Yesterday, we brought you the first three chapters of Daniel H. Wilson's Amped. But how much worse can it get for Owen, the cybernetically enhanced main character in a world that hates and fears cyborgs? Much, much worse, as it turns out. Check out chapters four and five — where Owen is not only on the run, but a non-person, accused of a crime he didn't commit.
In the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania Pittsburgh Division
STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, by and through Attorney General Sam Pondi, et al.: Plaintiffs,
TAMMY ROGERS, representing ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT
In this case, we define capacity to contract to exclude individuals with artificially enhanced intelligence.
As has long been established, those with diminished capacity (e.g., minors and people with mental disabilities) lack the capacity to contract as a matter of law. Similarly, we find that individuals with artificially enhanced intelligence possess an enhanced capacity to contract, which necessarily creates an unlevel playing field.
We saw evidence that these enhanced individuals may prey on those with inferior "natural" intelligence of the sort belonging to what we have known heretofore as the "average man." In other words, individuals with artificially enhanced intelligence implicitly confer diminished capacity to others.
In an effort to remedy the growing disparity between natural and enhanced levels of intelligence, and in an effort to create a level playing field, we hereby find that individuals with artificially enhanced intelligence lack the capacity to contract as a matter of law. As a result, we thus find that the contract entered into between John Sizemore and Tammy Rogers is considered null and void.
The toaster misses my face by about a foot, then explodes into shards of white plastic on the sidewalk. I blink at it once or twice before a wooden napkin ring clips me across the bridge of my nose.
I catch sight of a scrawny forearm lurking in the second- story window of my apartment. Charles, my landlord, is throwing my belongings out the window in neat little parabolas. He's already packed and dragged out a haphazard pile of cardboard boxes that rest on the grass next to the sidewalk. A couch and a chair sit incongruously in the yard.
"Charles!" I say. "What the hell are you doing?"
He pokes his gaunt face out of the window and glares down at me, breathing hard. He swallows and his Adam's apple bobs. Muttering, he flings a handful of silverware at me and ducks back inside.
The front door flies open as I reach for the handle. Charles, all hundred and twenty pounds of him, charges out. He slams the door shut, locks it.
The lock is bright as cut copper, new.
"I don't have to talk to you," says Charles in the clipped, broken accent of a lifelong Pittsburgher.
"Back up. To the sidewalk. You're trespassing."
Charles advances, eyes narrowed. Confused, I put my hands out and step back. "Charles, I don't know what's going on. What happened, man?"
"Thought you were so smart. Well, who's smart now? Score one for the Yinzers, asshole."
Charles kicks a box, and what looks like my college textbooks spill out onto the wet lawn. I stoop down to push the books back into the damp cardboard box. A young guy walking up the sidewalk carefully inspects a pile of my kitchen stuff.
"Hey," I say. "This isn't a garage sale."
The young guy doesn't respond, looks past me and makes eye contact with Charles.
"That means take off," I say.
Charles taps his temple. "Don't have to listen to him," he says. No reaction. No sympathy or anger. The guy just stands there, watching me warily, the way you'd watch a crazy person at a bus stop.
It hits me that something fundamental has changed. Whatever empathy glues society together is somehow drying up, becoming cracked and brittle. This guy standing over my stuff — he's looking at me and what he sees is person shaped, but I don't think he's seeing a person.
Charles is all pumped up. His face is flushed with blood and I can see a vein in his neck throbbing. His hands are shaking from adrenaline as he speaks. "Joe Vaughn's been on the TV, warning us about you people for years. Taking our jobs and messing up the schools and blowing up buildings."
"You can't kick me out. There's still five months on my lease."
"Not no more. State law says you amps can't go into contracts with normal people. Just like I can't sign no contract with a retard, you can't sign one with me. You're too smart."
"That law is being challenged, Charles. It's not official."
"Highest court in the country thinks it is. The Supreme goddamn Court of the United States of America says you ain't protected. So I guess it is the law."
The word "law" rings in my ears. Dominoes are falling. No contracts? Meaning no lease, no marriage, no job. No life. A few more people have stopped to rubberneck. A couple. An older guy. Most are just curious. Others are scrutinizing my stuff, sizing it up.
Charles curls his hands into fists, lets them hang by his sides like rotten fruit. Through clenched teeth he says, "You gotta go now."
I lean over and scrabble through the box, dig out an old duffel bag. "Give me a damn minute — "
Now a couple of people are just grabbing stuff. Others watch, blinking slowly. The thieves walk away without looking at me. The old guy carefully steps over my hand like it was a crack in the sidewalk, holding my lamp.
"I'm calling the goddamn cops," says Charles.
I drop to my knees and start shoving things into the duffel bag. Clothes, shoes, a box of granola bars. Appliances are too heavy to carry. Laptop is gone. Forget the furniture.
As pedestrians gawk, silent people carry away the puzzle pieces of my life. They see through me, hear past me. The expressions in their eyes are unreadable. I wonder why this is. Do they pity me? Or are they afraid? Is it possible that they really feel nothing at all? I hope this scene isn't playing out all over the nation. People like me struggling to grab what they can. Whole families, even. Grasping at the leftover shards of their lives. If that's the case, it doesn't really matter what these vulture people around me are thinking or feeling. Whether I'm less than human or more than human — animal or god — it's all the same.
I'm not a real citizen anymore. Rules no longer apply.
When my bag is full, I move on. Leave Charles on the sidewalk, staring at me with clenched fists and a tight grin. I push past the onlookers and get myself on down the road.
It's all on little pieces of paper. Thou shalt not. Thou shalt.
The rules are there so that we can remember them and follow them. If the rules were obvious, we wouldn't have to write them down.
I let my hair hang over the nub on my temple and step inside my bank and wait in line. I can feel the stares like cigarette burns on my skin. A security guard watches me, his back to the wall, beefy hands resting on his belt. I look around without seeing anything, push my breaths in and out through my nose. The teller is cautious but she lets me withdraw everything in my account. She stuffs about eighteen hundred dollars into an envelope.
I walk out of the bank, forcing myself not to run. Keep walking. Thinking.
In a frigid fast- food restaurant, I take my phone out of my pocket and call Allderdice High School. The administrative assistant tells me that all amps, I mean implantees, have been placed on unpaid leave. And the police called to speak to me, again. "Hey, buddy, let me see your temple," calls a chubby guy a few seats over. He and his friend wear painter's caps and overalls, eat burgers with stained fingers.
I ignore him, hang up my phone. Then, I methodically dial my friends. Nobody answers. Must be a busy morning.
"What's the matter? You can't hear me, buddy?" asks the painter.
It's the Joseph Vaughns of the world who have given regular people license to act like this. Talking heads on television who have repeated the incendiary words again and again until the insane has become commonplace. This guy sitting here wearing his work clothes isn't a monster, he probably has a wife and kids and — "Hey!" he shouts.
The cashier walks over, shoes squeaking on tile. Puts a hand on my shoulder. "We don't want trouble. You got to go," he says quietly.
"I'll go when I'm ready," I say.
"Let's see your temple, buddy," calls the painter again.
I hang my head lower, studying the meaningless TV- fuzz design on the countertop. Looking for a pattern in noise. This day has been coming for years and I had front-row seats but I never let myself see. Samantha bounced around the courts, trying to find a legal ground for her own existence, but every time things took another turn for the worse, I convinced myself it was someone else's problem. Well, it's sure as hell my problem now.
"You a fucking amp or something?" asks the painter, voice rising.
The cashier puts his hands on his hips, motions with his head toward the door.
I get up and leave.
My friend Dwayne lives a few minutes from here. I've known him for a few years and he's the kind of guy who can see things from another person's perspective. I sling my duffel bag over my shoulder and walk in his direction. Cars blow past me, scattering candy wrappers and damp paper cartons of iced tea. A crucifix of sweat stains my T- shirt by the time I trudge through Dwayne's toy- strewn yard and knock on the door.
"You're on TV, Owen. That sucks about your dad," he says.
I swallow salty tears.
"But did you kill that girl?" he asks, half hiding behind the door.
"News said the cops want to talk to you. They got your face up there with a bunch of other guys. Soldiers or terrorists or something."
"She was a student — "
"That's what they said on the news. She was a former student of yours. What was going on between you two, man? This is serious."
I don't even know how to respond. "I need a place to stay for a couple nights. My dad . . . I've got no place to go."
"I don't know. I think you need to get on the move, man. Let this all blow over."
Dwayne orients his body to block the door. "Owen, man, I've got to think about Monica and the kids," he whispers urgently. "Your face is on the news. I can't let you in here."
"How long have I known you, Dwayne?"
He pauses for a second, then answers, "No."
"No. I'm sorry, Owen. You have to find someplace else to go."
Dwayne is standing there, chin set, blocking the doorway. I get the strange feeling that this is all a joke, that we're together onstage and any minute he's going to burst out laughing and welcome me inside.
"It's a mistake. A mix- up," I say, taking a step forward. "I'm still me."
Dwayne doesn't move, but his eyes get hard. The door swings open a little wider and I see he's got a splintery wooden bat clenched in his other hand. The one he keeps in the umbrella stand by his front door.
"It's my family. There's a lot of bad shit going down — what am I supposed to do?" he asks.
I've got no answer to that question. Until now, the rules were written down on paper, neat and legible. But a judge tore the fucking paper to shreds. The rules are gone. All that's left is the grass-stained baseball bat in Dwayne's fist.
"I'm sorry," says Dwayne.
I turn and hurry down the porch steps.
"What am I supposed to do?" he calls after me. "What can I do about it, Owen?"
Live Blog: Former Echo Squad Soldiers Suspected in Bombing Plot, One Suspect Killed
[Posted at 8:12 a.m. ET] A bomb blast has torn through the heart of Washington, D.C., destroying offices of the Pure Human Citizen's Council. Local hospitals reported that three people were killed and eleven more injured seriously. As of now, no arrests have been made and no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
[Updated at 6:06 p.m. ET] A spokesman for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan police department has announced that authorities believe an amp separatist organization called Astra is to blame for the bombing. The spokesman declined to comment on what evidence led police to this conclusion. "Our nation is officially under attack by the radical amp minority, just as I have long warned that it would be," Senator Joseph Vaughn, head of the PHCC, said in a statement.
[Updated at 7:32 p.m. ET] A suspect detained near the site of the bombing has been shot and killed by police officers. Witnesses described a scene of panic as officers approached an onlooker who was exhibiting suspicious behavior. "The guy was moving weird. Like, too fast," said a witness who asked not to be identified.
[Updated at 9:42 p.m. ET] The suspect killed earlier today has been identified as Lawrence Krambule, a former member of the infamous Echo Squad. The group of twelve Special Forces soldiers was disbanded ten years ago after it was determined they had been willingly and illegally implanted with classified, militarized Neural Autofocus implants.
Hitching west. I tell myself that there is no shame in running away. It doesn't matter if fear fuels your flight. Just so long as you're running toward something. There is a device in my head that my father paid for with his life and only one person who can tell me what it is: a stranger named Jim who lives in a damn trailer park. I should have known this day was coming.
The pressure built silently, month after month. Court cases. Protests. The strain growing until it was unbearable, hidden in silent interactions between amps and regular people. I felt it in the burnt- eared shame of falling eye contact. In the rippling shift of elbows at the lunch table when an amp student sat down. By the end, the pressure was pushing in so hard that I wanted to pop my ears or scream or curl up and hide.
And then, boom. Pressure released. Enter free fall.
Every second now takes me away from the broken remains of my life. A job I've been effectively fired from, apartment I've been evicted from, and friends who've turned their backs on me. For the last twenty- four hours I've been running away from nothing — the life of a ghost.
The cab of the semi truck pulsates with rap music, the bass low and loud. I can smell fast food and lotion and sweat. But only barely. The air- conditioning is gushing icy odorless air into this oasis of life support, this pod wrapped in a ten- ton pile of hot speeding metal.
The autonomous rig looks a lot like the old- school trucks from the movies. A few more video screens, maybe. There's a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. The driver, Cortez, leans back in his seat, pudgy arms crossed over his stomach, hands lightly resting on puffy touch pads embedded in the steering wheel. His tiny pinkish fingernails list lazily with the wheel as it adjusts itself.
As we roll, my thoughts turn to the machinery that I carry inside my skull. Something special, my dad said. Something extra. Leaning my head against the cool window, I let the hum of the road vibrate through me. I imagine that I can feel the anonymous black plastic inside as it sends feathery pulses of electricity forking away into my gray matter.
Fwish. Fwish. Fwish.
Like a clock counting down, a time bomb wedged in the meat between my eyes. How long until it explodes? If the biocapacitor fails, the implant will lose power and I could die fast — lights out. If the clock falls too far out of sync, then the implant will send bad commands to my brain and I could die slow. And if the temperature or vibration or current fluctuates, or my bio- gel runs out or spoils, there's a chance I'll die and, honestly, who cares how fast or slow it happens?
There is no separating me from the amp. Our fates are grotesquely interwoven — a tree grown through a chain- link fence.
Live or die, it's a part of me.
I must have reached up and stroked the nub of plastic jutting from my temple without knowing it, because Cortez swivels his great head toward me. He watches my face for a long second, his three- hundred- pound frame quivering in his seat, settled in there like a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
Shit. How stupid can I be? I burrow deeper into my cushioned seat and nonchalantly press a palm against the tinted window. Outside, relentless sunlight acid washes the highway, sending up dazzling heat lines that make the horizon dance. Shadows of clouds skate across rolling green hills. Nothing else moves save the glinting of far- off traffic.
I can't remember ever being able to see this far.
"You coming from out east, huh?" asks Cortez.
"These rednecks out here don't like people being too smart," says Cortez, tapping his temple. "Pure Priders are always preaching that y'all will steal their jobs, you know? They probably have a point."
The dash- mounted video screen chirps, stutters on.
The thudding music recedes on an automatic quick fade and an emergency alert tone squawks. A fuzzy, nasal voice reads: "All points bulletin. A BOLO has been issued for Covenant Transport vehicles. Operators are instructed to be on the lookout for the following persons of interest. Be advised these suspects are former military and should be considered highly dangerous, even if unarmed. On contact, please report immediately to your regional coordinator. Operators are advised to verify information before taking action."
A grainy video appears. A title card reads: Echo Squad Conspirators Sought. A series of faces flash by — each of them young and hawkish, aggressive. And oddly similar. These are military portraits taken during boot camp. Each has a name underneath.
Valentine. Crosby. Stilman. Daley. Gray.
Oh, shit. The next face blinks onto the screen and there I am. My school photo, lifted from the Allderdice Web site. Starkly different from the others. Softer. It stares at me and Cortez for a second and a half, then disappears.
Cortez snorts, wide nostrils flaring. "Thought I knew you. Seen you on the tube, pardner."
This has to be a mistake. Why the fuck am I on a bulletin? How could I be swept up in a manhunt with real criminals? I keep my face pointed forward, panic rising in my chest. "What are you going to do?" I ask.
"Turn you in, man. I'm responsible for this truck. Anything goes wrong in here, it's my fault. This is a good job. I don't want to lose it."
"Look, they've got me confused with somebody else. You can see I'm not military. Just let me off anywhere," I say, my voice going hollow with fear. I'm staring at a button on the steering wheel. It has a phone on it. With a touch of his finger, Cortez can send me to jail or worse. "I won't tell anybody you picked me up," I say. "No harm, no foul."
"Sorry," he drawls. "Company already knows somebody in here. This truck is wired to the tits."
It's true. If the big man's hands leave those pads on the steering wheel for more than a few seconds, the truck will pull itself over and cut the engine. This is because years ago an original model autonomous tanker with a sensor malfunction and no driver rolled off the road and smashed into the side of an office building.
Wouldn't have been a big deal if the truck weren't hauling a double load of gasoline. The trucking company was sued out of business. And the rest of the industry realized they needed an insurance policy. Someone to take the blame.
In other words, a human driver.
"Why not turn yourself in?" asks Cortez. "You look like a damn schoolteacher or something. You don't want to be on the run from the cops."
I could stop running now, minimize the damage. I didn't push Samantha Blex. Let them arrest me and I can set the record straight. It's the sane thing to do. But I can't forget the edge of panic in my father's voice. Naked, ugly fear was on his face, the kind you never show willingly — the kind that's contagious.
I turn to Cortez.
"You heard amps are going to steal your job? Well, guess what? I couldn't drive your truck if I wanted to," I say. "No amp could steal your job after today."
"I can't take the blame for a wreck. Legally. In the eyes of the law I don't exist. You'd be better off having a three- year- old drive this thing."
Cortez snorts again, his deep- set bluish- gray eyes scanning the featureless, blazing road ahead. I can't read his expression. Can't tell if it's good or bad. But discrimination is legal now, and from what I've seen the regular people are getting the hang of it real fast. If this guy sends me back to Pittsburgh, it's all over.
"That's messed up," he says finally. "They're saying you're not even a person."
"It's what they're saying. I can't get picked up by the cops. I don't have any rights. They can do whatever they want to me. Will do."
The emergency alert squawks again. A tinny voice from the dash speaks: "Come in, Cortez. Come in."
Eyebrows up, Cortez paws a button on the dash and responds. "This Cortez."
"Cort. It's Jason. I'm doing the BOLO follow- up. Fleetscan indicates you took on a passenger in Nashville. Can you confirm?" Cortez frowns at me. "Yeah."
"Okay, can you let me get cab video?"
Cortez blinks, as if he's just woken up. He takes one hand off the steering wheel and scratches his unkempt beard. A light begins to blink on the dashboard, and his chubby hand flutters back to its roost almost unconsciously.
"Jason . . . it's my cousin. Giving him a ride to Tulsa to see his momma."
"That's nice, Cortez. Now let me get cab vid."
"Nah," says Cortez.
"Dammit, Cort. Are you smoking weed in there again?"
"Man, get out of here with that. Check my environmental."
"Then give me video."
"Do I come to your work and stare at you?"
"I'm trying to do my job here, Cortez. I don't have time for this shit. If you don't grant me vidrights, I'm engaging the override and flagging you for law enforcement inspection. Now, are you going to do it or not?"
"This is bullshit. It's called privacy, Jason — " responds Cortez, and then the whole dashboard flashes red. The doors thunk as they lock themselves. We start losing speed.
"Must be kidding," mutters Cortez, leaning on the steering wheel. He glances at me and shrugs, shakes his head. The gravel shoulder crunches under the truck tires. My stomach drops.
"Uh, hold up," I say, leaning toward the dash. I'm doing my sad best to sound like I could be Cortez's cousin. "Cortez shaved his head, all right? It's nasty. All shiny and shit. Head looks like a bowling ball with cuts all over it. Said he'd get fired before he lets you see it."
Thin laughter tinkles out of the dashboard. "What?" asks the voice. "Seriously?"
Cortez smiles at me, nods. "Barber in Nashville messed me up," he says. "Came at me like a ax murderer. I had to shave it all off. Laugh if you want, but you not gonna be seeing my mug for about two weeks."
The laughter slowly dies away. There is a long pause. Static.
"So, that's your cousin?" asks the voice.
"Yeah," says Cortez.
"He sounds white."
"What'd you say? Oh, we done," says Cortez. "Done, done, done." And he punches the cutoff button.
The truck crawls over the gravel shoulder, slowing until it finally stops. Blistering cold air rasps across my face and the dash burns bright red in my eyes. We sit together in silence for thirty seconds.
"Cops come," says Cortez in a whisper. "I'm saying you held me hostage."
"Fair enough," I say.
The dash flickers and goes dark.
Then, the lights power up and the dash returns to normal. The engine rumbles, starts. A smile spreads across Cortez's bearded face. I take a deep breath and collapse back into my seat. We're safe. Cortez pulls back onto the highway. We roll together toward the western horizon for about ten minutes before he speaks.
"What people been saying about amps," he says, "I heard all that shit before. If they're not calling you a monkey, then they're calling you a superman."
"So . . . are we good?" I ask.
"We be all right," says Cortez, never taking his eyes off the road. "Cuz," he adds, breaking into a wide grin. He playfully shoves me in the shoulder. "You know I gotta shave my head now, right?" After eight hours in the truck we pull in for gas outside Sallisaw, Oklahoma. I grab my pack, lean over, and shake hands with Cortez. When I crack open the hermetically sealed door, a razor's edge of dusk sunlight briefly stripes his face.
"You pretty close to where you going. Motel is over there. Should be an okay one for you — guy who owns it is blind." His amused chuckle is lost in the low bass line and profanitylaced lyrics. I thank Cortez and leave him in his rolling den. Step around the gas station's automatic fueler, avoiding the patterned light that it sprays as it blindly searches for a gas cap. Cortez never has to leave the truck, not even to fuel it.
Taking the blame is a full- time job.
Walking toward the motel, I hear a chime from the idling truck as it acknowledges the pump. I pretend to scratch my forehead, blocking the sight of my face from the two subtle lumps on that hulking hood as they twinkle with laser light, scanning the environment and matching the truck's local map with what's up there in the satellite. Even way out here, the world is thick with cameras.
Just another link in the supply chain of human civilization. It used to be people who drove the trucks and airplanes and boats. Things still look the same from the outside, but the core is always changing, always being upgraded. And the role of technology is under constant renegotiation.
As the big rig hauls itself out of the parking lot, engine hissing, I keep my head down and wonder what would happen if we rolled everything back ten years. The computers would go a little slower, I guess. The factories would make a little less, and the farms wouldn't produce as much. These seem like such small things, but we depend on each new advance.
Millions would die. Because once we have the tech, we can't let it go.
Fwish, fwish, fwish goes the implant in my head. It is inscrutable and mute and God knows what it does. But it doesn't seem like a clock ticking down anymore. More like a heartbeat. Steady and dependable.
At least, I hope so.