“Through the Iris”
by Tyler Wells Lynch
He’s trying to pull a fast one on us. They always do this. They want you to rethink everything you think you know until you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s methodical, like some kind of Machiavellian wet dream. They think if somehow they could get you to second-guess yourself then maybe they could transmute some of that doubt into pity. And pity is an insidious little bugger, isn’t it? That’s the weapon they use to worm their way out of tough situations. That’s how they build their crystal-gazing cults and their pyramid schemes and their crafty little nesting dolls. Mr. Vogel here knows that, so he’s fishing us for doubt. But there will be no doubt. We’ve done our research.
“I understand you’re just doing your job,” he says. “But I’m telling you, those funds were allocated to a Phoenix nonprofit called Project Century. Look it up. They do work with low-income neighborhoods. Low-interest loans and the sort. I’ll admit there must’ve been a filing error or something, but the funds are there, I promise you.”
Like I said, we’ve done our research. We know about Project Century. It’s a front. But part of our job is to make the Subjects understand their situation and, if at all possible, confess. Only then can we give them the Choice. So I turn to Larson, my partner, and ask him to bring up Project Century’s Q3 lending figures. “Look for a credit balance of, oh, I don’t know… $18,678.65.”
Vogel shoots me a funny look. I smile at him.
“August 17th, last year,” Larson says, tapping at his tablet. “An installment of $18,678.65 is paid to one Manuel Ramirez of Elmira, Arizona. The same figure is allotted every two weeks for… it looks like the rest of the quarter.”
Vogel turns to me.
“Shall we look at Q4?” I ask him.
He looks incredulous.
“We’re not the IRS,” I continue. “We don’t need an audit to access your financial records. You can thank the Verdict for that.”
“But that’s not possible—”
“Please, Mr. Vogel, don’t deny it. We can go as deep as you’d like in whatever-which-way you’d like, but it all ends in the same place. You know it does.”
And here it comes: the tears. You can set your watch to it. Always with the goddamn tears. I chalk it up to a knack for acting rather than genuine human emotion. There’s no emotion with these people. They’re programmed to avoid it.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he pleads. “I’m sorry, I only thought… Please understand!”
There’s always a sob story, some self-centered yarn about how they were born this way, that it’s society’s fault, that they should be treated like patients, not criminals. Barf. It’s a ruse like any other. They act as if the condition has deprived them of free will, as if deceit and belligerence were mere molecules in a vacuum. Those are the ones you can spot from a mile away, because they’re the ones who’ve had a lifetime to think about their condition, a lifetime to shroud themselves in philosophical bullshit like genetic determinism and evolutionary narcissism. They say we are all just playthings in some fatalistic weave, and that concepts like justice and preemptive action are masturbatory. All the rest see themselves as victims in some grand government conspiracy, which makes them dangerous, unpredictable, liable to hole themselves up in some shack in Montana, crafting package bombs. It only confirms the diagnosis. Persecutory delusions are a symptom of the condition.
Vogel, though, he knows what he is.
“Sorry,” I tell him. “Like you said, I’m just doing my job. Now we need to talk about your Choice—”
“No!” he yells. “Listen! After my wife left, I… Things were tough—I have a rash! See?”
I know I shouldn’t provoke the Subjects but this Vogel chap is a Madoff-level head case. “All those scholarships,” I say. “All those futures. I hope the yacht was worth it.”
And of course this sets him off. “It’s not right!” he yells. “This is no way to treat someone! We’re people too, you know! We have rights!”
“Not many since the Verdict.”
And now I’m angry, because this is another tic you can set your watch to: Whenever they’re forced to account for their crimes they choose to play the victim card. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, they say, and I tend to agree. I think it’s too lenient. That’s why the Homogenizers have power settings: One through Five. A One will just take you down a peg, maybe slash your IQ a few points, dredge up a healthy dose of anxiety—just enough to discourage risk and impulsivity. We do a lot of those.
A Three is less pretty, and less common. It renders you soft, dumb, inert, more or less disabled. It’s a sad thing to watch if you don’t know the Dreg’s history. Threes and up tend to be judicial territory, a legal sentence for some repeat offender—like Vogel here. I’ve administered a few Threes and Fours, but only one Level Five. I remember it clearly. The Subject was a total scumbag, a mail bomber out of Leavenworth, so I didn’t exactly lose any sleep over it, but it was still a heavy thing to watch: You see this man, shaking in his boots, pulling the restraints so hard his skin starts to break. His teeth are chattering, eyes bugging out, screaming. You turn on the Homogenizer—we call them “Spiders”—and it has this harsh, menacing sound, like an air raid siren made just for you. And that’s when the tears start to flow. It’s sad, but then you think about the tears his victims must have shed and suddenly you don’t feel so bad.
So you turn the dial all the way to Five—it gets loud, like an old microwave—and you hold the Spider over his head. The thing snaps to life, senses the Subject, and then its eight leg-like electrodes clamp down on his skull. You pull the trigger. He screams and convulses, and within seconds it’s over. He slumps down in the chair with heavy eyelids and a gaping mouth, and suddenly he doesn’t look so dangerous. It’s like he just woke from a nap, only now his brain is alert to the feelings of guilt and compassion. And it cripples him, a vector of nothingness.
At least, that’s the way I see it, because when you’re talking about Fours and Fives you’re talking about true psychopaths (although we don’t use that term anymore). You’re talking about people who have been veiled from the experience of empathy. After a run-in with a Spider that veil is lifted, and they’re able to see for the first time through someone else’s eyes. Nobody knows why some Dregs end up in a vegetative state. Maybe it’s the shock of losing and gaining something all at once, like a deaf man who hears music for the first time. Or maybe it’s some deeper neurological mystery we’ve yet to understand. Most Fives end up with an IQ of less than 50, which is hardly enough brainpower to articulate complex emotions. But I know they’re in there, feeling human for once, whether they like it or not.
Vogel now seems resigned to his fate. He’s slumped into the chair and doesn’t seem to be paying attention. After I list off a few more crimes he takes a deep breath and says, “Just get on with it.”
I nod and tell him that first he needs to make his Choice. Larson clears his throat and begins reading from the tablet: “In accordance with H.R.6870, commonly known as ‘the Verdict,’ the Subject shall be granted a choice of disciplinary action. In the case of Subject ECS73298, Mr. Leonard Vogel, the options are as follows… One: The Subject shall be indicted for the crimes of fraud, embezzlement, identity theft, forgery, and false impersonation, with a 98.3 percent probability of conviction followed by a prison term of no less than 37 years. Two: The Subject shall be exonerated of all charges and given full immunity from prosecution henceforth, provided he consents to a Cognitive Homogenization Procedure by means of Level Three dilution of the anterior insular cortex.”
Larson looks up. We wait for Vogel’s response.
“And my assets?” he says.
What a scumbag. “Liquidated.”
Larson taps his tablet. “There is a small yearly stipend should you choose to be Homogenized.”
After a few seconds Vogel sighs, cracks a smile and says, “Light me up, spook.”
Back at DSH, Larson and I return the Spider to the equipment locker and head into the Madam’s office for a debrief. That’s what we call her, Director Cuomo, “the Madam”—not to her face, of course. It’s a running joke that started when one of the young Inquisitors, a green little chap named Spice, claimed he had a dream in which a leather-clad Andrea Cuomo bound him to a fire hydrant and spanked him like a naughty orphan. I miss that guy. Apparently he had some sort of mental breakdown and had to skip town. I didn’t ask about it but I do appreciate the little sobriquet he inspired.
“The sentence,” Cuomo says before Larson and I are through the door. It’s meant as a question.
“Homogenization,” Larson says, taking a seat in front of her desk. “Level Three Dilution with minimum yearly stipend. Flawless application.”
& I nod. “Nothing to write home about.”
Cuomo steeples her fingers and rocks in her chair. The thing seems to creak in unison with her voice. “Good. I’ll have a full report by the weekend.”
Before I have a chance to protest—this being the end of a Thursday—Larson says, “Certainly, Ms. Cuomo,” and she’s onto another subject:
“I want to talk about the DSH budget. Doubtless you’ve seen the news: Public support for the Homogenization Program is at an all-time low. Try as you might to point out nationwide declines in violent crime, corruption, prison populations, corporate fraud—no one cares. All they see is green.” Her eyes are focused on something outside the window, but there’s nothing there—just an overcast sky and the peak of the Capital building. “We’ll be gutting the ranks. As our Senior Inquisitors, you two will draft a list of six names.”
“Six?” I say, trying to catch my tone.
Larson eyes me. Cuomo stops rocking. “Is there a problem, Acosta?”
“No problem. It’s just… I didn’t see it coming.”
“No one did. No one thought the stock market would plummet in almost perfect correlation with the Homogenization Program. No one thought investment activity would hit historic lows and that every metric of society—good and ugly—would nosedive like a dead bird. It’s like learning the world is flat after all.”
“Maybe we should pack it in and return to the trees,” I say, to joyless silence. I clear my throat. “What’s the prescription then?”
“The prescription is to tread lightly,” she replied. “No more Ones and Twos, not until public opinion changes or the limelight shifts.”
“Why Ones and Twos?” I ask. “They don’t really hurt anyone. They’re just psychos who—”
“Empathetically challenged,” Larson says, looking up from his tablet. “EC, for short.”
“Whatever,” I say. “They’re just empathetically challenged taxpayers who run red lights, get into bar fights, and maybe take a bribe from time to time.”
“They’re also the people who make risky but legal investments,” Larson points out.
Cuomo nods. “Exactly. They’re the ones whose absence is causing the markets to tank—or so the eggheads on L Street think. The idea is that by limiting the Homogenization Program to felons we’ll keep the peace and put some juice back into the economy. Best of both worlds, I guess.” She removes a red marker from her desk and begins writing something down. “That’ll be all. I’ll have Vogel’s Homogenization Report by noon tomorrow.” As we get up to leave she adds, “Larson, you’ll give me that list of names, and Acosta?” I turn around. “I’d like you to write up the report on your own.”
My stomach sinks.
“You could use the practice,” she adds,
Twist the knife, why don’t you?
You could use the practice. I repeat the words in my head as I wait for the bartender to pour my beer. What did she mean by that? I swear she’s always had it out for me—like the time she singled me out for being an “office distraction.” Why? Because I won’t kiss the ring? I bet she and Larson are sleeping together. There’s some high-octane fuel for my nightmares. I can’t imagine Cuomo enjoying anything more exotic than fiber-enriched oat bran, let alone coitus.
But I shouldn’t grudge. The Madam may be a sonofabitch but Larson is okay, I guess. He was kind enough to let me crash on his couch after my breakup. He never judged me or told me to shut my trap when I blathered on about Beth. And that woman could get under my skin like a seven-year itch. We’d only been living together a month when she gave me the boot, right out of the blue. She actually threw my clothes out of the window like they do in the movies, cursing and flailing her arms like some Venetian crone. I wouldn’t be surprised if she turned out to be EC herself. A lot of DC reporters are.
There was a time, after the breakup, when I had to brace myself for every Monday morning sit-down, worried her name would appear on the Weekly Leads list. I pictured myself showing up at her newsroom with a Spider in hand, set to Category Two. Maybe Three.
Not likely. They’d never assign an Inquisitor to light up his own ex. The Department of Social Homogenization may be a bit drastic but it’s not inhumane. Maybe Beth’s already been Homogenized—the project of some other department. Maybe I’ll pay her a visit soon and find out.
My beer finally arrives and I start plugging away at the report. It’ll take at least six hours to finish, which irritates me because Larson could hammer these things out in a couple hours. Cuomo knows that, and the idea that she and Larson are sleeping together starts to make sense. The Madam and her factotum, shoveling busy-work onto the Office Distraction known as Richard Acosta, DSH Inquisitor.
By the time my second beer arrives I’ve hardly finished itemizing Vogel’s wicked resume of fiscal felonies. I can’t help but wonder what he’s up to right now, if he even knows what’s happened to him—all alone, frightened, trotting around D.C. in soiled trousers with an IQ to match that of a particularly intelligent second-grader, a sobbing halfwit trying to summon generosity from the very people he’s used to defrauding. How ironic is that? For once his desperation is genuine, and for once nobody wants to help him. So he’s ignored, discarded, seen through like the wraith he is.
And that’s all I care to think about Leonard Vogel.
Someone enters the pub and the bartender starts shooing him. “Not you again! Out!” The man shies away, ducks into the corner, and starts wailing and slapping his mittened hands against his face. He’s wearing a huge winter jacket with a fur hood that obscures most of his face, a snow boot on one foot and a sneaker on the other. The bartender is rounding the bar and appears ready to manhandle the poor sod. “Out! I can’t have you scaring my customers away!” The bartender shoves him and as he turns I catch a glimpse of his face.
I know that face.
“Holy shit,” I say, getting up from the stool. “Hold up!”
The bartender is already angling him for the door. “Trust me, you don’t want this sad-sack in here.”
“Just wait a sec.” I eye the Dreg and wait for him to notice me. Tears of confusion are running down his face. “Spice?”
Something registers in his eyes. He sniffles. “I’m cold,” he says.
I turn to the bartender. “Let me buy him a drink.”
“Not a chance. You see me pouring shots for wild animals in here?”
“Just a water,” I say.
“Coke,” the bartender says. “I don’t serve Dregs free-of-charge.”
Spice sits on the stool next to me and sips Coke from a straw. Some of the brown liquid trickles down his unkempt beard and falls back into his glass. “What happened to you?” I ask.
He continues to stare into his drink, stirring ice cubes with the straw. “I’m not cold now,” he says.
“Do you remember me?”
“Tastes like sweet.”
“Spice.” Our eyes meet. “Do you remember me? We worked at DSH together. Years ago.”
“Remember? Madam Cuomo?”
Something ignites. He shrieks and the room falls silent. “Alright, that’s enough,” the bartender shouts, rounding the bar again.
“Wait,” I tell him, then turn back to Spice: “Tell me why you were Homogenized.”
He shrieks again. The bartender grabs his jacket, pulls him off the stool and shuffles him to the door. I grab my jacket and tablet and quickly stuff the gear into my satchel. Spice is already outside. I’m about to follow him out when the bartender crosses his arm over the doorframe. “Two beers and a coke,” he says.
“Here,” I say, tossing a twenty onto the floor.
He still doesn’t budge. “Pick it up.”
I laugh. The man is half my size, so I call his bluff and push his arm out of the way. He shouts something about never coming back as I rush out into the night.
The sidewalks are bustling. I scrape between scores of distracted faces with eyes buried in glowing gadgets. I shout his name. No answer. It’s too dark to make out their faces. Cars obscure the other side of the street. The din is fierce. Spice is gone, just another wraith in a city of pencil-pushers.
Larson’s flat is on the second floor of an old brownstone on T Street. I can tell he’s not home because the lights are off and it’s not yet nine o’clock, though I could probably break in if I wanted to. No need. He’s probably off satisfying the carnal desires of Madam Cuomo. I imagine the boredom of their sex life: always missionary, always with freshly cleaned sheets and the scent of latex and oatmeal soap in the air. The rituals of stone-cold bureaucrats letting their hair down. A shiver crawls up my spine.
It’s not long before Larson shows up. For some reason, he doesn’t look surprised to see me. “What are you doing here?” he asks.
I ignore the question. “How’s that list of names going?”
“Took thirty seconds,” he says. “Only had to glance at the performance specs and slice off the last six names.”
“Hope I’m not on there.”
He waits for me to explain what I’m doing here.
“We should talk,” I say. “Inside.”
We head up to his apartment and Larson starts brewing some tea. He offers me a cup and I tell him thanks but no thanks, that the real reason I’m here is because I happened to run into an old colleague of ours. This gets his attention: “Did you?”
“Chap by the name of Spice. Before your tenure.”
“And he’s been Homogenized. No doubt about it.”
“Yes, quite badly.” I take a seat at the table and watch Larson open a packet of Earl Grey. “You’re assistant to the Madam, so I figured you might—”
“You shouldn’t badmouth her like that,” he says. “Her name is Andrea Cuomo. Director Cuomo, to you and me.”
Oh yes, they’re definitely sleeping together. “Whatever. You’re assistant to Director Cuomo. You’re good with numbers. I’m sure you know more about hiring policies than any other Inquisitor.”
“Perhaps.” He puts the kettle on the stove and flicks the burner, hardly glancing at me. “But these are not matters for me to discuss. Not with you.”
“Aren’t you curious why a former Inquisitor is now a Dreg?”
“Come on,” I say, standing up. The water is starting to roil. “Don’t bull shit a bull-shitter.” I’ve got a good three inches on him and, as always, it calms me. I’m not a violent man, but I’m apt to recognize the tendency in others.
“No bull shit. Just waiting for you to do the math… Your old friend was obviously EC.”
I sit back down. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would DSH hire an EC?”
The kettle starts to whistle. Larson removes it from the heat and pours a cup. “You sure you don’t want any?”
“Just answer the question.”
He cups the tea with both hands. “Acosta,” he says. “I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to figure out. Maybe you’re not as bright as I thought.” He slurps a sip. “But if you so require my assistance… Every DSH Inquisitor is empathetically challenged.”
I laugh. “What are you talking about?”
He’s looking right through me now, then he lowers his mug and says, “I first suspected it in high school. There was this bully, a hockey player named Justin. He really hated me for some reason, thought I was creepy—like a school shooter or something. He would steal my books when I wasn’t looking and sell them to lowerclassmen. When I threatened to tell on him he said nothing would come of it, because he’s Justin and everyone loves hockey.”
“Just listen. Justin was EC but he wasn’t very smart, just brutish and narcissistic. I was really good with computers—still am—but Justin could hardly set a margin-top in HTML. So one day I crafted an email from an untraceable account, filled it with fetish porn and encrypted the base layer. I veiled the top layer with instructions from the teacher to download and print its contents for a homework assignment. He did, and the library printers flooded with images of men having sex with pineapples and old ladies farting on birthday cakes—all sourced back to Justin’s computer. This was a Jesuit school so it was enough to get him expelled.”
He picks up his tea, slurps another sip. “A few weeks later I saw him working at Burger King. He recognized me but I refused to recognize him. I looked right past him as I placed my order, then I walked into the bathroom, relieved myself, flushed an endless pile of napkins down the toilet until it backed up and spilled into the dining room. I stood there eating my cheeseburger and watching Justin as he frantically cleaned up my mess.” He takes another sip, smiles. “I didn’t hate Justin. I just needed him to… well, go away. I needed him to know that he was nothing, below me, one of them, and that one way or another he was destined to clean up after me. A somebody.” He lowers the mug. “Director Cuomo… She noticed my talents.”
“Jesus man, you’re a psycho.”
“Empathetically challenged, Acosta. And you are too. I have the files to prove it.”
“The files from your administration tests, when you were hired.”
“Fuck off, I’m no psycho.”
“You are, Acosta.”
He stops and I watch him slurp another sip of tea. I could slap it out of his hands, maybe scald his face a little.
“There’s no shame in it. Some say we’re the reason the species survived extinction millions of years ago
“Who says that?”
“Well what about Spice?” I say, trying to ignore his slurping. “He was never exactly the spitting image of a survivor. Why Homogenize someone like that?”
“Obviously he lost his way after leaving DSH, fell in with the wrong crowd, did something ill-advised. Who knows? I wouldn’t ever want to be a former bureaucrat. What even is that?”
I look at him quizzically. “A person?”
“You should leave,” Larson says. “Cuomo wants Vogel’s Homogenization report by noon.”
Sleep comes in fits. As I stare up at the ceiling it occurs to me I am just a patsy in a large hierarchy of groveling bureaucrats, all stepping over each other’s heads to suck the air out of the room. I shake the thought, toss and turn, sweat and furrow. My mind floats to something Beth said when we broke up: “Life is too short to spend time trying to fix the unfixable.”
And I feel a certain contempt for the truth in that, however it was intended, because I find myself trading in the unfixable. I feel like a merchant of nothingness, an alchemist transmuting vectors of perceived evil into aimless nodes of idiocy, and then calling it a solution—not to heal society or rectify its ills, but to bolster the resumes of ambitious functionaries like Larson and Cuomo. I picture them fucking atop the crushed skulls of their victims. I imagine the revelry they must have in knowing they’re no different than the poor souls below, just that they won.
I can’t allow it. The way I see it, there are two evils at hand, and one of them is slightly less than the other. What I possess is the brain to tell the difference, and so my conscience is clear in hatching a plan of my own.
Cuomo’s office is dark and adorned with corporate art: wicker balls, faux mahogany, impressionist portraits just provocative enough to imply sophistication but too rarefied to invite explanation. Cuomo may be a charlatan but she’s a careful one. There’s no trace of her relationship with Larson, not in her computer, not in her files, not in the creepy portraits on the wall. What kind of a high-functioning bureaucrat doesn’t keep a detailed record of her every move?
I hear the murmur of colleagues filing into the office for the day. Somewhat discouraged, I do a last-ditch scan of the Homogenization logs on Cuomo’s computer. They go back years, since before my time, and are detailed to the decimal point, all the way up to a summary of yesterday’s report: Awaiting completion of report, Inq. R. Acosta.
Fat chance, Madam.
I’m not even sure what I’m looking for—until I notice one particular entry. Today is Friday, but there’s a completed Report for a Homogenization scheduled for this Monday. Level Five. The names of the inquisitor and the EC are both listed, “classified.” Only a serial number for the Spider is given: 4Y374NF.
In all my years at DSH I’ve never seen a classified Report. I command-F “classified” and find another log from a little over two years ago: same category, same serial number. And then another from five years ago, before my time. Same thing.
I plunge a thumb drive into the computer and pull all the data I can. I need to get my hands on that Spider and check its history. It should have all the details, even an audio recording of the procedure. All I need is the Report number, which is right here in my hands.
The doorknob clicks. I pull the drive, fall back into the chair—Cuomo’s chair—and try to look like I’ve been waiting for her. She’s carrying a satchel in one hand and an open file in the other. She’s not even surprised to see me. If she is she supplants it with characteristic iciness. “Acosta,” she says. “That chair is an antique.”
“Just resting my old bones. I had a rough night.”
“Doubtless writing up Vogel’s Homogenization report?”
“Not exactly,” I say, leaning back.
“Acosta, if you have any interest in keeping your job—”
“Larson tells me I’m a psycho, that every Inquisitor is a pyscho. Even you.”
She tosses her satchel onto the desk, sighs, looks bored. “Sounds like Larson has been a naughty boy.”
She thinks she’s being sarcastic, but I read something true in her eyes. “Is it true?”
“It’s true that one must be empathetically challenged to surgically remove the primal instincts of another human being.”
“That’s an odd way of putting it,” I say, not yet sure if I agree. “But don’t you think that information should be shared with Inquisitors? Even for Washington, withholding a secret like that seems more a crime than an investment.”
“What difference does it make?” She’s speaking through her teeth now. “It’s a nasty business that no human with a conscience could do. That’s why you were selected, Acosta. That’s why all of us were selected. One way or another… you, me, Larson—we’ve all been targeted for extinction. And the world is better for it.”
“So you’ve had the Kool-Aid?”
“I seem to remember you waxing philosophic about the wisdom of the Homogenization Program. What changed?”
I think for a moment. “I guess I saw things from a different angle. Maybe I really am EC, like you say. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m washing my hands of this slaughterhouse. Would you like a letter of resignation or are we beyond such formalities?”
Not waiting for an answer, I stand up and head for the exit. Before I leave Cuomo grazes my elbow, leans in and says, “I look forward to one day finding you on the other side of a Spider.”
I smile. “Sure thing Madam.”
Before I leave I pay a visit to the equipment locker. There’s a Spider there worth looking into. Serial number 4Y374NF.
The streets are oddly busy for a Saturday morning. I return the gaze of anyone bold enough to stare at me. They all demur. I read once about a study involving subjects who were asked to describe a photograph from the perspective of a person within the photograph. It revealed psychopaths almost universally suck at the task. Years ago, when I joined DSH, the study reminded me of what we were up against. This was a pathology, a plague that had robbed the species of its humanity, cleaving off our connection to Earth and one another. For the sake of civilization, I thought, it needed to be cured.
Now I’m not so sure. I wonder: Would there even be a species in need of curing were it not for that division between the self and others? Would there even be a civilization worth saving if the split between desire and shame were not scattered across the spectrum of identities? And isn’t that just the line between good and evil, running straight as an arrow through the center of the human heart—or, perhaps, the brain? It seems to me, like anything else in psychology, that it’s a spectrum. And what luck have we ever had regulating spectrums?
No matter, because today I see everyone as the inanimate vectors of my own experiment. I am the vector of human nature, no less so than Jesus or the Dalai Lama. There will always be the Andrea Cuomos of the world, content to mash through others for the sake of themselves, and although I see a bit of myself in her, she is of a more alien kind. The Spider showed me that last night. Serial number 4Y374NF. The fatal flaw in the psyche of the bureaucrat: a fixation with data, the instinct to document, to record, to render permanent. Collect it all. Cuomo collected it all, her abuse, her indifference, her crimes. And she stored it within a vessel every bit as cold and mechanical as herself, the only fitting confidant for a mind like that.
“Qui garde les gardiens?” I shout to anyone who will listen. I only get glares and evasive maneuvers.
I round Third Street and, just as I suspected, there she is: Beth, walking her dog. She was always one for routine. I approach slowly but she sees me just as I see her, so she turns to head in the opposite direction but the leash goes taut, the dog sniffing one tree in particular. “Beth!” I shout. She pulls harder on the leash. She’s a tiny woman. “Come on Beth, I know you see me!”
I catch up. “What do you want?” she asks.
I reach down to pet the mutt but it barks at me, the little bastard. “Damn thing always hated me.”
“Dogs tend to protect their owners.”
I ignore the slight. “How’ve you been?”
She squints at me. “I’m not doing this right now, Richard. You have no idea—you really have no idea, do you? You need to leave.”
“I won’t be long.” I glance around. There are a few pedestrians but the street is pretty quiet for a Saturday morning.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” she says. “Did that occur to you?”
“We don’t have to talk,” I say, swinging my satchel around. My hand grazes over the Spider. It feels warm, as if it’s raring to be let out.
I grab the thumb drive and offer it to her.
“At the very least, a promotion. If the Gods are good, a Pulitzer.”
She looks around, hesitates, then grabs and pockets the thumb drive. “If this is a virus or something you’ll be hearing from me.”
“It’s not. DSH Director Cuomo has been homogenizing her ex lovers. All the way to Level Five. By my count she’s done it to at least two of them. She’s onto her third now.”
Her face contorts, no doubt trying to mask her excitement for the tip with her contempt for me. She takes the thumb drive out of her pocket. “It’s all… here?”
“It’s all there.”
“What’s your end in it? Why go Deep Throat?”
“Survival,” I say. “Or maybe just a heavy conscience. Snowden shit. I’m not sure.”
She looks like she’s about to say thank you but thinks better of it. “Why give it to me then?”
“Stop asking so many questions, Beth.” I turn to leave. “I know it’s your job, but when manna falls from the heavens, don’t ask what it is. Just eat it. And eat it quick.”
The pub is only a block from Larson’s brownstone. I pass it on the way home and decide to stop in for a drink. I know I was told not to come back, and I know it’s early, but hey—it’s been a rough couple days and things are finally going my way. I can’t wait to see Cuomo’s face on the news next week. I should probably warn Larson. Still plenty of time.
The place is empty. No bartender. No music. No TV. No ticker of headlines detailing the career victories of well-dressed warlords. I’m tempted to help myself to a drink when I hear a rustling in the back, behind a door that no doubt leads to a place where shady deals go down. The door creaks open and there he is, to the surprise of my surprise: Spice. He’s still wearing that ridiculous winter jacket with the hood covering most of his face. Something that looks like cream is in his beard. He wipes it clean and catches my eye. A shriek as he flaps his arms and his sleeves flail like broken wings. The bartender—that little worm—appears behind him, looking satisfied, zipping up his goddamned fly.
I put two and two together, and then everything goes red.
Before I know what’s happened I’m on top of him—the bartender—forcing my weight onto the peculiar position of his face against the sticky linoleum floor. He’s yelling through broken teeth. Spice is shrieking and failing to pull me loose. Now the scumbag’s head is being compelled into the mechanical apparatus we call the Spider. Serial number 4Y374NF. Scumbag resists. I push harder. He knows what this is. He knows who I am. He bites my finger, which triggers my elbow to bash his jaw, projecting a tooth across the linoleum floor. Smelling fresh meat, the Spider thrashes its legs, clamps down on the victim’s skull. It pulses with electric light. I throw the dial to Five and pull the trigger. His body convulses, eyes rolling back into his head, every muscle taut and red. I climb off. He’s limp. A few seconds pass before I realize Spice has withdrawn himself, huddled in the corder like a frightened dog, but Scumbag—he’s lying on his back with vacant eyes staring up at the ceiling, mumbling gibberish through bloody teeth.
Spice’s eyes don’t appear to move. They only return my gaze, which is fierce and unflinching, but all I see are two lifeless orbs floating in a mold. Whether it’s the light that’s fled from him or the vision that’s fled from me, I don’t know. We are two different wavelengths, he and I, with only a semblance of a person to see in the other. A sound to a scent.
He sits in the dark of my apartment, sucking Coke through a straw that he stabs into his nose or chin with each pull. He refuses to take his coat off. He mumbles to himself, occasionally falling into fits of hysteria with arms flapping and shrieks bouncing off the walls, inviting all my neighbors to question what sort of kinky shit I’m into. I have to lock the door from the inside to prevent his escape. To stay or to leave, it never occurs to me that, to Spice, they are one and the same. I am yet another captor.
Saturday bleeds into Sunday and I ask myself what I’m doing with this man, if I am keeping him as a pet, preserving him for some future need, or merely keeping him from some larger threat. It’s not safe out there. That’s what I tell myself. But I’ve never really been afraid of people, and I’ve never really worried about anyone else. Not even Beth. Is this how they feel?
I assure myself it’s only an experiment. Spice, like the others, is only a vector for my nature, my perspective. He is only a means to exact revenge, a springboard to freedom. My escape plan. But the bartender—that scumbag really threw a wrench into the plan.
So I wait, one eye on the Spider, the other on the computer, hitting refresh on my news feed, queuing alerts for Beth’s byline, and in the boredom I ask myself: Just what is Spice to me?
And I realize a basic truth: He is nothing.
Because I am nothing.
And nothing begets nothing.
Cuomo’s face is all over the news Monday morning. I’ve been waiting for this moment, but it all feels so unfulfilling. They speculate about her whereabouts. Has she fled the city, the country? Why no arrests? And what about these exes of hers? Who even is this Spice person? And how soon until we get his ass in a chair for a primetime interview?
It’s all so wrong. These animals—dregs and nobles alike—all climbing over one another to the top… The top of what? Nothing. My own measure of justice, that which sees an eye for an eye, demands a confrontation. I must show her my truth, my own private truth I created—here in the prison of my mind.
It’s lunchtime when we arrive at DSH. A throng of reporters are swarming the entrance, camera flashes and boom poles in lieu of pitchforks. I file through with Spice in tow and hold my badge up to the guard. That this horde of hyper-focused careerists would fail to recognize the man at the very center of their story makes me smile. Maybe they don’t want to notice. Maybe they choose not to notice—descending, ever faster, into a functional coma. I am not one of them. I am a snake charmer, a hypnotist who lulls the tired man to sleep, to the place he was always destined but too preoccupied with spreadsheets to notice.
We reach the director’s office on the third floor, and now they pay attention. They rise from their desks as we pass, gawking at the sight of this former Inquisitor, reduced to a helpless sad-sack. Cuomo’s doing, and they know it. I’m not even sure what to expect. She might have fled the country, she might have turned herself in, or maybe she doesn’t even know yet.
Fat chance, Madam.
Spice is trotting along in uneven steps, eyes on the ground with a long bead of saliva hanging from his beard. I smile at the desk jockeys and ask if there’s any more Kool-Aid in the water cooler. Irony is dead. They part like the Red Sea as I pull Spice into Cuomo’s office.
I hope to find her in a state of shock, looking up from her desk with eyes wider than an antelope’s. A sick part of me hopes to see Larson, too, prone beneath her, clad in leather with a ball gag in his mouth. But what I find stops me in my tracks: a man is sitting in Cuomo’s squeaky chair, his back toward us, staring out at the empty expanse of sky beyond—only the steeple of the Capital building poking through. His head is lolled to one side as if asleep. Spice is unusually quiet. I approach the sleeping figure, round the desk and see that it’s Larson. His eyes are wide open, mouth agape, staring into the distance.
Then he sees me, sees Spice, and the fear he registers is fed back into his own. There is a madhouse of shrieking that bounces off the walls, and someone somewhere is surely dialing 911.
The door shuts behind me. I hear the lock click.
It’s Cuomo. She’s holding a Spider, the legs light up and start thrashing like a petrified animal. At the sight of her Larson and Spice both fall to their knees and start crawling toward her. “Long live the Madam!” they shout. “Long live the queen!”
She caresses their cheeks. “Shhhh, my minions.”
“It’s a miracle you’re not in cuffs yet,” I say. “You know they’re on their way?”
“They? Ah yes, they. I like to think they will be kind to me. It’s in their nature after all. To serve, to have faith, to obey without question. They are not like you and I.”
“There is no you and I,” I tell her, slowly reaching for the Spider in my bag. “You’re of a different breed, something else entirely.”
“You’d like to think that,” she says. Her fingers trace the legs of the Spider, seeming to charm its fury. “You all would. You think I’m all alone, but when the ship sinks, do you know who survives? It’s not the captain and his crew, with their honor and their duty. It’s not the noblemen, who put women and children first. The ones who survive are the ones who claw their way to the top of the heap, prying babies from their mothers’ grip to score a spot on the lifeboat.” She takes a step toward me. The Spider leaps at the smell of me.
I’m ready with my own. Serial number 4Y374NF.
Both metalic creatures thrash to life, an electric hum in the bustle of a Monday morning office in Washington. “The sheep will go down with the ship,” she continues, “but rest assured, I will carry the burden back to shore. I am not alone, because I am the species!”
There’s commotion on the other side of the door, but I can’t quite make it out. If this is my moment, so be it. But I won’t go down without a fight. Maybe my heroic end will be revealed on the nightly news. Maybe Beth will get that coveted Pulitzer for her reporting. Or maybe none of that will matter because my brain will be fried.
“Maybe you’re right,” I tell her. “Maybe you are the species. And maybe I am too. And maybe those people outside, with their protocols and their decrees, their cults and their governments, maybe they’re dumber than your two gimps here. But look at us, raring to off each other for command of… what? Our pride? It amounts to nothing. You may be the species, but the species is nothing. And when the dust settles, it’ll be these two simpletons left standing. Mark my words.”
“Duly noted,” she says, then removes a red marker from her pocket. She flicks the cap off and begins drawing the blood-red ink across her face, underscoring her eyes. I’m so startled by it I don’t even notice the Spider as she hurls it at my head. I stumble, barely dodging the metal contraption as I lose grip on my own Spider. Cuomo tackles me to the ground as a loud pounding bounces off the door, scurrying Spice and Larson. A steady beat fills the room like tribal drums.
Now she’s prying my hands away from her as she tries to lower the Spider onto my head, smiling menacingly with red ink all over. Out of the corner of my eye I see her minions, huddled in the corner holding each other, echoing the fear in my eyes and the rage in Cuomo’s. She lets loose a kind of war cry, her face veiled in Sharpie with two dark beady eyes at the center, so deep you could dive in like a spelunker. “Look at me,” she says, mashing her teeth. “What’s behind those eyes?”
I close my eyes and wait to become a deeper kind of nothing.
The rhythm breaks, cut through as the door smashes open and a dozen police file in like liquid through a sieve. Cuomo is hauled away from me, screaming, thrashing her arms and legs, kicking over plants and portraits and file sorters.
They force her to a kneeling position in the center of the office, hands cuffed behind her back. They tell her she’s under arrest for a litany of crimes. But they never say his name, nor Larson’s. They only sneer at her, whisper to one another with leery eyes, circling the perimeter, prepping their reports. She has the right to an attorney, the right to a trial, the right to remain silent, which she is, seething under her breath with a scowl to chill an army. No doubt she’s rehearsing her lines, reciting testimony before a jury of her peers. They tear apart the office, removing every document, every file, every hard drive.
Spice and Larson are lifted off the ground by a kind-looking lieutenant. They walk out of the room, hyperventilating, arms flapping in the stale office air. It takes me a second to remember the bartender. A smile forms in the crook of my mouth. Still on the floor, still catching my breath, I hear another officer ask if I need help, if there’s anything they can do for me. They, I think, watching as they deactivate the thrashing Spiders and stuff them both into a bag like roadkill.
One is Homoginizer serial number 4Y374NF. It‘s seen more than any of us could ever handle, taken more than we could ever create. And that may be my undoing. I, too, begin to rehearse my testimony in my mind.
How poetic, I think as they lead me out to take a statement, that nothing turns out to have so many levels.
Tyler Wells Lynch is a is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Terraform, The Porter House Review, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. He lives in Maine. He can be found on Twitter at @tylerwellslynch.