“(Computers) will not just be doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties… maybe we’ll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs.”
–Lev Grossman, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” Time, February 2011
Standing here, I almost see / The girl I was, the crone I’ll be
The Blessing of age, passing of time / Teaching us all, profane and sublime
We will never relent, we will never rely / Thus we will live. And thus we will die
–Song of the Original Resistance, circa 2030, author unknown
The outsider inside will end the beginning.
–Prophesy from a Heaven algorithm, 2062, as our story begins…
Chapter One: Ere
“Think fast, runt!”
Ere Fell’s eyes dart from side to side. His sinewy limbs tighten as his entire body strains to identify from which side the attack is coming. He quickly assesses his own borders, all the possible paths of an attacker, left, right, behind, below, above–
No sooner does he think above than he hears the faintest rustling of leaves. He leaps away, ungracefully but successfully, just missing being crushed by his assailant.
“Curse of the world,” Ere swears, heart hammering. “You nearly landed on my head!”
“Would’ve squashed you flat if I wasn’t kind enough to warn you, runt,” his cousin Cal says good-naturedly. He idly picks a stray bit of bramble from his thick, curly hair, flicking the twig toward Ere and then flexing the taut, rounding muscles in his arm. “Obviously my voice was above you. Should’ve looked up first. But no, you had to look everywhere else before almost getting slammed.”
“You still missed me,” Ere retorts, wishing he were as calm as his cousin. Or at least as big. Or half as big…
Cal’s massive eyebrow lifts. “Did I?”
And in a single-handed flip, he has Ere pinned to the earth.
“Curse of the—”
Cal’s hand covers not only Ere’s mouth, but most of his face. Ere struggles for a moment, then goes limp, allowing Cal to think he has given up. Cal does not loosen his grip, so Ere opens his mouth and snakes with his tongue at his cousin’s salty hand.
“Ugh!” Cal snorts, removing his hand and rolling off of Ere.
Ere scrambles to his feet, wiping his mouth. “You like that?”
“Is that your strategy if you run into a Syn? Lick them?”
Ere only glares in response. Neither of the boys actually knows how to contend with a Syn, if ever they ran into one out on their own. They have been conditioned to hate and fear everything about Syn society, without actually knowing much about their sworn enemy. No matter; the universal truth about all enemies is that very little actual information is required to fuel deep and loyal hatred.
But Ere has come to believe that his knowledge of the Syn world is insufficient, and this lack of information is a weakness. As the youngest in his tribe, he was always assured that he need not worry: the elders would take care of things. But now the elders are not merely older than him, they are old. Weak, and growing weaker. The leader of his tribe, his great-uncle Howard Fell, is struggling with sickness of mind and body. He does not even know himself anymore. How can a man unable to recall his own name be expected to keep his people safe?
His uncle was not the only one to have aged out of reliable protection. The entire tribe was graying. Ere once felt that his fate rested securely in the hands of his elders. But these days the elders’ wrinkled old fingers can barely hold on to anything, let alone fend anything off. Ere and Cal are the strong ones now— a realization that both thrills and terrifies the slight boy.
The other oncoming storms that seem to surround his tribe do not ease Ere’s growing anxiety. There is the nervous early noise of another migration, small drops of doubt falling, and rumbles of anxiety thundering louder and louder. Ere knows that his life is about to change again; of this, he is bone certain. He can tell that his mother is alert to this shift in the winds, as well. Any intuition he has, he inherited from her.
His mother is a bellwether, always alert to impending threats, has a sort of sixth sense for detecting danger on the horizon. Ere has never before understood how she could just have a feeling about something, and react accordingly, and seem to know with ever fiber of her being that her gut has it right. His uncle Howard had the same tendencies. Others in the tribe used to joke that while most of their kind erred on the side of caution, and some on the side of imminent danger, the Fells erred on the side of apocalypse.
“And I always will,” Howard Fell would reply, back when he knew himself, back when he was still strong, back when he stood tall and unapologetic with jaw set tight. “After all, I was right the first time, wasn’t I?”
Such fatalistic hyper-vigilance was latent in Ere, almost entirely absent until now. But lately his genetic propensity toward expecting impending doom has been blooming. By day, the wind carries reminders to be watchful. By night, his mind unfurls into a world of vivid dreams, the sort that fool him into believing they are real. These night visions seem to be leading him toward something important, escorting him almost all the way, then shoving him awake, drenched in cold sweat and reeling with the nauseous feeling of knowing that something of great significance was within your grasp and then eluded you. Though the meaning of the dream always slipped away from him, there was something consistently present in the obscured remnants of his nightmares: Syns.
The nightmares, the daytime dread, the acute awareness that he might at any moment be under attack: it was not part of him a year ago, and now it is all that he knows. Maybe it’s because he’s nearly eighteen, almost a man. Perhaps that’s why his senses are sharpening. Like the soft new hair on his cheeks, or his increasingly-lustful dreams; these things just seem to come along with his maturing years.
He trusts his newfound intuition, and finds his nightmares just as important his dreams. But he doesn’t know what to do with his newfound watchfulness, because he knows so little of the world beyond his tribe. His knowledge of Syns and their culture is abysmal. His enemy is a mystery, something kept at bay for him by protectors who are growing feeble. Ere feels, and fears, he should know more.
As should his cousin.
Ere and Cal have always the best of friends and fiercest of rivals. Cal, five years older than Ere, is ahead of him not only in years and height and girth, but also in strength and skill. Ere curses, silently and for the hundred-thousandth time, the injustice of the physical disparity between himself and his cousin: Where Ere is slight and wiry, Cal stands tall and broad, his large muscled arms and wide chest covered with thick, dark hair. Ere resents the unfairness of it all, that he should be so scrawny, all the family brawn spent on Cal before Ere even arrived on the scene to purchase a pectoral or two.
More than anything, Ere resents the resulting disparity in respect. Cal is more capable in every measurable, physical way. While Ere wishes that he could at least claim that he was smarter than Cal, even that isn’t really true. Cal is smart. But since Ere can’t match him in muscle, the smaller boy does everything he can to seem smarter. It’s a pretty futile effort. Tossing around bigger words here and there doesn’t earn him anything. It just makes him seem desperate. And so the elders treat Cal as a full adult, while still viewing Ere as a child, and being the last boy trapped in childhood is not what Ere wants to be.
“Have you seen my mother?” Ere asks, hating the whine he hears in his voice.
“She’s still with Uncle Howard,” Cal says. “And don’t be so sore, cousin. I’m just trying to toughen you up.”
“I’m plenty tough,” Ere snaps. “And I’m not sore.”
“You would be if I’d just dropped onto your head. No warning. Just squashed you.”
Cal laughs at the thought of crushing his cousin. Rather than sparring back, Ere seizes control of the conversation, steering it to a sober place by asking coldly: “How is Uncle Howard this morning?”
Cal’s laughter ceases as his expression darkens. “The same.”
“It’s bad, then.”
Cal nods. For three days now, Howard Fell, the great Original leader, has been barely conscious. Hot to the touch, eyes closed, moaning softly and calling for his long dead wife, Sophie. The great and towering man has been reduced to a shell of himself. He recognizes no one save Ere’s mother, his niece, and even his recognition of her is intermittent. When the fever abates, he knows her; as his temperature rises, his cognition drops. Ere’s mother has not left her uncle’s side, keeping his head in cool wraps and speaking to him in soothing tones. Her own health is beginning to suffer, but she will not hear of abandoning her post.
“Well. Let’s get the water.”
With that, the young men head for the nearby well, where they will draw the water, boil it over an open fire, and drink it despite knowing that the water within has likely at some point passed through a Syn-controlled water source. Such water, even once boiled, will remain tainted for the Originals who drink it, at best lowering their immune system and functions, and at worst slowly poisoning them. Another gift from the Syns.
Technically, something else I know about them: they do not just hate us. They must feel threatened by us. Threatened enough to tamper with our water. There must be a reason we make them nervous…
Ere files this thought away as they walk from the edge of Franklin Commune to where the well is situated, a short distance away.
The Franklin Commune was once a school. A long, low, brick building, with hallways and many rooms, it was now an ideal dwelling for transient tribes. Though not all of the rooms are usable, most were; the brick meant it was sturdy, and the linoleum floors are solid as well. There was a giant kitchen, with a still-functioning water system. Though electricity has not flowed through the building in years, the stoves in the giant kitchen are large and well-preserved, and fires can be built inside them which would last for hours, effective both for cooking as well as for heating the building. Best of all, Franklin had a small internal quadrangle, once the School’s designated area for recreational activities, which provided a safe place for the tribe to step outside and enjoy sunshine without fear of encountering feral animals or minefields.
A yard, the elders called it, and several of them would spend hours, every day, tending to the grass and flowers, digging their fingers into the soil and shaping it into something more familiar. They had begun to plant a garden, anticipating vegetables they could cultivate rather than relying on wild vegetables which being sought and gathered.
They arrived at Franklin in the middle of the summer last, sometime shortly after Ere’s seventeenth birthday. (He did not know the exact date of his birth, but it was sometime around the longest day of the year, and thus eighteen was swiftly approaching.) The tribe traveled three punishing weeks, and the journey was wearing on the elders. Uncle Howard had proudly refused assistance and had developed a noticeable limp, which he tried to hide. When they saw the plain, promising brown walls of the lumbering old brick building, the entire tribe had started laughing, clapping, even breaking into pieces of near-forgotten songs in their joy. Such celebration and relief, knowing there would be, at least for a time, a place they could all call home.
The building was remarkably intact. There were no holes in the roof, and most windows were unbroken. There were even a few proud, rusted metal letters clinging to the exterior, which bore remnants of the name of the place:
B J M NFRANKLINELTRYOL
Ere’s mother had explained that this building had once been a special sort of school— a “County School,” she called it. A building serving a large area, where children from assorted farmlands, miles and miles apart, would travel daily to meet in this common space, to learn. It remained surrounded by fields on all sides, no neighboring factories or large power plants. It was perfect: sturdy and large, but also remote and freestanding. That was why the Elders had been sure that Franklin would not be of interest to the Syns for at least two years. It was as poor a resource for them as it was an excellent one for the Originals.
The first buckets of water drawn, Cal and Ere trudge silently back toward the Commune, the place they have come to think of as home. And then, in an instant, the next shift in their always unstable world is heralded by a wail.
Cal’s head snaps up. “You don’t think – ”
Before he can finish his thought, one of the elders, an aging but stout woman called Myrlie, comes running through the field. She is moving impossibly fast for an elder, away from the Commune and toward the young men. Ere hasn’t seen Myrlie move at that speed since—well, ever. He tenses, knowing something is wrong. Breathless, the old woman calls out her news before reaching them, forcing herself to get the words out while she can still form them.
“He’s dead,” she rasps. “Our great leader, our father, our hope. He’s gone. He’s gone. Howard Fell is dead.”
Chapter Two: Shadower
Three more bodies. That’s what Shadower must focus on: the cold hard fact of three cold, dead corpses. That, and nothing else.
Not the danger of this work, and the very real risk that the next dead body could be Shadower’s own. Not the implications of the evidence, although dissecting and disseminating what this information really means will be the next step. None of it. Nothing but the news itself.
In Shadower’s world, while nothing can be overlooked and everything must be carefully considered, each incident and every insight must also be handled one at a time. It’s easy to get distracted, to start guessing ahead – and sometimes it’s vital to make those leaps, to try to stay one step ahead of the situation – but not until they know what the facts of the situation are.
Three more bodies.
These bodies had been nothing but a rumor moments ago, a rumor whispered fast and low, blowing quietly and quickly through the narrow cracks and crevices constituting the dark and muted world of the underground informants. Repeated over and over, growing in incredulity even as it grew in certainty: more bodies, more than one body at once, we hear it’s three bodies, we think it’s three bodies, it’s three bodies.
Even Shadower was startled at this leap from one to three. The rumors had immediately triggered the sort of jumping-to-conclusions that Shadower knew had to be postponed. At first, theorizing was too tempting to avoid: Part of a pact, perhaps? A growing movement? Heaven and Hell, could there even be a formal cult now, somehow kept secret even with multiple mouths that might cry out?
Three more bodies, freshly dead. More, and more swiftly, than anyone had expected. Even when it was one, the first time, months ago, it had been startling. The unthinkable discovery of the first discarded body of a single desperate Syn, confirmed as a self-termination, came out of nowhere. Syns are supposed to live forever. The entire Synthetic movement had been founded on the premise that with enough augmentation, upgrades, enhancements, death could be not simply outrun but outdone. Outmoded. Something older-model bodies might have needed, but something with which these youthful, clever Syns need never bother. They wanted eternal life. That was the whole goal.
And then there was that first case of self-termination Then there was another, months later. Weeks after that, another. Another. Another. And now, multiple cadavers at once…
Three more bodies.
The cadavers were three Syns, each of whom had flat-lined in the Heaven monitors, immediately triggering a black-ops recovery of each body. Heaven’s army moved fast. Too fast even for Shadower. Within moments, all three bodies were confiscated and incinerated, all physical remains erased and the electronic trail swept clean, almost immediately. After all, the Syns knew that thanks to their own shared systems, burning the bodies was not enough. To truly bury the evidence, they were also eradicating the mental and synched evidence.
You can’t just discard the shell. You have to dig out the creature within, and make sure everything burns. And they managed to burn it all, real and virtual, with rapid speed. Almost fast enough to make it seem that nothing had ever happened.
But not quickly enough to prevent rumors—and this time, not quite quickly enough to prevent confirmation. Not for Shadower, at least. This is why Shadower was summoned, and, thank whatever God remained, this time Shadower had arrived just in time. Shadower, the world-straddler. Unnoticed but omni-present. That’s how Shadower became the highest level informant, a face known to none and a name known to all.
Only a select few can initiate contact with Shadower. Anyone trying to get through to Shadower had their work cut out for them, and their messages always meant business. When Shadower arrived on a scene too late, it was never due to Shadower’s slow response but rather because it took too long for the initial cry for help to arrive. This was unfortunate, but there was nothing to be done. Shadower could not risk exposure. Contact might be difficult, but better that than end the entire operation altogether.
This time, the message had been one oft-sent, but with a new and interesting tidbit thrown in right at the end:
Shadower, friend and wraith. We need you. Tell us what you see. Tell us what we need to know. Do we yet know why Syns are terminating themselves? Is it happening more frequently, as predicted based on the last report? Were there really three more bodies?
Three more bodies—that was new. Earlier messages must certainly have been attempted, but must have disintegrated in one of the protective firewalls before reaching Shadower. So this follow-up message was the first one to make it through, and Shadower gave a whisper of silent thanks at the rare opportunity in that moment to respond immediately. Sometimes Shadower is not free to simply slip away and instantly respond to information. It’s usually too dangerous to do so, creating a lag. But it is what it is. Caution is imperative, and Shadower is both careful and skillful.
Above all, Shadower is conveniently overlookable. Taking advantage of convenient invisibility is a powerful way to gather information, share it, then slip back into darkness and keep watching. Shadower observes and reports, mostly. Confirms rumors, shares information, connects dots for the other members of the clandestine network. But also, when called, Shadower does more than simply obtain and report. Shadower will always do what is necessary. Even when the requested task is unpleasant or lethal-level dangerous.
Like tonight: Pressed against a wall, coated in sweat but not dripping a drop. Carefully and impossibly, Shadower’s port is adjacent but not quite linked in to the port in the wall; hovering less than a breath away from the port, not plugged in and yet pulling out intelligence. Siphoning data, without actually connecting and revealing Shadower’s identity, or even creating any detectable presence at all.
No one else can do this. Even Shadower is not quite certain how this particular skill was cultivated. But it is there, and it is the unique blessing and curse of Shadower. Siphoning information at all times—from ports, and from people. Being there without being there. Listening intently with one ear to the actual surrounding sounds, and with the other to the hum of the nearest network, probing not only for what data was available but also for any remnants of data now taken offline. Hidden files, any quiet hum of information erased, of a virtual trail – footsteps wiped away in a clever but not infallible cover-up.
The Syns own Heaven. But limbo belongs to the clandestine network. They are the ones who will find any quiet hum. Any quiet hum…
Yes. There it is.
Shadower presses in closer, leaning into that quiet hum, disappearing further, listening even more intensely, re-tracing and carefully logging the faint but unmistakable path, still humming behind where the facts used to be. The facts could not be erased, only smudged like a pencil eraser on an old sheet of paper. Still traceable, if only to Shadower.
Shaking from the effort, steeling nerves and gritting teeth, Shadower siphons and saves one single image before the corporeal and technological clean-up crew sucks everything else up, up and away. Thankfully, the image is as indicting as it is chilling: three bodies, too out of focus for their faces to be identifiable, but clearly dead; and a half-dozen live Syn soldiers, three running programs to eliminate the electronic evidence, three pouring chemicals over the dead bodies in preparation for incineration. Sealing this photograph into protected, private internal archives, this is the message Shadower now transmits:
Three more bodies. CONFIRMED.
This confirmation, not only of the phenomenon but also of multiple participants, will send shockwaves throughout the clandestine network. The reality of some sort of surge in terminations had been verified some time ago, and the elaborate cover-up operation spearheaded by leadership over at the Synt was well known by now. Rumors once documented could become facts. Facts could inform action. Planning could continue.
And just as quickly as old rumors were confirmed, new ones emerged. Chilling theories about another level of subterfuge, worse even than the elimination of the bodies. The speculation now was that after disposing of the bodies, the Syn authorities were taking new precautions. The precise nature of the new precautions was in the earliest stage of speculation.
Would the Syns begin offing their own, and actively taking down any Syns who showed signs of terminating themselves? Were the Synt scientists re-programming the basic settings? Were they distributing new medications to quell strong emotions?
The rumors flew like new chirping chicks from a nest, ruffling feathers, jumping and flapping, tentative but tenacious. They grew louder, crowding the nest and demanding to spread their wings. Some would fall. Others would fly.
Stick to the facts for now. Three more bodies, and we can’t determine their names. The information has been removed from the system. No next of kin stepping forward to ask questions. Three more bodies, we heard the call go out – and then everything went silent.
Leaning in to the hum once again, tracing what has been erased, the shadowed figure moves quickly, siphoning and sharing, transferring and re-erasing. Time is running short; but with this confirmation, there will be a galvanization. There had to be.
Shadower is not worried about more Syn terminations, although these self-eliminating Syns might be potential allies, if they could be reached and radicalized before they—well, killed themselves. Still, they are not the primary objective. Shadower’s goal is not to prevent Syn suicides. The objective is to change the world before all Originals are extinct. The dead Syns are only interesting because they might pave the way for an Original revolution.
And it’s about damn time for one. This shallow world is scary as hell.
Chapter Three: Ever
There has never been a girl more beautiful than Ever Hess.
This is a verified fact, well-documented by multiple assessments measuring symmetry, pigmentation, surface integrity, and the tracked subconscious and physical responses from those attracted to her gender. Ever’s beauty is certified, and cultivated to continue assuring that everything about her visage exceeds expectations.
Her flawless skin is neither pale nor tawny, but a perfect glowing shade of health. Her eyes are large, brown, and rimmed above and below with heavy black lashes. She is small, bird-like, but not unnatural. She is curvy and slim– no harsh lines, knobbed knees or awkward elbows; she is rounded where softness is pleasing, toned where strength is more desirable. Despite being little, her limbs are long.
Ever was preserved at the moment of physical perfection, past any trace of awkward adolescence but very, very far from entering into the realm of lines, of graying, of stiffness and slowing. Before she could fade, she was arrested and suspended in that moment of perfection that passed all other women so swiftly and irretrievably, while they were too busy lamenting their flaws to notice their true beauty.
(Others might argue that different people peak at different times. Some come into their own and are more lovely at fifty than at twenty. And attractiveness is objective, others will be quick to remind anyone listening! There are those who crave more roundness, more thinness, who love darker skin or lighter eyes or smallness or fullness or freckles! Ever has heard all of these statements, usually made just to get a reaction from her; she never rewarded these pathetic attempts at engagement. She need not bother saying that there’s “no accounting for taste.” She has seen the assessments. She knows she’s the ideal, all other subjective theories be damned. And so do most men and women—even the ones trying to goad and tease her into arguing with them about the subjectivity of sex appeal.)
Her preservation does not mean that nothing about her appearance ever changes, but the changes are limited and self-directed. Things like hair color, her favorite variable. This week, her tresses are a rich, shimmering red. Since she first turned seventeen, decades ago, changing the hue weekly has been an unbreakable ritual for Ever. This has meant literally thousands of colors over the years; an incredibly intricate palate. It’s hard for most people to distinguish Shining Cinnamon #347 from Shimmering Paprika #2,012, but while the shades are similar, they are nevertheless distinct. Categorically separate. Even in a small way, each marginally-differentiated color represented change, and that’s what mattered most to Ever: the ability to change. Ever knows that her constant craving for altering her appearance stems from a strong rebellious streak, goaded on by a lifetime of living in a world where change and progress were celebrated while she herself was firmly locked in and told not to change a thing.
She is almost as self-aware as she is self-obsessed.
In addition to always looking her best, Ever carries herself well. Years of strict instruction have honed incredible posture, and she moves with the constant grace of a trained ballerina. A decade of dance lessons also mean that the instructor’s voice still echoes in her mind, unbidden, chiding her to be mindful of her movement. It was years ago, but perennially fresh, preserved as surely as Ever herself.
“Remember, ballerinas,” the instructor would intone in her thick Russian accent, hard and violent with her consonants, raising her pencil-thin eyebrows. “A dancer, she is always carrying herself well. A dancer remains a dancer wherever she goes, even just on the sidewalk, even in the dark. Every movement, it is a dance.”
Recalling this reprimand, as Ever leans over the side of the boat, she flattens her back, tightens her midsection. She’ll satisfy the omnipresent Russian dance instructor, long dead now but thriving and keeping time forever in Ever’s memory. Sometimes Ever thinks that existence would be preferable—to be dead and well-remembered seems so much easier than being alive and alluring. Pouting a little (an adorable pout), and half-wondering if she might need an anti-solar treatment to counteract this oppressively hot climate, Ever scans the horizon for her father’s aircraft. He should already be here.
She closes her eyes, as if her lids might somehow block out the sound. There is no need to respond, as her mother knew exactly where she is, and could just as easily have sent a message rather than screeching like a harpy. Calling out for one’s child was a leftover functionality, like looking at one’s wrist when someone asked what time it was; gestures often outlive the objects or tasks that inspire them. Ever ignores her mother’s beckoning, fighting the noise with silence, refusing to acknowledge that she has been summoned. It’s a tactical move. Predictably, to continue the cold war they both insist on prolonging, Ever’s mother comes out to the deck to meet her stubborn child on their latest battlefield.
Marilyn Hess is beautiful, though not as perfect as her daughter. Her hair color hovers somewhere between blonde and brunette, a subtle honey-fawn shade, chemically maintained but never varied. Her neat tresses are always pulled back in a low chignon, highlighting her long, pale neck. She displays just a hint of middle-age, given away by the soft impressions around her eyes and mouth that form when she frowns, like now, little lines in her face drawing the blueprints for where wrinkles would eventually have appeared. But the wrinkles themselves are almost entirely absent, never given the opportunity to materialize. Her high cheekbones and slender build give her the illusion of being taller than she actually is, but she’s tall enough to tower over the petite Ever.
“Really, Mother,” Ever mimics without looking at her.
“You know it’s time for dinner, and you know how I hate waiting on you.”