Thursday, September 17, 2015

Part III: "This is the Real World"

            “Nice job Masters,” Fife said when Alex woke up to see the captain looming over him.
“Whatever,” came Alex’s surly reply.
Captain Fife shot a cruel smile back in answer to Alex’s insolence.  He backed away from the teen empath, allowing the bright lights his body was blocking to hit Alex square in the face.
Masters quickly raised a hand to block the light.  At least, what Alex had for a hand.  But to the outside world, Alex’s hand was actually a stump of fused fingers shaped more like a dolphin’s flipper.  He tried his best to sit up instead.  He managed to do it too, as hard and slow as it was.
Alex threw his stubby legs over the side of the operating table.  He tried pulling out the cord in his ear with his other hand.  It, at least, had little pincer-like appendages sticking out of the end of it: remnants of fingers he never had.  But the cord was too thick, and his little pincers couldn’t extend far enough to allow it between them.  In frustration, Alex finally yanked his head to the left and the cord was pulled out like a stereo wire.
“Everything you got is being sorted and filed.  But the access code was the first thing we pulled.  As of this moment, the Fabian fortune is ours,” Fife scoffed.
“You proud of yourself?  Ruining a family?  Taking money from a scared kid?” Alex asked with attitude.
“Sure I’m proud.  I mean, talk about taking candy from a baby eh?” Fife chuckled.
Alex just stared at him: blankly.
“Here’s the thing Masters.  You don’t get to judge me.  You’re one of us.  Worse than us.  Because in this world, the real world, you’re a deformed monster.  So ugly that I’m the only one who can stomach the sight of you.  But in here,” Fife raised a hand to his temple.  “And here,” Fife lowered his hand to his chest where, underneath flesh and muscle and bone, it was presumed he had a heart.  “You’re a giant.  And you like that, don’t you?  Because it’s the one thing you’re good at.  Doing our dirty work is the only thing you’re good at.”
“You’re right,” Alex said simply as he raised a stumpy hand to his head.  As soon as he felt the leathery texture of his bald, calcified scalp he suddenly remembered that he didn’t have any hair to rake through; and no fingers to do the raking.
Fife’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.  He laughed as he produced a cigar from his breast pocket, put it between his yellowed teeth and turned away.  The captain walked out of the Mind Room leaving a trail of acrid smoke trailing behind him.
Alex looked over at the operating table a few feet away.  On it lay the still-unconscious body of Michael Fabian.  Fabian’s real-world body couldn’t have been more different from the neural projection that Alex dealt with.  Instead of a gaunt frame, the real Fabian was healthy with swelled muscles.  Instead of being frail, Alex radiated physical strength even in his sleep.  Instead of ugliness, Alex saw the most handsome guy he had ever seen.  He was ok admitting that to himself; he wasn’t gay.
Alex edged forward on his operating table.  It was the only way, without actual hands, to get off the thing.  After falling hard on the floor from a four foot drop, Alex pushed himself up and hobbled over to Michael’s table.  He stood only slightly taller than the comatose Fabian prince.
“I’m sorry bro,” Alex said as he bent low to Michael’s ear.  “I conned you.  No gettin around it.  But believe it or not, I’m on your side.”
An echo of something came through the open door.  Alex turned around fast.  Too fast.  His body wasn’t nearly as flexible as a…as a normal person’s body.  He let out a howl of pain.  But that scream and sensation were very familiar to him.  He knew pain well, and had known it all his life.  He thought of it as the annoying kid at summer camp that no one ever liked, but everyone had to put up with.  Except, Alex had never been to summer camp.  He had gleaned that detail from one of the first targets he ever conned, and he liked it so much that it stuck with him.
Alex opened his eyes after that initial surge of pain had subsided.  He scanned the room looking for the source of the noise he had just heard, but he didn’t see anything.  Not that he could see very well to begin with.  But if Fife had come back, Alex would know.  The captain couldn’t help but make an entrance.
“When you wake up you’ll be poor,” Alex whispered as he turned back to Fabian.  “You’re free now, but it’s gonna be hard.  If you can’t make it through on your own,” Alex turned around again.  Still nothing.  “If you can’t get through it on your own, then come find me.  I meant what I said before.  I’m your friend, and I’m here if you need me.”   
Alex raised himself from Michael Fabian’s ear.  The formerly rich heir was still unconscious, but even unconscious faces: especially unconscious faces; could still look sad.  And Michael Fabian’s face in the real world was just as sad as his neural projection.
Alex turned and stumbled to the open door.  His job was done, and now his body was screaming for rest.

Alex’s footsteps, or…the closest thing he had to footsteps, echoed as the mind thief plodded on down the hall.  As they faded into the white noise of whirring machines, Michael Fabian stirred.  His body twitched, as though it were in the beginning stages of waking up.  He didn’t though.  Fabian wouldn’t wake up until Fife wanted him to.
       But on Michael’s face, his sleeping face, a small smile had formed.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Part II: "Best Friends, Bro!"

            When Alex opened his eyes, he found himself lying face-first in a dim, white light.  It felt solid enough, but it was so dull that he thought it might go out at any second.  What that meant for Michael Fabian, the rich heir to the Fabian family fortune whose head this was, Alex didn’t know.  He was here to do a job: con Michael Fabian into giving him the access code to that treasure trove of wealth.  Alex stood up, and as he reached his full height he felt the gelled spikes of his red hair bend as his head pressed against a low ceiling of dim white.
The walls behind and to either side of Alex were the same as the floor: fading, solid white.  But the fourth wall, the one Alex was facing, wasn’t there.  Instead, there was a floor to ceiling opening in the room that looked out into a billowing white haze: a thick fog that shielded the deeper parts of Michael Fabian’s mind.
In the center of the room was Michael Fabian himself.  This was not the healthy, fit teenager that Alex had seen in the waking world.  This was Michael’s neural projection of himself: an emaciated, pathetic looking stick of a kid, chained from head to toe in a small, wooden chair.
“Sup dude,” Alex said as he put his hands in his pockets.
Michael’s eyes slowly rolled over the mind thief that had just addressed him.  His head didn’t move, as though it couldn’t.  But it didn’t matter.  Michael sat there, looking over Alex for a long time.  After what felt to Alex like several minutes, Michael finally breathed in deep and exhaled long; clearly, even just looking at something was a monumental effort for this projected invalid.
“Who…are…you?” Michael asked in a thin, wispy voice.
“Name’s Alex,” Masters replied as he pulled a match from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth, stick end first.
“Why…here?” Michael pressed.
“To help you bro,” Alex said.  “Mind telling me why you did this to yourself?”
Michael’s eyes narrowed then.  “Me…do…this?”
“It’s your mind amigo,” Alex chewed on the end of his match and spit.  “Who else can lock you up in here?”
Everything started to shake.  The floor and the three walls of white suddenly began to pulse with bright flashes.  The decrepit, neural projection of Michael Fabian lifted his head up to look Alex Masters square in the eye.  The rich boy’s body straightened in his chair, and the clinking of metal chains reverberated all around them.
Michael Fabian was not an invalid anymore.
“Who?” Michael asked with an echoing irritation.  “Everyone!”
“Come on guy,” Alex said as nonchalantly as he could, trying to control the situation.  The key to gaining Michael Fabian’s trust was controlling the conversation.  He couldn’t let Michael get so emotional that the Fabian heir became irrational.  But Michael had to be emotional enough to be open to suggestion.  It was a tightrope Alex loved walking.  “Who can reach you in your own mind?”
“Do you have a family?” Michael asked quickly.
Alex was stunned.  He hadn’t expected a question about himself.  He hadn’t expected a question at all.  Usually, these targets were so self-involved that he could predict almost everything they would say.  It made empathizing easier; because these kids never wanted to know about Alex.  They just wanted to believe that Alex knew about them.  
“Not anymore,” Alex said honestly.
“Then I guess I know the answer to this next question, but I’ll ask it anyway,” the rumbling of the room was consistent, yet Michael sat stone still in his chair.  “Do you know what it’s like to be part of a dynasty?”
“Nope,” Alex said, mustering up as much cool as he could.  He was trying to regain lost ground.
The room rocked then.  Alex lost his balance and fell backward.  The match fell from his mouth, and when Alex recovered himself he looked at Michael Fabian in awe.  There was no more pretense now.  Alex had just royally pissed off the prince of the Fabian family.  His cool was gone; swallowed up by Michael’s rage.
“No one does!” Michael’s thoughts screamed in his mind.  “It’s worse than just being rich.  The rich kids have it easy.  They’re saddled with everyone thinking they can just have whatever they want.  But the son of a billionaire?  Who’s father was also a billionaire along with his father before him and so on?  We’re expected to want for nothing.  Do you think you could ever truly want for nothing?”   
“If I’m bein honest holmes?” and Alex was being honest.  Pretense hadn’t worked, so it was time to try something new.  “If I had your kinda money…”
“That’s what EVERYONE SAYS!!” Michael’s voice roared.  The room shook violently: like a magic eight ball in the hands of a precocious two year old.  “It’s IMPOSSIBLE to want for nothing!  Everyone wants something!  But if I admit that, then I’m a monster.  Because what in the world could I possibly want that I can’t have?  I don’t know, maybe friends?  A real relationship with my family?  How about just the genuine satisfaction of feeling like I earned something?  I get none of that being part of a dynasty.  Because a dynasty is a living, breathing corporation, whose members are only worth their value to the whole.”
“So what is it you bring to the table?” Alex asked in an unsteady voice.  He had to turn this around.  He had to show Michael that there was some level on which they both could relate.
“Honestly?” Michael said, pausing to take a breath.  “I have no idea.  My older brother is being groomed to take over for my father.  My younger brother is a regular at the White House, where he ‘hangs out’ with the President’s kids.  The only thing I’m ever asked to do is listen.  And remember.  So I do, because I can.  And because I can remember it all, I’m told more.  But I’m storing so much information now that it feels like I’m drowning in it.  Like I’m stranded in an ocean of other people’s memories, with no room for any of my own.”
That was the moment that Alex Masters understood his target.
Michael was depressed: clinically.  The kid genuinely had no idea how smart he was.  He didn’t realize his hyper awareness, pin-point retention and instantaneous recall made his brain a biological lock-box; the perfect vault for valuable trade and family secrets. 
The problem that others failed to see, though, was that a vault had to be remote: hard to get to.  For Michael Fabian, this meant isolation.  Access to the heir had to be limited, and no one, aside from Michael’s family, could know how important he really was: including Michael himself.  
That was the key to destroying the Fabian prince.  Because none of Michael’s family bothered to think about how isolation and emotional distancing could affect a depressed kid.  Until now.
“Forget it,” Alex said as though it were a simple revelation.
“What?” Michael was confused.
“All that stuff people want you to remember.  Forget it,” Alex clarified.
“I can’t just forget it,” Michael said indignantly.  He opened his mouth to say more, but then he stopped himself.  His whipped from Alex to the ground, looking left and right.  The lights of the room were pulsing brightly.  Clearly, his mind was working fast, processing all these thoughts he wasn’t sharing.
Alex was focused on Michael.  Internalizing was unpredictable.  When the target wasn’t sharing his thoughts, there was no way to steer them in the direction they needed to go in.  
Finally, the rapidly pulsing lights slowed down.  Michael’s eyes stopped darting around so much, and his eyebrows lowered.  The Fabian heir raised his gaze to Alex Masters again.  “Besides…what use would I be if I did?”
Alex had won.
“You’d be you, bro,” Alex said with genuine concern.  He suddenly felt a pang in the pit of his stomach.  He felt that a lot, but he had to do what he came here to do.  What he was trained to do.
He slowly approached Michael and put a hand on the boy’s chained shoulder.  The neural eyes of Michael Fabian began to tear up.
“I’m not enough,” Michael said sorrowfully.
“Hey!” Alex barked.  He couldn’t let Michael wallow in self pity.  Now was the time to motivate.  Now was the time to become the best friend Michael Fabian ever had.  “I don’t wanna hear that!  You’re Michael Effin Fabian.  You have your own interests, your own personality.  You’re not just some living scrapbook of family facts.”
“You don’t know what I know,” Michael said.
“Then tell me,” Alex said as he grabbed hard at Michael’s shoulder and bent down on one knee so he could be level with the kid.  “Tell me everything.  What you like, what you don’t.  You have to let it all out.  Every secret you’ve ever kept and every secret your family wants you  to keep.”
“How will that help?” Michael’s brow furrowed in suspicion.
This was the last hurdle, and it was the easiest one to jump.
“Do you know what these chains are?” Alex tugged at the metal links wrapped around Michael and let the clinking echo in Fabian’s mind.
“No,” Michael said honestly.
“It’s all that info you’re storing,” Alex told him.  “Every fact, every secret, is a link in this chain.  If you let go of your secrets, there will be nothing tying you down anymore.  You’ll be free to be you broski.  Free to be you.”
“I don’t know if I can,” Michael said as he suddenly looked down in shame.
“It’s cool to be scared dude,” Alex said empathetically.  “We all are.  But being yourself means having to deal with the fear.  It’s less scary being what someone else wants you to be.  But that’s how you get stuck.  Being yourself, as scary as it is, means you get to do you.”
Michael sat in silence, looking up from his chair.  The clouds in the opening behind him slowly began to part.  Bright beams of sunlight were starting to break through.
“Thanks for talking to me like a person,” Michael finally said.
           “Anytime duderino,” Alex replied as he pulled another match from the seemingly endless supply in his pocket.
“I guess you’re pretty cool after all,” Michael said with a smile.
“Thanks mon’ami,” Alex smiled back.  “You’re pretty cool yourself.”
  “Ok,” Michael exhaled.  “Here goes…”
Michael Fabian told everything.  Every detail of his life.  Every hope, every dream, and every secret his family had ever confided in him.
Just as had been promised, Michael’s chains broke one link at a time.  The echo of snapping metal reverberated throughout his head with each secret shared, and before long all the chains had fallen away.  He lifted a hand slowly to his face.  It was still emaciated, but the look in Michael’s eyes as he turned it over and back less than two inches from his neural face was one of pure joy.
“Thank you,” Michael said.  So grateful.  After it was all over.
“I’m your friend brotha,” Alex told his thankful prey.  “I’ll always be your friend.”
Michael’s eyes teared up again.  He was free.
        That’s when Alex disappeared.  Vanished into the ether of Michael Fabian’s mind.  Michael was shocked at first.  His eyes went wide and his mouth hung open.  But then realization hit him.  Behind him, the clouds slowly rolled back into place covering the sun.  Michael himself, or rather his neural projection, slowly crumpled back into the position he was in when Alex had arrived.  His head bent down, his shoulders hunched up, and he became still: like a statue.  But the chains - the chains stayed broken on the floor.