I try the door, hoping that it’ll be locked. If it is, I have to pick the lock, which takes around ten to fifteen seconds. Ten to fifteen seconds—it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough time for someone to decide that they don’t want to talk to me after all. It’s enough time for a guy to get over his fear of death. It’s enough time to finish bleeding out, saving me days of paperwork and months of nightmares.
It’s not locked, so I open the door a crack. “Hello?”
You can always tell the rookies because they tap the door, then jump to the side. They bust through with fear in their hearts, ready for anything, wanting to make it out as the winner. The veterans, they stand there and knock, and call out hello. They take their time, and they know that there are no winners. The guys who’ve been doing this for a while, they take stupid chances. It’s not because they don’t know better. It’s because they don’t care.
“It’s open!” a voice calls from inside the bathroom.
“Yeah, I noticed,” I say through the crack in the door. “Are you decent?”
“As decent as anybody else in this screwed up world.”
“You’re not gonna try to do anything stupid like kill me, are you?”
“Would you believe me if I said no?”
“Depends on how you said it.” I’m tired of this banter, but it’s keeping me on this side of the door, so I’m willing to keep it up for a while.
“I’m not going to try to kill you,” he sighs. “There’d just be more.” The defeat in his voice tells me that it’s safe to go in. Dammit.
I push the door open and step through. It’s bad, but not the worst. At least the toilet’s been flushed. The sink’s on the left. It’s more of what I saw in the room—food containers, ripped plastic, stained brown paper. The smell is evil, like month-old mop water that’s been used to clean the bathroom of a seedy bar.
He’s sitting in the bathtub. It’s the big fat guy from the holo-frame. No Hawaiian shirt, though—guy’s bare-ass naked, submerged to the neck in murky bathwater the color of polluted rain clouds. There are chunks and bits of things floating around in it, bobbing up and down, lost ships sailing the ocean Disgust.
At first, I think the chunks are pieces of his own shit, but I’m quick to realize that they’re discarded cigars. The smaller bits floating around him are pieces of food and cigarette filters. Everything in the tub is stained gray, including his flesh. I don’t even want to think about how long he’s been lounging around in that skank-pool. His rolls of fat surface and submerge, pale against the murk of water. Like an ancient, senile sea monster, confused and lost, his belly heaves from the depths and then dives.
Something inside me tells me that I should want to throw up all over myself, but I’ve been on the job entirely too long for that. I could drink a cup full of this slob’s bathwater without heaving, not because I’m tough, but because I’m desensitized.
He’s smoking one of those big, ugly cigars—it’s poking out of his fat face like a turd trapped by a flabby ass. His jowls hang so low that they’re almost dipping in his bathwater. Imagine if you took a regular guy, then blew him up like a balloon, and then he started to melt—that’s what this guy looks like. Only more pathetic.
“Against the law to smoke,” I say. “You know that.”
He laughs, and some of the water splashes up over the tub. For just a second, I see the tip of a shrunken penis peek out of the murk. “You come to arrest me for smoking?”
“We don’t arrest people anymore. You know that, too. I’m just here to recommend that you follow the law.”
“I know who you are, so you can cut the bullshit.”
“I’m just here to talk.”
“I think you mean you’re here to ‘engage the anomaly.’ I know you know what I know, so maybe we should save some time and cut the bullshit.”
I take out my pack of cigarettes. “You mind?”
“Not at all.”
I tap a cigarette out of the pack and light it. I kick the lid down on the john and sit. “So…Morbert. Is that what people call you?”
“I don’t associate with people much. Online, they call me Shadowstep. My wife used to call me Moe.”
“She went for placement, huh?”
He takes a deep drag of his cigar, and the ash falls down into his bathwater with a hiss. “Yeah.”
“None of your business.”
“Of course it isn’t. But, honestly, I know a shitload of stuff about you that isn’t my business. Right now, I’m just trying to make conversation. You want it to go a different direction, steer the way.”
“You aren’t anything like I imagined you would be.”
“I get that a lot.”
“You can call me Bert—it’s what people used to call me.”
“I’m Phil. Most times people call me things worse than that.”
“You think you deserve it?”
“Beats me. These days, it’s hard to tell who deserves what.”
He laughs again, and I make sure to avert my eyes from where his penis might come bobbing up. “Ain’t that the truth.” He takes another deep drag of his cigar. “You’re a lot more personable than I thought you’d be. The Admin teach you that?”
I look at him, serious. “First of all, they never go by The Admin. I mean, like if you’re trying to fit in, sneak around or whatever? Administration. That’s how everybody says it. Second of all, if you really thought they could teach me things like being personable, I wouldn’t be here at all. You know what I am.” I flick my cigarette into his bathwater.
“I didn’t go because I felt like it would be sacrificing my soul for my body. They could make me thin and attractive, but I’d have to live with the trade-off.”
“They have that fixed now, you know. They take a piece of your brain while you’re under, so you don’t even have to live with the guilt of selling out.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“They’ve been doing it for a while, Bert. They took the first waves of shallow, I-Want-To-Be-Pretty people, and the second, and the third. But then they got to people who kind of felt like assholes for selling out their beliefs. Administration couldn’t have a revolt inside any of the villages—that’d be counterproductive to the whole ‘life is a perfect dream’ theory they pimp so hard. So…partial lobotomies. Nobody even knows. All the doctors inside the villages are Administration-approved.”
“So even if she had felt remorse…”
“She wouldn’t have felt remorse, man. Not once she was pretty. Your wife, she probably thought she would get all prettied up and then come back to you, show you how to play the system. Right?”
“I…that’s what her diary said.”
“Yeah. Happens a lot. I think it’s harder for women. I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse, but I think being fat and ugly, it’s harder for women to deal with.”
“She wasn’t ugly,” Bert screeches, and the bath water looks like it’s boiling as he moves to point a finger at me. The finger is fat and stained, like if a hotdog choked to death on a hotdog, and I suddenly want to cry for poor, fat, lonely Bert. He thinks he’s so clever. This whole thing, his cause. What a waste. Like I didn’t see the transmitter the second I walked in. One of the cigarette butts, it floats a little different than the rest, it’s weighted down with a tiny mic. Me and Bert, we’re broadcasting.
And at the end of this pathetic little back and forth, when I tell him about how I picked up on his cigarette butt transmitter, all the information they think they’ve gleaned, all the nuggets of truth the resistance thinks they have, it’s just another trick. I’m telling the truth, but they’ll never be able to believe it, not once they know I’m onto them. Just another Administration trick, and they’ll keep saying things like “The Admin,” and they’ll keep getting caught.
“In her mind, she was.” I light another cigarette. “She never had a chance, Bert. Even before she went in. From birth, they tell you how you’re supposed to look, and if you don’t look like you’re supposed to, you either end up like Glenda or you end up like you.”
“Don’t use her name again.”
“She calls herself Constance now, can you believe it?”
“You sonofabitch!” His scream echoes in the small bathroom, and his angry thrashing stirs up smells from the bath water that I’d rather not bear witness to. Ash and piss and rot. Loneliness and isolation and filth.
I take the pistol out of its holster, slow, relaxed, and cool. A glacier moving across the plains. “Calm down. You think you’re onto my tricks, but what you don’t understand is that I don’t have any tricks. I’m not trying to make you lose your temper, Bert. I’m trying to make conversation. I know I’m not too good at it, but I hope you’ll excuse me, considering how seldom I get the opportunity.”
“Don’t you dare use her name again.”
“Your wife, she thought she knew what she was doing. Just like you thought you knew what you were doing. You both got caught. Don’t think less of her for it.”
A tear slips from his eye. Even his tears are big and fat. “I thought she just…I thought she got thin and decided that she could do better.”
“I don’t know if this helps or hurts, but they had her hooked up with a new guy before she went under. She hadn’t even met him, but Administration knew who her husband was.”
“She’s artificial, Bert. It’s time to talk about you.”
“I heard you guys always came in and pretended to be our friends first. You come in, tell me my wife is screwing some guy, that she’s married to some guy! What the hell?”
“You have the wrong information. We don’t have a way of doing things. If we did, anyone could do our job, and we’d be just like that asshole outside your door, or the asshole down in the lobby.”
“You’re here to get me to talk.”
I rub my eyes. They’re always so paranoid. They always freak out and tell me what I need to know, what I don’t want to know. They try to lie, they try to misinform, but it all comes through loud and clear. Their lies highlight the truth. We just have to look for the blank spot in our system to know where and what the truth is.
“You talk anyway. I’m just here to listen.”
He drops his nasty cigar into the tub and it dies with a stinky hiss. “All of my files, they’re encrypted with lies. You’ll never figure out what’s real and what isn’t.”
“You shouldn’t be telling me this, Bert. This is the part where you’re supposed to shut up, instead of rubbing it in my face.”
“Hah! You think you’re so smart?”
“No,” I say, but he doesn’t hear me.
“You think you’re so clever! But what you don’t know is that your bluff was blown from the start!”
“Okay.” I can’t decided if I should light up another smoke or just stand up. Either way, this show’s about to end. I reach into my pocket for the smart-gun. That little toothpick I put into the computer and the holo-frame? This is like that, but it works on the human brain. Everything he knows, it’s about to be mine. Not mine…the Administration’s.
“Sensors on the door, they tell me you got no recording device on you!”
“I don’t need one, man. See this?” I hold up the smart-gun. “This gets it all, right out of your think-ball. How do you like that, Bert? I shoot this little dart into your head, and the Administration has everything you know.”
His maniacal laugh stops. “No.”
“I’m trial-testing, baby. Three other operatives have ‘em. I’m the first that gets to use it. You done fucked up, son.”
“You seem like such a nice guy.”
“Yeah. I’m not.”
“They have to keep you human. They can’t implant you, or you lose whatever it is that keeps you able to talk to guys like me.”
“Got a point?”
“How do you live with yourself?”
“I drink a lot,” I say, and stand up.
“Tell me something,” Bert says.
“How much of what you said to me tonight was bullshit?”
“It isn’t night, Bert—it’s three in the afternoon, out in the real world. And none of it—there’s no need to lie to a phantom.”
“Is that what they call it when you erase us? Phantoms?”
“That’s what I call it. You’ll haunt me, man, no doubt about it. That’s why I call you and people like you phantoms.”
“You were nice to me. Was that an act?”
“Are you asking if I like you?”
He blushes, and it’s bizarre to see the pink in his cheeks compared to the rest of his pale, gray-stained body. “I guess.”
And I decide to tell the first lie since I entered this room. “Yeah, Bert. I like you. I just wish you could have done something more.”
“Me, too,” he says. And then Bert does something to surprise me. It’s the first thing that has surprised me all day, all week, all month, all year. Maybe the first thing to surprise me since I got used to this lousy job.
What Bert does is, he suddenly replaces his head with a gigantic mess of red and white and silver. It takes me a second to realize that he just shot himself with a spear gun. One of those like they used to use on fishing trips. I bet if I went through the data from his holo-frame, I’d come across a picture of him holding one. Maybe that one.
I sit back down on the toilet and light a cigarette. I stare at the bloody, bone-covered shaft that has just shattered the mildew-encrusted tile of Bert’s shower wall. Fuckin’ Bert. I laugh, mostly in disbelief.
I glance down into the tub, right between his legs. Floating in the murky water is the top of the spear gun. Beside the barrel of the gun, the head of his penis bobs up and down like a vandalized buoy. I wonder if Bert was that tricky, that he kept the gun by his crotch knowing that I wouldn’t want to see his pathetic phallus. Or was that the only place he could fit the gun?
There isn’t enough of his brain in tact to use the smart-gun. Dumb luck, Bert, that you had planned on splattering your brain all over the place the day that I had to test a memory stick that took memory right out of your brain.
I laugh again and flick my cigarette into the tub. Blood has mutated the filthy gray into an sickly brown color that reminds me once more of shit. Which reminds me of what dead bodies tend to do shortly after they become dead bodies. I start to leave, wanting to get out before his bowels evacuate.
But there’s one more thing I need to say. One more thing that must be recorded into the cheap, fake-looking cigarette butt microphone that is floating around in Bert’s filth-infused tub water.
“I like you Bert.” I pat his dead arm. I stand up and leave. All the beautiful people in the villages, but the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a while is Bert’s brain splattered all over his cracked bathroom tile.
I still can’t believe in humanity, but at least here are guys like Bert who are on the right track.