Excerpt from Calvin 13 by Arthur Slade

Chapter One

I turned a corner and got God. That’s how they’ll tell it to the future gens. They won’t say nuts about the smiley smackin’ through my head, that I had to piss. They’ll say I was the thirteen who killed so many in corp wars but cried for the first time in all his years of warring after seeing the perfection of the Monkeyman’s face. They’ll spout that my geneticized heart was opened to love. They’ll write real beautiful and say that finding him was meant to be. Was fated.

But I’m going to tell you how it really happened. I don’t have no tear ducts. And I did find love, but that was later. This is how it went down: I turned a corner and I found Death.

When you’re on smiley, you smile, get it? But there ain’t no happiness in your brain. I was aching for another hit and had been going further and further into the alleys and back streets of South Central, digging in garbage cans and chasing away cats and rats and homeless fricks. I even came across another thirteen, he didn’t look much like me. He was dead. That was one difference. And he was black. I was pale white. And he had a hole in his head. An extra one with dried blood and powder burns around it. Looked like he’d been there for a few days but he still had most of his uniform. I’d seen plenty of his type in firefights and missions. I searched him for any weapons or good contra but he’d been picked clean.

Anyway, not my first death. Not even my hundredth. Or thousandth, not that I remember much. He was a thirteen, I knew by the triangle burn on his neck. I got the same stamp and it means I’ll always be thirteen years old. My body modded by geneticists to never age. Makes us faster. Stronger. Braver.

And, I guess, being always thirteen means we fight harder.

Any civs I saw left me alone. People still leave you ‘lone when you’ve got your military uniform on. All the civvies been pavloved about that. And my uniform was torn but there was enough of it that you knew my background. It’d been three months since I’d been decommissioned from Quality Core. Thirteen years old and I was already burned out from too many wars and so they just put me on a bus to South Central and opened the door. “You’re free,” sergeant Conrad had said. He was a fifteen. Big scar slicing his nose. I just nodded and I walked away. What the hell was free?

Anyway, I’d found a can of dog meat and was opening it with my utiknife when I heard a whoomph. It was a weapon discharge but I couldn’t place it in my list of Percussive Sounds You Will Hear In Combat. And I knew most all of the discharges. But something about the noise heightened my senses and it was like for a second or two that my body thought it was off of Smiley and I walked ahead down another alley way. This part of South Central was an old factory and there had been firefights here it looked like but years ago. And there was Headz graffiti on the wall saying: Trust No Thing. Trust Nothing. And another saying: The Big 2. The two was circled. I put my hand on the wall to be sure it was real because Smiley can do you that way.

I pulled out my Niker gun. It’s a small one, but packs a punch.

And this time I really did turn the corner. And I found Death.

There was a crater before me. In that crater was five soldier types, all dead or at least no biorhythms that I could visual. Their uniforms were black—a colour that even made me nervous. Seventeen’s. The worst of the worst or the best of the best depending on whose side they were one, of course. They got all the good guns and tech. They had no markings or insignia on their shoulders. Even their teeth were probably wiped. Corps were stickly about that sort of thing. And, since the Seventeens always killed observers, I was dead if any of them were alive.

In the centre of the crater was a tall man-like figure in black kevlar head to toe, big honking’ utility belt and also no markings. He was laying there with his arms spread wide and his face was a monkeys or an apes-I could never keep them primates straight-but with dreadlocks that sprayed out around his face and neck. It is as if he were the bomb that had made that percussive sound and also made the bodies around him. There were cuts on his face but like I said when they tell this to the future gens they’ll clean this all up and say he was beatific or something like that.

I took another step. And another. Just a few more inches closer cause I could feel hairs tingling on my arms. Because maybe my eyes and me couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I’d heard rumours in the regs. About the monkeywraithes. That they’d gone off making Eighters and Thirteens and were now jamming AI chips into a primate’s brain. That they wanted to make the perfect warrior. General and fighter and   inspiration—everything all wrapped up in one. All right here in front of me. He’d taken out five men. Which was total whistle work.

I came closer. Heat emanated out of the crater. I leaned down to touch the arm of one of the ops and it was warm. But there was no heartbeat. And not even a visible wound on any of their bodies. Five of them. Ops. Dead. I wouldn’t have believed it possible. None of them would have an implant or a dental record. Nothing to trace them to their masters. Ops like these started the Inverness campaign in JoBerg. I’d lost friends there.

Well, there is that saying. A thirteen can’t have any friends. Ha.

They were hunters these ops. And the wraith was their prey. Soon there’d be more ops. They didn’t engage without some backup and retrieval. Already I’d left a fingerprint. And footprints. I’d be dead if I was caught here.

Perhaps was dead already.

“Do not move,” a soft voice said.

I glanced up from the op. The wraith was pointing a gun at me, a Benzer. He’d drawn it and moved without noise and without my reactions even kicking in. I did not move. I even dropped my own gun. Best to think ahead. I couldn’t raise it before a bullet went through me.

“Are you one with the two?” the wraith asked.

A riddle. I was bad at riddles. Eighters liked riddles. They were coded for that. Not me. “What?” I said. The smiley made me smile awkwardly.

“You are not.” His decision sounded final. “You must answer my questions. Do not falsify the data.”

The sweat was on my forehead and I wanted to wipe it before it dripped into my eyes. But chose not to. I nodded.

“Is this the real life?” he asked. Again that voice was so soft from someone so large. An easy to listen to voice. Almost hypnoed.

“Is it what?” The smiley wasn’t helping. Actually I think it came out, “Wha?”

“Not simulated. Is this real air? Am I breathing. Am I here?”

The sweat dripped into my eyes and I blinked. Blurring the gun. The hand did not shake. I couldn’t think up an answer. Couldn’t think of anything to say. Perhaps, I would die. Finally.

He watched me without blinking.

“Do you know?” Again there was no urgency in his voice. No anger.

“I don’t,” I said.

He closed his monkey eyes. The gun did not budge a micro in the air and was centred on my forehead. I wasn’t stupid enough to try and move. The Smiley wouldn’t make me do that. I just stayed still. A statue.

He opened his eyes and looked directly into mine. He smiled. And I must say there was a moment that I could call a connection. “It must be real. Not program. The real world. I am here.”

I had a flash of understanding. He must’ve been jacked into a military sim—a pseudo world—to train him in. I was witnessing his first appearance in the flesh. He’d maybe never breathed outside air before.

“Welcome to North Central Texas,” I said.

He smiled again. Maybe for the second real time. Then laughed. I will always remember that laugh. It was so light. So infectious. From someone with so many powers. They’ll tell you that it was the laugh of a god. But for me it was the laugh of potential.

Of a friend.

He holstered his gun. “Please,” he said, offering me his hand. “Help me stand.”

I came forward put out my own hand and his rough, dark hand grab mine and he pulled lifting me up and him up. I don’t know if he needed help or this was a favour, but he leaned on me for a moment and it reminded me of when I’d carried a friend, I mean another thirteen, back to the medics. They’d chastised me for doing that. They pick up the wounded later. I still don’t know why I did it. It wasn’t supposed to be in my genes. I wasn’t designed for that. But this monkeyman’s weight was pleasant. Not too heavy.

“You are free,” he said. There was that word again. A word I didn’t truly understand.

“Free?” I asked.

“Yes, to live. To do whatever you were doing before you passed this way.”

I was about to eat dog food I almost said. Instead, I came up with: “What about you?”

The Monkeyman looked to his left. I looked too, expecting to see black ops. Helis or drones in the air. But the air was clear as far as I could see.

“There are people expecting me. The lopers. The downtrodden.”

“Will you be able to find them? Alone?” I asked. His hand still on my shoulder, though now I was certain he no longer needed my help. When I looked up the blood was gone from his face. And the wounds had healed.

Healed. A miracle. That’s how they’d tell it. Newt genes, is what the scientist would say.

“If you are offering aid, I accept. You will always be free to go. I promise.”

A promise. What a curious thing. Had I ever heard a promise before? A command, yes. A hundred thousand commands. But a promise. Not once. I looked at the dead ops and thought of JoBerg. I’d left most of myself there.

“I’ll help you find your friends.”

“I am honoured. I am…I am still discovering who I am. What is your name?”

“Calvin,” I said. My throat was dry. “Calvin Thirteen.”

“A good name. There is history in it.”

I nearly laughed. Thirteens aren’t so good at history since our memories are wiped once a year. I didn’t really have a history. Just a blur.

“‘God at last turned my course in another direction by the secret reign of his providence.’”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what that meant. But I got used to his eloquent quotes. I never believed he was the messiah. But the day I met him I felt lucky. Like I’d been given a winning hand. Maybe that’s what religion was.

“Come, Calvin Thirteen,” he said. “Let us go and put our declarations on the door and knock down the walls.”

And so we did leave. On foot. Like two wanderers.

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