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Authors: Daniel J. Kirk

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BOOK: Upgrade Degrade
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Grace and Harrison.

Rickey was thinking about meeting Libby somewhere. It sent a chill up my spine. I hadn’t been focusing on what they were talking about. I was too busy trying to deal with Samuel Winter.

“What’s wrong?” Samuel asked.

I had stopped kissing. My mouth hung open as he tried to work his hands in various places to liven the mood.

“I’ve got to go…”

“No don’t…”

I marched up the hill back to the Governor’s mansion.

That’s when I heard it.

Pat-pat. Pat-pat. Pat-pat.

A gunshot never really sounds like a gunshot when you hear it when you’re not supposed to. The mind tries on various other possibilities—a backfiring engine or loud clapping. But there’s no mistaking a gunshot. You just wish it wasn’t and hope. You hope that your imagination is darker than reality. You hope that everyone is alright.

Samuel Winter couldn’t keep up with me. Very few humans could. I ran in heels like a gazelle. If Samuel Winter knew how difficult that was, he would know there was more to me than he ever imagined. But like most men he probably couldn’t appreciate the art of wearing heals, let alone the sheer mastery that it took to run in them.

Inside turmoil was defined by screaming, sobbing chaos. Armed guards pushed people out. Took aim at anyone who kept moving. Then they chased the suspect out of the mansion. Ambulance and police sirens ravaged the night and the awkward poses of all around let me know that nothing was alright.

Someone had died.

><><

“I don’t want my children to know this world,” Duke Hall said. “I don’t want this to be their world.” He trailed off. His face struggled to hold composure. He was going to lose it and there was nothing anyone could do about. Nor should they. The world deserved to see the pain they’d caused one man.

As Samuel Winter had said, Duke Hall was a symbol now. Something that for one moment had made everyone realize, we’re all dickheads.

Me included. I should’ve been in there. I would’ve felt the threat. I would’ve been able to stop it before anything happened. But I was outside being wishy-washy with Samuel Winter. I knew why he had brought me out there. Every day since I had been hired was a playful game of cat and mouse that I knew one day would end with a kiss. But if only it hadn’t been that night. If only I’d stayed inside the gala.

“You’d be dead,” Samuel Winter reminded me that night. I cried in his arms and he didn’t do anything unbecoming of a gentleman. He held me, and he said everything I wanted to hear.

We held hands as Duke Hall finally addressed the media. He wasn’t ready, but Samuel had insisted that he needed to be strong, not for his campaign but for the people of the United States of America. He had to stand up and show that a terrorist, a petty racist could not keep drudging this country through hell. Duke Hall did it for his children.

“This can’t be our children’s world. We’re better than this. All of us are better than we have been.” That was it. It wasn’t the end of his prepared speech, but it was all Duke Hall could muster. He backed away from the podium. Cameras zoomed and followed him until we surrounded him, and hid him from the public. Duke Hall didn’t say a word as we drove out of the city. He stared blankly out the window as Samuel Winter went over the itinerary. I was supposed to be checking the social networking sites, but it was a display of the false and the worst. The things people will say online, it’s incredible. Some say things as if to earn a badge of social acceptance even if they don’t really believe it, and others say things because they know there won’t be a knock on their door.

“It looks good,” I said. At least the news outlets were championing Duke Hall’s perseverance and call not for revenge, but for change. “We’re better than this,” was the slogan used in most of the articles and hash tags. Samuel Winter spotted it on my tablet and smiled.

“Call the sign company. See if they can get that in a Helvetica, bold white on the red blue and white stripes. Bumper stickers, fliers, yard signs.”

I hesitated, but the moment for mourning had ended. It was time to work. There was a momentum to our day from then on. Duke Hall didn’t do a thing. I wondered if he’d even bother continuing the run for office. But I didn’t have too much time for wondering. I was busier than ever, taking calls, making calls, reading credit card numbers over the phone and asking for quicker turnarounds.  Half my phone calls were spent trying to end the endless condolences that everyone felt obligated to say instead of just taking my order.

I was the dickhead telling them to get back to business.

We’re better than this.

Two weeks went by in this routine and if you weren’t living in a shell or cooped up in some secret lair practicing for super hero missions, then you’d know: Duke Hall was going to be more than just a senator.

><><

I wanted to feel something else. I didn’t want to think about Rickey, or did I? I kissed Samuel Winter in the same spot on the neck that I loved kissing Rickey. And I knew it wasn’t the same, but I tried again.

“That’s enough,” Samuel said. “I’ve got too much work to do tonight. And you haven’t gotten me any numbers from the polls. Not that it really matters. I know we’re up. It all worked.”

“I’m tired,” I said. “I just need to relax for a little bit. Maybe you do too?” Am I not sexy enough? We hadn’t made love. Our kiss in the garden had been our last moment of passion—if that’s what it was. Though we’d held hands and looked longingly into each other’s eyes as we consoled each other. There still wasn’t any love there.  It was still just me trying to move on from Rickey.

But I wanted Rickey so bad. I wanted him to know that. But I couldn’t—I shouldn’t. Rickey was better without me. He was trying to make a difference. He was caring about the world again. That was Libby’s influence. She had influenced Francis as well. Francis probably would’ve just made an army of athletes and been their sports agent if he hadn’t ever met Libby. She made him care about the rest of the world. She made him see injustices all around. That’s when he saw he could do more than just upgrade us superficially.

But he’d probably still be alive if it weren’t for that ambition. It seems those who want to make the world a better place are punished. Duke Hall was no stranger to that punishment. History was full of people who wanted the right things and then were broken down with their faults or just flat out killed.

I never trusted politicians. I just couldn’t. My generation heard about scandal after scandal after scandal. We saw them getting rich and taking vacations and spending taxpayer’s money for affairs and business ventures. There was no reason to believe that any politician was decent. It was a culture of voting for the lesser evil, or voting against the bigger evil, or just not voting to save your soul if the country elected the next anti-Christ.

And maybe Duke Hall had some skeletons in his closet, maybe that’s where all this ended, with his head hung between his legs as he’s marched off in disgrace. But I wanted to think that all the work Samuel Winter was putting him, me…us through was worth it. Maybe the change wouldn’t happen here and now, but maybe the next generation would take the reigns and continue to rebel against the world our parents made for us.

“There!” Samuel Winter drummed the dining table. “We’ve done it.” He turned his laptop screen towards me and let me see the headline.

 

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY SAYS ‘WE’RE BETTER THAN THIS’: DUKE HALL A NOMINEE FOR PRESIDENT?

 

“He doesn’t have the experience,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. He’s a symbol now. And he’ll get it. The Republicans were expecting to lose the presidency, they were positioning themselves to let the worse Democrat get the nomination so they could win the House and then ride the tide of bad approval ratings into the next term’s oval office.”

“He won’t want it. It’s too much. He has to think about his children.”

“He’ll think what I want him to think. And so will you,” Samuel Winter said. “Besides. We’re already in it. This is just the media’s slow roll out. We’re building steam and will announce his candidacy in August,
at the behest of the American people.
He’s our reluctant hero.”

“This is all a game to you. What if people kill him? All the symbols like him end up dead.”

“He will die. That’s a given. That’s the plan. But before he does this country will smile a little bit more. You might be able to change one person’s mind over the course of a conversation, but a whole country? It’s baby steps. I would’ve thought you’d know that? Were you always this dense or is that something Francis did so that you wouldn’t think too much for yourself?”

“I… wait… what?”

“Uh oh. Did I say something you weren’t expecting?” Samuel Winter leaned back in his chair and made his face a stupid grin. “What did I say? Can you remember it? Did you just imagine it? Are you tired and delirious is the world making sense anymore. Play stupid for me. You can’t get drunk, you don’t get tired, and you’re still a horrible actress. What’s more pitiful is how you try to have some kind of sexual interest in me, but don’t. You just go along with what is expected of you. But I know you’re not like the rest of the citizens of this declining civilization. You’re one of the gods. Like me.”

“Wait, when did you meet Francis?”

“That’s all she asks? Maybe Francis can tell you the story of our first date one day. I’m sure he’d tell it better than me. But it’s time you got on board with the rest of us. Your insistence that you’re still one of them is slowing us down. We can do this. We are smart enough to change the world. We are smart enough to be its rulers.”

My stomach turned. It was in his eyes. It was as if he was telling me everything that had led up to this moment. I could see him plotting. I could see why he led me to the garden that night. He had wanted me to follow. He had wanted me to always play towards doing what was expected of me. He played me like a fool. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t interested in him. He just needed me to think that was the only reason he made me leave the gala.

But he made me leave because he knew I would’ve saved Duke Hall’s wife.

“I think I can hear your brain connecting the dots. Does it sound like ‘tick-tick-tick’ to you? I do have super hearing. It’s controlled of course. I can sift through layers of sound.  I can tell you what’s happening in the apartment two floors below. I can hear your menstrual cycle.”

“You killed her,” I said.

“By extension. I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. I thought you were supposed to be one of Francis’s prized accomplishments. But he did say that you made all your upgrades to impress some nerdy boy. Rick Jones, right? Did my neck taste like his?”

He caught my fist. He was stronger than he ever let on. The dining table flipped as he drove me to my back. I kick-flipped off the ground, spun my legs at his ankles. He jumped onto the kitchen counter. I kicked that, and his head went through the ceiling. He took his fists up there with him and pulled the ceiling fan down on me.

He pinned me to the floor. Then broke off a fan blade. He put it to my neck.

“Basic models get trained in combat. Elite models get trained in surgery.”

I had my legs free. He must’ve overlooked that.

I tried a witty retort and a knee. “Elite models forget they have balls.”

But it became apparent that Elite models probably did not have balls.

He opened my neck. The warm blood felt like an awkward necklace. I slid my body out from under the fan, as I stood it felt as if that necklace was valuable and just broke. My hands tried to keep the blood in my throat. A kick flip bought me some distance. But then he started throwing things. A compact disc became a ninja star, a smart phone stuck in the wall behind my head. At least Francis hadn’t upgraded Samuel Winter’s accuracy.

I didn’t get to enjoy that thought for too long. I coughed blood.

A moment of hesitation and only my upgraded vision allowed me to get a clear image of the tread on Samuel Winter’s shoe before it broke my nose.

I’d be out cold if my threshold for pain wasn’t something Francis had to fix when we first started experimenting with what we could change (it took several tries for him to figure out how to make me walk on water).

What did you do Francis?

Derek and Jesse were mistakes. But Samuel Winter was a damned sociopath and he sounded as if he wasn’t the only one.

How many of us were there?

What was your plan?

Are you still alive?

I didn’t realize I was asking these questions out loud. I hadn’t even realized that my reflexes had kicked in and I’d reversed the control of the fight. Each question ended with me bouncing the oven door off Samuel Winter’s head.

He didn’t answer any of the questions but he ran his mouth all the same. “I’m not mad at you because you’re trying to inflict pain. I’m mad because my face won’t heal quick enough and I have important work to do. I’m warning you, Alice Collins. You need to get smart and stop overreacting. There is a thing called the greater good. It is all that matters. We must find the greater good in every situation, if we must, we will shape it.”

“But Duke Hall’s a good man. You took his wife from him. You took a mother from her children.”

BOOK: Upgrade Degrade
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