Written by: H.Y.
The cement floor is the same shade of grey as Lindner’s eyes as the life was ripped from under him. Two shots through the back of his knees, and one fatal one drilled through his skull. I can never erase from mind the way his sunglasses shattered as his head cracked against the pavement, the way death leeched the blue from his eyes, leaving only the grey – the colour of ambiguity that reflects death’s nature.
I blink, realising suddenly that the spot of grey has been obscured by a square of black – a polished shoe. My spine stiffens, the tip arches up, lifting my head.
Considering the number of kidnappings that have gone down in the history of humankind, you’d think someone would’ve printed a manual on how to navigate conversations with your kidnappers. Particularly kidnappers who are fully capable of dealing violence and murder unto you the way they had completely demolished your bodyguards.
Maybe I shouldn’t meet my captor’s eyes. It might come off as a scream of defiance and a desire for a beating. But it’s too late to retract the eye-contact, and I don’t dare to, especially since I glimpse the fury on his face.
Of the three men I’ve had the – er – pleasure of being acquainted with, this is the one who brings me food and water. It’s not the reason why I feel more comfortable with him, it’s because he wears sunglasses – the same kind Lindner wears. The similarity to the bodyguard closest to me is comforting – until moments like these, where the difference is stark.
Lindner’s jaw is never as tight as this man’s, taut with leashed anger, teeth gritted.
I lick my dry lips, waiting.
“Watch,” he growls. Another difference: Lindner’s voice is soft as a choir boy’s, a sharp contrast to his tall, gruff build.
My eyes shift to what he pivots to: the wall that is in actuality a TV-screen, most likely the most modern piece of technology there is in this hideout of theirs. He fiddles with a remote control, and the wall is then awash in pixels.
I hear my father’s voice before I see him.
The light from the screen that encompasses an entire wall bathes us in pale blue light. I’m disoriented enough that I don’t immediately notice that my father – the Alexander Boyd – is immaculately dressed as always, that there’s not a wrinkle in his expression to indicate concern for his kidnapped son.
He’s an important man in society, a politician with a position closest to the ruler’s ear; the figures in his bank account almost amount to the population in four of the most populated states in the country. In retrospect, I can understand why these men would target me.
What I don’t understand is why my father always looks so unaffected, utterly unconcerned at home and in Parliament, as he proposes new legislation that has been in the works for sometime: the move to computerise seventy-five percent of all available occupations. I know there are factions that are ticked as hell by this, because it means a lot of people will lose their jobs.
There won’t be a need for financial advisors or bankers or even engineers when artificial intelligence can do much better and with more accuracy in less time. Doctors and nurses and physiotherapists are rendered obsolete. Waiters, drivers, street sweepers and cooks have long since been replaced. Physical stores are a rarity now, with most buying and selling being done virtually.
It occurs to me then that these kidnappers might be those who will be affected most by my father’s proposal. They fight well (I know this) and I suspect that they are part of the army or the police force – or rather, were part of them. They’re starting to move forward with the plan of replacing human forces with androids, what with the war with neighbouring countries close to the horizon.
Is this what the man wants me to watch? To understand their motives? Are they hoping by holding me as ransom over my father’s head, that Mr Alexander Boyd will call it off?
I’m unable to dredge up sympathy for these men. Just as my smart mouth opens to tell them so, the camera shifts, and –
My brain screeches to a halt, my eyes widen.
There, standing behind my father, steadfast in her beauty and in her support of my father alike, is my mother. It’s not her that I’m taken aback by, it’s the boy next to her. He’s the spitting image of Mr Boyd, this boy, with the same obsidian eyes and platinum blonde hair. He smiles directly at the corner, cool and close-lipped.
“That – that’s me,” I say. Is it old footage? That’s my first assumption, but it’s improbable. My father is introducing a new policy, and the words at the corner of the screen tell me that it is live.
“What’s the meaning of this?” the kidnapper snarls. I reaffirm my deduction that he used to be an army officer; he looks as fierce as a drill sergeant at the moment.
“I don’t know,” I reply truthfully, quickly. I look imploringly at the man, even though I can’t see him through the dark of his sunglasses, hoping my earnestness can be conveyed.
The man’s mouth thins even further. Closer to the screen, his “friend” turns toward us. “Maybe we got a dud, Snake,” he says.
They’re using codenames, calling themselves after animals that have gone extinct years ago.
“A dud?” I repeat warily even as dread sinks like a stone in my belly.
“An android,” clarifies the man looming over me. The one they call Snake. He lowers his sunglasses, exposes me to the electrifying blue of his scrutiny, and I shudder.
“But this one eats and drinks,” protests another kidnapper – Gou, I think his codename is. I hiss in pain when fingers fasten on my hair, tugging at the strands until I’m sure my scalp is going to tear. “His skin and hair feel real.”
The man stood by the screen makes a derisive noise in his throat. “You’re getting on in age, Gou. Third graders are already learning to make synthetic skin in school labs.”
“Well,” Snake drawls, “There’s always an easy way to find out. Sloth, if you’ll please.”
Sloth, the man loitering at the screen, does not turn around immediately. My blood freezes in my veins – and it does because I’m human, I am, and I’m not an android, I’m NOT –
For the second time in my life, I’m staring down the barrel of a gun. It’s an ancient model, one of those that fires bullets that leaves casings on the ground for you to pick up.
There will be blood, unlike the standardised laser guns that seal the wound as quickly as they open them.
I’ve heard people say that your life flashes before your eyes when you’re faced with the line between life and death. All your regrets and dreams bob to the surface of your mind, reminding you of the all the things you’ve never quite attained.
My life does not flash past, it rewinds. Lindner is in all of them. Lindner, the most loyal of the bodyguards, the friendliest, the only one who ever smiles and says a kind word, who asks me about my day as if he really cares. As for my parents – why, why, why can’t I think of a single memory? Birthdays, holidays, childhood memories – they’re like the results of my failed chemistry experiments. I know the solution is supposed to turn a navy blue, but it just doesn’t; the memories are supposed to be there, but they aren’t.
Sloth’s arm lowers; he’s aiming for a non-lethal shot. His finger moves. The barrel turns.
There’s a ringing in my ears when he presses the trigger.
The pain that ensues is not an unwelcome surprise.
I hear the stutter in Snake’s breathing; the surprise that makes his breath hitch.
They come then, the memories. As if pain is a battering ram that breaks apart the floodgates of my memories. They gush forth like an open wound, like the hole that Sloth’s opened up in my torso, my left lung.
I cannot think of a significant memory with my parents because they never were there. What I have of them are voicemails, the figures in my bank account that increase week by week, the occasional text on a screen, and those – those press conferences where Mr Boyd shows off his perfect family. The trophy wife, the decent son. Publicity.
My birthdays, my childhood – Lindner is at the epicentre of them all. The one who greets me in person, whose presence is physical and real, instead of virtual. The one whose gifts are not shifting numbers but are solid and touchable. The one who picks me up when I fall.
The pain that pulses through my entire body this time is visceral.
The terror of my situation has prevented me from fully processing the implication of Lindner sprawled unmoving on the sidewalk, but now that the worst has happened, grief rises like a tsunami in me, pouring out in waves of hysterical laughter, interspersed with choked sobs.
I hear distantly the conversation between the three men.
“So … this is the real deal? That means the one on-screen is the dud, then, isn’t it?”
“I suppose to Mr Boyd even his own son is replaceable.”
I squint. My vision’s fading fast, but the screen is still projecting what’s happening miles away clearly. My father has stepped back, joining his wife and son.
For one haunting second, I think the boy looks at me. He smiles. Before I can think too much on it, Sloth sidles up behind me. I hear the familiar sound of a barrel reloading. I expect more pain but there’s only a strong rattle round my wrists, and the chains break free.
I twist my neck round to stare. Gou and Snake are staring too. “What on earth are you doing?”
He doesn’t look so sinister anymore, just tired. Resigned. “It’s useless. A man like Mr Boyd who can replace his own kid with a dud isn’t going be moved by anything. I’m leaving.” He throws down the gun and really goes, takes his leave just like that.
The other two aren’t moving. They’re trying to salvage the situation. They’re only just realising what kind of man they’re up against. My father is as immovable as a mountain, and while they know I’m no use as ammunition against Alexander Boyd, there are still ways to profit from this victim.
My eyes drift to the black, old-fashioned gun Sloth’s left behind.
I’m too injured to move, they think. I shift my body, bit by painful bit, to the left, closer to the discarded weapon. Bending down is the killer. I bite my tongue to muffle the moan of pain and only when my fingers close in on the hilt do I let my breath go.
There’s a soft clack as I lift it off the ground. My arm trembles. They have yet to notice.
I’ve always been a quick study. I remember the way they picked off my bodyguards, one by one. Destabilise from below, then deal from the top.
I’m going back home.
I think it’s time I have a word with my father.
I take aim.