Part Two of Three
Return to Part One by Diane LaJuene
"Do you need something?"
I blinked and washed the entire world away. I was back in the present, looking straight into my mother's eyes.
"Are you okay, Roger?"
I grabbed her left hand and looked at the only ring she wore. Diamond, marquis cut, white gold band. It was her wedding ring.
"Roger, what's wrong?"
There was one question that needed answering. I went into the living room and pulled the couch away from the wall. Half fearing that I would find nothing and look like a fool, I looked down at the section of exposed floor. I could plainly see the outline of a square.
Mom saw it, too. "What is it?"
To answer her question I knelt down and lifted out the section of floor. There was the box. It felt the same. The dust still caked on my sweaty hands. I flipped the latch and, with some doubt still in my mind, lifted the lid.
"How did you know about this?" Mom asked.
I lifted out the sheets. They smelled the same and made the same sounds. What I saw was right. With a trembling hand I turned over the first sheet.
Peering over my shoulder, she asked, "What is it?"
"It's art, Mom."
"But that," she said, pointing at the distant town, "what is it?"
"It doesn't matter. It just looks nice."
"Who's that girl?" she asked, clearly not understanding. "Is she someone important? Does she live in that town? Does that dog belong to her?"
"It doesn't matter, Mom. Just look at the colors!"
She shook her head. "You're being childish, Roger. 'Look at the colors!' What does that accomplish?"
It made me happy the first time. Now she sucked all of the joy out of it. Still holding the stack, I got up to leave.
"Give me those," she said, snatching it away. "You're going back to therapy. It's worse than I thought."
"Mom, what are you doing?" I cried, trying desperately to get the pictures back. "That's stuff from Dad's family! It's their life's work!"
She turned and looked at me with a not-so-kind expression on her face. "Roger, your father was a janitor. Do you know what that makes people think? It makes them think that he is a failure, some deluded fool with a low IQ and not even the slightest hope of contributing anything other than clean floors. Is that the kind of life you want to lead?"
"Mom, the Wilcos were loved and respected. It's just that everyone's all about science now. They study everything without actually seeing and appreciating it!"
"I appreciate plenty," she said, tearing the stack in half. "And I know a waste of time when I see it."
My initial thought was to rip her face off, but I somehow convinced myself that this wasn't the best option. Instead I went to my room, my door locked, to calm myself down.
There was something wrong with their minds, I concluded. Everyone saw beauty in other people, like they once did with my mother, but they didn't understand the purpose of a picture. I'm sure that experts could list a thousand explanations for that, but I hadn't the faintest clue. I still don't today.
"Hello, Roger," the woman said in a voice that was soft but not particularly gentle. "I'm Doctor Woods. Your mother told me that you needed some guidance. But first, tell me about yourself."
I found it hard to concentrate. The room had enough lamps, carpeting and furniture for a small house, none of which matched. I guess guys aren't supposed to know about how things match, and I have no idea what the rules are, but it just seemed wrong.
Dr. Woods herself was a somewhat heavy woman in her late forties who seemed to be desperately clinging to a youth that didn't exist. Her hair was a horribly fake blond, just far enough from white to bother me. She sat in a chair that was clearly more comfortable than the couch I was seated on and seemed to be quite proud of that fact. But she didn't smile.
"Well," I began, "I'm sixteen years old. I've always lived in Xenon City with my two parents. My dad was Roger Wilco. . ." I sighed. "I guess you've never heard of him."
"No. Was he an athlete?"
Something about the deliverance of that question struck a nerve. "No. He saved Xenon from the Sariens."
"Oh, that?" She thought a bit. "Oh yes. . ."
"No one remembers him, even though he also saved us from being overrun by genetically engineered life insurance salesmen."
That set her to scribbling on her pad. "Is that so? What else did he do?"
"He battled the Pirates of Pestulon to rescue two game programmers from Scumsoft, stopped Pukoids from taking over the galaxy, foiled a millionaire's plot to implant her mind into another person's body - "
I stopped. What point was there? She clearly didn't believe any of it. Now that I thought of it, it did sound silly.
"He passed away over a year ago now. No one even said they were sorry. The only people that came to Dad's funeral were his own relatives. No one remembers him. No one cares."
Get a grip, Roger. You're not going to cry in front of this human icicle.
After a bit more writing she asked, "What profession did your father hold, Roger?"
"He was. . ." The word caught in my throat. What was once just another string of syllables now seemed forbidden to utter. "He was a janitor."
The look on her face was the type you'd expect after smelling Labion Terror Beast droppings. "A janitor," she repeated. She was writing like crazy now, and I could have sworn I saw her underline something with three dramatic strokes.
The entire session was like that. I said two words, she wrote twenty. I was glad when our time was up.
Dr. Woods talked privately with my mother for about five minutes. She came out and looked at me, trying to hide a sort of disgust with a smile. Maybe she would have gotten away with that as an ambassador, but I knew her too well. Neither of us spoke for the rest of the day.
It was then that I decided never to mention my visions. If what little she knew already made my mother think so poorly of me, something like that could only make it far worse. I was alone now. Dr. Woods had already turned my own mother against me. What could be next?
I was never unfortunate enough to find out.
By the time session six came around I had had enough with Dr. Susan H. Woods. So I sat on that couch, looked the ice queen in the eyes and said, "I don't think I need to come here anymore."
"I've done some thinking and I've realized I've just been wasting my time. If I want to make a difference, I have to go out and get it."
She nodded. "What about your father?"
"He was a janitor. He was probably so embarrassed that he made up those stories so I'd look up to him. And since I was just a little kid, it worked."
Dr. Woods nodded again. "I'm glad you've seen the light."
You'll soon see it, I thought.
When my mother came out from their private talk at the end of the session she smiled and hugged me tearfully. "Thank you, Doctor. You've given me back my son."
That woman never smiled once.
I reflected on my success. I had fooled a professional. Was she incompetent? Mildly so, I had always suspected. But they don't just hand out psychiatry licenses. No, I had really pulled something off I put on a mask that was so realistic that it was mistaken for myself. I smiled. This newfound power had limitless potential.
From that day on I lived a lie. On the outside I was your typical Xenonian. Just below the surface I dreamed of their destruction with a hatred that was more intense than ever. And not a soul knew of that inner self.
Only Jack knew of the ploy. He loved my newfound strategy and even took it on himself. We were the masked destroyers of Xenon, the ones who stood by in silence as its final days slipped away. We knew of the coming disaster, we would watch it come without giving even the slightest warning. And so we ourselves would be responsible, and we would admit it with pride in our hearts.
My nineteenth birthday turned out to be a very bad day.
I woke up thinking that it was still night. But in fact the sun had risen long ago. It simply could not shine through the dark clouds that filled the sky. Strange. Such things didn't happen with the Super Computer. Everyone probably assumed that there was some small bug in the system, some little kink that would be worked out soon. But I had a feeling that it wasn't so innocent.
My "party" was just another meeting with Jack. Now that he pretended to be like everyone else my mother didn't mind the fact that we were friends. How she could miss that glow in his eyes I'll never know.
"Ready for the fireworks, Roger?"
I looked out the window again. "It's today, isn't it?"
"Yep. Scared?" He laughed. "Don't be ashamed of it, Roger. We're all a little scared. It's part of what we are."
True as that may have been, it was no consolation. I kept glancing out the window from time to time, in the general direction of the building where the Super Computer was kept.
"Jack. . ."
"Are we both going to survive this?"
He thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. Not the both of us." Jack saw the look on my face and quickly added, "But I could be wrong."
Why did I not believe him?
The minutes crawled by. I could never remember being so afraid before in my life. What would happen, exactly? Would an army of droids suddenly come charging into the city? Would some alien race take over the Super Computer? Would someone tamper with it as some sick means of revenge?
"Roger, stop it."
Jack had a look of genuine concern on his face as he said, "You're shaking."
I shrugged in an attempt to seem cool.
"Roger, man, I'm worried about you. I'm starting to think you might not be able to handle this."
"I can handle it. Trust me."
But I knew he was right. You have to hate people like Jack sometimes. They make it impossible to hide from the truth. Sometimes that's the only thing a person can think of as a way to survive.
The whole day was painfully long, the sky staying dark in an eternal night. I could go on about it for ages, but that wouldn't be particularly fair for you. So we'll skip several hours ahead to evening, when finally something happened.
For the first time that day the skies rumbled, as if suggesting the arrival of lightning. It grew from a soft murmur to a deafening tremor which undoubtedly had everyone in the city cowering in fear. Before it had reached that point Mom came in screaming for us to go to the basement immediately.
"I hope your mother doesn't worry too much, Jack."
He pretended not to hear that comment, which was easy to do with the deafening noise.
Our basement was like any other, really. There were boxes and boxes of things that had no use, and one or two that actually held something of value. One box, which was left open for whatever mysterious reason, contained family holodisks.
It was when the rumbling reached its peak and my eyes seemed to be rattling in their sockets that I got what was definitely the most tremendous fright of my entire life. For it was then that every holodisk in that box came to life and projected the image of a pudgy, wrinkled face with sunken black eyes. The countless heads glared at us with a gleeful malice and in a deep, chilling voice, uttered three simple words.
Wilco must pay.
Couldn't stop moving. I couldn't stop moving. Holding still meant death. My head was constantly swiveling on my neck, looking, searching. . . A person couldn't be too careful anymore, not since Vohaul took over the Super Computer. A person couldn't trust anything or anyone. Sleeping was a risk.
Crouching in the shadows like some sort of wild animal, I approached the grate. I lifted it up in an attempt to keep from making too much noise. Noise might draw things. Terrible, horrible things. I slipped inside, replacing the grate as I went. I was safe, at least for the moment.
This was the life that we all had to live under Vohaul. It was either that or death. And death wasn't the simple answer, since our memories could be used to hunt out other survivors. So yes, our only option was to live here, in the sewers, in the subway, or wherever else we were driven to. Xenon had burned, all right. Billions had died. Now I looked back on it and wondered if it was really worth it. The old life wasn't nearly as bad as this, living every moment in fear of being found.
I had long ago lost a sense of time. There was no need to count days anymore. There was no date to look forward to. So at this point it could have been a month or six months, or anything in between for that matter. The cream rose to the top, as the saying goes. Jack and I met others who were just like us, of all ages and both genders. The youngest was twelve, and we always regarded him with suspicion. Fear is still strong at that age, stronger than what we were comfortable with.
Our numbers were still slowly shrinking, despite all of our efforts. I walked down the dark underground tunnel in search of answers. As soon as I saw Jack I felt that I had found them.
"How are we going to get rid of Vohaul?" I asked him.
For the first time ever he had no answer for me. He didn't say anything at all, only gave me the most helpless look I had ever seen.
"You mean you don't know?" Panic hit me. Jack knew everything. He had all of the answers. "Come on, you must know something," I said, grabbing him by the shoulders. "Haven't you seen anything past this point? Anything at all? Have you even had any dreams?"
He shook his head. "It's time for you to stop depending on me, Roger. You can't rely on anyone during times like these." For a moment I thought he was close to tears, but that couldn't be true. In an instant he was back to himself. "You might have to go on without me at some point. Or I might have to go on without you. We'll have to get used to the idea in advance if we're going to pull through."
Before I could say anything he turned and walked away. That answer was the last thing I wanted to hear. I needed guidance. I needed direction. I couldn't just drift like this with so much doubt. Doubt could mean death now. I could feel anger swell up in me. Who did he think he was, keeping his talent all to himself? He probably knew what to do! He just wouldn't tell me. . .
"Roger, what is it?"
I turned. "Hi, Joanna. It's nothing. I. . .I guess living like this is starting to get to me."
She nodded. "It's getting to all of us." She looked up at me with those wide brown eyes with a sort of admiration that I wasn't used to. "Don't think negatively, Roger. We all need you."
"Yeah. You're the strong leader that we need to keep from losing our minds. Everyone's really scared, Roger, but with you around they figure there's still hope."
I nodded and wandered off down the tunnel. Her words puzzled me. I wasn't a strong leader. I wasn't strong at all. How could I keep hope alive for them when I myself was close to giving up?
No matter. I shook my head and pushed my hair back with one hand. It was longer now, long and ragged. At least I knew that they needed me. It was a reason to hang on. As Hell whirled about me in an endless dance of madness I could remember that I had a purpose. And maybe here, in Hell's epicenter, I could learn to smile or even laugh. But that all comes one step at a time.
As the sun slipped below the horizon we would congregate, all of us together, to see who had survived that day. It was a task that grew simpler with time as there were less people to count. I dreaded those meetings, knowing that it meant possible heartbreak as another face went missing.
I looked at our group as if for the first time. It had only now occured to me just how different we looked. Not long after the takeover we had found military equipment and clothing, which we had been using ever since. The state of our clothes would have shamed a true Xenonian soldier; they were worn and dirty beyond belief. Everyone had hair that was long, tangled and dirty. We were the filthiest group of people that I had ever laid eyes on.
No matter. Time to get down to business.
"Blake," I said.
I went through the names with little thought, with a rhythm that no one dared to break. This respect was strange to me. No one even listened to me before.
Silence destroyed my rhythm. I paused for a few seconds, then continued. I would reflect later.
I reached the end of the list with no interruption. So we lost David Lee. He was a bit dangerous, anyway. Easily angered, confrontational, not to mention a flat-out jerk. It was still a shame, though. We'd have to move again, before the droids came.
These processions were always silent with Joanna and I at the lead. As a child she suffered an accident that left her legally blind, only able to determine rough shapes. As a result her brain dedicated more of itself to hearing. In a place where danger could be lurking close by, good hearing was crucial.
Our relationship was a strange sort of mutualism when we traveled like this. Joanna held my arm so that I could keep her from anything she might trip over as a result of her poor vision. In return she warned me of oncoming danger. She always clung to me with a sort of desperation, as if letting go might mean being whisked away into the darkness.
We had been walking for quite a while when Joanna squeezed my arm three times. That was the warning signal. I stopped, my free hand reaching for the pulseray on my belt.
Everything seemed silent to me. She squeezed my arm five times, telling me that it wasn't a robot, then another long squeeze to say it was straight ahead, still somewhat distant from us. That was all I needed to know. I gently pushed her away and continued down the tunnel, my pulseray drawn. The group waited in silence.
I was no longer a weak, indecisive boy. I was a beast. I would kill first and ask questions later. That's the only way a person can survive under such circumstances. That's why the weak die and the strong survive.
Now I could hear movement, too. My hands no longer trembled when they held a pulseray. As soon as I saw whatever it was I would shoot it. I would kill it. And my group would be safe. We would survive.
I slipped behind a thick pipe and waited. It was coming this way. Its footsteps were slow, hesitant, as if it had never been in these parts before. No matter. I was going to kill it.
As soon as the steps were close enough for the thing to be in view I leaped out from my hiding place and aimed.
"Don't shoot!" the man cried. "For the love of humanity, please don't shoot!"
I lowered the gun slowly. He wasn't one of those zombie cyborgs, after all. He was just an old man in tattered civilian clothing, a bag slung over his shoulder. "Who are you?" I asked.
"My name is Alexander Lloyd. I was a professor, and head of the Super Computer project."
I raised the gun again. "You incompetent fool! How could you have done something so stupid? I should kill you for that!"
"Please, that wouldn't accomplish anything. I may be the only person on Xenon who knows how to get into the Super Computer complex."
I didn't like this man at all. But he offered a solution to our problem. I returned the pulseray to its holster and nodded for him to follow.
Professor Lloyd was a curiosity to everyone in the group. Never before had we found some other survivor, especially one who was involved in the creation of the Super Computer. They stared at him, poked him and asked strange questions.
"It's an honor to meet you, Sir." Jack smiled and shook his hand. "I'm a huge fan of your work."
I frowned, unnoticed. This man caused billions of deaths in an attempt to be the most famous, to be at the top. I got a strange satisfaction from seeing him now, starved and dirty. You never thought it would turn out like this, did you?
"Are there any others out there?" Joanna asked.
"I haven't encountered any," Professor Lloyd answered. "As far as I know I was the only one on the design team that didn't flee the planet." He sighed. "I just can't believe that I was the only one who refused to give up hope."
"What's in the bag?"
He placed the bag on the floor in front of him and opened it. Inside lay a pile of junk that could only be topped by my dad's collection of "souvenirs" from past adventures. The professor pulled out various things, explaining their uses. One item caught my attention long before he got to it.
"You have scissors," I said.
"Yes. Why do you mention?"
I compared his somewhat neat hair to the mess everyone else had. "We're in need of haircuts. It's a reasonable luxury, don't you think?"
He looked around at us and smiled. "Yes, I think so. No point in being a bunch of savages, eh?"
Professor Lloyd had brought civilization back to us. Still I couldn't help despising him. He was the embodiment of all that I hated about the old life, as we now called it. For my entire life he had been the enemy.
The rest of the night was dedicated to the professor. The entire group sat and listened to whatever happened to tumble out of his mouth as if they were the words of a deity. I took the opportunity to pull Jack aside for a moment.
"What was that about?"
He gave me a look as though I was a total stranger. "What?"
"All of this nice-nice stuff with that self-centered arrogant mass-murderer, that's what!"
After a moment of silence Jack suddenly burst into laughter. "Oh Roger, of all people! You forgot the routine already?"
"The one you came up with! You know, acting normal? Besides, if it hadn't been for him being so selfish, we would never be where we are now. Xenon is at the verge of rebirth!"
"Oh really? Well then, how do you propose we get rid of Vohaul so we can do this rebirth?"
All positiveness had dropped out of his face. "I really don't know. I was close, really close, a few weeks in. And then it stopped. Roger, you don't know how it feels. I was secure because I knew. Now I don't know, and. . ." He struggled to continue. "I'm scared, Roger. I'm downright terrified."
Looking back on it, I realize we all were.
This story is ©; 2001 Diane LaJuene.
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