to say something else when a small group of ten people walked in and began congratulating Rose and Derik. Keeping the smile glued to his face, Mikal greeted everyone when he was introduced. Most were young classmates, though another handful of colleagues of Derik and Mikal’s from the Center joined in the celebration. Derik didn’t have any living family to invite.

Mikal excused himself from the center of attention and drifted back.

Being the first Reanimated Citizen – the first person to die and come back to life with the help of nanocell technology – had come with a price. In addition to unexpectedly losing his wife and child, he also shed his anonymity overnight. He had managed to stay hidden for a few decades once the glamor wore off, but his ordeal with the terrorist group known as the Naturalists and their leader, Jeremy, forced Mikal back into the public sphere.

Showing people that the Reanimated were still human was a necessary job; Mikal understood that after the attacks. Thankfully, Mr. Southworth was willing to pay him handsomely to do just that.

As the early evening rolled into night, Mikal chatted and talked and danced. He ordered wine that wouldn’t intoxicate him and ate rich foods he couldn’t digest and talked to three dozen people he didn’t really know; it was worth it to see his granddaughter happy. Rose shone like a beacon fire, brightening up the entire party with her laugh.

Derik was a lucky man.

The first and second courses of the dinner he had ordered were eaten and cleared away. The band downstairs played a slow song, and Mikal stood. “Can I have a dance with the bride to be?”

Rose nodded and took the arm her offered her, tucking her manicured hand in the crook of his elbow as they descended the stairs down to the dancefloor. “I thought you’d never ask,” she said as they stepped off the final stair. “I was planning on stealing you away after the dessert.”

“I’m glad I can assist in keeping you safely out of jail. Visiting one grandchild is enough.” Her face darkened at the mention of her brother, so he gave her a quick twirl. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…” He swallowed. “Let’s try again. Are you having fun?”

Her dress lifted a few inches and danced with them. When she smiled, her green eyes flashed like gems. She forgave him. “Yes. You didn’t have to go to all this trouble, you know. I would have been happy with a family dinner.”

“You’re worth it. Besides, it’s not every day that my granddaughter gets engaged. I like spoiling you.”

Rose laughed. “Keep this up and I may have to get engaged again. Some woman from the Center was trying to talk me into changing husbands every decade, you know.”

“Ignore her. When you find the right person, ten years can feel like ten minutes.” They danced in silence for a few minutes, and Mikal glanced up to the balcony where the rest of the party, at least those who weren’t dancing, were gathered. Todd Thomas stepped out from the shadows and nodded once. There wasn’t any trouble.

Mikal twirled Rose again just to see her smile.

“So your friends seem…nice,” he suggested when her laugh died down. “They don’t know about you, do they?”

“Why do you say that?” She bit the corner of her lip the way she always did when she was trying to hide something.

“Well, for one that girl – Sam, was it? – nearly fainted when she saw me. It felt like she had never been close to one of us before, and she wouldn’t have if she knew her friend was one. Should I keep going?”

Rose sighed and let her head drop. “No.”

Mikal stopped and cupped her chin, lifting it until she met his gaze. “You have nothing to be ashamed about or apologize for. What you tell your friends is your decision, not mine or anyone else’s.” He let his hand drop. “I just don’t want to see you hurt is all, which you very well may be when they find out your secret. Eventually, they’ll age and you will not. Or someone’ll look up the news from three years ago and realize the girl I saved was you. That I only have one granddaughter.”

“I’m tough, you know. I can handle it.”

He kissed her forehead. “I know.”

An impish glint lit her eyes. “Since we’re speaking of my friends, I think Sam likes you.”

“What…”

Rose held her finger up to his lips. “Don’t start objecting; just hear me out. I know you, remember, better than anyone. She may be a little neurotic and overly energetic at times, but she’s a good person with a caring heart. Now that I’m getting married, you’re going to need someone to take care of you. Someone to fill that empty place you try so hard to hide from the world.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready yet…” he tried to protest but she cut him off again. Something brushed his arm, but when he looked no one was there. Probably filtered by the environmental sensors.

“You are. It’s been how long since grandma left…over eighty years?” She grinned, a flash of mischief sparkling in her devious green eyes. “Did you ever have a serious date since then? What about that model thing I read about?”

“Serious…you were my last date, remember, and it didn’t end so well. The lunch was a publicity stunt, nothing more.” Mikal made a sour face and twirled his granddaughter around to keep her from saying anything else. She was right, he knew.

But he would never admit it to her.

“Can I cut in?” Derik asked, a slight slur in his speech. Mikal hadn’t interacted much with Rose’s fiancé outside the occasional meal, but he seemed like good people. Clearly he was also enjoying the party from the way he wobbled on his feet. At least he hadn’t fallen down the stairs. And he had good timing.

Mikal pecked Rose on the cheek and stepped back. “Of course.”

The dance floor was crowded, so he decided to head back up to their balcony and make sure no one needed anything. It’d give him an excuse to mingle and talk to people.

Admit it, you’re intrigued about Sam.

Mikal frowned and shook his head.

As he crested the seemingly red velvet stairs, he glanced at Alex Lee by the door who nodded once. The guests had settled themselves into little cliques, some sitting around the main table, others leaning on the balcony, and still others nestled in couches arranged privately. Rose’s friends from med school where there, laughing about something, but they stopped when they noticed him looking.

Run. Run now. This is dangerous. Mikal looked at the girl, then down at Rose, then back at the girl. A conversation couldn’t hurt him. Right? It was unlikely that one of the guests had a bomb strapped to their chest. The censors would’ve detected it.

He took a deep breath and walked over.

“May I join you?” He perched on an arm of the couch instead of committing himself to the open seat; this way he could still run away if things went poorly. Which they probably would.

The guy – Mikal forgot his name – answered. “Yeah, man, of course.”

Mikal gestured and a waitress brought over his glass of wine. Although he’d been debating about getting the update that would allow him to feel the effects of alcohol, he was thankful he hadn’t yet done it. He tugged absently at his collar. Crowded public places still made his hands twitch.

“This is a great party,” Christina commented. The others quickly agreed.

Silence.

Rose’s friends stared at their drinks, then each other. Then the floor.

He should say something smart or funny, try to make the girl laugh. But nothing appropriate came to mind. “Why did you all decide to study medicine?” he finally asked.

“Why not?” the guy rebutted. “Is there something wrong with wanting to be a doctor?”

“I didn’t mean…um…I don’t think…” Mikal stammered, looking back toward the dancefloor.

Christina stood up with an apologetic smile and grabbed the guy’s hand. “Come on, Shaun. Didn’t you say you wanted to dance?”

After the two left, Mikal sunk down into the chair and dropped his face into his hands.  So much for making a good impression. I’m never doing that again. Why did I even bother trying? I should stick to the PR dates the Center sets up.

“Don’t worry about him.” Samantha squeezed him lightly on the arm. “He’s just upset about something else.”

Mikal started, sitting upright. He had forgotten the girl was still there. “I didn’t mean any offense…Samantha, right?”

“My friends call me Sam. We just had a rough morning at the Lakeshore Clinic is all, and he takes it so personally when someone dies.”

“Lakeshore Clinic…?”

Sam nodded, blonde curls bouncing on her shoulder. She looked cute and fragile, like one of those toy dolls they used to sell. “It’s a suicide clinic. As part of our training we have to do a rotation there, you know; it can get kinda grizzly. People know it’s against the law for a doctor to kill someone in order to zombify…I mean Reanimate them, so when they come to the clinic we have to try and save their lives.” She hesitated. “Only they don’t want us to. Sometimes we don’t get to them fast enough.”

Her eyes were downcast as she swirled her white wine. Mikal wanted to reach over and take her hand or pat her shoulder, but he didn’t dare. Did she blame him for the people at the clinics? Although it didn’t seem fair, he was used to being the one blamed for any evil associated with Reanimation as he was, after all, its figurehead.

“I’m sorry to bring up something so painful.” He gestured toward the table and started to rise. “I can go…”

“No, don’t,” she touched his arm to keep him from rising. “Let’s talk about something else.” She blushed and glanced up. “Tell me about the real Mikal Edmonds.”

He sat back in the chair. She wanted him to stay. That had to be a good thing, didn’t it? He took a sip of wine to give himself a minute. “What would you like to know?”

She shrugged. “Anything.” A slow second trickled by as she twisted and untwisted her fingers together, eyes fixed down on her hands, before she offered: “What do you do for fun?”

“Fun…I don’t know,” he admitted. “When I was still alive, my wife and I liked to go to baseball games. I even played in an amateur league with some friends from work. None of that virtual stuff though. I liked to feel grass beneath my feet, the crunch of ball meeting bat…I’m sorry, I’m rambling aren’t I?”

“No,” she answered, blinking her eyes as though she needed to compose herself. “It’s just…you have a wife?” The pitch of her voice rose on the final word.

“Had.”

Sam swirled the wine in her glass some more. “What happened – if you don’t mind my asking?”

She betrayed me. Broke my heart. Stole our daughter and kept me from seeing her. But he couldn’t say that. “She stuck with me all through the cancer and the chemo and the surgeries. She was pregnant through most of it.” His voice caught. It’s like ripping off a band-aid. Just get it over with. “Mr. Southworth offered me a chance at having a life where no one else could, so I took it to be with her. To have time with our daughter. The procedure was secret – so much so that I couldn’t even tell Emily. I kissed her goodbye in the hospital and the cancer took me. I died, there was a funeral, and a week later I woke up in the hospital in agonizing pain. Months of trial and error passed before I was stable enough to see her.”

A waitress came by and topped off his wine, giving him a chance to gather his courage.  Sam was watching him, blue eyes intense and focused, but she remained silent. Waiting. She crossed her left foot over the right, white ribbon lacing around and up her calves. Her red dress had two large white flowers that angled around her sides, drawing his eye around her in an infinite loop.

Mikal shifted in his seat and took a drink. “When Mr. Southworth brought Emily to see me and explained everything that had happened, she just couldn’t take it. In her mind, she had buried her husband. Buried the father of her child – there’s even a headstone. I was something else, an abomination. She left and took my daughter with her. She died – Rose’s mother – before I ever got to meet her.”

“That’s terrible,” Sam said. “I’m so sorry. You just wanted more time with your family, and instead they abandoned you.”

Mikal gave her a tight-lipped smile. “It was a long time ago.”

“And now you’re not…” she blushed.

He glanced back over his shoulder at Alex Lee, who nodded once. All clear. Too bad he couldn’t say the same thing for this conversation. “…married?  No, I’m not.” He took another sip. Have to steer the conversation onto safer topics…  “Surely you hear stories like mine all the time at the clinic.”

She shook her head. “Not really. Most of the people who come to the suicide clinics try to end their own lives in order to preserve themselves at what they perceive is the height of their physical beauty. Your reason was much more idealistic.” Her voice brimmed with passion as she leaned toward him. “They don’t realize what damage they’re doing to their bodies or what a gift they’re wasting. Despite the advances, there’s still so much we don’t understand; reanimation has a 20 percent failure rate. That’s high. People don’t think about that when they decide to swallow a gun or slit their wrists. The boy we had in today – he was only 16 – died during the procedure. There was nothing we could do to bring him back, and his reanimation turned out to not be viable.”

“I’m sorry.” He glanced down to the dance floor where a lively song had started playing. Rose was dancing while Derik awkwardly shuffled his feet. “It’s ironic, isn’t it, that people can be so afraid of death that they would kill themselves to avoid it.”

Sam chuckled darkly. “I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I guess you’re right. Seems silly.”

Mikal smiled, then couldn’t stop himself from laughing with her. She was even prettier when she smiled.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything?” a voice said.

Mikal turned around as the laughter died in his throat. “Not at all,” Mikal stood and gestured toward the girl. “This is Samantha, one of Rose’s friends from the university. May I introduce Bryan Southworth, CEO of the Center. The man who saved my life.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Sam said, eyes wide, as she fumbled with the corners of her dress. She looked like she might curtsey. Mr. Southworth actually got that reaction a lot. The man was perfect. And intimidating as hell.

“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you,” Mr. Southworth kissed the top of the girl’s hand like he was some kind of damn lord. “I don’t mean to be rude, but may I borrow the host for a moment? We have some business to discuss.”

“Of course.” Sam looked down for a moment before meeting Mikal’s gaze. Was that disappointment? “Maybe we can talk some more later?”

Mikal nodded. “I’d like that. Please, excuse me.”

Bryan Southworth shook hands and made polite conversation with the guests as the two slowly navigated their way to the stairs.

Rose and Derik met them at the balcony stairwell, and Mikal leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Continue the meal without me. I might be a minute.” He didn’t know what his boss wanted, but Mr. Southworth wasn’t the kind of man one took lightly.

When they reached the bottom of the staircase, a hostess escorted them to a private room in the back of the building adorned with only two chairs and a small table. Mr. Southworth gestured for Mikal to sit down before taking the other seat himself. If Mikal had a heartbeat, it would have been racing.

“How many times do we have to keep having this conversation, Mikal?” Mr. Southworth asked. Behind Southworth’s head, a display flashed to life showing the attack outside the penitentiary. He pulled two cigars from the hidden pocket in his suit and handed one to Mikal.  Seemingly from nowhere a lighter appeared and lit both cigars.

Mr. Southworth brought his own security with him; I’m in trouble.

Mikal brought the cigar to his mouth and inhaled, rolling the smoke in his mouth a moment before exhaling. “One more, I’m guessing.”

“Do you know why I don’t want you to see him?”

He sighed. “Because he’s a terrorist or because he tried to put you out of business?  Which is it today?” He wished the words back as soon as he had spoken them.

Mr. Southworth laughed. “You’re in quite the mood. I suspect the sultry blonde is to blame for this?” Mikal remained silent and Southworth continued. “No matter. We know each other too well to play games. I had a purpose in coming other than to reiterate my strong displeasure in your visits to our fine penitentiary, though the two issues are related.” The man paused and took a long pull on his cigar, releasing the smoke through his nostrils like a dragon. He leaned forward suddenly. “I want you to run for the Senate. It’s time we had one of our own in office, and your victory could pave the way for reforming the rights of the Reanimated.”

Mikal coughed out the smoke he’d just inhaled. “You’re not serious…” Mr. Southworth arched an expressive eyebrow. Leaning back in his chair, Mikal crossed his arms and then his legs. “I see that you are. In that case, no. Absolutely not.”

Bryan shrugged, as though he’d expected the resistance. “Look, Mikal. You’re a good guy; I understand that. And you like your privacy – what you’re able to get, at least. I want to be perfectly clear with you: I’m not asking you to accept bribes or act unconscionably once you’re in office, and you wouldn’t have to run for re-election. That would be entirely your decision.” He pulled at the cuff of his jacket. “The good-will the public felt after the Naturalists attacks is gone. Look at what happened today, and it wasn’t the first attack. All people see any more are the suicide clinics and the hate crimes and the threat of what might happen should our supply again be jeopardized.”

Rolling the cigar around his fingers, he paused a moment to appear as though he were considering Southworth’s argument. “How will my being in the Senate stop any of that?”

“You give our kind hope. People look up to you. Idolize you. You could make a real difference in the world.”

Mikal drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. Could he do it? Most of his life now, with the exception of Rose, was a sham. He lived a public life that didn’t belong to him, talked and walked a persona as fake as a polyester suit. Would this be any different? Would one more lie really make any difference?

“Think how proud Rose would be,” Bryan added between puffs as he gestured with his cigar. “Imagine the doors that could open for her because of what you do. Doors leading to fame or recognition. Perhaps then she won’t be so ashamed of what she is that she’ll tell her friends the truth.” Mr. Southworth paused, his eyes crinkling at the corner.

Mikal knew it had sounded too good. Only Southworth could make a threat sound like a gift.

“To make this work, however, you would have to cut your ties with Jeremy. No more visits under any circumstance. Maintaining ties with a terrorist would be the death of your campaign.” Mr. Southworth looked at something to the side then nodded once. “Here,” he said as a syringe filled with blue liquid dropped on his palm. He held it out to Mikal. “You look like you could use a refresher.”

He thought to reject the offer – his guards always carried a few backups – but refusing would be rude and ill-advised. Just the sight of the liquid was enough to make his nano-heart race, and giving himself an injection wasn’t something he wanted to do in front of people at the engagement party upstairs.

“Thanks.” Mikal flicked off the syringe covering and stuck the needle in his arm, depressing the plunger. The energetic nanocells raced for the control box at the base of neck, squirming up his arms like army ants crawling in his veins. Even after the number of years he had taken the liquid, the feeling never failed to creep him out. Like he’d let an army of tiny aliens infect and take over his body.

“I’ve got a plane to catch.” Mr. Southworth rose to his feet with a start, and invisible hands draped a coat around his shoulders. “Think about my offer and get back with me. I won’t wait forever, though. You’re not the only potential candidate. In the meantime, stay away from Jeremy for your own good. The man did try to kill you after all, and then there’s the matter of the shooting today. If that reporter hadn’t been Reanimated, we’d have an even bigger media storm on our hands than we already do. I trust this is the last time we’ll have this conversation.”

As his boss disappeared up the stairs, Mikal stood to return to the party. Whether or not he saw Jeremy was his own business. His own problem. Southworth had no right to dictate how Mikal lived his private life, even if he funded that living and manufactured his public interactions.

But maybe it’s a good idea. Maybe you should consider it.

Mikal climbed the stairs back up to the party, accepting a glass of wine from an overly inebriated Derik, and rejoined the party. If his smile was a little forced, no one seemed to notice.


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