GAZE INTO ME
As a member of the Program, twenty-one-year-old Ali lives the life of a slave when an unscheduled health check reveals her impending death. The upcoming implantation of a mind-controlling microchip into her brain will kill her within two short weeks.
Desperate to live, Ali turns to artificial intelligence specialist Rob for help. Together, they hatch a dangerous plan to escape.
But the leader of the Program has a personal interest in seeing Ali inaugurated and the power and means to enforce his will. As Ali is pressured into submitting to the implantation procedure, she must realise that the microchip is turning her own mind into her biggest enemy. And that the dangerous attraction growing between her and Rob could easily end up destroying them both.
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The New World was safe. Crime numbers were a sad statistic of the past, and humans lived in harmony and peace. Global warming had come to a timely halt, and the symbiotic coexistence between humans and nature was a reality rather than a dream. Economies flourished, increasing prosperity and wealth, while poverty and the Great War were a long-forgotten memory.
The guardian of this abundance of life was a brigade of Hybrids. Genetically superior to their ruling human ancestors and equipped with a microchip at the age of twenty-one, Hybrids were the next advanced, humanoid species that the Darwinian theory of evolution never anticipated.
Faster, stronger, and smarter than any other creature on the planet, there was one thing that humans could never allow Hybrids to be: free.
Location: Earth, AMEE region, Capital
“This is slavery.” Ali ended the quiet statement on a hiss of pain, as the electrical current from the mobi on her wrist burned into her skin, turning her arm into a live-wire between one instant and the next.
The female Recruit beside her gasped in horror, her elbow hitting the hovercoach window with a dull thud in her haste to scoot away. “Speak no evil.”
The whispered words were a blatant reminder of the Program’s rule Ali had infringed upon, inciting the warning shock.
Ali heeded the advice only until her heart stopped palpitating. “What else can this be called? A whole race is forced into servitude.”
“Peace?” Eyes wide in a striking, dark-skinned face, the girl sent a nervous glance past a dozen bleary-eyed Recruits, towards the watchful group of Marshals sitting at the front of the old, driverless vehicle.
Ali gave a mirthless laugh. “If there was peace you wouldn’t fear them. If there was peace we wouldn’t exist.”
The girl flinched but couldn’t deny it.
A human’s vision to end the Great War by controlling an obedient super-army had led to the creation of their enslaved race of Hybrids, at the end of the Old World’s inglorious twenty-first century. A hundred years later – despite the ruling Human Council’s protestations that the New World was at peace – it was the Hybrids ability to quickly and quietly suppress any recurring violence that ensured their continued survival.
Without conflict, Hybrids were nothing. Useless pawns in a game already won.
Ali doubted her race would be out of a job anytime soon. The seven deadly sins were too deeply anchored in human DNA to allow long-lasting harmony and, despite a one-child policy that spanned all five regions of the New World, there seemed to be an endless supply of violent political insurgents who insisted that yesterday was better than today and the Human Council wasn’t nearly the benevolent triumvirate it pretended to be.
The result was an illusion of the perfect world, rather than the perfect world itself. And the only thing keeping the seedy underbelly of society hidden from law-abiding, peace-loving citizens was their race of Hybrids, and a willingness of the Human Council to use deadly force if necessary, to keep the illusion alive. As a consequence, humans still died. Only now, they died in secret. Not what Ali would call peace, in any case.
“How about progress?”
The familiar reflection of Rob’s face appeared next to Ali’s in the hovercoach window.
“Slavery is progress?” she asked, groaning and clutching her arm when a second, stronger warning shock surged from her mobi straight to her chest, at the repeated use of the prohibited word. Ali exhaled a measured breath and reminded herself that speaking the truth was worth the pain.
“I think it can facilitate progress,” Rob corrected, watching Ali struggle for control, his nimble fingers flying blindly over the touch-screen keyboard of the Data Interface Device on his lap. “After all, what could you strive for if you have everything you want?”
The supposedly tamper-proof electronic lock of Ali’s mobi suddenly unlatched with a faint click, breaking the circuit running through the series of interconnected metal wrist bands that bound the paper-thin, rectangular computer against her unusually slim forearm. The warning shock ceased at once.
Ali couldn’t quite suppress her whimper of relief.
For a moment, she stared in bewilderment at the darkened display of the deactivated device. Then her gaze darted to Rob’s talented hands. They had ceased their endless typing and were now hovering motionless in front of a touch screen that displayed lines and lines of code…and in between, Ali’s unique identifier, as assigned to her by Program officials.
The twinkle in Rob’s caramel coloured eyes said he knew exactly what she was thinking. His expectant puppy look – entirely out of place on his handsome soldier’s face – told her what he was waiting to hear. The words she had said a month ago, when he had first pinpointed her location at the Centre, amongst a crowd of fifteen-thousand Recruits. The same words he had since pulled off some of the most outrageous electronic stunts to hear again. “You’re incredible.”
With a grin that missed arrogant by a fraction and hit right on adorable, Rob sprawled back over three empty seats.
It was as close to strutting as he could get in the cramped space of the hovercoach, Ali realized, a smile tugging at her own lips. She wondered what he would say, if she told him he looked more like a beached whale than the powerful Recruit he was.
“You hacked a mobi.” The dismal statement from the timid girl next to her pulled Ali back to reality. “The Marshals will punish us all.”
“They may have the advanced eye-sight of Hybrids, but even they can’t see through hovercoach seats,” Ali said, slipping the mobi back onto her wrist, despite her words. “Of course, their hearing is pretty exceptional, too.”
The girl snapped her mouth shut.
Ali nodded at Rob to reactivate the device and felt a pang of regret, when the display came back to life.
“Wouldn’t you rather be free than incentivized?” Ali asked finally, picking up the original thread of their conversation.
“And do what? Work in security? Get a job in a technology company?” Rob shook his head. “You know as well as I do that the Program controls one hundred percent of the New World’s law enforcement and technology market.”
Ali had to grudgingly agree. Still. “Don’t you ever get tired of blind obedience?”
“I think we just proved we aren’t blindly obedient. Except for maybe…” He gestured towards the girl, who seemed to have regained her composure now that the mobi was once more lying flush against Ali’s skin.
“Beth. Rt2030,” the girl said, stating her name and unique identifier as required by Program introduction protocol.
“Except for maybe Beth. Mobis can be broken, pain can be endured.”
An image of metal-clad fists flashed through Ali’s mind and was squashed before it could take hold.
Pain could be endured. “But what about compulsion?” Ali asked.
Alone the thought of their upcoming inauguration as Hybrids had Ali shaking in her well-worn combat boots. “Do you not mind you’ll be leashed like a dog once the microchip fuses with your brain, unable to fight any command a superior Hybrid – or human – might give you at a whim?”
She saw Beth’s eyes narrow suspiciously and felt the sudden ridiculous urge to hide her face from the timid Recruit.
Rob’s answer saved her just in time, before she could embarrass herself like that.
“I don’t think anybody likes the idea of being so easily controlled. However, subservience is part of the give and take that is our life. The Program helps us to become the best we can be. In turn they feel entitled to use our services.”
“With or without our consent,” Ali said.
Rob shrugged his shoulders. “What do you want to do? Run away?”
Ali flushed. She had considered it a hundred times. She had discarded it just as often.
At the end of the day, freedom was an impossible desire. Even if she could get rid of the tracking beacon in her mobi, outsmart the New World’s biggest law enforcement agency and somehow learn to live amongst humans – a race she was bred to protect but didn’t understand – she would still be a fugitive for the rest of her life. On the run from the Program. Hiding where nobody could find her.
Where was the freedom in that?