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April 15, 2024

The Sapper

By Barry Kirwan

Chief Inspector Alexei Gregorovich sat in the copter, absently stroking the antique fob watch that never left his side, passed down from his great grandfather. The two-man craft hovered still as a humming bird, awaiting docking clearance. He leaned forward until his brow touched the cool glass window, and stared down at New Manhattan Island, one of ten fabled sky cities.

Like most people down below, Alexei had never seen one in real life before. Poised just above the cloud layer, it really looked like an island. Synthetic vines straggled over the terrace's edge like seaweed, drooping into the sea of water vapour. Azure swimming pools, each covered with a transparent pressurised blister, glittered near the island's edge. Closer in, four steel towers guarded the central tetra-glass pyramid. The island hung motionless and serene, three kilometres above ground level, directly over old Manhattan, which never saw sunlight. He tried not to think about the power requirements keeping it floating there, when down below brownouts occurred almost every evening.

The powerful, the rich and the beautiful lived in sky cities, where there were no mutations; a rad-free zone. And this one would all come crashing down in the next hour unless he stopped the terrorist known as "The Sapper," nicknamed after the quaint term for an engineer who undermines buildings. The Sapper had downed two islands in the past month.

Alexei spotted two stealth drones buzzing like honey bees around the island complex. He glanced upwards, knowing geostationary satellites armed with lasers could take out any missiles fired at the island. The perma-cloud below concealed automated and fully-armed fogships, always listening, probing with their radar. God help anyone who ascended above base level without the proper security codes.

Despite all these defences, New Manhattan had emptied of people, save a small security force. The last two threats against islands had been carried out with executioner's precision -- at the exact pre-specified time. Two islands destroyed, the first killing most of its ten thousand inhabitants, the second about half, not counting -- few except him did -- the collateral fatalities on the ground.

This time ... No, he checked himself, there wouldn't be a 'this time'. He would see to it personally. He never should have sent Schmidt last time. He idly nudged a metal strut with his boot. Schmidt had been his protégé, his logical successor. Not a close friend, but he'd mentored Schmidt and liked him a great deal. They never found Schmidt's body, melded with thousands of others on DC Island before it hurtled to the ground like a meteorite. Alexei was struck by how difficult it was to put his grief to rest when there was no body or coffin, as if Schmidt could still be alive somewhere.

He flicked open the silver watch, wiping his thumb across its face, as he always did. 11 am. Sixty minutes to go. He clicked it shut.

"Time to buckle up for landing, Sir," the copter pilot said.

He did so. For him, a sign of his own authority was being able to follow simple orders from those under him. Mutual respect. A watch worked the same way; some gears bigger than others, some smaller. They had to follow each other, else the whole contraption stopped working.

They docked with a smooth clunk, signifying the copter was locked into place. A glazed blister-cover arched over them. Alexei listened to the loud hiss of air pumping in, and waited till it cut off and the pilot released the hatch. He unclipped his harness, stepped onto the steel floor and faced the airlock door adjoining the main entrance tube.

The copter pilot coughed. "Excuse me, Sir."

Alexei turned around, looked him in the eye.

"Sir, I have the greatest admiration for you -- we all do. And I'll be cheering with the rest when you take out that bastard." He glanced toward the cloud layer, words stuck in his throat.

Alexei surveyed the man's lapel, then spoke in softer tones than he normally used with men under his command. "You a family man, Corporal?"

"Yes, Sir."

Alexei had once had a family, a pregnant wife. He'd not been there when ... Now he was the last of his family line. He cleared his throat. "Return to base. Bring back a vid-reporter from Channel One at 12:05, to show we stopped the Sapper this time."

"Thank you, Sir."

The airlock opened and Alexei stepped across the threshold, the door sucking closed behind him. As his boots clacked along the tubular, glass corridor, he caught the whine of the copter's engine starting up. No way back now. Either he or the Sapper would win. He picked up his pace.

* * *

He watched blood drip from his nose onto the dull wooden floorboards in the dimly-lit basement reeking of mould. The blood formed a sticky pool under his bowed head. His nose was swollen, broken at the bridge. At least his eyes had stopped watering. The left eye had been punched several times, hard, and the slit had finally closed. He reckoned he'd lose it. Spittle mixed with blood drooled from the corner of his mouth. He had no energy left to spit. The burning sensation in his wrists, where the handcuffs bound him to the chair, was dulled each time they punched him. Strange to think that a greater pain could be a source of relief for a lesser one. He'd given up asking what they wanted, and had already guessed who they were -- the Order of Light, the terrorists who claimed they'd brought down the first two islands. In which case his hours, possibly his minutes, were numbered.

A soft click ushered in a wide beam of mustard light as a doorway opened. Two thin shadowy columns stood at the entrance to wherever the hell he was.

"Can he still see?"

The voice wasn't accented. Home-grown American. College educated. A shame. He preferred his villains to be thugs.

From behind him, the hand that had earlier pounded him like a piston grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head backwards. His left eye picked out a silhouette in the doorway, head almost to the top of the frame, one hand on the door knob, the other hanging empty by his side. No weapons. No need. This one was in charge. The man standing in the doorway sighed. Sure, another bleeding heart, unhappy that his men had nearly beaten someone to death. A man who believes the ends justify the means, as long as others execute them.

"Clean him up, then bring him next door."

Two goons behind him unlocked his handcuffs, and he crumpled to the floor, his head hitting the wood, sliding forward in his own blood. He watched the tall man turn around and exit, not looking back. The door swung closed behind him.

He finally found the energy to spit.

* * *

Alexei had seen holos of sky cities, but the extravagance still staggered him. First, it was a decent temperature and humidity. Down below, the living conditions were harsh for most grays, as half the surviving population were known, living rough on the streets, where it could be all four seasons in a day, none with sunshine. Violent winds swept Earth, and anything not tied down was soon lost. He was high enough in the hierarchy to live underground where climate control was tolerable. But down below, living space was a premium, what with half the cities laid waste during the final wave of attacks.

He passed a door ajar revealing a bathroom larger than his apartment, blue marble tiles, porcelain washbasins with golden taps. He stepped inside for a moment. Faint music was playing, and paper towels lay in a neat pile next to the washbasins. The spotlights were strong, and he caught his lined face in the wall-length mirror. In his great-grandfather's time, he would have passed for fifty-five. He was thirty-eight. Average life expectancy down below was fifty years, thirty if you were a gray. Topside, well, that was a different story. He'd heard it was eighty, like the old days before the Graying, though he found that hard to believe.

Alexei joined a moving walkway which accelerated him towards the central pyramid. He had seen no one, though without doubt his every move was being monitored. Through the glass ceiling he saw the steep sloping side of the gleaming central pyramid climb above him. The walkway slowed and he entered a vast atrium. Redwoods skewered up inside it. He couldn't remember smelling air so fresh, so alive with natural oxygen.

"Inspector, over here."

Alexei tore his gaze from the giant trees to a black-suited, white-haired man waving at him, next to a vintage car.

"This way will be quicker."

They shook hands, and Alexei noticed the clamminess on the man's palm. He climbed inside, inhaling the smell of waxed leather seats.

"Inspector, I know you have a reputation for getting out of tight squeezes, but don't you think you're cutting it a little fine?"

Alexei noticed that the man had not introduced himself, though he knew his face well enough: Jonas Tilborough, Manhattan Island's Head of Security, a wealthy, influential man in his own right, once a fine lawyer. His staff these days fended off law suits as much as they protected affluent citizens from more concrete attacks.

Normally at this point he would have said, "You can call me Alexei," but he decided to leave it formal. "Then let's begin now, shall we?"

Jonas made a grunting noise as he wheeled the vintage Jag around a tight bend. Still Alexei had seen nobody else. No sooner had he made the observation than he spied two heavily-armed guards next to an entrance portico. The tyres screeched to a halt.

"Through here, Inspector." Jonas didn't wait for an answer as he swung the door open and headed out. Alexei followed him, but the two guards blocked his way. Alexei felt cool metal, like a stethoscope, touch his right temple, and his body froze. He couldn't even blink. One guard steadied him while the other brusquely searched him, removing all metal objects, including his antique watch. He felt a scratch on the back of his left hand, and a swab was forced into his mouth. An orange light shone briefly in both eyes.

"He's clear."

The metal cylinder left his temple and he stumbled forward. The guards prevented him from falling, but he shoved them away. Alexei glared at Jonas, standing a few metres ahead of him. He turned back to the guards, who stood their ground, and held out his right hand.

"Give it back to him," Jonas said.

One of the guards fished out the fob watch and slapped it into Alexei's palm.

Jonas sounded plaintive. "You'd have done the same, Inspector. We had to make sure you are who you say you are."

Alexei remained tight-lipped and gave the barest of nods. He walked through the twin carbon monoliths, the Stentons, and stood for the obligatory thirty seconds while his body was probed. Subliminal images, designed to provoke an emotional fingerprint response, flashed into his retinas, though he imagined all they'd pick up now was indignation.

Formalities done with, he joined Jonas in a small boardroom. They sat facing each other, along with two equally black-suited younger men at the end of the table with holo-boards, awaiting instructions.

Jonas puffed out his chest. "Show him all the security protocols, real-time."

Alexei watched the 3D images form in front of him showing access, inventory, security sweeps, a full manifest of procedures and checks. He'd already made these checks himself. He hadn't gotten to Inspector level by being sloppy. But he knew this wasn't about hardware, or a bomb carefully concealed. Schmidt would have found any of those last time. No, this was about an inside man. He glanced at his watch, flicking up the protective casing. 11:18.

Forty-two minutes to go.

* * *

He was dragged into the adjacent room, hauled onto a steel chair and strapped in, a vid screen in front of his face. It was blank, but the glare from its luminescent blue surface prevented him making out the features of the tall man who stood behind it. Maybe that was a good sign; he hadn't seen any of their faces yet. Maybe they'd let him go. He was pretty beaten up, but maybe if they let him go, then after a year of reconstructive surgery and physio he could resume his job and come hunt down these bastards.

That was three 'maybes'; two too many, as his father used to say.

The Sapper coughed. "There's something I want you to see. While it's still there."

The brightness made him flinch. He saw New Manhattan Island. No surprise there. Everyone knew it was their next target, it had been all over the nets for a week.

The picture zoomed in. He saw a man's face.

"Taken about twenty minutes ago," the Sapper said.

He stared, uncomprehending at first. Then his jaw, swollen though it was, dropped open.

* * *

Alexei tapped the closed watch on the table while Jonas droned on about how his multi-layered security systems were impregnable. He flicked open the silver case. Jonas had been talking fifteen minutes straight with barely a pause for breath, as if this was a job interview. Alexei glanced at the two male assistants, one of whom ran a finger around his starched collar. They didn't seem to share their bosses' absolute faith. And they were right. The security chiefs on the two other islands had been equally thorough, if not as arrogant, yet were dead. He snapped shut the watch with as loud a click as the mechanism would allow, then scraped back his chair on the polished steel floor and stood up.

"...two-metre thick doors... Inspector? I'm not finished, where are you going?"

Alexei pocketed the watch. "Somewhere I won't be bored to death."

One of the assistants stifled a snort. Jonas' face blanched before the blood flushed back into his face. "What? How, how dare you, Sir! How dare you speak to me like that. I am --"

"About to die, taking your men with you, unless you open your mind to the possibility that someone has thought of everything you have -- and then had one additional thought."

Jonas' mouth hung open, then closed.

"An inside man, it's the only explanation. Someone who knows your systems, how to bypass them, and how to take down this island."

Jonas folded his arms. "No one has that knowledge except myself and a handful of my closest associates."

"Then summon them here, now. All of them."

Before he could answer, one of the assistants stood up. "I'll go get them, Sir."

Jonas' eyes didn't leave Alexei, but he nodded, and the assistant hurried out of the room, talking quietly into a comms-piece.

Good, Alexei thought. Now we're getting somewhere. His right hand reached for his fob again, but the other assistant saved him the bother.

"11:40, Inspector."

Twenty minutes.

* * *

Thirst tore at his throat, pain hammered in various parts of his body, but he couldn't pull his eyes away from the silent scene playing out in front of him. He had no idea how it was being relayed, but it hardly mattered. A timestamp clicked down to the inevitable.

He tried to ask a question, but a cough gripped him. A glass of water touched his lips, spilling half into his mouth, the rest down his bloody shirt. He gulped greedily, then coughed again.

He figured they'd kill him as soon as the island was destroyed. Alive, he was probably some kind of insurance policy for the Order, something to barter with should things go wrong. But once they'd completed their mission ... His only leverage was the Sapper's vanity. Clearly he was showing him all of this to impress him, so that someone would know how clever he was. Maybe a question, then. Not 'why;' that would only invite the timeworn circular rhetoric of a terrorist who had fallen foul of society, with passionate citations of injustices, the rich versus the poor, etc. All valid reasons, of course, to a degree. Besides, the next question after 'why' was more interesting, and more focused on what the Sapper wanted: respect.


The screen pulled back, still within his field of vision, but he could now see the Sapper's face in the darkened room. He looked normal. Just another guy, somebody you'd not notice in a crowd, an office, a bar. No smirk, no wild fire in his eyes, no ice. His security psy-profile wouldn't flag anything. The sonofabitch was probably going to get away with it, and do it again. Sapper, an engineer -- it was appropriate. He looked methodical, nothing more.

His voice, too, was unremarkable, a little unsure.

"I was a genetic engineer."

That much he'd already figured.

"Specifically soldier cloning. Military clones -- like all clones -- were easy to spot. Even the way they talked, with their narrow vocabulary, was flat. They were good infantry, but nothing more: cannon fodder, robots of flesh and bone. After the final attack wave I worked for the government on a way to make them more like us -- psychologically, that is. I knew it had to be in the memory. So I borrowed and encoded memories from real people. But I layered them. A core memory set underneath an opposing memory layer. Conflict. You see, that's what drives us. We're all conflicted. Nobody else saw it. They just wanted to encode single-minded mission objectives, unbreakable loyalty. That's not how humans work." The Sapper was gesticulating, and seemed to catch his own exuberance. He reeled himself back in, becoming quieter again.

"Anyway, I did it, as you can see." He nodded to the screen. "No one else has managed it. But I hid the results, told the sponsors it failed, like all previous attempts."

The Sapper sped up with the rest, probably because he had little time left. It was tech-talk, but the gist was clear enough. He also got to the 'why', or rather, the 'why me.'

"My elder brother and sister were in the protests of '73 in Times Square. They were ashed like everyone else. I hacked the government files." He flashed a short smile, then it was gone. "My other talent." His face darkened. "It wasn't the enemy, like everyone thinks. It was our own people, I mean, the government."

That was shocking, sure. But he had lived long enough to know that all governments had dirty secrets. Sooner or later they all made mistakes, sometimes paid for, most often not. You choose your side and live with it. And die with it. That was all. His eyes flicked back to the screen.

Ten minutes.

* * *

Alexei frowned. He'd now met the three core security team members and tested them himself, one by one with the Stentons, using a state-of-the-art software mil-upgrade he'd brought with him. They'd all passed. Jonas was right, and Alexei was just as puzzled as to how the island could be taken down. He toggled the interactive holo display of the Island schematics, showing the various layers in semi-transparent 3D, including where everyone was, in real time. Every system parameter read 'healthy.' It didn't add up. What had been the Sapper's plan? Alexei thought: if I had ten minutes to take down an island, where would I be? His gaze drifted to the engine layer.

Of course: it had to be there.

He pointed to a heavily-protected control room in the lower levels, inhabited by two men, right above the engine level. "Here. This is where the attack must come."

Jonas bristled. "It is impenetrable, and those men --"

"Are somehow no longer your men; one of them at least. We need to go there. Now."

Jonas looked lost, but the faces of his own team around him reeked of fear. He nodded. "This way, there is a service lift." He held up a hand. "Just the Inspector and myself. Everybody else stays here."

As they raced towards the elevator, Alexei wondered how many of Jonas' men would indeed wait there, and how many would be already scurrying towards the escape pods. He noticed the bulge of a weapon under Jonas' right armpit. Good, they were probably going to need it.

The lift plummeted thirty levels, so that Alexei had to pinch his nose, breathing out against a closed mouth, to clear the air pressure in his ears. No sooner had the door opened than Jonas rushed out, and began tapping in security codes. Alexei noticed that Jonas' hands were trembling.

He took out his watch. Four minutes.

* * *

He shook his head once as he watched the screen. Clever. "My memories," he said. "How?"

The Sapper fingered a small device, and a solitary light shifted from green to red. "You've had extensive dental surgery in the last nine months, six visits under full anaesthetic. We brain-scanned you each time. That's also how long it takes to mature a clone from a scrap of your DNA, and perform the cosmetic surgery to make it look just like you. The dentist is one of The Order. We're larger and more organized than the Government would like to admit."

Of course. Schmidt had recommended the dentist, and had probably met the same fate. But he knew something the Sapper didn't, and besides, he had an advantage Schmidt hadn't had. Maybe.

"Are they selective memories?" He felt the Sapper eye him, probably wondering at this question. But if the Sapper was an engineer, he would tell the truth.

"Not entirely. Mainly recent memories, the past five years, but enough trace memories of your entire life to pass any examination. Some deep memories always seep through, though. Why?"

"Curiosity," he lied. He needed to throw him off-track. "The watch. You gave him the watch."

"You are a public figure, Inspector. You are instantly recognisable with your antique watch."

"Ah, so you are going to have me broadcast a message. I'll be your mouthpiece."

The Sapper nodded. He put the device down and steepled his hands as if in prayer, putting his lips to his fingertips. "I'm sorry for the beating. I can't do this alone, and as I'm sure you are aware, most men of the Order of Light are fiercely loyal, but violence is also their way. They believe pain and suffering cleanses you before..." He cleared his throat. "I'll make sure the end is quick."

Another question answered.

He watched the screen, seconds clicking away. He'd never liked digital clocks, the way they chopped the natural flow of time into man-made units. His great-grandfather, back in the heyday of science before the Graying, had worked on time and space. He'd said that time was like a raging river: it only flowed in one direction. However, he'd added that at critical moments there were always eddies, and if you could find a way to latch onto one, with something more akin to an anchor than anything as preposterous as a time machine, then in theory you would be dragged back, maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour, maybe a week. His MIT lab had been bombed in the first wave of attacks, all his work destroyed. They'd found his body, one charred arm stretched out, fingers reaching for a metal object just a footprint away. Since then, the watch had been passed down to each successive generation. Once Alexei had received it, along with its secret, it had never left his side. Until now.

His right thumb absently stroked across his finger-tips. He stared at his doppelganger on the screen. If only his double could remember...

* * *

Alexei walked into the glare of the white room behind Jonas. The two guards stood up at their consoles. He thought it odd that music was playing. He almost recognised it. What was it? He knew that tune ... Jonas was facing him, speaking, saying something. But the tune, it meant something. Where the hell had he heard it? And where was the music coming from; no one else seemed to hear it? Jonas looked worried, and glanced toward one of the guards. Then he got it. It was Times Square, the march, just before ...

The music stopped.

It was like waking from a dream where you were someone else a second ago, but you can't remember who. The eyes open. The dream fades. Jennifer was dead. All of them dead. These bastards killed them. He alone had survived the massacre in Times Square. Not even bodies left, just ankle-deep ash drifting on the Sunday morning breeze, colouring the Square gray.

"Inspector, I said, are you al --"

His left hand whipped out at Jonas' right carotid as his right darted into the man's jacket, fingers and thumb embracing the slimline pistol. Using Jonas' body as a shield, firing from underneath his armpit through the back of the jacket, he shot both guards in the centre of the forehead in the space of a second. Only one had had a chance to draw his weapon.

He dragged Jonas' stunned body around to the first console, and bashed his head down over the ret-scanner. Jonas groaned, but the scan passed. He let Jonas' body slump to the floor. He entered a code and then a command, locking down the whole station, sealing himself in. With hacker skills he'd learned from his kid brother, who'd been too young to come on that march, he initiated the overload, disabling the safety shells one by one, tricking the onboard computers that the Island was under attack and needed to increase thrust to maximum, at the same time forcing the exhaust valves closed using separate commands to hard-wired back-up systems. Think of everything they've thought of, and then just think one more thought. He hesitated a moment, as if recalling something from a dream. He brushed it aside.

Jonas whimpered and started crawling toward the two-metre-thick door.

Alexei turned to the camera recorder which would be transmitting landside. "This is for Times Square, '73. Our own side did it. The evidence is being posted now on the nets under Sapper Three."

He stood back.

It was done.

Without thinking about it, he fished an antique fob watch out of his pocket and stared at it. He rubbed his thumb over its smooth silver surface. It looked oddly familiar, but he couldn't quite recall its significance. He flicked it open. Almost midday. A second hand swept past the six and headed up towards the apex with a natural grace, an unstoppable beauty.

He stared. The dream began to resurface. He'd been somebody else, someone with a different history, a policeman. The second hand passed the eight. He'd been on the other side, working for the government, trying to find the Sapper. It passed the nine. The barking of the alarms all around rose in pitch, making him start.

Which was his reality? He moved to the panel, but it made no sense to him, red alarms everywhere, Jonas sobbing on the floor. It passed the five. He stared at the watch. Something he had to do. Fast.

His thumb moved atop the winder, and he pressed down hard.

And vanished.


Article © Barry Kirwan. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-09-19
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
06:44:42 AM
Pushed along well with nods to how humans really can screw things up. I enjoyed the work.
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