By David Wesley Hill
When I woke up that morning, I wasn’t there. Although I didn’t know it at the time, and didn’t find out until later, I wasn’t anywhere.
I’m always groggy at the start of the day. So I ignored the fact that the lights didn’t come on as I got out of bed. Nor was I too surprised when the shower didn’t start up when I entered the bathroom.
Sleepily I told myself that there had been a brown-out. They always played hell with the apartment peripherals.
I stumbled over to the household terminal and was about to go on-line to the building superintendent when I realized that I hadn’t woken to the alarm I’d programmed in, a cello concerto by Handel. Instead I was hearing a steady voice counting down second intervals.
Even as I became aware of this odd situation, the count reached zero. The voice said:
“You are now trespassing in violation of Civic Ordinance 13842.736. You must vacate the premises immediately. You have been warned.”
A siren came on. It was the standard police pacifier, which is used to break up riots. No one can experience that insane noise unprotected for long without suffering auditory loss and neural damage. I went out of the apartment and into the hall so quickly that I have no memory of leaving.
As the door shut behind me, I heard the automatic click of the lock. At the same moment the siren died out.
I caught my breath and then placed my thumb on the scanner beside the door knob. Nothing happened.
Now this, I thought, was really great.
Generally I sleep in the nude. So here I was locked out of my apartment without any clothing because of some elementary software malfunction. It was funny, once you considered it.
Not that I was in any mood to do so.
* * * * *
I still hadn’t understood the full scope of the situation. This became clearer as the morning progressed.
First the elevators didn’t respond to my call, so I had to use the emergency stairway to reach the lobby, some eighty-five stories below.
Then the lobby terminal, provided for the use of visitors, refused me access.
People passing by glanced curiously at me. It wasn’t that I was naked — nudity is, of course, always fashionable in the big city during the warmer months — it was that I was trying to smash the terminal.
Frustration had gotten the better of me. So did the security guards summoned by the lobby algorithms.
“Be reasonable, sir,” said the sergeant politely as his men marched me through the front entrance and threw me out onto the pavement. “The willful destruction of private property is a Class A misdemeanor. I should report this little incident to the police, except that I hate datawork. Just make sure you don’t come back soon, that’s all,” he finished cheerfully.
“But I live here!”
“In that case the door will readmit you.”
* * * * *
Neither would the public sanitation booth on the corner, nor the gate to the subway, nor any building I tried to enter.
In due course I ended up on a park bench. I was confused by what was happening and having no luck whatsoever sorting events out. Some localized software failure I could understand, but not the fact that my thumbprint evoked no response anywhere. It was as if I didn’t exist, and I found myself wondering whether I was really there and not dreaming up the entire situation.
It was just past noon. The park became crowded with office workers on their lunch breaks, food vendors, jugglers, mothers and children, couples strolling arm in arm.
I shifted along the bench as a man sat down beside me, only to discover that the space had already been taken by another person. Then I felt a sharp sting on my left buttock.
“You have been injected with a five-minute venom,” said the first of my two companions pleasantly. “Make no noise and do exactly as we say and we will provide the antidote within four minutes. Agreed?”
I nodded. “What do you want?”
“Just your right thumb.”
* * * * *
Thumbers are prepared to work fast. Within thirty seconds I’d received a shot of local anesthetic and my hand had been prepped for surgery.
The two of them chattered and smiled while readying me for the amputation, acting so much like friends out for the afternoon that no one noticed what they were doing to me.
They were crew-cut and freckled, no more than eighteen. Whistling idly, the first one took out a plastic bag of sterile solution and a scalpel from his lunch box. The other stood up and casually blocked any view of the operation from passers-by.
“This won’t do you any good,” I whispered desperately.
“Oh, but there you’re wrong,” said the one with the scalpel. “You’ll sleep quite a while after we’re finished, you know. We’re sure to find use for your thumb in the meantime. I do appreciate your concern, truly. But you needn’t worry about us.”
That, I knew, was how thumbers operated. Most exercised care not to harm their victims gratuitously. They would simply knock me out and use my thumb to the extent of my credit limit until I finally woke up and reported the theft.
“No, really,” I said. “I mean it. Look, do either of you have a phone? Test my print against it.”
“Well, we do have a minute’s leeway,” said the first.
“Not that I’d care to take the chance myself,” said the other. “This venom’s nasty stuff. Has to be, of course.”
“But it’s his decision, after all, you know.”
They regarded me quizzically. “Hurry up,” I managed to croak out.
So they rummaged through various pockets and after an interminable delay at last produced the phone. I jabbed my thumb to the minuscule scanner. Normally this would have identified me to the communications net and my name and ID code would have appeared on the tiny screen. But now it remained blank.
“Say, there is something to it,” observed the first thumber.
“What’s the story?” asked the second.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I wish I did. I can’t access anything, not since I woke up this morning.”
In any case my thumb was obviously of no use to them.
They injected me with the antidote, which also acted as a soporific. As they ambled off together among the press of other strollers, and as the sedative put me under, I heard one say:
“Now that was a sick puppy, what?”
“Must be a flu,” replied his friend. “Let’s hope it’s not catching.”
* * * * *
It was then I realized what had occurred.
I didn’t have an opportunity to think about it, however, for another twelve hours.
When I eventually came to, I found myself lying on a hospital bed with a drip in one arm and sensors attached to various parts of my body. A nurse arrived as I was struggling into a sitting position. He glanced at the displays on the headboard and said:
“Feeling better now, are we? Very good. Thumber venom’s ticklish, you know. They never tell you, but the antidote actually has an effectiveness rate of only ninety-four percent. So we like to monitor the recovery process very closely, just in case. Anyhow,” the nurse went on, “all’s well that ends well, that’s my opinion. You still have both thumbs, too. From what I’ve seen around here some nights, that’s the real miracle. Which reminds me. You have a visitor waiting outside. I’ll inform him that you’re up, if not about.”
Detective Millet was a thin man with pale white hair in dreadlocks and several ritual scars cut deep into his cheeks. He had on a conservative gray suit, T-shirt, and running shoes. He sat down beside the bed and took his phone from his jacket pocket while quoting me the revised Miranda:
“You have no right to remain silent. You have no right to an attorney. It is immaterial that what you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Surprise kept me quiet until he’d read it all. “What’s the charge?” I asked at last.
Detective Millet ignored the question. “Tell me exactly who you are,” he said.
“Carl Darwin. ID code 075506905.”
“2830 6th Street.”
“Doctoral student. I’m auditing courses on the City College net.”
The interrogation continued a half hour. I told him about the events of the day, about my encounter with the thumbers in the park, about the conclusions I’d made. Finally Detective Millet put down the phone and came to the heart of the matter. “Your statement, Mr. Darwin, is that you have been subjected to a virus infection, which has destroyed all files pertaining to you in the Cloud, including records of your thumbprint, retina pattern, and DNA matrix.”
“Exactly. I should have recognized the symptoms immediately, Detective Millet. I’m working toward a degree in software evolution, after all. My only excuse is that it all happened so fast. Even the thumbers guessed what was going on before I did.”
He nodded slowly. “I’ve heard of similar cases. Not many, and not often, however. Normally such attacks are aimed at institutions, not at individuals. I wonder who your enemy is, Mr. Darwin.”
“I’d like to know myself.”
Then the phone on his lap beeped twice. When Detective Millet returned his attention to me, his expression was once more as severe as it had been at the onset of our interview.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” he said. “Tell me precisely who you are.”
“Bullshit. Carl Darwin is at home in his apartment. You’re someone else.”
* * * * *
He proved it beyond doubt.
He linked his phone to the hospital monitor and displayed file after file: my academic transcripts, my medical and financial history, my military records, everything there was about me in any data bank imaginable, millions of gigs of information, hundreds of visual screens.
The problem was that they had all been altered.
Somehow my vital statistics had been tampered with. Down to the chromosomes they now identified a different person as Carl Darwin.
I studied the photograph on the monitor. Even this obscure graphic data had been infected. Another face had replaced mine.
As final evidence Detective Millet used his police override to call up a real-time picture of the interior of my apartment. A composite image, compiled from feedback generated by the household appliances, slowly coalesced.
He was sitting in my favorite chair. There was a Sazerac, my usual drink, on the table at his elbow. He was smoking my pipe and wearing my clothes.
Here, I realized, was my enemy.
Here was the man who had stolen my life from me and left me with nothing, not even a name.
In a sudden rush of anger I memorized his features, so that I would never forget them.
Detective Millet cleared the screen. He brushed back his dreadlocks and regarded me with a flat expression. I could guess what he was thinking. His next words made it obvious.
It was clear that he thought I was an agent for Los Estados Unidos de la Sud.
According to the popular news and to media romances, the actual infiltration of a spy into the country isn’t difficult. The typical foreign operative creates a cover identity by eliminating an honest citizen and taking his place. The deception is maintained by skinning the victim and using a graft of his flesh to get by any DNA scan. He is relieved as well of his prints and retinas.
“Why don’t you tell me how it happened,” Detective Millet went on. “Plain bad luck, what? The thumbers got to you before you could settle in place. An accident, of course. I’m sure that you and the Federal boys will have a good chuckle about it together when they arrive.”
“I am Carl Darwin.” What else could I say?
Detective Millet found this humorous. “You might have been,” he chuckled. “But it just didn’t work out, did it?”
* * * * *
I panicked. I hit him. More surprised then actually harmed by the blow, Detective Millet reeled backward. His chair tumbled over and his head struck the tiling with a thud.
The monitors attached to me went crazy. I tore them off and stood up.
I had to be quick. I stripped Detective Millet, cuffed him to the bed with the plastic ties he carried with him, and connected him to the medical sensors. I kept expecting the excited data to summon a nurse to the room as I changed into his clothes but I wasn’t interrupted.
The elevators were across from the nurses’ station. Past them was the emergency stairway. Luckily only a single nurse was on duty, a bald woman with too much mascara and too many tattoos. Unfortunately, she was staring at me. She didn’t look away when our gazes met so I had to go over to her.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
She avoided the question. “I know what you did in there,” she said.
“Is that so?”
“I don’t like it, either,” she went on. “Do your work down at the precinct, not here. This is a hospital.”
I had to remain in character. I took out Millet’s phone and acted as if I was keying it on. “What is your name, nurse?” I asked.
“Belinda Washington, 021482944.”
“Well, Ms. Washington, 021482944,” I said deliberately, “the fact is that your patient is a southern operative. Federal agents will be here soon to pick him up. In the meantime I want him given enough sedative to keep him quiet. You don’t have a problem with that, do you, Ms. Washington, 021482944?”
“No, no, I don’t, really.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I wouldn’t want to think that you actually sympathized with terrorists.”
The expression in her eyes would have been amusing, if I hadn’t been so desperately afraid myself. Nurse Washington grabbed a handful of ampoules and hurried away.
A moment later the elevator arrived, letting off an intern. I slipped inside and rode up to the fiftieth floor in the company of a couple nurses, stayed on, and descended to the lobby with some doctors. There I joined a group of departing visitors and went through the front entrance without having to key the scanner. I was halfway across town in a quarter hour.
My situation had improved slightly.
For one thing, at least, I was dressed.
I searched Detective Millet’s pockets, discovering his credit card (useless without his thumb), his phone (also useless for the same reason), a wallet with pictures of his children and boyfriend, his badge, some pens, and a leather pouch of Blue Mountain hash. Clipped inside his jacket by a quick-draw holster was a nasty little pistol with a silencer longer than the barrel.
I discarded everything else.
* * * * *
I found them the next morning in a different park. They had separated a jogger from the herd thundering around the reservoir and were escorting her into a copse of bushes. I ducked beneath the greenery and followed them with the pistol in my hand.
“Good day, gentlemen,” I said. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.” I let off a silenced shot into the grass at their feet. They turned toward me in wonder.
“You,” I said to the thumber with the most freckles, “give her the antivenin. Now.”
I underscored my request with another shot. The thumber almost dropped the hypodermic in his haste to comply. The jogger folded slowly to the ground.
“Now,” I said, “give your friend some, too.”
“But he doesn’t need it. I mean, you know, it isn’t as if he’s been bitten or anything.”
“I know exactly what you mean. Give it too him anyway.”
They looked at one another in puzzlement. With an apologetic shrug the freckled one injected his partner, who collapsed beside the unconscious jogger. I said:
“What’s your name, thumber?”
“Well, Malachi, toss your kit to me and empty your pockets.”
I retrieved his kit of vials, needles, and scalpels, and then patted him down. Next I returned the pistol to my jacket pocket, holding it aimed at him through the cloth. “Where do you live, Malachi?” I asked.
“On seventy-sixth street.”
“No, with Harrison,” he answered, indicating his friend.
“I do hope you’re telling the truth,” I said. “Let me explain why. You and I are going over to your place. We’ll leave Harrison right here under the bushes. I should be finished with my business in four hours. That will allow you plenty of time to return for Harrison before he’s discovered. I don’t imagine he’d enjoy explaining to the police what he’s doing with a thumber kit, do you, Malachi?”
“Good.” I waved toward the edge of the copse. “Let’s get going.”
Malachi hesitated a moment. “What do you want?” he asked.
For some reason I found the question amusing, and I stifled my laughter only with effort. “Not much,” I finally got out. “Just your right thumb.”
* * * * *
Thumbing paid well. The condo to which Malachi led me was wainscoted in mahogany, carpeted with thick Oriental fabrics, gleaming with Irish crystal. These thumbers had eclectic sensual tastes, too, for the bedroom decor was a mélange of silk, iron, and leather. I used his own fur-lined handcuffs on Malachi after borrowing his print to access the apartment terminal. Then I blindfolded him with one of the eyeless masks from the collection in the master closet.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t too sure myself.
I sat down at the terminal and rested my hands on the keyboard.
For a while I simply stared at the screen and attempted to sort out my thoughts.
Yet the longer I mused, the more it became apparent I couldn’t become Carl Darwin again. I couldn’t see any way to reclaim my personal history. Detective Millet and his associates would be monitoring my files. My enemy, too, must be on the alert for any invasive action.
There was only one thing to do. I, too, must become someone else.
My enemy had accomplished this by infecting the Cloud with a datatropic virus, which had homed in on my identity and inserted its own matrix, replacing me with him.
I, on the other hand, would have to start from scratch. I would have to create my own virus and set it adrift in the Cloud, to infiltrate and replicate in secret, subtly penetrating a myriad files, programs, and data banks, evolving the gestalt of information that defines existence in the modern world, until I was reborn. I knew that it could be done. Theoretically. Whether I could pull it off was another question.
I tapped the keyboard, sensing the data behind it like tangible things. The screen burst into color, a vivid array of icons and strings. Some furious emotion gripped me but I couldn’t name it. Only when I had set the primary bit into place, beginning the complex molecule of information that would eventually become me, did I finally understand just what I was feeling.
Bereft of my identity, stripped of my history, for the first time in my life I felt free.
* * * * *
Three hours later I left the apartment strolled downtown to East 49th Street, where I had no difficulty entering the vast glass structure there. The elevator lifted me to the penultimate floor, an atrium with minimal office furnishings.
The receptionist, an elegant blond woman with an arresting design of triangular scars along one cheek, surveyed me with languid disinterest until I placed my thumb on the identity scanner. Then she got to her feet in a fluster of expensive fabric. “Oh, Mr. Neumann,” she said breathlessly. “The Board is expecting you. We all are.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Ms.–?”
“Dahlstrom. Uhuru Dahlstrom.”
“Well, Ms. Dahlstrom, perhaps you would be so kind as to lead me to them.”
She escorted me along aisles of palm and fern to an escalator that carried us to the pinnacle of the building, a somewhat smaller area also landscaped with tropical flora. A score of men and women milled together in a central clearing.
“Gentlemen, ladies,” said Uhuru Dahlstrom, “may I present our new CEO, Abel Neumann.”
I strode forward through a scatter of applause and accepted a flute of champagne from a waitress while shaking hands and being introduced. One plump executive vice president had done some timely datawork. He cornered me against a coconut palm, saying effusively, “I must admit, Mr. Neumann, I was impressed by your monograph on chaotic economic theory. I’m sure that it will impact marketing tactics until the turn of the century.”
“Why, thank you,” I murmured.
Another vice president, unwilling to be outdone, put in: “Not to mention your record with OMI, Ltd. I’ve heard, too, you were instrumental in their leverage of NanoZaibatsu. One day you’ll let us know the real story, won’t you?”
I smiled vaguely. “When it can be told.”
A third VP, the one with a coif of dark henna hair, edged forward and delicately placed her hand on my wrist. “Feel free to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you get settled in, Mr. Neumann.”
“Please,” I replied. “Call me Abel.”
* * * * *
It took a year. The first six months I concentrated on securing my position as Chairman and CEO. Then I focused on placing a cadre of hand-picked men in my corporate Department of Loss Prevention. By October we had him under twenty-four-hour surveillance. On November first we were ready to move.
He was still imitating my routine. Classes in the morning, lunch at the corner diner, research in the afternoon, a couple additional seminars in the evening.
We went in just past seven o’clock. My operatives cut all information access to the apartment, severing it from the Cloud. Then they forced the door open and tied him to a chair.
My limo let me off at the building five minutes later. I rode upstairs and my men left us alone together. I sat down opposite him and said one word:
He knew who I was, of course. He didn’t answer immediately, though, evidently thinking the answer over. I waited patiently.
Eventually he said: “Well, the truth is that I was tired. For six years I’d been running contraband from down south. Small arms, mostly. Some IED’s. The money was good but it wasn’t the easiest life and I wanted out. I figured the best thing to do would be find a quiet identity somewhere and settle down under the radar.”
“So you stole mine.”
“Do you know how much it costs to build a deep cover persona from scratch? We’re talking seven figures to hire the right guys with the necessary skill sets. But I knew this hacker, who’d written this virus and was willing to let me have a copy cheap. All I had to do was supply him with the right name. That’s why I chose you. You had no family, no friends, no distractions, nothing to interfere with the transition. You didn’t even attend classes in person but just audited them in the Cloud. You were perfect, Carl.”
“Don’t call me Carl. You took that name from me.”
“All right,” he agreed mildly. Then he asked: “Would you mind if I smoked? I seem to have grown accustomed to the habit.”
Instead of irritating me, however, the request amused me. Since his hands were still secured, I filled my old pipe for him with what had been my usual tobacco although I wouldn’t touch the cheap stuff now, and held the stem to his lips while he pulled.
“What are you going to do?” he finally asked.
I studied him again. Before me was a man not too unlike myself as I had once been. He was twenty pounds heavier than I was now and wearing my ratty old pajamas and sitting in a cramped apartment surrounded by cheap furniture and outdated hardware. Following my routine, he would spend Friday night eating pizza alone and watching videos. I laughed.
“At first I meant to hurt you,” I said. “Horribly. But now, Mr. Darwin, I believe I am going to let you live. You took my name and my life from me, true enough. But the thing is, now you’re stuck with both. From this point forward you will be Carl Darwin until the day you die. There will be no escaping who you are. We’ll know. Someone will always be watching.”
Then my phone rang. Margaret wanted to rendezvous for cocktails at the Palace and then shuttle down to Aruba or, perhaps, Havana for a long evening. Unfortunately, I was already meeting Chloe in Innsbruck, although I didn’t tell Meg that. I checked my chronograph, the Florentine gold showing nicely against the dark navy Egyptian fabric of the handmade jacket, one of a dozen that I had ordered recently from Savile Row. If my pilot pushed it, the Lear would get me to Austria in two hours.
I took a last look at the dingy studio and at the pudgy man who had become me but my mind was already on the evening ahead and on the international summit I was to attend the following afternoon.
“Thank you, Carl,” I said. “Thank you for everything.”
About the Author: David Wesley Hill is an award-winning fiction writer with forty stories published in the U.S. and internationally. His thrilling space opera, Castaway on Temurlone, is available on Amazon
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