Science Fiction & Fantasy

GENOME by Sergei Lukyanenko

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Fiction

A Well-Adjusted Man

On September 3, 2045, Jim Turner shot dead an innocent girl and went home to his family a well-adjusted man.

It was supposed to be a simple escapee bust, out in the projects. Intel said three hostiles in the apartment, armed and volatile, on the run from Louisiana Debtors. So they rammed the door and went in, two other guys and Jim.

Hands cold, heart racing, every sense adrenalized—same as always.

A living room, dark except for a TV blaring old reggaeton videos. The stench of mold and pizza.

Once through the door, Jim swung to the right.

Gunfire erupted behind him, bright, deafening.

Jim kept his eyes ahead. Standard procedure—trust your team, hold your sector. Even if there’s nothing in your sector except the doorway to a lightless kitchen.

The guns fell silent.

“Two down,” Mark said in Jim’s cochlear, clipped, short.

One more, Jim thought.

A dark shape charged him, out of the kitchen.

No time for using sights. Jim pointed. Jim shot.

His M9 kicked. He kept it steady, sent a tight grouping into the assailant’s torso.

Three nine millimeter hollow-points entered the chest of Cynthia Lawson, seventeen years old. Inside her body they expanded, dumped kinetic energy efficiently—ripped apart her lungs, sent a shard into her heart. A glass of hot chocolate slipped from her grip and shattered on the wooden floor.

It took Cynthia two minutes to die. Jim stroked her hair for those two minutes. He told her he was sorry.

“You made the right call,” said Mark, on the ride back to the station.

“You couldn’t have known they had family around,” said Billy.

“State will approve,” said Mark.

Jim agreed. But that didn’t matter. He had the gargle of Cynthia’s breath in his ears. He had the scent of hot chocolate in his nostrils.

At the station, they sent him to the replay room. He put on the helmet, hooked up his ports. Wave generators blasted his synapses, sent a tempest through his hippocampus and subiculum, wiping near term memory.

Everything except adrenalized record, of course. It was no easy thing, erasing stress-formed triggers. For that he went under.

Jim stood outside that apartment door, in the projects. His heart raced, his breath came quick.

They broke down the door and poured inside. Jim turned right, to his sector. Behind him, Mark and Billy lit up their attackers—bang, bang, bang. Jim stared at the kitchen door and clutched the butt of his M9.

The gunfight ended.

“Two down,” Mark told him.

A dark shape charged from the kitchen.

Jim snapped up his firearm. Squeezed the trigger halfway. Hesitated.

Cynthia Lawson crashed into him. Strong arms wrapped around him. “Thank God you’re here,” she cried, her voice soft and clear. “I was so scared!”

A glass of hot chocolate slipped from her hands. It crashed to the floor, sweetened the air with its scent.

Jim’s brain recognized that scent. Adrenaline-activated pathways fired up, filled him with dread.

But there was no reason for dread. He told Cynthia everything would be okay—and it was.

It took two minutes for Jim to change. Two minutes for his mind to discard useless associations and form new ones. For those two minutes, he held Cynthia and stroked her hair.

Adrenaline overwrite complete, Jim woke in peace.

He smiled at the warmth of the afternoon sun in the windows of the replay room. He took off his helmet, unhooked his ports, and left.

In the office outside, Anna Kipp, the department shrink, waited for him. Short straight hair, gray skirt and blouse, she looked every inch the office drone—except for a short-barreled .357 in her shoulder holster. Jim had always wondered who she meant to shoot, here in the middle of the station.

“Drink this, James.” Kipp handed him a mug of tea. “Take a seat.”

Jim sank into the diagnostic armchair. Intelligent fabrics gave beneath him, so soft he usually felt in danger of drowning. Today that didn’t bother him.

“Nice tea,” he said, after a sip.

Kipp sat down behind her desk, steepled her fingers, studied him. Above her head, gentle surf washed a sandy shore on a wall-mounted display. Golden lettering at the bottom of the screen read Federation Enforcement: 57 days without a PTSD incident.

After a while, Kipp tapped the glass surface of her desk with a finger—no doubt bringing up the feed from his chair.

“How did it go today?” she asked him, as every time.

“Fine, under the circumstances,” Jim replied, as every time.

“What do you remember?”

“Not much,” Jim said. Somebody warm pressed close against him. The aroma of . . . cocoa?

“You know what that means,” Kipp said.

Jim nodded. “Bad things happen. In the field, you can’t always fix every problem. In the adrenalized state—”

“—the thinking mind shuts off, and all you’ve got is your experience, your training, and your instincts,” Kipp finished. “Yes, I read the manual.”

“I feel bad when people get hurt,” Jim said. “But it’s the cost of serving the Federation. I’m human. I accept my limitations.”

Kipp watched him for a while. She looked down at her desk, studied something there. “Veracity levels high across the board.”

“Is that a surprise?” Jim asked.

“We’ve never seen results like yours from the replay program,” Kipp said. “The data I’m seeing here . . . on today’s replay, the somnal stimulators barely needed to kick in. Your brain has adapted so well, it performed the adrenal overwrite almost on its own.”

“I’m learning to deal,” Jim said. “That’s a good thing, right?”

“Of course,” Kipp said.

“I love my job,” Jim said. “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

“Is it really,” Kipp said. It didn’t seem a question.

“I joined the Scouts when I was five,” Jim said. “The Spartans when I was twelve.”

Not that he’d had a choice. They’d kicked him out of school—and for what? Breaking a kid’s arm? It had been an accident, a scuffle gone wrong. Principal Bennings had called him a monster.

Sometimes he wished replay went back farther than a day or two.

“Go home, James,” Kipp said. “Rest up.”

She smiled as she said the words. Jim thought the smile a bit cold, but he discounted it. To do otherwise would have been paranoid.

***

On the way home, Jim stopped at the mall to pick up chicken feed. The lady at the register flinched at the sight of his assault police uniform. She had nothing to fear from him, of course, not as a law-abiding citizen. His smile won her over—they chatted about the weather and her grandkids, and the future of the Federation.

He passed a janitor bot near the exit. It made a clack-clack-clack noise as it rolled across the floor. The sound sent a pleasant shiver up his spine.

Jim didn’t know why. That alone told him everything. He thanked God that he need not remember whatever formed this particular trigger.

Twenty minutes later, Jim pulled onto his wooded property. Before heading to the house, he stopped by the chicken coop. Thirty hens he kept in a wire mesh yard, and three roosters—all Javas, black as oil. The roosters sprinted for the gate as Jim approached, and crowed in boisterous voices. The hens scattered excitedly.

Jim refilled their dishes with the feed he’d bought, then stood outside and watched them for a while. He spent all his days dealing with murderers, delinquents, people useless to society—what Thatcher-Reyes called non-entities. It refreshed him, to see creatures of such simple, efficient purpose instead.

Sometimes he’d take a rooster out for a day, then put it back and watch how it waltzed with the others—one wing dipped, male against male. No doubts, no remorse, just honest aggression.

Eventually, Jim headed to the house. “I’m home,” he called as he came in. The thin, bland aroma of a TV dinner pizza welcomed him—but Sara didn’t.

Curious, he went into the kitchen. Sara stood at the microwave, tall and lean in jeans and a black dress shirt. Her beautiful dark eyes flew to him and locked on hard—but she didn’t smile. “Hello, Jim,” she said.

“What’s the matter, darling?” He stepped toward her. “Something at work? Or—”

“Dinner’s ready.” She turned away from him, pulled the steaming pizza from the microwave, carried it to the table. “Paul’s got something to tell you. Paul!”

They sat down to dinner, the three of them. Jim still in his uniform. His wife with those watchful eyes on him all the time. Paul with the gleam of a trid game shining in his lenses—and fear in the hunch of his fleshy shoulders.

Not much of an athlete, Paul. But he wasn’t made that way. Jim accepted that.

“Turn off the game and tell me,” Jim said to the boy. He bit into a slice of pizza. It was bad pizza.

Paul’s eyes lost their trid shine, went gray. “I’ve got a transgression slip for you to sign,” he said.

“What did you do?” Jim asked.

Paul hesitated. “I punched Matt in the face. He called me buttso, and I lost it.”

So that was it. Jim glanced at Sara. She watched him tautly.

Of course this would get to her. She was a children’s doctor, not the kind of person who understood violence. He loved that about her—but he couldn’t let it change how he treated their son.

Jim returned his gaze to Paul. “That was a mistake,” he said. “But we all lose control sometimes. What happens then depends on your training. We’ll work on that, make sure you do better next time.”

One day, the cost of replay would drop enough and they’d roll it out to the school system. Until then, you had to do things the old way.

“That’s not all,” Paul said, after a pause. “I also failed my math test.”

Jim grew very still. He spoke calmly, evenly. “You knew that test was coming. It wasn’t a pop quiz or anything.”

“Jim—” Sara began.

“Let Paul answer,” he said. “Was it a pop quiz?”

The boy fidgeted. “Not exactly. My teacher—”

“We’re not animals, Paul,” Jim said. “We think. We plan ahead. We make intelligent choices. Haven’t we talked about that?”

“Well . . .”

“What did Thatcher-Reyes say?” Jim asked.

Paul licked his lips. “From everyone according to their nature,” he recited. “To everyone according to their contributions.”

“We’re not in Marxist Canada, where someone takes care of you even if you’re a useless nobody,” Jim said. “We’re a Federation family. That means we work for our living. You got that?”

“I . . .”

Jim got up abruptly, surprising himself. “You got that?”

Paul’s eyes grew wide. He started to his feet, twisted away from the table and lunged for the door—nearly tripping over his chair. His heavy footsteps slammed up the stairs.

Jim wavered in place, unsure whether to follow.

Then Sara was there, by his side, her hand on his shoulder. “Jim,” she said, quiet, insistent. “Jim. Jim.”

He looked at her. At once tension drained from him. How pale she looked, how tired. They must be working her to death at the clinic.

He hugged her. “Why did he have to run off like that?”

“He’s scared,” Sara said, after a moment.

Jim frowned. “It’s not like I’d hurt him. I’ve never hurt him in my life.”

Sara stiffened in his arms. Breathed hard. Said not a word.

A warmth flowed through Jim. Sara must have realized how wounded he felt.

“Paul’s a good boy,” he told her. “He’ll turn around, you’ll see.”

Outside the roosters began to crow. Jim kissed his wife.

She didn’t kiss him back, but he didn’t mind. It wouldn’t have been decent, to mind.

***

Early the following morning Jim and his team raided an insurgent firearms depot out in the boonies. The whole place stank of WD-40. They took out seven hostiles and crippled an eighth.

Back at the station, Jim sat with Billy outside the replay room, waiting to go in. The operation had gone by the numbers, but that much shooting took its toll.

Jim munched on sticks of garlic bread. Billy held a Mickey D’s coffee in one trembling hand.

“That was a lot of blood,” Billy said.

“Nasty business,” Jim said. “But they had it coming.”

“They did.” After a while, Billy asked, “Do you get dreams sometimes? About the things we do?”

“No,” Jim said.

“Me neither.” Billy stared at the door of the replay room. “Do you think we should get dreams?”

Jim frowned. He’d always known Billy was less than he appeared. For God’s sake, the man kept a gleaming Harley in his yard but never rode the thing. Yet this?

“Why should we get dreams?” Jim asked.

“What about when we screw up?”

“We can only take responsibility for the things we can control,” Jim said. “The work we do, it leaves no time for thought. You just got to flip the switch. And once that switch flips—”

“We’re just animals. Yeah, that’s the Bill of Defenses for you. ‘Only men may be judged, not animals.’” Billy sipped his coffee. “You remember that rapist we picked up last month? Bennington?”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “Sure.”

“We fucked him up good, didn’t we?”

“Yeah,” Jim said.

“He had it coming, right?”

“Sure he did,” Jim said.

“It’s just this thing,” Billy said. “I remember laying into him, and he just wouldn’t shut up, right? You remember what he kept saying?”

“I don’t remember much.”

“‘I’m sorry,’ the guy said. ‘I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help myself, I’m sorry.’” Billy paused. “You remember that?”

“Do you want to go back to the days where everyone got nightmares?” Jim asked. “Is that supposed to be the price for trying to help people?”

“I guess it’s okay for us to forget the bloody things we do,” Billy said. “I mean, this country has been doing that since the very beginning. Bury the dead and build on top.”

Jim looked at Billy evenly. “You saying something about the Federation?”

“No, man.” Billy had his hands in the air. “I just thought, maybe I’m not right for this. I mean, even when I joined the Spartans, that was an accident. I didn’t mean to punch no teacher.”

“It was an accident for me too,” Jim said. “You think I wanted to break someone’s arm?”

“I heard you stabbed someone,” Billy said.

“Jesus!” Jim exclaimed. “The hell’s the matter with you? Where do you get this stuff?”

Billy shut up after that. It was too late. Jim had a headache.

You’re a monster, he heard Principal Bennings in the back of his mind. You ought to be locked up. As if he really had stabbed someone.

Replay helped. In the scenario, the gun traffickers threw down their guns and surrendered to Jim. They apologized—said they were ready to face justice, work for the good of society. It felt good. The sharp smell of WD-40 took on a pleasant edge.

After, Kipp praised him again. His adrenaline rewrite had apparently taken hold almost by itself. Jim felt fine, just fine, as he left her office at lunchtime.

Except then his cochlear rang. It was his bank. After identification protocols, a smooth-voiced rep told him, “I wanted to check about your wire transfer before I release it, Mr. Turner.”

“What wire transfer?” he asked.

“I see a wire of three hundred and seven thousand dollars to an account at Estima Bank, submitted seven minutes ago,” the rep said. “Did you not initiate this transaction?”

A few minutes later Jim dialed Sara. She didn’t pick up.

***

Jim drove home obeying the speed limit. When someone cut him off at Exit 35, Jim didn’t flip him the finger. He stayed cool.

Everything would be all right. Maybe some emergency came up and Sara needed the money. That’s why she had the access codes, after all.

But why didn’t she call? And what emergency required half their savings to fix?

Once Jim got home, instinct told him to park out of sight of the house. He didn’t run through their garden. He walked quickly and purposefully, and went into the house without knocking.

Three black roller suitcases sat by the mirror in the entrance hall.

Jim was staring at them when Sara walked in. She staggered when she saw him. Color drained from her face.

“Hello, Sara.” Jim didn’t raise his voice—he stayed professional. As if this were just another domestic call. “What’s going on here?”

Sara hesitated a while. He waited her out. At last she said, “We’re leaving.”

Jim blinked. “What?”

“We’re going, Paul and I.”

“Where?” he asked, groping to make sense. “Why?”

“I won’t let you hurt us,” she said.

“Hurt you?” The unfairness took his breath away. He stepped closer to her, pleaded. “I’d never!”

“Stay away!” She pressed back against the doorjamb, her body taut.

Jim stopped. Dismay flooded him. Something was wrong with his wife.

Jim held up his arms—palms out, non-threatening. He modulated his voice to command tone. “It’s all right, Sara. Everything’s all right. Let’s just take a deep breath.”

“I can’t live with a monster,” she whispered.

A monster.

Jim stared at her.

A monster.

His fists curled.

A monster.

The switch flipped.

“This is not how a family works,” Jim said. “Not in the Federation.”

He stepped toward Sara.

Paul came out of the kitchen, to Sara’s side. He had a long butcher knife in his hand. “Dad?” His voice shook. “Please let us go.”

Jim gazed at the knife in Paul’s hand. Combat instincts snapped to wakefulness. His hands twitched for action.

Then, outside, the roosters crowed.

The sound hit Jim like a set of brass knuckles. He wasn’t sure why, but it did.

He shuddered. Blinked. Snapped out of it.

Jim looked at Sara and Paul, and knew he could not be angry with them. No matter how they hurt him, they were his family.

It would be wrong, to be angry. It wouldn’t be like him.

Sara was sick. People got sick sometimes. You couldn’t judge them for it.

“It’s okay, Paul,” Jim said, low and easy. “It’s okay. We can get along.”

Jim moved slowly closer to his wife. Paul watched him but didn’t protest. Jim hugged Sara and bowed his lips to her ear. She held herself rigid, but he said nothing of that.

“I understand,” he whispered. “You need time. Go then. Go. See a doctor, please, for Paul’s sake. Remember that I love you.”

She softened against him. She hugged him, and kissed his cheek.

“Thank you,” she said. “Oh, thank you, Jim.”

It felt good, holding her. It felt very good.

When it was time to let go, it didn’t hurt so much.

Jim watched them leave. He stood in the door as they drove away in Sara’s SUV. Paul glanced back before they disappeared among the trees.

Jim saw love in the boy’s eyes.

***

That night Jim had a peculiar dream.

In that dream, his roosters attacked him. Their beaks darted at his shins, fast and sharp, pecking for blood. They crowed shrill and high—voices full of hate.

Jim cried out in pain and betrayal. He drew his M9. He picked up the roosters one by one. He held them out by the neck, and shot off their heads. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Blood sprayed all over him.

This didn’t upset Jim. He was used to blood. And the crowing had stopped.

But the hens ran everywhere. They butted against his legs blindly. They clucked in maniacal panic.

So he shot them too, one after the other. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. No need to reload. Just point and shoot. The M9 barely jumped in his grip. Real smooth. Real natural.

Feathers clouded the air. Red stains tainted the dirt. The clucking ceased.

When it was done, Jim sat down amidst the corpses of his chickens. He hugged one tight to his chest—a slick bundle of bloody feathers and sinews and meat. And he wept.

***

Jim woke at dawn. Panic gripped him. His mouth tasted foul, like bleach somehow.

He pulled on his clothes, bounded downstairs, ran out to the chicken coop.

The roosters raced to meet him. They crowed their joy.

The sound sent a pleasant shiver up Jim’s spine.

The chickens were safe. The dirt just outside the coop seemed to have been turned over in the night—Jim would have to look into getting mole traps. But his chickens were safe.

Jim smiled. He strolled back to the house. An empty house, he knew. It would not stay empty long. His family would come home.

Everything would turn out fine. It always did, if you lived right.

Jim cooked breakfast for himself. He washed the dishes. He took out the garbage.

When it was time, Jim Turner left for work a well-adjusted man.

© 2012 Tom Crosshill.

Tom Crosshill

Tom Crosshill

Tom Crosshill’s fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Latvian Literature Award, and has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Clarkesworld. After many years spent in Oregon and New York, he currently lives in his native Latvia. He’s a satellite member of the writers’ group Altered Fluid. In the past, he has operated a nuclear reactor, translated books and worked in a zinc mine, among other things. Visit him at www.tomcrosshill.com.