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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.