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Different Times (Installment 3)


John stands, but his legs begin to buckle. He crumples to his knees with a loud clank. “What are you talking about?” he asks Louis. “I’m not Party.”

There’s disdain in John’s tone but it’s not real, it’s manufactured. Humorless. A deeply offended silence, too eager to convince.

Louis stands over John, waits for Kojak's return. The sergeant is dealing with the passed-out waiter behind the bar. Seconds later, Kojak returns, military reserve on display.


“I gave him a little extra, to rest.”

Louis is mute.

“Relax, he isn’t dead,” Kojak says. “Probably should be, he’s more than fifty-one percent aug, but his brain is an original. So, I cut him some slack…” He looks at his boots. They're slimy.

Louis relaxes, then tenses again. When Kojak uses words like cut, he’s being sarcastic. There’s a bulge in Kojak’s pack. Louis stares at the damp outline of it and then follows Kojak’s gaze. His boots look odd.

“What?” Kojak pats his pack. “It’s a McLiver."

He means Machine-Liver, Louis well knows. High tech modified organ replacements. Kojak has a wicked sense of humor. “Sergeant,” Louis hisses.

“He won’t miss it. He’ll be fine.”

Louis knows his team sells on the black market. It’s a trade-off he’s willing to accept. Still, it’s a gruesome business. Parts sold to the highest bidder don’t always work as expected and sometimes the customers want refunds. Louis lets it go for now. Later, he will have a little chat with Kojak. Not that it will work, but it’s a necessary dress-down for appearance's sake.

John is shaking. His upper torso contorts. “What is happening to me?”

Louis and Kojak turn. The virus has fully mutated. It has reprogrammed itself in a matter of minutes. The biological contagion is now a digital hybrid, designed to deactivate and consume its machine host, from the outside in. It's the newest tech from the Underground.

“Is it still broadcasting?” Louis asks Star. He glowers at the AI now.

“No.” Star is hurriedly unpacking her equipment. Her mind is on other tasks at the moment. She opens a small case and inside are several small drones. Louis sees tiny colorful wings slowly flapping. He turns to John again.

John’s neck snaps with an audible pop. His eyes--they are still human--follow Louis as he circles to one side. “Please,” John begs, “what have you done to me?”

Myra is frozen with fear. She is sitting ramrod straight at their table, eyes caged, lips trembling.

Behind Louis, Star is busy buying them time. She’s establishing a perimeter, a projection screen to hide them from the eyes of the Party. She sends out two of her drones, her butterflies. They fly up and over them and flutter naturally in the stiff breeze. The view is good. Anyone looking at the café now would see tables and them as they were ten minutes ago. All sitting, having dinner, peaceful.

“We’re hot,” Star says. “Cloaking is active. We have nine minutes, max.” She's logged into the Integration. She sees the sharp outlines of every detail. A false drawing of their current location as not to provoke the machine beasts.

Louis gives the go-ahead.

Kojak springs to action. He grabs John by the head and inserts the probe into one of his eyes, just like he did with the bodyguard in the restroom—except in there he used a pencil. A pencil which awakened carnal memories of another time.

There’s little blood but the sick crunching sound wakes Myra from her shock. She’s gawking now. Tears form.

John doesn’t make a sound. He reaches for the silvery probe, but his arms flop limp at his sides. Buzzing sounds come, as if processors are shorting out. Thye are unnatural and monstrous.

“Whaaa…” Myra lets out a whimper. She’s nearly mute. More sobs escape. Her face appears cyanotic.

“John?” Louis asks.

John’s one good eye flutters open in response. It focuses.

“You’re not the original John Kremel, are you?” Louis steps farther away.

John asks, “How did you do this?”

Louis doesn’t answer. Sometimes these things explode and he doesn’t want another punctured lung. At the same time, he doesn’t want to give this imposter AI any ideas.

“Careful, Colonel,” Kojak says. “We’re not sure.”

Louis waves him back, asks the thing, “John Kremel is dead, isn’t he?” The thing stares.

Myra remains frozen, not believing this.

"Can it understand me?" Louis asks.

Star’s eyes flicker as she accesses the Integration. “Yes, it hears us--understands.”

John’s head continues to turn as Louis circles him. Myra is shocked, trembling. It’s as if John’s head is on a swivel, but the skin of his neck is becoming more twisted as it turns. It’s like a flesh screw, red, tendons taut as ropes.

“I do have a few implants if that is what you mean—” There’s another snap. This time, the John-thing’s head flops forward against his chest. Human flesh drapes over one cheek.

Myra lets out another whimper.

Louis checks his watch again. “We don’t have time for this, juice him,” Louis says. He turns to Kojak. “Do it.”

Kojak keys the code on his cell pad. Instantly, John’s back arches and blue sparks dance around his ears. His tongue begins to sizzle. His barely attached head, bobs like a wet sock. A series of pops and stifled shrieks as the air echoes with a tumult of electric noise.

Star makes a face. "I think you enjoy this," she says to Kojak.

“Stop!” Myra screams. “Stop it! You’re killing him!”

Kojak relents. Looks at Louis for guidance. “Colonel?”

“I am Mr. Kremel,” John says, but his voice is hollow now. His synthesizer is malfunctioning. Melted metal drips from his mouth.

“Again,” Louis orders. More sparks, and now smoke from his—its--hair.

“You’re killing him!” Myra screams again.

Kojak stops now. Glares at Myra. “Killing it,” he corrects. He changes his mind, “Technically, we’re disabling a machine, Ma'am."

Myra stands. The machinery of her husband that is not her husband, is plain to see. His neck is open, a peeled banana. Orange fluids leak from a tangled mass of spaghetti-like tubes. Wires protrude and hiss, discharging into one another.

Myra glares. “What are you?” she asks the thing. She steps away, horror written on her face. “What have you done with my John?”

“I, I am John Kremel,” he says. “I am…” He reaches for her, begins to walk on his knees. They clack like heavy steel on the pavement. “Myra…” The voice is not human any longer. “Myra…” It stumbles now. Finally stops. It knows that charade is over.

“Ma’am,” Star says, “it’s not your husband. The augments him took over years ago.” Star’s butterfly drones return to their case now. She closes it and stows it in a large satchel.

Myra says, “But augments don’t take over!” She glares at Star. “Augments are just...spare parts! What’s going on?”

Kojak shakes his head. “Want me to tell her?” he asks Louis. “Damned sock-puppet is pissing me off.”

“No,” Louis answers. “It’s better if she sees for herself.”

“I will kill you now,” the John-thing tells them all.

“I think it’s pissed,” Kojak says. "Can they be pissed?"

© 2020 Jack Shorebird