Friday, June 19, 2009

Sydney, Australia

14 years ago

I had already known for quite some time that this wasn´t going to be a break-up like the others. Until now, every time my allotted three or four years had passed – and most often far less than that – it had already been in the natural course of things to move on and usually no one had been unduly hurt. Unfortunately, it couldn´t be avoided every time, but then what could I do? When people thought you were barely fifteen when you first met and just eighteen when you said goodbye and vanished never to be seen again, there was no chance to start a real serious relationship including a mortgage and a dog and who knew, maybe even an adopted baby or two.
This time, however, things were different.
I was sitting in the living room of Alex´s bungalow style house in Clovelly, an Eastern suburb of Sydney. The ocean was only a few blocks away, and the famous Bondi beach where we had first met was close enough to walk when the weather wasn´t unbearably hot. It was early spring, and the windows to the patio were open and the curtains were billowing in the ocean breeze that always reached deep into the suburbs. I rarely actually sat outside in the patio, not after I´d seen what the bite of an Australian spider could do to your leg when one of Alex´s friends had been hospitalized with a hole in his thigh that could have easily accommodated four fingers. Despite the insidious local fauna I loved Sydney and hated the idea of leaving, especially this time of the year. I had a no-frills passenger cabin reserved in a Dutch cargo ship leaving for London before midnight, obviously unbeknownst to Alex, and it would be the beginning of the worst part of the year in the Northern hemisphere when the ship finally arrived. A just punishment for me, undoubtedly. I had toyed with the idea of South America, but in the end I´d decided to return to Europe. I´d never lived in Greece and thought it was time to see what the fuss about their islands was all about.
First I´d have to get there, though. The thought of having to leave Alex behind took my breath away every time it crossed my mind, and there was precious little else to think about during these final hours in Sydney. He had no idea I was leaving, and right now he would be finishing up the daily business at the bank where he worked, perhaps planning for a movie or dinner out tonight. I had even considered leaving without a word, or maybe calling him from the harbor and promising to explain everything once I reached London. Of course, there would have been only more lies instead of an explanation, as I could never tell him the truth about the last four years.
We had met on the beach when he´d been twenty-two, younger and leaner than most of the guys who usually caught my eye. Swimming was his sport and he never developed the pumped up round muscles that I most liked in men, but with him it didn´t matter. His father was a third-generation Italian immigrant and his genes had clearly had the upper hand in designating Alex´s looks, and as if that hadn´t been enough, half of the Bondi beach had been transfixed by the bulge in his speedo. After the initial look of surprised interest when he´d first seen me, he´d dismissed the idea of even bothering to talk to a fifteen-year old and it had taken a certain effort from my side to change his attitude and to convince him that the age of consent was nothing but an artificial legal construct. Or more straight to the point, he just needed to take his chances as I was worth it. At the time I had just arrived in Australia, and it took another year before my passport dates caught up and we didn´t have to pretend any longer that we were just friends.
My eyes wandered around the familiar living room. The furniture had clearly been put together by someone who knew what he was aiming for but didn´t have the necessary means quite yet. Everything was simple and very comfortable despite the geometric looks of the couch and the armchairs, and there was not a single piece of bric-a-brac in sight cluttering tables and shelves. The only concession to adornments were a few framed photographs in the bookcase, of the two of us together. One was from the Bondi beach, taken last summer, another had been snapped in front of the Sydney Opera House in spite of his protestations of looking like a tourist, and there were three more from birthdays and anniversaries. I looked utterly identical in each of the photos; one more year and he would have started asking serious questions instead of merely looking at me with a puzzled expression every now and then.


They had found me in my home town, Luleå, on the coast of the Northern Sweden, in the middle of one of those bitter winters before global warming took hold. I was on my way back to the “dormitory” as it was called, a euphemism for orphanage, worried about the scolding and possible punishment I´d get for having stayed too late in the town indoor swimming pool and missing the 9p.m. curfew. At fifteen, I was a typical resident of the dormitory: parents dead, or helpless alcoholics who had nevertheless hung around in drunken stupor long enough for the kid to be too old to be adopted by a foster family. Located in a suburb, adjacent to a high school, the dormitory wasn´t within easy reach from the city center and I had to take a bus every time I needed to go somewhere, which was a drag with the northern winters. It was a clear night in January, my breath freezing into a cloud within seconds in the frigid cold, and the stars were blazing in the crystalline sky with just a hint of shimmering northern lights high above. The snow under my boots made a funny scrunching sound as it always did when it was really cold, and I wished I had dried my hair more thoroughly before leaving the swimming pool in a hurry to catch the bus.
The man had stopped his brand new Volvo Amazon almost in front of the dormitory, right under a street light, and he was so tall that he had spread a map over the roof of the car to see it better. I should have realized something was not quite right as no one in their right mind would have stepped out of a heated car just to look at a map, but he happened to glance at my direction as I was approaching and I was captivated by the exceptionally handsome and unmistakably foreign face. Suddenly I was glad that in the hurry I had left my glasses in the sports bag as I hated the total nerd look they gave me.
He waved a gloved hand at me.
Hey kid,” he said with a deep rumbling voice, “could you please help me? I think I´m lost.”
I approached warily. He was about 6´5”, well-dressed, and the thick belt of his long coat was fastened around hips that were remarkably narrow in proportion to his wide shoulders. He looked like some over-grown athlete, and I found I couldn´t place his face geographically.
He threw a glance at my bag. “Coming from practice?”
Swimming,” I answered. “Where do you need to go?”
He gave me a street name I didn´t recognize, and needlessly added that he was new in town and didn´t know his way around.
Where are you from?” I asked, curious.
Originally from Brazil,” he said, and tapped at the car with a dazzling smile.
I got the joke and smiled back.
Where´s the swimming pool you go to?”
I stepped closer – crazy people don´t have sense of humor, so I thought I was safe – and pointed at the right street on the map. Standing next to him the difference between us was disconcerting as I was on the short side myself, only little over 5´6”, and I hadn´t grown an inch for the last three months. It´s OK to be small when you´re fifteen, but I suspected that my height was going to bother me quite a lot me when I grew older.
The man thanked me and started refolding the map. I stepped back, half relieved and half disappointed that this handsome Brazilian was going to disappear now and all that was left of the evening was to face the surly warden waiting for me.
With a frown, the man glanced at the dormitory. “You live here?”
I nodded, and he could tell from my face that further questions about the subject weren´t welcome. He finished with the large unruly map and gave me a strange, inquisitive look before opening the car door.
“Thanks again. I´ll see you around,” he said, and clearly happy to back in the warm car engaged the clutch and, with some trouble, switched to the first gear. He couldn´t have been using the car for more than a day.
I watched the Volvo drive away. There was no reason why the encounter shouldn´t have been anything but casual and yet I couldn´t shake the feeling that he´d been waiting for me. The conversation had been perfectly normal, he hadn´t done or said anything weird, but it was as if there had been another, wordless conversation going on from the moment he first looked at me. However, my thoughts were soon directed back at the problem in hand as the exposed part of my hair was now freezing in earnest, and I had to get in before I risked catching a cold. With a sigh, I dragged my feet towards the front door of the dormitory, hoping I was somewhere far, far away.
To my surprise, it was only two days later when I saw the Brazilian again. Fond of beaches and sea like all his countrymen, it probably was only natural that he´d spend a lot of time in the local swimming pool, or that´s what I told myself as I was taking off my clothes and nearly fell over with my foot caught somewhere in my trousers when he walked into the locker room and dropped his bag down on the bench, just a couple of yards from me. Suddenly my heart was beating too fast and too hard, and I had to look away because I didn´t want him to see my face. Besides, I still hadn´t tucked my glasses away into the locker. Only after I´d pulled on my speedos and gotten rid of the glasses I dared a glance at his direction, and was welcomed by a smile.
Hi kid,” he said. “Thanks for telling me about this place, it´s nice.”
I nodded, and closing my locker door hurried towards the showers, cursing my lack of nerve to stay a while longer and see what he looked like naked. I needn´t have worried as I was still in the showers, getting ready to go to the sauna to warm up, when he followed me and chose the shower head right next to me. This time I couldn´t help myself and stole a glance at his direction, and thought that my heart was going to burst at the sight. I had instantly noted the muscular beauty of his body, but it was his sex that drew my eyes. I´d never seen anything like it.
The size was stunning. The organ was long and thick, and the way the massive dark shaft hung over the large balls you could tell it was heavy. The foreskin seemed to be drawn back by the sheer size of the cock and allowed for a glimpse of the tip of the glans. He was an exceptionally tall man, but the whole thing seemed disproportionately large just the same. A thick vein ran along the back of the shaft all the way to the foreskin, and I must have imagined it but I thought I could see his pulse throbbing along the vein.
Politely, he pretended that I wasn´t staring, and only after I´d torn my eyes away from him did he try to start conversation. However, he had only had time to ask one question about my school before I had to rush away, to find refuge in the sauna as my quickly growing erection had already become an embarrassment. Luckily, I was alone and no one else was there to see the way my dick swayed side to side as I climbed up to a corner seat at the back of the sauna. Get a grip, I told myself while trying to find a position that would hide my erection at least partially should someone come in and sit right in front of me. Which, of course, he did.
I dropped an arm between my legs, feigning a relaxed position, as he climbed up and took his seat. God Almighty the man was good-looking.
Fully aware that he got me, as I couldn´t possibly stand up and leave, he asked, “What´s your name? I´m Mauro.”
I couldn´t figure him out. What the hell was going on, was he making a pass at me or not?
Can I ask you – how come you live in that dormitory? What happened to your parents?”
I was taken aback by the personal question, but saw no reason not to answer him. On the contrary, this might be a chance to shut him up if he wasn´t hitting on me.
“They were never officially married. Dad passed out drunk in the snow and froze to death last winter. Mom´s probably somewhere down in Stockholm, drunk or doing heroin under a bridge. If she´s still alive.”
Mauro cleared his throat. “I´m sorry to hear that.”
There was a moment of silence.
Somehow it didn´t surprise me when he didn´t give up. “But you´re kind of free, then, no one´s nagging and telling you what to do.”
If only that was true.”
Some small talk ensued, but I remained as confused about his intentions as before. He knew I was sitting in the corner with a boner for him, but there were no leading questions or suggestive glances. And as big as his dick was, it definitely remained unaffected by my presence. Yet he kept chatting me up, and I could tell he was doing his best to quietly charm me.
But don´t you have any other relatives, uncles or aunts? Brothers or sisters?” he was asking.
I shook my head. “Nobody. Why are you so interested in my relatives?”
I just think it must be hard for a kid like you to be alone. Or are you the kind of person who can get used to it?”
I had no idea. I thought about it for a moment and still couldn´t answer him. For some reason he didn´t seem to mind. For a moment I thought that he was pleased with my answer, but why would he care about something I didn´t know the answer for myself?
Finally the sauna exhausted me to a point where I could get up and leave, but not before I thought I was getting close to fainting from the heat. The cool spray of water at the showers quickly revived me and then it was time to go to the pool. He was soon there, too, swimming laps methodically like a professional, but at certain point I lost sight of him. After a while, and a little annoyed with myself, I cut my workout short and followed him. However, he was no longer neither in the showers nor the sauna, and when I got to the locker room the was no sign that he had ever existed. Dejected, I started getting dressed, and sitting on the bench and tying my shoelaces I swore I´d get out of that small boring cold backwater town as soon as possible.
I left my locker key at the reception and walked out into the cold January night. And there he was in the parking lot, leaning back on his car which had its motor running with the white exhaust smoke thick in the cold air. I walked straight up to him.
Need a ride?” he asked, and I nodded.
This was it. He was into me after all. Heart thumping, I got into the car. It was obvious that he had never driven on icy roads before as he revved the engine and almost buried us into a snow bank when the wheels suddenly gained proper traction.
Damn,” he muttered. “I´ve almost killed myself here twice already. Listen, kid, would you like to have dinner with me at my hotel?”
This would be the second time I´d miss curfew in the same week. There would be hell to pay, but of course he had no idea, and right now I couldn´t have cared less myself.
Sure,” I answered. “Which hotel are you staying in?”
The President.”
It was the most expensive hotel in town. “Um... I don´t think I´m properly dressed for their restaurant.”
We´ll get room service.”
All right.”
He didn´t bother to give the reception any explanation why a fifteen-year-old boy would accompany him to his room, and there were no questions asked even though the uniformed young man threw me an annoyed or perhaps envious glance as soon as Mauro turned away. The room was on the top floor, and it was clear that it was among the most expensive they had: quite spacious, with a couch and a small dining area for two, and a wall to wall window with a view over the frozen sea. In the harbor, a brightly lit icebreaker was being prepared for a mission, and the northern lights were back tonight, a hazy curtain of light shimmering towards the north, clearly visible despite city lights.
Baked potatoes, steaks and salad all right with you?”
I nodded, a little surprised as I had expected the food to be nothing but a ruse. He phoned the room service, and once he was through he gestured me to sit down on the couch as I was still looking out to the sea. He sat down next to me and a moment of awkward silence followed, and worst of all, he didn´t try to make a move on me.
Why am I here?” I asked, unnerved.
I want to offer you a job. No, not that kind,” he added quickly when he saw my expression.
I actually wouldn´t have minded the least, but decided not to tell him.
Go on, please,” I said, quite curious now.
I think I should show you something first. It´s sort of like a calling card,” he explained as he got up and walked to his suitcase.
He picked up a curious object from the side pocket – which actually looked quite a lot like a secret compartment – and brought it back to us. It was shaped like a stylish pair of sunglasses that wrapped tightly around your head, but at a closer look the thing mostly resembled thick blindfolds made of rubbery black plastic.
A calling card?” I asked, a little puzzled, as he handed them over.
It´s a type of a 3D viewer, like that toy ViewMaster,” he explained. “There are 12 images. Please go through all of them without removing the viewer, and don´t be surprised if the images start a bit fuzzy every now and then while the viewer focuses the lenses.”
I put the viewer on and it sort of automatically wrapped itself tight around my head. The feeling was a little disconcerting but then the first image appeared and I felt a smile spread on my face. The 3D illusion of the satellite photo was fantastic. I was watching down on a huge white hurricane with a perfectly formed eye, the clouds distinctly layered over deep blue ocean. Then, for about half a second, the image went slightly fuzzy before returning to normal. After a second or two another image was displayed, this time a magnificent rosetta window of a catholic church, sunshine flooding in through the painted glass. The colors flickered a little bit, and then it was time for the next photo, this one a desert road that my eyes followed until it met the horizon at a distant point.
When the slide show was over the viewer released the grip on its own and I took the amusing toy off. Mauro was looking at me, with a pleased smile, but now it was his face that looked a bit fuzzy. I blinked twice, but the fuzziness remained.
Don´t be alarmed,” he said quickly. “Those images can play tricks with your eyes. Just wait a couple of minutes and everything will be back to normal.”
I blinked again. “Are you sure... I feel a kind of pressure in my eyes. It´s weird.” Another two blinks. “If this is the product your company is selling, you need to work on it a little more.”
He laughed. “Just wait and see.”
And so I did. The fuzziness started clearing away. After about two minutes, it was all gone. Another minute passed, and more fuzziness went away. I glanced at the brightly lit icebreaker far in the harbor, and gasped. I was seeing every little object and detail on the deck of the boat.
What the hell-”
Mauro couldn´t help laughing again at my expression. “Kid, you can throw away those glasses that you hate so much. You´ve got 40/20 vision now.”
Please explain.”
Those fuzzy parts in the images were testing your eyesight, and the bright flickering lights were actually an array of lasers that remodeled the lenses of your eyes.”
It took me about five seconds of quick thinking to understand what he was saying. There was just this one hell of a big question: where did this device come from?
The logical answer came to me immediately, but I sure as hell wasn´t going to blurt it out until I had carefully thought this thing through. If this was a job interview – and suddenly I was very interested – I would have to make sure I wasn´t going to say anything stupid. A lot of new stuff was being invented especially now that the Americans were well into their Apollo program and should be sending a man to the moon within a year or two, but still... I was undeniably a bit of a nerd with my glasses – glasses that I might never wear again – and so I more or less knew what was possible and what was impossible, and this clearly fell into the second category. So, was I going to say it out loud?
Who do you work for?” I asked, my voice sounding a little weird.
“I guess you could call it a Faculty of Anthropology. Or more precisely, a guild of anthropology faculties working together,” Mauro answered.
Anthropology – as in the study of human beings?”
That made sense. I didn´t say anything, though. My whole world had suddenly become a pretty shaky place.
We should put that away before the room service gets here,” Mauro said quietly and picked up the viewer, or however the gizmo was actually called.
I watched as he placed it back into the side pocket. When he returned, there was no sign of the pocket on the side of the suitcase.
“Tell me about the job.”
“I think ´cultural interface´ is a good expression for it. The Guild has been studying us for quite some time, but the problem is that mere observation has its limits. Then, about two hundred years ago, the Guild decided that they desperately needed a deeper understanding when the sudden acceleration in the development of science and technology only seemed to be making things crazier and crazier down here, instead of the other way around.”
Luckily, there was a knock on the door. The room service had arrived, giving me more time to think this over while the dinner was being set on the table. I had no reason to doubt anything that Mauro was telling me; one quick glance at any direction with my new eyes and I knew this was no joke. Mauro tipped the waiter handsomely and we sat down at the table. The dinner was excellent by my dormitory standards, but I had hard time focusing on the food.
“Someone with your qualifications is not easy to find,” he said after a while. “It took us more than three years to track you down.”
“And what are those qualifications?”
“First of all, no family or relatives, preferably no close friends. Even though what we´d really need is insight into young people, fifteen is the youngest that we ever recruit and only after very careful consideration. In any case, it´s very rare.” Mauro set down his knife and fork, and looked me straight in the eyes. “You being gay is the exact job opening we have, and of course it doesn´t hurt that you´re very attractive.”
I added up the qualifications, and the result was rather disreputable. “So tell me more about this job,” I said, unable to keep sarcasm from my voice.
“We´d like to implant a biological neural mesh into your central nervous system. Filaments from your brain would run down along the main nerves of your arms and legs and work as a low-power transmitter. That would give us access to all your perceptions, emotions and thoughts.”
I stared at him, my mouth hanging open. “Are you crazy?”
The job has benefits-”
OK, you fixed my eyes, that´s great, I´m grateful, but don´t think that-” something in his eyes made me stop. He was amused.
Would you hear me out?” he asked.
I nodded.
As long as you work for us, your aging process will be stopped.” He paused, allowing the words to sink in. “Actually you can choose any age you wish, but we´d really appreciate it if you chose to stay your present age, for the time being.”
Now that was a fringe benefit not easily turned down. I stared at my half-eaten steak and salad. Neither of us spoke, and after a couple of minutes I continued eating, still silent. A series of relevant questions continued popping up in my mind, and I resumed the conversation to play time and think about it a little more.
So, are you, um...”
I´m human, just like you. My boss is, too. But her boss is not.”
What do they look like?”
I have no idea.”
How old are you?”
187. I still keep count.”
I didn´t let that slow me down. “Earlier you said, ´a job opening´. What does that mean, exactly? Was there someone else before me?”
I could tell this wasn´t something he had wanted to tell me so early on. “There are about two hundred of us, in different countries, cultures and social positions. Most are utterly regular people, nothing unusual about them, just as one would wish in our line of study. However, learning about normal reactions in normal situations doesn´t tell you the whole story, so we also have a special division that´s called, I´m sorry to say, the ´Reps´.”
“Representatives? What, is that some kind of a swear word for the Guild?”
“Um...” Mauro stared at his plate and soldiered on. “It stands for reptilian, meaning the reptilian brain. Deep primordial instincts are just as important for understanding human behavior as higher cerebral functions. Sometimes more so.”
I stared at him, appalled. “So what do you want to do with me?”
He laughed at my suspicions. “No, we´re not planning to grow you scaled skin and a bifurcated tongue. Instead, what we´d like to do is to intensify your looks.”
I stared at him, uncomprehending. “What does that mean, intensify my looks?”
“For example, you´ve got that beautiful blond hair. But Nordic hair is often thin, and once we´re done, yours will be thick with spectacularly healthy shine and a slight curl to it.”
“I see.” Being a ´Rep´ didn´t sound all that bad.
“That goes for all your features. The scope is to turn you into someone who provokes strong enough reactions in people for us to ´read´ them. That´s in addition to studying your own reactions, obviously.”
I thought about it for a moment. “It sounds kind of fun.”
“Intensifying your looks comes with a price, though.” Mauro said reluctantly. “The reason for the job opening is that your predecessor, well, he died.”
What happened?”
Someone got obsessed with him.” It had been three years, but the memory still clearly bothered him a great deal. “One of our own people, actually. Goes to show how dangerous this thing can be. We´ll talk more about that during your training.”
“So you think you´ve got me?”
Some people do turn us down. Not very many.”
What happens to them?”
Nothing,” Mauro said, a little taken aback by my suspicious tone. “They tell a fantastic story to their friends, and nobody believes them. Sometimes an optometrist is puzzled.”
I had finished my dinner, and leaned back in the chair. “And the salary?”
You lead the life you want, wherever you want. Within reason, of course. And there´s a generous severance package if you ever choose to quit.”
No monthly pay?”
“I don´t see the point. But if that´s what you wish, that´s how it´ll be done.”
It all seemed very accommodating.
You need to think it over, seriously,” Mauro warned me. “You´ll receive special training along with the formal education we provide, but it still remains a relatively high-risk job.”
I threw a poignant glance at the ice age taking place outside. “I´ve made up my mind. Get me out of here.”
“There´s something else I have to tell you,” Mauro said cautiously. “The signal your neural mesh sends out is extremely weak, and you have to keep a satellite relay transmitter either on your person or within a hundred yards from wherever you are. The satellite relay uses technology that cannot be triangulated, but the neural mesh signal can, and there are people who are looking for it.”
For a moment, Mauro searched for the right words. “A partially antagonistic culture, yet part of the Guild. They are most often called the Axiom. They will consider you mentally enslaved to us once the mesh is in place.”
“But it was my choice,” I protested.
“Under duress. You´ll grow old and die unless you join us, and if it weren´t for that you´d never let us into your mind.”
I took a deep breath. “True.”
“They have a technologically evolved, quasi-religious hive mindset which has extremely strict rules about mind-to-mind connections. Yours will be an abomination from their point of view. Unfortunately the neural mesh can´t ever be removed once its there, so the only way to liberate you is to exterminate your body.”
“Not good... How often does that happen?”
“Only once, so far. We learned our lesson and took precautions.”
“Such as?”
“You´ll be surprised by how long the list is,” Mauro said. “Especially for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have to keep you from becoming a well-known member of the international gay community. I´m really sorry, but that means very low profile, and you´ll have to avoid big cities with lots of tourists who may have already met you somewhere else. And believe me, once you´ve been intensified, very few people will forget the way you look.”
Goodbye Paris and New York, then. “Is Nice too big?”
Mauro smiled. “With precautions, it would be manageable as your first city.”
I died two days later. Having gone skiing on the sea ice, a crack had opened under my skis and I´d fallen through. I had tried to save myself, there were scratches on the edge of the crack, but to no avail. In the refrozen ice of the crack, my hat and a single mitten were found.

Nine months after my fake death, I was standing in the bathroom, studying my reflection in a full-length mirror. The first part of the training, and the rest of my freshman year of high school, had taken place in a small town in the Swiss Alps called Locarno. The town was located near the northernmost tip of Lago Maggiore, which I thought was the most beautiful Alpine lake imaginable even though people said that the near by Lake Como was even more picturesque. The lake extended into Italian territory in the south, and the people of the Canton Ticino spoke Italian. The large country house where I was staying had a magnificent view high over the river valley, and even though it was about five miles away from the town center I could easily take a local train which tenaciously - and punctually - climbed up and down the steep Alpine slopes. I´d been home schooled, of course. I couldn´t have friends during the first part of my training, and most of all, during the physical changes that had been taking place since my arrival in Switzerland.
The doctor, or Engineer as he jokingly liked to call himself, had just declared his job finished. And there it was in the mirror, the new me. I still looked like myself, I hadn´t been turned into someone else, but the results were quite shocking just the same. Despite my initial pleas, I´d allowed my height to be left untouched because Engineer wanted to underline my apparent age. I was still just 5´6”, but my lean swimmer´s build had been pumped up to make me look like a champion gymnast with narrow hips and wide, round shoulders. The abs were there, and the biceps, and the pecs and the legs, and the best ass I´d ever seen on anyone. The whole package, perfectly proportioned. And then there was the hair, like Mauro had promised. Thick and glossy, with large angelic curls, cut short on the sides and the back. But the most remarkable yet subtle changes had taken place in my face.
Everything was somehow more geometrical, my jawline, cheekbones, and even my eyes. Their color was lighter and more intense blue than it had been, almost as if there was a light shining through, and the lashes were definitely longer and darker. The lips were full and curved, and my mouth looked a little bit wider. And yet, somehow, there was more going on than these barely visible changes. I was – I couldn´t find a word – mesmerizing. I had to laugh at myself. Was I going to fall in love with my own image like that silly Narcissus? But now that Engineer had finished with his genetic tinkering, I could clearly see why my predecessor had died on the job. These people knew their way around human DNA.
Naturally, I had also asked for a bigger dick. Engineer had complied: it wasn´t as big as Mauro´s, but then, that would have looked ridiculous on a small kid like me. Even so, the size was just a little bit freakish in proportion to my body, and it would undoubtedly drop jaws at locker rooms and showers. Not to mention how difficult it would be to manage to stuff it into a speedo.
All in all, I had to admit that apart from the height I couldn´t have been more pleased with the outcome. And the time had come to test it. I´d been assigned to visit the town this afternoon without my usual array of sunglasses, caps and baggy clothes. It was September, and the weather was still quite nice. I´d be wearing just a pair of shorts and a well-fitting t-shirt, and as some degree of trouble was expected I´d be discreetly followed by “someone” to make sure I was all right. Not that I´d be alone in any case; in addition to the visible changes, Engineer had tested the neural mesh and found it completed. The relay transmitter was hanging around my neck in a chain, appropriately enough, and it looked like an ancient Roman coin. The semblance was perfect, but as soon as one picked it up the weight supposedly revealed that it was just cheap plastic, prompting anyone who might casually find it to throw the thing away without a second thought.
I could never get used to the view when I walked down the road to the train station. The house was located high enough for me to see all the way to the lakeshore town, across the long river valley between mountains that were mostly covered by lush green vegetation and only occasionally showing the rock beneath where the slopes were at their steepest. The late afternoon sun was hanging low and warm over the mountains, and there was but a scattering of white clouds in the sky. I reached the station and as punctually as ever the train arrived within five minutes. I found a seat, and only then glanced around the almost empty carriage. There were two teenage girls who quickly turned away when I noticed them staring. One of them threw a second glance over her shoulder, and hunched closer to her friend to say something, and they giggled.
Great, I thought to myself. My giggle-inducing powers have been multiplied. However, I was aware that the thought wasn´t entirely spontaneous, but intended as a self-deprecating remark for the people who were following my progress as I couldn´t suppress a small twinge of satisfaction at the girls´ reaction. It would take a long time to forget that I was no longer alone in my head.
I decided I wanted a panino and a coke at one of the lakefront bars, and then I´d go to see a movie if I felt like it. I got off the train at the small central station and walked towards the lake, keeping my eyes to the ground. Then I heard laughter and looking up saw a group of four boys a few yards ahead, all of them about seventeen or eighteen years old. They were staring at me, and none of them looked away as I walked closer. Instead, all of them made eye contact as if to challenge me.
Just as I walked by one of them said, amused, “Carina la bimba!”
I resisted the urge to turn back and smack his face for having called me a “pretty baby girl”. It had been half a compliment and half a tease, and if I knew anything about Italian boys – well, technically they were Swiss – they had just let me know that they´d be willing to have their dicks sucked all evening long. My own reacted immediately to the thought, as if my bulge wasn´t fairly obvious as it was, and I walked a little faster to get away from imminent embarrassment. However, overcome by curiosity, I glanced back at them after a moment and saw that the group was lazily sauntering down the street after me. This was starting to get pretty weird, right away. I had expected to maybe have some girls following me, had I flirted a little first, but four straight guys was – weird. For the first time I thought that maybe I´d gotten more than I´d bargained for. Now I noticed that all the passers-by were looking at me, a few of them quickly, the great majority allowing their gaze to linger, but almost no one was too preoccupied with their own affairs not to note the blond foreign kid.
I reached my favorite bar and found a seat at an empty table outside, despite there being quite a few people enjoying aperitivo already. Locarno prided itself for being the warmest town in Switzerland, and after a summer spent there it didn´t come as a surprise. Masses of subtropical flowers were blooming everywhere, and there were even palm trees, in Switzerland, who would have thought? The waiter brought me my panino and a coke, and I tried to focus on them even though I couldn´t deny I was getting more and more nervous by the minute. People were staring at me. I´d been used to getting a regular amount of attention, and this was not it. The banker – he couldn´t have been anything else – kept trying to make eye contact, and pretty much everyone else seemingly couldn´t help glancing regularly at my direction. At any given moment, at least one or two people were staring at me, and it gave me the uncomfortable feeling of being constantly under a spotlight, or on stage. It was maddening. After a few minutes I figured out the pattern: I was just a slight distraction to women over eighteen, but teenage girls were prone to bouts of giggling, and all the men past puberty were slightly puzzled and perhaps even annoyed by the way they found themselves repeatedly throwing a glance at me. Apart from the banker, of course, who obviously knew quite well why he liked what he saw. I wondered if Engineer might be offended if I asked him to undo some of his work. But then, this was what being a ´Rep´ was all about. I couldn´t wait to get to the dark movie house and away from the staring people.
The sun had slipped behind the mountains and the evening had arrived. I walked around the town center to check out the movie theaters, and my choice boiled down to either 2001: Space Odyssey or Rosemary´s Baby. Slightly unsettling choices both, under the circumstances. I went for 2001, and when I emerged from the theater almost three hours later the town had quieted down for the night. I supposed there were still people at the lakefront bars, but decided to take the shortest way to the nearby train station. I hadn´t walked more than twenty meters when I saw the familiar group of four boys coming from the lakefront direction. They noticed me too, and after quickly conferring among themselves crossed the road with a clear intention to intercept me at the next street corner.
Ciao, come stai? Dove stai andando?” asked the one I immediately dubbed Romeo.
I did speak halting Italian even though the main language up at the house was English, but decided this was not the moment to display my talents.
Sorry, my Italian is really bad,” I answered.
Where, go?”
Home, hurry and hungry,” I lied.
Where live? No tourist?” Romeo´s taller friend asked.
Damn. Now I would have to explain. I pointed up towards the mountains, but they didn´t seem very interested in my answer. I was now surrounded by the foursome, and starting to feel uncomfortable. All four of them were quite good-looking and no strangers to sports, and suddenly I was no longer sure how this was going to end.
Alessandro´s family not home,” Romeo said, pointing at his tall friend. “We go there. You come too.”
I shook my head. “Hungry.”
We make you eat,” Alessandro said, and the others chuckled.
No, really. I must go.”
Romeo gave me a crafty smile. “We know you want.”
He lay his hand on my shoulder, and my dick was suddenly swelling against my underwear. I shook my head again, and his hand slipped from my shoulder to my arm and took a gentle hold of my tricep.
“Come. It´s near.”
Like hell was I going to suck off four guys in a row, on my very first day on the job, no matter how good-looking they were and even when I suspected that my employers would place high scientific value on the observations. My dick was clearly siding with the scientists, but I wasn´t going to do it just the same. The group had surrounded me and now they were herding me into a short side street with very little in the way of lighting. As soon as we were away from the bright lights I felt a hand drop down and feel up my asscheek. Someone else´s hand followed suit instantly. These guys weren´t going to settle for mere blow jobs any longer, and I still hadn´t figured out a way to extricate myself without making a scene.
Cazzo che bel culo,” one of them muttered, appraising my ass, and that was it.
I jammed my elbow into his diaphragm, and the heel of my shoe on someone else´s shin. Two yelps of pain followed, and I yanked myself free and sort of trotted back towards safety as my pride didn´t allow me to break into actual run. Within seconds, however, I heard them coming after me, and I quickly ditched my pride and sprinted back into the wide street. I turned the corner, running, and found myself right in the headlights of an approaching police car. I instantly slowed down to a walk, but they had already seen me and the flickering blue lights came on as the car came to a halt. A policeman stepped out from the passenger´s seat, and a moment later the driver was outside too, standing behind the car.
C´é qualche problema?” the policeman next to me asked.
The evening was turning out to be a total fuck-up. During the training, three rules that stood above everything else had been driven into my brain: avoid police, avoid doctors, and don´t tell anyone about yourself.
My Italian is very bad,” I said, gave them my brightest smile, and started towards the station.
Wait,” the policeman standing closer to me said, and I had to stop and turn back to them.
Both of them were watching me very closely, and I noticed that their eyes lingered around my groin. I realized that I was still sporting a quite visible semi-erection. I tucked my hands into my pockets to make it less visible, and realized that the driver bore a striking resemblance to Alessandro from the group of four. They had the same Greek nose, and he was in his late thirties, the right age to be Alessandro´s father. The other policeman was quite handsome as well in his police uniform, with a shock of unruly dark hair pushing out from under his cap and a stubble that probably was frowned upon at the station.
Is everything all right?” he asked.
Um, well, there were these kids who were sort of harassing me,” I answered with a shrug. “Nothing serious.”
The policeman with the stubble translated, and after exchanging an inscrutable look with his colleague he stepped forward and took a long hard look at the side street. Of course, the group was long gone.
Ma sará un culatone?” the driver asked.
Culatone was one of the Italian words for gay. I pretended I hadn´t understood.
Sicuramente é piú bello di tante ragazze,” his colleague answered and turned back to me. “Where are you from? Are you staying in Locarno?”
So he thought I was prettier than most girls, which was a nice compliment, but it certainly didn´t help me to calm down. Experienced policemen, they had naturally figured out that something wasn´t quite right and I could only hope that they thought it was the apparent teen-gay-hormones angle of the story that was making me nervous.
I gave him the address of the house, and the driver said, somewhat disapprovingly, “Ah, la casa degli stranieri.”
I thought that was going to be it, but the stubbled policeman launched into a series of questions. A night patrol in a town as wealthy, clean and law-abiding as Locarno probably wasn´t too exciting and I imagined they were doing their best to kill some time with this minor mystery. The questions, however, had very little to do with the aggression and quite a lot with me as a person. I fed them my cover story about the student exchange program for kids without parents, hoping that I wasn´t messing up the details. I could tell they weren´t totally convinced.
“Why were you in the movies alone? Where were your friends?”
I don´t really know many people here,” I answered, puzzled by the turn of the questioning.
Not even a girlfriend?”
I felt my face flash red. “No.”
A blond kid like you? Strange.”
What was he getting at with these questions? My dick seemed to be smarter than me, as there was a sudden definite stirring in my underwear.
Then, right out of the blue, the driver said, “Lo portiamo da qualche parte?”
This time it took all my willpower not to turn and stare at him. I couldn´t believe they were actually discussing about ´taking me someplace´.
The stubbled one opened the back door of the car and said, “Get in the car, please.”
Please.” His voice made it clear there would be trouble if I didn´t obey.
I climbed into the car, frantically trying to figure out something to say to stop them, but the door slammed closed before I came up with anything. There was no door handle on the inside. Damn... Here I was, my first night out, and already sitting at the back of a police car, not knowing if they were going to take me to a station and, who knew, maybe somehow find out that I was supposed to be dead. Either that, or some secluded mountain road. It soon became clear that it wasn´t going to be the police station, as the car first turned towards the river and then took the road to the mountains. I sat in the back seat, arms folded across my chest, wondering what they were planning to do with me. Would I be forced just to suck their cocks, or would I find myself bent over the hood of the car, two uniformed policemen taking turns fucking me? And should I tell them I was still, somewhat embarrassingly, a virgin? Would that deter them, or only excite them more? I suspected the latter. One moment I was so nervous and scared that I thought I´d fall flat on my face if I was asked to get out of the car, and the next so horny that I just knew I´d be right there on my knees as soon as they opened the door, begging for it. My dick was so hard that it was aching inside my trousers, and the bulge would have been instantly visible if one of them had looked over his shoulder. I was so tense that when I dropped my hands to at least try to cover the bulge my arms almost refused to obey. The men were discussing something, presumably my fate, but their Italian was too fast for me to follow and even though I picked up a word from here and there I had no real idea of what they were saying.
The road gradually climbed higher and higher. The men had stopped talking, having reached an agreement, and when the car stopped at the beginning of the long driveway to my house instead of passing by and taking us to somewhere more remote I was at first flabbergasted and then, suddenly, crushingly disappointed.
Would you like us to have a chat with your wardens?” the stubbled policeman asked, turning back to look at me.
He couldn´t help noticing my hard-on, and threw a sidelong glance at his colleague as if to say they´d made the wrong decision.
I shook my head. “No, but thank you.”
For a moment, I just sat there, not realizing that I´d been dismissed. Then I made a move as if to get out of the car, and the stubbled policeman stepped out to open the door for me. Standing up, my bulge was even more obvious.
I looked at him, flustered, but he was back in his professional mode and only said, “Have a nice evening,” and added with just a touch of paternal feeling, “Don´t forget to be careful.”
He got back into the car, and they were gone. I stood there at the roadside, feeling like an idiot. Maybe I should have stayed in the car just a little longer, to see what would happen, but it was too late now. I cursed at myself for being so stupid; sexually abused by two uniformed Swiss policemen would have been a great first time story to tell for the rest of my life.
I would have waited for a moment to allow my erection to subside, but the headlights of another car were approaching. I retreated and started along the driveway, but instead of passing by the car turned into the driveway as well and came to a halt next to me. I looked inside, and saw a familiar face.
“Mauro – what are you doing here?” I asked goggle-eyed as he pushed the car door open for me.
“I´ve been following you all night,” he answered with that smug smile of his. “You could have picked a shorter movie, but otherwise I´d call the evening a success. More than one doctoral thesis will be written about the emotional stress reactions you went through tonight.”
“Um... that...”
“You´ve given us some great visuals, and your own signals have been peaking like crazy all night,” he said as I climbed into the car. “If there were pay hikes in our business, I´d get a big one for finding you.”
“Glad to hear that.” I still had mixed feelings about the people in my head. “Is everything on track with the school? That´s why you´re here, right?”
“Everything´s ready in Nice, and I´ll be there with you to make sure the transition goes smoothly.”
“Excellent,” I said, getting excited.
The French Riviera, for the next three years. I turned to Mauro to let him know how pleased I was, but there was something about his expression that stopped me.
What´s going on?” I asked.
“We have some new intelligence,” he said with a scowl. “The Axiom. They have figured out a way to use your neural mesh as a receiver.”
The concept was logical, as the mesh extensions into my arms and legs already worked as a transmitter, but it didn´t sound good. Not at all.
“Now, don´t freak out,” Mauro tried to calm me when he saw my expression. “The mesh was never designed for that, so they need a gigantic signal strength to get through. We pick that up, instantly and anywhere. Planet-wide. That means they can only use it in specific situations for a very limited time.”
I was afraid to ask. “What does it do, exactly?”
“Not much. No mind control involved. All it can do is debilitate you for the duration of the EM pulse because it´s quite painful.”
I could live with that, sort of.
“The range the device can affect you is only five meters,” Mauro added. “They have to limit the strength because the pulse kills all electrical systems near by, and if it were any stronger it would take out any planes flying overhead, all the pace-makers in town, you get the picture.”
I thought about it for a moment. “What happens if you pick up a pulse?”
“We´ll be there in thirty minutes, at most in one and half hours.”
“Anywhere on the planet?”
That strongly hinted at a some type of permanent orbital capacity. However, a lot of things could happen in an hour and a half; basically, what this meant was that I´d be done for if the Axiom ever found me.
“This has nothing to do with what happened to my predecessor?” I wanted to make sure.
Mauro shook his head. “No. This is new.”
Main topics had been covered, and he started the car. Once he had parked the car next to the two Land Rovers and the Jaguar in front of the house, he turned to me.
“Now don´t you worry. Nothing´s changed, really. We´ll make sure they can´t get to you in any case.”


Mauro had kept his word. I´d lived around the world in numerous places, always keeping low profile, always in small or medium-sized towns to avoid bumping into someone in New York I´d had sex with ten years earlier in Madrid. Both New York and Madrid were high in my list of desirable towns, but they were just too hazardous, and I knew I would never be allowed to live in them. The only exception had been Sydney, as it was so far away from everything, but even so Australia would still be off-limits for me for the next forty years. Nice had been large enough to earn me a ban from France for decades as well.
I opened the windows to Alex´s patio, and studied the beautiful spider-infested garden and the clear blue skies. I smelled the ocean in the breeze. It would be forty years before I could even start planning my return. Alex would be almost seventy, and even then I´d have to make sure I never ran into him again.
I heard his car enter the driveway, and with a sudden certainty I knew I was going to tell him everything.
It had been madness to think I could go through this, to break us up with yet another lie, and just walk away. The reasons for not telling anyone were running through my mind like the last straws one grasps at, all the figures and projections that had been rammed into my memory. If the biotechnologies that had gone into making me were turned loose in the world, the results would be utterly catastrophic. Could one trust humanity with an easily constructable virus that could wipe out, say, everyone with black skin, or blue eyes? Or people with a genetically inherited sexual orientation? The answer was self-evident. If, by miracle, all the fanatics and petty dictators held back, just one single crazed microbiologist would do. Presently, the most reliable Guild AI projections gave a 98 per cent chance for genocide involving more than one billion people in the next ten years if advanced biotechnologies were to become widespread.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, I muttered to myself as I paced back and forth across the living room. Could I trust him? Would he sneak a sample of my DNA to a big pharmaceutical company in exchange for a million bucks? And if he wouldn´t do it now, what if we broke up later? I heard Alex slam the car door outside. He´d be inside within seconds. I would have to make the decision right here, right now. I heard his keys click into the back door, and I grabbed the framed photo of the two of us in front of the Sydney opera house and raced to the hall. There was a creak as Alex pulled the weather-beaten kitchen door open, and careful not to make any noise I clicked the front door shut behind me and ran.

Le Cinque Terre, Italy

Present day

Patiently, the taxi zigzagged up the narrow road that tenaciously clung to a steep wall of craggy rock rising straight from the Mediterranean Sea. The mountain wall was scattered with sea pines and occasional bursts of greenery, and even a few flowers even though it was the second week of December. The flowers were hardly at their best today, as a winter storm was approaching from the sea and the first gusts of wind and rain were already spraying the windshield of the car so badly that I wondered if the driver would be able to keep us from plunging down into the rocks far below. Eventually we reached the house, I paid the driver and got out of the car. I was back home.

The old, ochre stone house was small, with just a living room, kitchen and one bedroom, but it had a disproportionately large terrace with a magnificent view over the sea and the sliver of a beach far below the house. In the summer, the terrace was my absolutely favorite place in the world, with vines from the overhanging trellis casting green dappled shade over an old but comfortable divan that had come with the house, and a table and two chairs I´d found in a second hand shop. There was also a hammock for reading, but the view usually distracted me until I just grew drowsy and eventually fell asleep in the summer sea breeze. Today, I had no time to check out the view as the storm completely drenched me during the short dash across the terrace to the double glass doors of the living room. I had left for Rome just two days ago, on Friday, but the house was already as cold as if it were uninhabited, and I wished that the slightly bent old wooden frames had provided a little more insulation against the elements I forced the creaking doors closed. The bulky semi-portable heating and air conditioning unit in the corner of the living room would however warm the house up in fifteen minutes, and I switched it on as the very first thing. Then I dragged my suitcase to the bedroom, got rid of my wet clothes and pulled on a pair of baggy jeans and a warm sweater. Once I was no longer in danger of catching pneumonia – not that I could actually catch anything, with my enhanced immune system – it was time for a large cup of hot chocolate. I took the steaming cup to the couch facing the terrace glass doors and settled down to watch the storm and wait for the house to warm up. All the shutters were now rattling like crazy in the wind, and the roar of the deluge hitting the roof would have made conversation impossible. I loved my house.

My well-planned week in Rome had turned into an utter disaster on the very second day. I didn´t visit big cities very often, no matter how much I´d have liked to, but I´d been cooped up in the Italian Riviera for most of the autumn and winter without a boyfriend and thought I deserved a few days in a big city with all the gay bars and possibilities for fast and easy sex. And even though Rome was not completely without its risks, it wasn´t like London or New York where one was bound to run into people met everywhere else in the world. Even in Rome there was the danger of my neural mesh setting off passive Axiom detectors that they habitually inserted in major traffic hubs like airports and main railway stations, but as long as I used local trains and switched into a taxi far in the suburbs I would be all right. The Guild would naturally do a preventive security sweep if I asked, but a disabled detector was pretty much as telling as my mesh signal.

The getaway had started great: thanks to a strikingly handsome Sicilian waiter from the hotel restaurant who visited my room after his shift was over I didn´t even have to go out to bars. The handsome Sicilian joined me for a late night walk to revisit the Colosseum and to wander by the Roman Forum to the tacky yet stunningly monumental Altare della Patria built by the crazed Mussolini, and as we slowly sauntered by the Forum he pointed out various features that I would never have recognized without a guide. As I stared down at the historical area – the modern city is built far above the ancient ground level – I couldn´t help wondering about all the people who had been right there, under my eyes: Julius Caesar, Hadrian and his famously beautiful yet doomed lover Antinous who had later been drowned in the Nile, and hadn´t even Cleopatra herself passed through the Forum during her famous visit to Rome? The Sicilian laughed at my bug-eyed expression, and herded me along because he was getting cold.

On Saturday, I had to get up early to make sure I could spend as much time as possible in the Vatican Museums. I was at the famously long ticket line before 9a.m. and discovered that on rainy winter Saturdays one could get in after waiting just a few minutes. My favorite part was always the Pio Clementino Museum, with Laokoon, Hercules and the Belvedere Apollo, in front of whom the pious Vatican staff had once shockingly discovered none other than Michelangelo jerking off, “publicly aroused in defilement”. When I emerged from the Museums in the afternoon a warm front originating all the way from Sahara had rolled over the city, and the sky was clear and the wind surprisingly warm. I pulled off my sweater and headed for the hotel for a nap and dinner before going out later in the evening with the Sicilian.

He took me to a club called Dungeon which had opened only a few months earlier, in the picturesque Trastevere neighborhood. However, just as I had suspected, very few people were following the intended dress code as only those with the very latest in fashion accoutrements were actively shunned by the doormen. Italy was just too sunny a place to cultivate a large enough leather and SM community to fill a good-sized club. There were several interconnected, low-ceilinged rooms with bars, and one of them also functioned as a dance floor. The staff would most likely kick me out well before midnight as my present passport stated my age a few months short of eighteen, and even that was already looking like a forgery.

The place was popular as a first stop of the evening, and it filled out quickly. I was having excellent time with my Sicilian even though he kept introducing me to his friends, which was never a good idea: they´d remember me for a long time. However, I didn´t mind him being unable to keep his hands off me as I was already planning to invite him for a weekend in Le Cinque Terre. I finished my Pepsi – the bartenders refused the give me anything alcoholic – and went to get another in the least crowded of the bars. When I got back the Sicilian threw his arm around my shoulder and gave me a kiss before continuing an animated discussion with his friends. They were speaking Italian too fast for me to follow, and I let my eyes wander around the room.

Something was wrong. Suddenly my heart was beating too fast, and my fingers were tingling. Surprised by the strong and seemingly irrational adrenaline shock I scanned the crowd, but everything seemed to be all right. The Sicilian must have felt me tense up as he threw a quick glance at me before resuming the conversation. Then someone about ten yards away moved sideways, and I saw him. My heart rate picked up in earnest.

He was now in his late thirties, with a military style short haircut and a stubble, and he was toying with that thin line between someone very muscular and an actual bodybuilder. There was a tattoo on the side of his neck. He was wearing a simple t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and when I remembered what he was carrying between those thickly muscled legs the pit of my stomach felt as if I´d suddenly fallen off a cliff. He had turned himself into the kind of guy I jerked off to on the net when I´d been in the house alone for too long. Not that I´d ever been objective when it came to Alex, but I thought he had to be one of the most handsome men I´d ever seen.

Then it happened; as if from nowhere, the old feelings that I´d had for him were back, like a firebomb shattering and exploding inside of me. I was burning as if I´d last seen him in Sydney just yesterday, and I wanted his big arms around me like I´d never wanted anything else in my life.

I was vaguely aware that the Sicilian was looking at me when Alex felt my stare and turned towards me. He recognized me instantly, and for a split second there was an immense joy in his eyes, but just as soon it was followed by a moment of confusion and the realization that something was horribly wrong. Then he understood what it was and his face turned to stone. What he was seeing was inconceivable, it was impossible. It was wrong.

He got over it, if only for the time being, with a remarkable show of cold blood. Then, like in the old days, we clicked together like two pieces of a puzzle and just by looking at me he knew exactly what I was feeling. But instead of a hint of a smile, or a nod, or stepping over to me, he just stood still. His friends, disconcerted, were starting to turn to follow his gaze, and the Sicilian was saying something but I didn´t understand the words. Then, with a shock, I recognized the emotion in Alex´s face. It was hate, slowly but inexorably growing behind his eyes. The full extent of all the lies I´d told him was finally catching up with me.

My training kicked in. There was only one thing to do in a situation like this: run. Now.

I took a step back, breaking away from the Sicilian´s hold over my shoulder, and just as I turned my back I saw Alex spring into action. He stepped forward, an arm reaching out to grab me. Our relationship had been stormy but he´d never hurt me; now that had changed. He´d turn me into bloody pulp if he caught me.

For once, I was glad I was so small. I could cut through the crowd faster than anyone else, let alone someone as big and wide-shouldered as Alex had become, and I was already running up the stairs to the exit when I heard the first cries of protest from people Alex was roughly pushing aside. As I reached the top of the stairs I heard him shout my name, obviously a name that wasn´t really mine, and I was out of the club, abandoning my jacket in the cloakroom. Grateful that the club was in the Trastevere district, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets, I was out of sight from the club exit within seconds. I needed to catch a taxi as soon as possible and check out from the hotel before Alex had time to return to the club and interrogate the Sicilian about where I was staying.

Furious at my own weakness, I burst into tears at the back seat of the taxi. The driver threw a couple of glances at me through the rearview mirror, but said nothing. I got to the hotel, crammed my things into the suitcase and checked out, knowing that the first local train wouldn´t leave until 6a.m. from the suburban station I used when visiting Rome. For an hour I tried to find a vacant hotel room, dragging my suitcase along, but with no success. In the end I gave up and took a taxi to the suburbs, and spent the rest of the cold night waiting at the station, on a bench in the platform, huddled in all the warm clothes I could scare up from my suitcase.

While I was waiting, Mauro called me.

I heard what happened,” he said.

What do we do now?” I asked. “Do I have to leave Italy?”

“Alex has a ticket reservation back to Sydney the day after tomorrow, and I doubt he´s going to tell anyone what really happened. He knows no one would believe him. So, unless the Sicilian knows where you live and told Alex, you´re safe.”

Hearing that Alex was flying back the day after tomorrow didn´t make me feel any better.

“We´re OK,” I said. “I didn´t tell the Sicilian about Le Cinque Terre.”

What´s wrong?” Mauro asked.

It´s really cold in here,” I answered, trying not to make my teeth chatter.

“I´m sorry I can´t help you with that,” he said. “But you´ll be back home tomorrow. It´ll be all right.”

It was the longest and coldest night of my life, despite all the long winters I´d lived through back home in Sweden. The thought gave me a lopsided smile, “back home in Sweden”... How many decades would I have to live all over the world, never revisiting my native country, before I stopped thinking of Sweden as “home”? There wasn´t any actual place there I could consider home, and yet the thought persisted.

However, Le Cinque Terre was my present home now, and I wouldn´t have to leave for another year. I still had one long summer ahead of me in my favorite place in the world, and then I would go to Osaka for a year. Mauro and his boss were still mulling my proposal over, big cities being banned and all, but I thought that after running into Alex they might be glad to send me to some faraway place for as long as possible. I finished my hot chocolate, and switched my sweater into a more comfortable t-shirt now that the heater unit had warmed up the house. The storm was reaching its full power, and I sat back in the couch and watched the show. There were even a few lightning strikes despite the late season. As soon as the rain stopped I would wrap myself into a blanket and go to the terrace to watch huge waves hitting the beach down below. One day, eroding rock would collapse my house into the sea, but with luck it would be another thousand years before that happened. At least I hoped so.

The framed photo was hidden in a cupboard in the bedroom. I shouldn´t have kept it, as it was the only thing I carried along that could pin me on a certain place and time in the past, but nowadays I could explain it as a Photoshop job. I dug it out and decided to keep it on a living room bookshelf for a few days since no one was going to enter the house anyway. The colors were already faded, and there was a crack in the corner of the frame, but the smiles were still the same. We´d been so happy that day. Alex looked better nowadays, though, with his short hair and that tattoo and the muscles... I noticed that my hands were shaking a bit, and set the photo down. It was so easy to think that it had been a mistake not to tell him, but then, who could really know? He´d always had a bit of a temper, and looking back I found it totally plausible that he might have sold me out after a bad break-up. You just never knew with people.


The scooter made deafening noise as it dealt with the steep tight hairpin curves on the way up to the house. My own scooter, which was about twenty years younger that this museum piece, was being repaired in Vernazza but luckily the mechanic´s cousin had rented me his old one for a few days. Whenever I ran into the cousin in town without his girlfriend he was all smiles and full of questions, many of them about my ever-absent family and how I was getting on always all alone, and he´d told me more than once that if I needed any work done on the house he was very good at ”fixing things”. His girlfriend studied in Pisa and spent only weekends in Vernazza, and more than once I´d been tempted to invite him over with the excuse of the creaky terrace doors. He´d been down on the beach today with two of his friends, and so he´d played it cool, but we both knew that one of these days he´d show up on my doorstep with a perfectly plausible cover story if I didn´t invite him there myself first.

It felt good to be flirting and having fun again. Ever since my disastrous trip to Rome I´d been doing pretty much nothing but moping around the house, watching the winter turn to spring and then to early summer. I refused to believe it was just Alex; there had been something more to it, a pause for reflection, or a bout of depression or whatever. Even though I had played with the idea, I had never seriously considered leaving the job as the benefits were just too good. Of course I could quit any moment I wanted to, but then all the tinkering they´d done with my DNA would have to be removed as they would no longer be keeping an eye on me and making sure I didn´t have an accident and end up in a hospital where staff might figure out that something weird was going on.

I parked the scooter, took off my backpack and walked to the edge of the terrace to have a quick look at the beach down below. The cousin and his friends were gone, too. I was hungry and thirsty after the beach and decided I would prepare an enormous feta cheese and green salad and wash it down with a gallon of Dr. Pepper. Trying to remember what exactly I had in the fridge, I unlocked the terrace doors and stepped in.

Someone had been in the house. I stopped dead on my tracks, and listened to any telltale sounds that someone might still be in the kitchen or in the bedroom. There was no immediate visible sign of a visitor; everything was where it was supposed to be, but some kind of animal instinct knew otherwise. Maybe it was just a trace of an unknown scent in the air, maybe things had been moved only a fraction of an inch, but I knew. Slowly, I stepped forward and looked into the kitchen. There was no one, which left the bedroom as the only possible hiding place. I picked up a knife from the kitchen table, and only feeling more wobbly for it, circled the living room to gain a view into the bedroom. No one was there either.

I stood still, heart still thumping, and checked out every detail. Nothing was out of place. I walked around the house and double-checked. Even though I kept my house tidy, I wasn´t the most conscientious duster and in the end I did find that something had been moved. It was the framed photo on the bookshelf. Someone had picked it up and then set it down, without noticing that he´d misplaced it just a little, leaving a telltale sign in the dust behind the frame.

Far from conclusive, the evidence certainly didn´t warrant a call to Mauro. Or did it? Someone had been snooping in my house. I couldn´t count on the judgment of whoever was receiving the signal from my mesh as I suspected I´d been relegated under the watchful eye of an automated program. No one in their right mind would be following live feed from me, as Jonatan moping around the house surely rated far less than D- on the interest scale of anyone.

Tonight, I´d ride the scooter to Vernazza and talk to the cousin about replacing the lock on the terrace doors. Until then, there was nothing else to do but get on with my early dinner.

The cousin, however, had taken a train to Pisa and wasn´t coming back until the day after tomorrow. The mechanic was visibly upset with the thought of an intruder in my place and offered to come and fix the doors right away, but it was already late and I adamantly refused to bother him. I´d be careful, and his cousin could come and have a look whenever he got back from Pisa. For the next two nights, I kept the terrace lights on and made sure that no one could get into the house without waking me up in the process. Then, as arranged, I met the cousin on the beach two days later. He was with his friends again, but this time there was a legitimate topic of discussion and I was invited to sit down with them to tell about the intrusion. It was all very business-like, and he told me he´d be over at my place at 6p.m. which would leave him plenty of time – he added off-handedly – to get back to his parents for the dinner. That was when his two friends exchanged a look, and I left hurriedly before they noticed that my face was turning red.

I started getting hunger pangs around 5:30 and left the beach after a quick ´see you later´ to the cousin and his friends. The earsplitting but otherwise reliable scooter took me home, and when I turned the last hairpin curve I saw that there was a Rent-A-Van parked in front of the house. I got off the scooter and stared at the van for a moment. This was not good. I hadn´t heard from Mauro, which meant that my situation hadn´t been red-flagged, and as I couldn´t be sure that someone was watching live feed I considered calling him before going in. On second thought, my adrenaline level was so high that even the dullest of programs would be alerting someone to see what was going on. Calling Mauro would make little difference, and it would only make me look like a wimp if there was an innocuous explanation for the van. When it crossed my mind that I could get back on the scooter and drive away a sudden anger washed over me. Someone was in my house, what the hell were they thinking! And besides, if this was the worst case scenario, my mesh was transmitting a hundred-meter-radius advertisement about my presence and I could hardly get away in any case. Most of my training had gone into how to avoid the Axiom and very little into what to do if they did track me down. Basically, all I could do was to count minutes and hope the cavalry didn´t arrive too late.

I took a deep breath and walked into the terrace. The doors were open. The living room appeared dark compared to the sunlight out in the terrace, but I could tell someone was sitting in the couch. I took the last two steps and recognized him, even in the relatively dim light of the room. It was Alex.

I was about to say something witty or snappy or whatever, but my throat just closed up. I merely stood there, watching the familiar face with the new body, and he didn´t move either. There was a protracted silence, and then he stood up and walked up to me. I stood my ground, while trying to figure out how angry he was, but there were no visible signs yet. He´d had time to think it over.

He stood in front of me for a moment, looking down at me, and then, tentatively, lifted his hand to the side of my face and ran his fingers into my thick engineered hair.

“So it´s true,” he said in the end, as if he´d started to doubt himself in the months since he´d seen me in Rome. “You look just the same.”

He wasn´t going to hit me. I had so many questions, but I knew which one would have to come first, for the record.

How did you find me?”

“Jonatan,” he said with a humorless smile. “I know you. It was a given that you´d be living by the sea, so I´ve been combing every Italian coastal town for the last six months with one of your old photos. Hit pay dirt here in Vernazza.”

Have you told someone?”

Of course I have.” His voice was so controlled that I could tell he was getting angry again. “What, you wanted me to keep quiet about this? For the old time´s sake?”

Christ, Alex... You don´t know what you´ve done,” I said, shaking my head.

And why is that? Yeah, right. Because you never told me what the fuck is going on.”

Listen. We have to get out of here, now.”

“Why? Aren´t your people supposed to get here in about thirty minutes?”

I felt a chill run down my spine. “How do you know about them?”

Seeing how shaken up I was, he decided to answer me.

“About a year after you disappeared two men knocked on my door,” he said, after a quick glance at the clock on the wall. “They showed me a drawing of you and asked me to call them if I ever saw you again. I would have thrown their number away but they paid me five thousand dollars just to keep the number.” He shrugged. “So I did. Then I saw you in Rome, and called them. Two of their associates came to visit me in Sydney, and we had a long chat.” He stared poignantly at my unbuttoned shirt. “That Roman coin you´re still wearing... that´s now your GPS tracker, right?”

So he didn´t know what it really was. They´d lied to him, too, but the tiny flicker in my expression had told him what he needed to know. “Alex, this is bad. Let´s go.”

He didn´t budge. “So you´re not going to tell me? The truth, for once?”

I can´t. Not now. There´s no time.”

It had been the wrong thing to say. He´d made his mind up. “I was told to get you out of here within twenty minutes, and smash your GPS tracker before leaving.”

You can´t...”

He had pulled a clunky, dated cell phone from his pocket. He pressed a button before I could stop him and I hit the ground instantly; it was as if thousands of large needles had instantly injected my nervous system with powerful acid. The bastards had given him the EM pulse emitter that could overwhelm my neural mesh. For an interminable second or two he kept the button down, and then my audio system let out a loud explosion of sparks and short-lived flames, immediately followed by the TV. In quick succession, the clock radio in the bedroom as well as the clock in the living room wall, microwave in the kitchen and my cell phone – in my goddamn pocket – all let out crackling sounds and then fell silent. My laptop held out the longest, but it also made the loudest sound as it exploded, cratering the table with shards of chassis. Thin but foul-smelling smoke started to fill the room.

Alex was on his knees, leaning over me. “Are you all right?”

I tried to speak but couldn´t, and my arms and legs weren´t functioning either. Luckily, I didn´t feel anything near the dead cell phone in my pocket, so it probably hadn´t burnt my leg.

I´m sorry,” he said. “They didn´t tell me it was that bad. You´ll be all right in a couple of minutes. Don´t be afraid.”

He undid the chain around my neck, and set the Roman coin on the floor. When his heel came down on the uplink relay there was a soft crumbling sound and suddenly nothing was left of the coin but black soot. For a second Alex stared at the result, aghast. It was starting to dawn on him that maybe he hadn´t been told the whole truth by his friends either.

What the fuck-” he muttered, and after glancing at the stopped electric clock on the wall turned back to me. “Here we go.”

He picked me up effortlessly, like a rag doll, and carried me out to the terrace. Realizing that with the commotion he had forgotten to first open the back door of the van he muttered another curse under his breath and set me down on the hammock, leaving me there to swing helplessly back and forth with my head hanging over the edge. The door only delayed him a couple of seconds, and then I was back in his arms and being hoisted into the van. There was a mattress on the floor, and two pieces of instantly recognizable equipment. Black leather wrist and ankle restraints to hog tie a person, and a bit gag. We´d fooled around with similar equipment a few times, ages ago.

“I´m really sorry about this,” he said while fastening the restraints around my wrists.

I was coming back to my senses. If I was lucky, the cousin would be here in time to stop Alex if I managed to stall him even for few minutes.

“D-don´t...” I stammered, but once the bit gag locked my mouth open nothing but unintelligible yelps came out.

Alex kneeled over me. “There are no windows, so you´ll probably get car sick. That´s the reason for the bit gag, it won´t smother you if you have to throw up. Don´t worry about it if you do, I´ll clean up the mess.” He caressed my hair for a moment. “ I´m sorry.”

Then he was gone, and the back doors slammed shut. He´d turned on the overhead light, so at least I wouldn´t be in the dark when the car started zigzagging down the road and messing with my inner ears. I heard the engine come to life, and we were moving. I was too frightened to get car sick; without my uplink relay there was no way security could follow the ultra weak signal my neural mesh was emitting. The team would be down at the house as soon as possible, and that was the sum of what they could do for me. There had been no chance to ask what the Axiom had told Alex, but then, all things considered, it wouldn´t have been too hard to make me look like a fiend. And it wasn´t as if I had never considered smashing the uplink relay myself and trying to walk into the Karolinska Institut to have my DNA extracted and studied by genome specialists, even with the predicted consequences.

It didn´t take me long to completely lose track of the direction we were going, no doubt helped by some fancy driving by Alex. I knew we weren´t on the Autostrada because the road kept going up and down, and for the endless succession of steep curves. After a while I lost track of time, too. When the car finally stopped and he opened the back door of the van sun had already slipped below the mountains and the sky was quickly turning dark blue. We were in a some kind of a rest stop, maybe in one of the inland national parks, and from my narrow point of view I could see a river valley sided by lush green mountains. It seemed that for the time being there was no one else in the parking area.

Alex was kneeling over me, and by the way he was looking at me I realized he was getting turned on. I let out an ugly gnarl and struggled to free myself, and he unfastened the bit gag.

You fucking bastard,” I growled at him. “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully.”

I told him everything, or as much as I could fit in three minutes. At first he regarded me with a sarcastic smile, but after a while the smile started to look a little forced. Halfway through, his face went blank, and I hadn´t even finished when he was already undoing the restraints. I often liked my men big and stupid, but Alex had never been the latter.

It was too late, however. There was a glint of light down the road, behind clusters of trees, and when we turned to look we saw the headlights of a car on its way up the tight hairpin curves leading to the rest stop.

Hurry up,” Alex said, his eyes wide. “We have to-”

Too late,” I interrupted, and thought quickly. “They can track my mesh signal. I can´t get away. But you can.”

I won´t leave you-”

Shut up,” I snapped and started refastening the ankle restraints. “Listen. They will let you go as long as they think you fully believe their story. We put these back on, and you pretend we never really talked and you walk away.”

I won´t-”

Fuck you Alex! You got us in this mess, and you have to get us out, and this is the only way. My people will come for me,” I lied to him again, “but they´re not here yet so you´ll have to get out on your own. Put these back on!”

He fumbled with the wrist restraints, trying to find a fault in my logic. He couldn´t; he´d believed yet another one of my lies. The headlights were closer now and we´d only have a few more seconds before the car would reach the rest stop. He locked my wrists behind my back.

Do it,” I said as he picked up the bit gag, and he followed my order.

He was still leaning over me, eyes fixed on mine, when the arriving headlights lit up the back of the van. He turned to look at the car, shielding his eyes with his hand, and the lights went out. It was an ambulance. He threw me one last glance, and climbed out of the van to greet the people stepping out from the other car. There were three of them. Each one looked like an accountant; average height, nondescript suits, receding hairlines, and two of them were wearing glasses. You´d never notice them in the street, and even after a meeting you´d struggle to remember their faces.

Mr. Rayner,” the first one said. “The money has been transferred to your account.”

I could see Alex´s shoulders stiffen. He knew I´d heard. For a moment, he stood still, and then he nodded. The men came forward, and one of them took a syringe out of the pocket of his jacket.

You´ll have your car back in just a moment.”

The whole scene seemed to be happening to someone else. The man climbed into the van, uncapped the syringe and injected my arm. Within seconds my muscles relaxed, but otherwise I was feeling perfectly alert. The restraints and the gag were removed, and two of them carried me into the ambulance while the third one chatted with Alex. As I was being lifted into the ambulance I caught a glimpse of him, the edges of his mouth white but otherwise focused on the man talking to him.

The moment I lost sight of Alex, my memories end.

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