I was watching you watching him.
I am old....so very old that I don't even remember my childhood. Perhaps I never had one.
But in all those years, I have learned to read certain things in the eyes of mortals.
I can see in your eyes that you have an open mind. That is a fine quality....and very rare.
I have a gift for you.
Because you have an open mind, I have a story to tell you. About that man you were just now watching.
Do not flinch....I will only touch one finger to your forehead. And then you will see what I see in my mind.
Images. A story. A life.
You wondered as you saw him walk past the Police Drone. I will explain.
And then perhaps you will look on that man.....and the world.....with different eyes....
Close your eyes, now....
....the odor from the garbage can both attracted and repelled him.
He paused, looking down at the browning wad of cabbage he was holding, chewed spasmotically, then leaned over and threw up.
He stood, gazing upward, his mouth agape. A brilliantly pale full moon rose from behind the buildings, hurtling with a startling speed upward into the night sky. For the first time, he noticed the starry backdrop.
"....first time....?" he thought to himself.
"GET OUT OF THERE!"
The fat man in the red-speckled white apron waved a butcher's knife over his head as the scavenger turned toward him.
The fat man squealed like a pig, his eyes bulged, and he began backing up, the knife now held in front of him like a samurai sword.
"Get away from me....keep away....HELP! I NEED A HERO HERE! Stay back...I'm warning you, stay back!"
The scavenger hunched lower, glanced furtively over each shoulder, then turned as if to run down the darkening alley.
"....never a Hero around when you need one...." the fat man was muttering under his breath as he backed into an empty garbage can and fell clattering with it to the filthy pavement. "HELP! POLICE, HERO, SOMEBODY!" he squalled from his ragdoll prone position.
The scavenger fled.
He scraped the last of the dried blood out of the cracks and crevices of his metal wrist and finger joints.
He whirled, to confront the monster staring at him full on.
....and found that he was staring into a glass storefront. At first he thought the monster was inside the store.
Then he finally realized he was looking at his own reflection.
With a wail, he darted back into the alley way....
A bit of broken mirror in a dumpster. At first he couldn't believe what the glass showed him.
Then the broken glass became a treasure, a thing both loved and hated. He cradled it, polished it, carefully wrapped it in scraps of fabric so he could shove it into a pocket of the shabby jeans he had fished out of yet another refuse heap.
His thoughts seemed to be becoming clearer. He could remember a few hours at a time, instead of only seconds or minutes. He studied the incredible image in the glass. Then he tried using the broken edge as a crude razor, scraping away at the growing hair on his cheeks and lips. The result was hardly more attractive than when he had started.
He tried to pull the metal chin piece off of his face, but no amount of struggle could budge it. It seemed to be wired somehow into the boney structure of his lower jaw. He pulled, briefly, on the camera-lens-like apparatus that covered where his right eye should have been, screamed in pain, and let go of it.
Returning to the chin piece, he twisted his lower jaw into every position he could manage, pulling on the metal, trying to dislodge it, inspecting it from every angle with his bit of broken glass. Contorting his face, mouth wide open, he saw.....something.....not right.....in his mouth. He tried to see what it was, but could only make out some dark coloration.
Carefully, he began breaking pieces off of his precious reflecting glass, until he had a larger piece and a smaller one. Propping the larger one on a window ledge, he maneuvered the smaller one inside his mouth, lifting his tongue, unaware of the risk he was taking of severing any number of major arteries in the process.
As he strained to see, the eyepiece whirred softly, and he found himself looking with a strange, lopsided view, one side much larger than the other. In the magnified image, he began to make out letters and numbers reflected from the underside of his tongue into the mirrors.
"Beta 1403 CI" he finally made out.
The zombies and their handlers were the worst. Sometimes when he woke, he remembered snatches of dreams. The smells....the dried blood....the metal instruments....they reminded him of his nightmares.
He first ran into the zombies in the area that the green signs over the connecting tunnels called "King's Row".
The industrial park on the southwest side of King's Row contained fertile pickings for a scavenger, and very few witnesses to disturb his searches. But he learned very quickly that the zombie handlers had their own ideas of what "fertile pickings" meant, and his flesh seemed to be part of that. Not that there was all that much left, but his head and torso, despite their decorative and not-so-decorative tracing of circuitry, were apparently quite attractive to the men in the skull-shaped caps, rubber gloves, and dirty aprons.
After that first nasty encounter, he ran as soon as he saw them coming. He discovered that he could run much faster than even the scalpel-wielding handlers could.
It was a half-eaten ham sandwich that nearly did him in.
The odor was so tantilizing that he was completely focused on fishing it out of the dumpster when he found himself surrounded by zombies.
Within a heartbeat, he was thrashing wildly at the center of a storm of mayhem, the slow-moving zombies and their toxic vomit, the slashing blades of the handlers. The metal rods, wires, joints and motors that served him as arms were impervious to both knives and spittle, but he shrieked in pain as the green goo splashed in fresh gashes on his chest and back. He thrust spasmotically outward, trying desperately to ward off his attackers, and foot-long scalpels of his own appeared at the ends of what served him as hands. Still shrieking, he whirled, spinning in a true Danse Macabre.
None of the zombie handlers went home that night.
He remembered things more clearly still.
Whole days became part of a growing past.
His life still consisted of scrounging what he could find in back alley garbage cans and dumpsters, sleeping in any hole he could find that might be defensible against attack.
But he was beginning to wonder.
He expected zombie attacks, and for the people who accidently saw him to run screaming. Try as he might, he couldn't remember a time that was any different. He still had no idea whose dried blood had caked his metal arms and hands, fouled the tattered hospital gown that he had eventually thrown away. It might have been his, he mused. He healed very, very quickly, and completely, without scarring. If it was someone else's, he wasn't sure he wanted to know about it. And then he found himself wondering how it was that he knew so many things, so *many* things.....how to read, for example, what letters and numbers were, and how to understand the verbal abuse that was the only communication he got from other humans.
"Other humans." He wondered about that, too. Was he human? He felt human.....or so he thought. But how did humans feel, anyway?
Loneliness ate away at him.
He was just exiting from the sewers in Galaxy City when he heard the screaming.
He was tired and had had enough of fighting in the sewers. He had planned to skirt the park and crawl into a hole he knew to lie up until night fell. The park was entirely too public a place in daylight; it was too likely that someone would see him and the hue and cry would begin again. But over and above the deep bass notes of a man's voice, there was another sound, the screams of a young child.
He twisted, changed direction in midstride, his metal foot tearing an ugly rift in the green parkland grass.
A man ran past him, awkwardly clutching a small boy to his chest as he ran.
The scavenger turned to face the zombies he had already identified by their sounds, braced, thrust out his arms, the knives hidden in his metal forearms snapping into view with an audible "ka-chack!". By this time he had become quite adept at dispatching the things. He was careful to down the handlers first; zombies were not alive in the first place, and any handler left alive would simply re-activate his charge and send it back against him. He no longer cried out from the pain of the zombie spittle, merely clenched his teeth in determination. Silently, grimly, he mowed through the attackers, until none of them remained on their feet.
Breathing heavily, he paused, then swung his head, seeking the hole he had been headed for when he exited the sewers. To his surprise, he saw the man carrying the boy walking toward him; then the man pulled up abruptly some distance away as he got a good look at the scavenger's face.
They stared at each other across the lawn for a long frozen moment.
The scavenger turned, took a step, when the man called out, "Wait."
He looked back.
The man seemed to be at a loss for words. He finally, blurted out, "Who are you?"
The scavenger merely shrugged, began to turn away again.
"....listen...." the man interrupted him. "I don't know who you are....." ("....or what you are...." he could imagine the man thinking to himself, but at least he didn't say it....), ".....but I owe you. I was taking my son on a picnic....it's my turn to have custody of him this weekend.....I didn't know the zombies had come back to the park, I thought the Heroes had gotten rid of them for good."
"Zombies always come back." It was hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but he tried.
The man still looked uncomfortable. "I.....look, do you need any money? I don't have much on me now, but I can afford to pay you, if you'll just let me go and get it."
It was even harder to avoid showing distaste, but he succeeded at that, at least. "That's a very kind offer, but it's not necessary." He started to turn away. What would he do with money? What should he do, simply walk into a store, as if all the people inside would not immediately begin screaming and trying to drive him out?
"Wait!" The child was beginning to cry again. "How can I contact you? I'd like to give you something. At least let me give you some shoes or something, if you won't take money. You've certainly earned it."
He hesitated over the word "earned", the man apparently saw it. "Boots. Jeans. If you won't let me buy you something, and you won't take money, at least let me give you something I don't need any more. We're about the same size.....I'm sure I can find something that would fit you, but I need to know how to find you again to give it to you."
After a long moment, the scavenger turned and pointed at the gate to the sewer. "There. Leave it inside the gate. Don't go inside, there are more zombies in the sewers, just leave it right inside and I'll find it next time I go in there. The zombies won't bother it, that's not what they're looking for, and no one else will go in there."
The man nodded, shifted the boy's weight higher and turned to go.
When the scavenger returned to the Galaxy City sewer a week later, he found a brand-new pair of jeans, the sales tag still attached, a cotton t-shirt, underwear, socks, and stiff new boots, sitting in a neat pile just inside the sewer gate, along with a note, carefully handwritten: "Thanks, Hero." It was signed Jon Wilcox.
The moon had not risen yet.
It was dark, so very dark, in the back alleys of Steel Canyon, the closest thing he knew to a home, as it was the location of the very first completely clear memory he had, the moon rising over the silvery buildings.
The Sorcerer had come out of nowhere, as was their wont. He was so preoccupied with staying alive, that he didn't even notice the other figures yelling, cursing, thrashing in the darkness, until the Sorcerer had fallen. Silence fell almost immediately as several Tsoo bodies hit the concrete almost in unison.
"Hey, there, Hero," a cheerful, if somewhat breathless, voice cut across the darkness. "Thanks for the assist. Anything we can do for you? We've got some spare enhancements and inspirations, if you can use them."
He froze, pinned on the precipice between loneliness and flight.
"Hero?" More puzzled now, a woman's voice. "You okay?"
A small light snapped on, casting only the most futile of shadows down the alley.
He caught a glimpse of perhaps 4 or 5 people, people, he thought to himself, figures in the night, in all manner and color of garb visible even in the micro-pool of light. They stood, all of them breathing heavily, one broader man clutching his forearm with his opposite hand, blood seeping between his fingers. The other figures ignored the bleeder, and after a moment, he rubbed the area, leaving only smears of blood but no apparent wound.
Like me, the scavenger thought, and found his paralysis had become even more profound.
I have to run, he kept telling himself, but his legs wouldn't obey.
"Are you hurt?" the woman continued. "Do you need us to take you to the hospital?"
With a moan, he turned to run, just as she walked boldly up to him.....he caught a glimpse of the glitter of metal and glass in her face, and his head snapped around. She was wearing some sort of camera-lens-like apparatus over her left eye.
He couldn't stop the shriek, "You're like me!"
Without warning, his legs folded underneath him, and he dropped to the pavement, curling into fetal position, locking his robotic arms around the metal of his knees, rocking, unable to make his escape. Tears streamed silently out of his left eye, screwed tightly shut as he rocked.
"....never seen anything like it," the voice floated through his brain. Something was wrong, but somehow, he just didn't seem to care.
He was lying on his back, eye open, a sheet lightly draped over his body....something was taped to the side of his neck. He thought he remembered some sort of needle being pushed into the side of his neck. Drugged? He thought so, and it meant nothing to him.
He could see several figures out of the corner of his eye. The room....yes, it was a room.....was brightly lit, and there were large objects of metal, glass, and plastic all around him, he wasn't entirely sure what they were or represented. The hospital smell was unmistakable.
The voices rose and fell....sometimes he could make out words, sometimes not. He thought he recognized the woman's voice he had heard once before, the woman with the eyepiece. That was important, he told himself.
I don't care, he responded.
And so he lay there, feeling blurry and numb, only now realizing that the constant pain he hadn't really ever noticed was gone, and in its place, a strange willingness to simply lie where he was, accept whatever was happening to him.
"....whoever did this, they did not have his best interests at heart."
"You don't think he's a war hero?"
"If those prosthetics had been implanted in a legitimate medical facility, his DNA would have been on record. That was the first thing I did, run his DNA through the system. Without fingerprints, that's the only real hope we had of finding out who he is. I did try his retinal scan, but that didn't show up anywhere, either.
"Another thing that bothers me about it is that you rarely see someone who has both arms amputated at exactly the same location, and the same thing is true for his legs. It's too neat, whereas accidents and war injuries are messy. It looks as if someone amputated his limbs by design, in order to make room for the prosthetics.
"The technology in his prosthetics is both familiar, and yet not. There are components that I would swear remind me of Rikti devices. And the way they have been not just connected to what's left of his body, but rooted, almost grown into it...I don't even want to think about what he's been through. My guess is that what you see now took months, or maybe even years, of work, interspersed with healing periods. I suspect from the condition of his remaining joints that he's a lot older than he looks."
"Can you remove the electronics?"
"I'm not sure I'd be doing him any favors if I did. I don't understand half of what I'm seeing. I probably could remove that equipment, but what would be left.....I just don't know. And the Oath does say, 'first, do no harm'. He's stable....his health is not in any danger. I don't want to be the one who endangers it. On top of that, much of the technology is internal...his metabolism has been altered to support the prosthetics, speeded up, his liver function is now dependent on technology, I'm not sure it would function to keep him alive on its own any more."
"So, you can't help him?"
"From what you told me about the way you found him, I'd say he needs social and psychological help, not medical help."
The woman with the eyepiece leaned over him, joined by a man in a hospital scrub suit and long white jacket.
"You couldn't even find out a name from him? First name, anything?" the man continued.
"He didn't seem to know himself. Reminds me of some of the cases of battle shock amnesia that I saw during the war."
The man picked up a clipboard and began writing on it. "Too bad. I guess he'll just be another John Doe for now."
"Not....." he struggled to whisper.
"What?" The woman leaned closer. "Did you say something?"
He took a deep breath, forced his numb lips and tongue to move. "Not.....Doe.....not.....dead....."
"Not dead? What's he mean by that?"
The man scratched his forehead with one end of the pen. "John Doe. That's also the name given to corpses that are found without identification. I guess he's afraid he'll be listed as dead." He leaned over the table, bringing his face into the middle of the scavenger's field of vision. "Okay, John. We won't list you as a John Doe, if that upsets you. I think you've been through enough. We'll call you....Smith. John Smith. How's that?"
"Jon.....Smith....." the newly christened man whispered, as he slipped back into his cocoon of numbness, and the voices faded again.
Not Beta 1403 CI.
He pushed the neatly folded fabric aside.
"Not mine," he reiterated, stubbornly.
"Jon, the Committee for Hero Affairs is happy to provide you with the basic necessities. Don't think of it as charity....if you want to, you can think of it as a loan."
"Not mine." He scowled, an expression that, with his chin piece, electronic monocle, and the silver wiring tracing across his face, could cow battle hardened veterans of the Rikti war.
The social worker sighed. "Okay, Jon, have it your way." She picked up the clothing and returned it to the shelf she had taken it from.
"You're going to have to start accepting help some time. You need a place to stay, Jon. You can't keep living on the street and eating out of dumpsters."
"You said you could introduce me to someone who would give me work. You said they wouldn't be afraid of me."
"Yes, that's true. But you'll make a much better impression if you clean up your appearance."
He burst out laughing.
After a second, she sighed and then smiled ruefully. "Okay, you got me there. I guess nobody really will notice what you're wearing."
"The shirts get tangled in my joints," he spoke slowly, as if to a child. "They get torn. I can't help that. I spend all my time trying to keep the shirt from fraying. If I'm going to be doing the kind of work you talk about, I'd just have to take them off anyway." He shrugged. "Why bother? I'm more comfortable without it, and it's a hassle. You do understand..." he dropped his eyes, "a shirt and tie are not going to make people stop looking at my face. Or my hands."
She frowned down at her desk, then looked up at him. "You could at least take a new pair of jeans."
"Same problem. I have to wear something in the way of pants to be decent, but the legs keep getting caught in my machinery. As soon as I run in them, the hem gets shredded. There's just no point. In thirty seconds I'd be right back to where I am now."
She sighed. "Okay. I see your point. Now. What else can we do for you....that you will *let* us do?"
"I've seen some people wearing belts with....boxes. Pouches. Things you can hold stuff in." Old habits die hard.....he couldn't help thinking that he needed to keep all his few possessions on his person at all times. He wouldn't feel comfortable leaving anything he cared about lying around.
"Um....yes.....well, it's not exactly standard issue, but I think I can get you something like that. What else?"
"That first job. And, if you can help me to find a low-rent apartment that won't ask much in the way of a deposit...."
"Jon, we have standard housing...."
"No! I told you already...."
"You don't want charity. I understand, I just wish you were not so stubborn." She paused for a moment. "On the other hand, maybe if you weren't, you wouldn't have survived this long. So maybe it's for the best." She shrugged. "Okay, we'll play it your way...for now. Wait outside. I'll start making phone calls and see what I can drum up."
He stood. She couldn't help flinching, just slightly, as he leaned over her. He ignored the motion as he squinted at the papers on her desk, his monocle softly whirring. "j...o...n.....You got the spelling right, right?"
"Yes, Jon, I got it. We've changed all the paperwork on you. You're officially Jon Smith, for all practical purposes."
"Until I find out who I really am....was...."
She studied his face as he started to turn away. "It might happen, Jon. You might start to remember. You might not. You have to learn to live with that."
He stood with his back to her for a long moment. His voice was calm and neutral when he finally spoke. "I know," he said softly.
She reached for the phone. "I'll start making those calls right now."
He turned his head and smiled, an expression almost as terrifying as his scowl. "Thanks. I owe you."
.....your train has come and gone, Hero.
Oh, yes, Jon is a very real person. You were just watching him, remember? To you he looked like just another scrounger, another gang member. You wondered how it was that he could walk past the Police sentry bots without challenge. Now you know.
None of what you saw was invented. The images you saw came from Jon's own mind.
No, he has never found out who he was....before. But I see things in his mind....images....that he is not ready to deal with as yet. Perhaps one day he will be. He is a very strong person. And he has a growing group of friends who stand ready to help him.
I shared Jon's story with you because it is my hope that in the future you will remember that being a Hero comes from the heart. Like Jon, we *all* wear our suffering on the outside, on our bodies....but our courage in our eyes.
....you're welcome, Hero.
Copyright terraforming.com, November 26, 2012