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Getting killed always gives me the worst hangover. When I was younger, I thought maybe it had something to do with my soul being forced out of my body and then shoved into the next. Even if I couldn’t remember it, that sort of trauma had to leave some sort of mark on a person’s spirit, right?
“You ready for this, Agent Dooley?”
I rubbed my baby-smooth chin and leaned forward in the chair, flexing my fresh legs. The techs at the Amortals Project had shaved my face micro-clean, which I never liked, but it would grow out fast enough. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen myself die, Patrón.”
The frat-boy-faced man with the slicked-back hair cracked a shadow of his wide smile. His perfect teeth gleamed in the room’s dimmed lights. “Right. I saw the documentary about your first time when I was in grade school.”
“The 2132 version is the best,” I said, battling a sickening sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t we had this conversation the last time? “They went all out for the centennial.”
Patrón snorted. I knew he could look right through my bravado. I didn’t want to watch this. No sane man would.
“That’s Director Patrón, by the way,” he said. “‘Sir’ is fine too. You sure your memory’s working right?”
Hoping he’d attribute my failure to feign respect for him to revivification sickness, I ignored him. “Just start the show.”
Patrón blinked. I’d known him nearly as long as I’d known anyone alive. He had a strong stomach. “It’s bad, Ronan,” he finally said.
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “Does it?”
Patrón shrugged, then waved his hand, and the thrideo leaped to life. The polarizers in my lens implants kicked in, transforming the blurred images into a 3D mirage that looked sharp enough to cut my pupils.
In the thrid, a man sat bound to a white plastic chair in the center of a small, gray room made of cinderblock walls. He was tall and trim and dressed in a navy blue suit, a red tie, and a white shirt splashed with crimson. His ankles were cuffed to the legs of the chair with self-constricting ties, and his hands were bound behind him, likely with the same.
The man had close-cropped, dark-brown hair and a three-day shadow of a beard. He looked young, maybe about thirty, although it was impossible to tell these days. He wore a black blindfold over his eyes, the kind the first-class stewards hand you for overnight flights. Blood trickled down in twin paths from beneath the fabric, framing the rest of his face.
Despite the blindfold, I knew that face well. It was mine, and I did not look good.
Another figure stepped into view. This new man wore the kind of clean suit you see in microchip laboratories, complete with the full headgear and the mirrored faceplate, except it was all black. Loose and bulky, it covered him from head to toe like a high-tech burka.
The new man carried a 9mm semi-automatic Nuzi pistol in his right hand. The safety was already off. He tapped it against his leg before he began to talk.
“I suppose,” the new man said in a voice that had been digitally garbled, “that you’re wondering what you’re doing here today, Mr Methuselah Dooley.” I winced at the nickname. The press had slapped that on me over a hundred years ago, and I’d never been able to shake it.
The previous version of me – the one about to die in the thrideo – grunted but did not say a word. A trickle of blood escaped from his mouth as he tried to speak. The tongue in my mouth recoiled at the ghost of a traumatic memory I didn’t actually have.
“Don’t answer,” the man in the black suit said. “This isn’t for you. You’ll be dead soon. It’s for later, for them.”
Patrón glanced at me, but I ignored him. The man in the suit knew exactly what he was doing. We just had to watch to find out what that was.
I knew I could stop the recording to chat with Patrón if I wanted to. I could rewind it, even watch it dozens of times today. My first time through, though, I wanted to absorb every bit of it without interruption, to see it as it happened.
Something inside of me wanted to turn away, to avoid this horrible spectacle. I ignored that impulse.
The man in the suit snarled, and the man in the chair began to panic. He struggled against the bracelets holding him in place, thrashing about in the chair, straining hard enough to put shining stress lines in the bracelets, even though it only made them bite harder into his flesh. The chair’s legs had been bolted to the floor, or it would have gone over for sure. Maybe that’s what the man in the chair had been hoping for, although it wouldn’t have done him any good.
I stared at the man in the chair as his struggles abated. The bracelets had cut right through his socks, and blood trickled into his shoes. Unable to get free, he gave up the fight and began to weep.
Patrón squirmed a bit in his chair. “That sort of behavior unusual for you, Dooley?”
I ignored the crack. If the man in the chair had wept, it might mean he was trying to tell me something. I’d seen myself die times before, several times, and I’d never done anything of the sort.
The man in black shifted his gun to his left hand, then reached out and slapped the man in the chair with a gloved palm. “Get a hold of yourself, Meth,” he said. “You’ll disappoint your fans.”
The man in the chair – I couldn’t bring myself to call him Ronan or Dooley or even Methuselah – whimpered at this, but the tears ended, and he did not grunt another word. I felt my fists clench. I wanted to jump up and take out the man in black – tear the life from him with my bare hands – then rescue the doomed man. It was too late though. Real as the images seemed, I was watching the past. This had already happened.
“This is what the Secret Service does for you, eh, Meth?” the man in black said. “Give them your life, and they only ask if they can have another.”
The man in the chair let his head loll back on his shoulders. I wasn’t sure he was still alive.
The man in black leaned forward and whispered something into the other man’s ear. The audio leaped up to compensate for the difference in volume. I could hear it through the bone conductors tapped into the base of my skull.
“And you,” the man in black said, “you give it to them.”
The man in the chair flinched at these words, spoken as softly as a promise to a sleeping lover.
The man in black straightened back up again. “You sicken me,” he said. “You’re like a dog. All those years serving your country and your President. How much did that cost you? Your wife. Your kid. Your grandchildren. Every last one of your lives.”
The man in the chair slumped over in the chair, his shoulders slumped, his head hanging low. He’d been beaten in every way.
“You’re not even a man,” the man in the clean suit said. “You’re just a distant echo of the original. A cheap, vat-grown copy. You fade more every time you bounce back into this world. I’d say you’d be nothing soon, but you’re already there. Every breath you take subtracts from those the original Ronan Dooley breathed a hundred and fifty years ago.”
The man in the black suit leaned in and brushed the other man’s sweat-soaked hair back with the barrel of his gun. The gesture would have seemed tender with just about any other instrument.
“You think just because you’re amortal you’re special. That you can’t really die. That it doesn’t really matter if you do. It’s a great set-up, at least for people like you. One body dies, just go to the whole-brain backup and restore it into a clone. You don’t even have to remember the pain of death or the fear it brings. You’re like an alcoholic who blacks out before beating his wife. In your head, it’s like it never happened.”
The man in black knelt down in front of the chair. He swapped his pistol back to his right hand and pressed the tip of his gun against the other man’s forehead, then pushed the bleeding man’s head up and back until it was level with his own.
“What you forget,” the man with the gun said. “What people like you always forget is that a copy is not the original. It may look, sound, smell, taste, feel, and even act like the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same thing. It’s a substitute, a replacement, a simulacrum, a doppelganger.”
I swore I could hear the man sneer as he continued. “People are not digital files recorded in a meat medium. We are flesh and blood, and we are unique. You may be a perfect copy, but you’re still a copy. Somewhere, the fleshless bones of the original Ronan Dooley are spinning in his rotted grave.”
The head of the man in the chair pulled back from the pistol for a moment, then lolled to the side. The man with the gun reached out and grabbed the other man by the shoulder and sat him upright again.
“You’re not a man,” the man in black said. “You’re a ghost made flesh, condemned to haunt this world until the day your number comes up again. Even amortals can only cheat death for so long.”
The man in black stood now and placed the tip of the barrel of his gun against the other man’s forehead. “Today’s the day,” he said. “It’s time for your run on this Earth to end.”
Although I’d never seen the thrid before, I knew what happened next. Despite the fact that I was nothing but a ghost to this scene, watching this little drama from behind the veil of time, I reached out my hand to stop it.
“Aw, no,” I heard myself whisper.
“Good-bye, Ronan ‘Methuselah’ Dooley,” the man in the black suit said. “You won’t be missed.”
The gunshot made me jump. The head of the man in the chair kicked back as if it had been smashed with a baseball bat. If the chair hadn’t been bolted down, the impact would have knocked him flat. As it was, the bullet blew out the back of his head and painted the wall behind him an angry red.
The man in the suit stood there and watched the life leak out of his victim. A rivulet of blood ran down from the hole in the dead man’s forehead. Far more of it spilled from the back of his skull and onto the floor below, puddling with the fluids already there.
As the dripping stopped, utter silence fell over the room. Then I heard something come from the man in the suit. It sounding like sniffling.
When the man next spoke, his voice came low and raw.
“Good luck,” he said. “Whatever you were and wherever you’re going, you deserved a lot better than this.”
The man then came around to the side of the dead man and shot him three more times in that side of his head. He did the same on the dead man’s other side. By the time he was finished, there wasn’t enough left of the dead man’s skull to fit into my shoe.
Then the man stood in front of the corpse and emptied the rest of his clip into it. The body jumped and leaped under the impacts, jerking about as if it shot through with lightning.
As the echoes of gunfire faded, the body fell still.
The man with the gun removed the clip from it with practiced ease and tossed it aside. Then he did the same for the gun. Each clattered to a rest across the concrete floor.
Then the man turned toward the thrideo camera that had recorded the entire event. He leaned into it, and it seemed as if he was staring straight at me.
I couldn’t see his face through the mirrored panel in his mask, though, just the reflections of the twin camera lenses the man had been facing. Staring at them was like looking down the barrels of two guns, one aimed at each of my eyes. For a moment I wondered if they could bark death at me through the screen.
When the man finally spoke, I nearly jumped out of my seat. I felt like I’d been tossed into a frozen pool and couldn’t find the hole in the ice that would let me reach the surface again.
“No more Ronans,” the man in the suit said through his voice scrambler. “Let the man and all his copies rest in peace.”
The thrideo went dark then, and the lights glowed back up. I didn’t look at Patrón. I didn’t want him to see me shaking.
“Who did this?” I asked. My voice trembled with anger, frustration, and fear.
The Secret Service director made a small cough filled with pity and regret. “We were hoping you could tell us.”
I wrestled with my whirling emotions as I walked out of the private theater and into the headquarters proper of the United States Secret Service. Watching that man murder me – actually violate my body with his gun – made me angrier than I’d ever been. I fought a violent urge to vomit. Had I been someplace more private, I would have given in.
I wanted to strangle the life out of that killer. I wanted to hear him beg for forgiveness. Then I wanted to tear his head off anyway. And if he was somehow amortal too, I’d find every last genetic sample he might have left behind and napalm, bleach, and nuke it from the planet. I’d erase every last indication that he’d ever existed.
And then I’d really get started.
I knew the halls of the headquarters well, and being there lent me some small comfort. I’d served the Secret Service for far longer than this mass of glassteel and reinforced concrete, and with luck I’d still be around when its walls came down. Still, returning to them always felt more like coming home than it did when I strolled into my condo at the Watergate Hotel.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and fought the urge to shake it off and punch the man attached to it. Despite being the longest-serving member of the Secret Service, I knew that Patrón would take a dim view of me assaulting him in the middle of his own headquarters. There’s only so much leeway that being reborn that day can earn you.
“I know how you’re feeling right now, Dooley,” Patrón started.
“Of course you do.” I didn’t bother looking at him. I kept walking away. I just wanted to get back to my office, reconnect to the world, and get to work. The quicker I found this bastard, the better, and the less time I’d have to seethe over what he’d done to me.
“I’ve been killed too.” I knew Patrón was only trying to sympathize with me, but I wasn’t having it.
The other agents we passed in the hall all found something else interesting to look at on the nearest walls or through the closest windows. I recognized some of them, but the set of my jaw broadcast that I wasn’t in the mood to chat.
“We’ve all been killed, Patrón. Every damned amortal one of us. That wasn’t murder. That was rape with bullets.”
Patrón opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. “All right,” he said. “Then let’s find the bastard and make him pay.”
“‘Let’s’? As in ‘you and me’? Is that option even legally on the table?” I scoffed at him. “Whose jurisdiction is this? Capitol blues? DC? FBI?”
Patrón jogged a few steps to keep up with me and shook his head. “Your body was found in the District of Columbia, so normally DC Homicide would have the first crack at this. However–”
“Always with the howevers.”
“The FBI would love to have a crack at such a high-profile case, so they’ve been pressing to get involved.”
“But you told them to– Wait.” I stopped dead in the corridor. Surprised, Patrón sailed past me, then spun around to face me again. Sunlight streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows lining one side of the hall, and despite the youth of his body, in the bald light of day Patrón looked old.
I glared right into his aged eyes. “How high profile is this?”
Before he even answered, I knew he’d let it spin out of control.
“The killer made that recording and posted it to the web. Then he pinged the major news agencies, and they grabbed it and ran. It’s been the top-trending topic worldwide for the past twenty-four hours.”
Patrón gave me a “what can you do?” shrug. “Ronan,” he said. “It was a slow news cycle. It’ll fade.”
I brushed past him, leaving him to catch up with me again. A story as juicy as this would have a lot of life in it, I knew. I could just see the headlines: “World’s Oldest Man Murdered Again!” “Amortal No More?” “Who Murdered Methuselah?”
The kill-porn sites would get themselves worked up in a frenzy, breaking the thrideo apart frame by frame. The right-wing establishment would see it as a full-frontal assault on them and their amortal base. The left-wing protesters would recognize a potential hero for their cause in the man in black. It hit enough hot-button topics that every major media faction would try to co-opt the killing for its own pet cause. Among all this, they’d ignore the most important part: I’d been killed, and the murderer was still at large.
“We have full jurisdiction on this one, Dooley,” Patrón said as he chased after me, trying to catch me before I reached my office and shut the door in his face. “The President herself has given the order for everyone else to back off and cooperate with all of our requests. You and your partner have the agency’s full backing on this one.”
I ground to a halt at that and turned to scowl at Patrón. “Partner?” I said. “I haven’t had a partner in decades. I work alone. You know that.”
Patrón held up his hands and shrugged. He looked anything but helpless. “You’ve just been killed, Dooley, and in a horrible and nasty and public way. There’s the danger you might not be able to think clearly here. You need the help.”
“A babysitter, you mean,” I snarled. “And no, I don’t.”
I turned, strode through the door to my office, and slammed it behind me. Many of the other offices in the place had the standard pocket doors that recognized you and – if you were authorized to enter the room – slid aside when you approached. I preferred to put my trust in a set of well-oiled hinges, a thick slab of oak, and a centuries-old lock.
I twisted the deadbolt home, knowing that Patrón couldn’t override something so simple, at least not with a simple wave of his hand. I glared at him through the polarizable glass that made up my office’s front wall, then turned to see a beautiful woman sitting behind my desk.
“Get out,” I said.
The woman smiled at me. She was tall for a woman, nearly my height, dressed in a smart dark suit that nearly screamed “federal agent.” She had a perfect, wide smile bracketed by deep dimples. She wore her curly dark hair down to her shoulders, and it framed her flawless olive-skinned face. The bit of gray touching her temples, along with the slight smile wrinkles around her lively brown eyes, told me that she was no amortal. First-lifer, for sure.
She stood and walked around my desk, extending her hand to me. “Agent Dooley,” she said. “Welcome back. You may not remember me. I’m Agent Amanda Querer.”
I ignored her hand until she put it back in her pocket. “I think you’re in the wrong office,” I said.
She gave me an understanding smile. Had I not been so furious, I might have admitted she was gorgeous. The hormones pumping through my new body urged me to do much more than that.
“I’m right next door,” she said, “so I can see how you might think there could be some confusion, but I’ve been assigned to help out with your case.”
I moved around the other side of the desk and sat down in my chair. She stood behind one of the pair of guest chairs sitting before me.
“I don’t need the help.”
“I can understand how you feel.”
“Can you?” I said, letting loose with my disbelief. “How many times have you been killed?”
“I hardly think that I need to be murdered to dredge up some sympathy for you.”
I snorted at that. “I’ve died eight times now. Three times in the process of saving the life of a President, twice while protecting foreign dignitaries, once in a manner that’s still classified far above your level of clearance, and once by accident.”
“And this time you were murdered.”
“The other seven times someone killed me don’t count?”
“Murder requires intent. The people who killed you before – the ones I know of, at least – meant to murder someone, but not you. You just happened to get in the way.”
“You have a lovely way of framing my sacrifices.”
“I like to keep things as clear as I can.”
I opened my mouth to snap at her, then closed it. I reconsidered my words before I spoke. “I’m sure that’s just one of the many excellent reasons that Patrón assigned you to this case, but he’s just wasting your time. I’m going to figure out who did this. Alone.”
Querer shrugged as she walked toward the door. “And I respect your desires. I really do. But I have my orders.”
I sat back in my chair. “Ignore them. I always do.”
She reached for the deadbolt. I figured she might fumble at it. Most people her age had rarely seen one. She flipped it without an instant’s hesitation. “I’m afraid they come straight from the top,” she said as Patrón strolled into the room.
“Thank you, Agent Querer,” Patrón said as he straightened his cheap tie. “I’m glad to see that someone around here still knows how to play as part of the team.”
I glared at Patrón’s tie. Just because our uniform code insisted on clip-on ties didn’t mean they had to look like them. Sure, it’s wonderful to know that an assailant can’t strangle you with a piece of your own clothing that you’ve conveniently draped around your neck, but they do make them so you don’t have to look like you stole your tie from a snot-nosed kid going for his First Communion.
I folded my arms in front of me, leaned back in my chair, and glowered at Patrón. He snaked his way between the two guest chairs and splayed his meaty hands on my desk. He met my gaze. No matter how much I might not have liked Patrón, I had to respect how much of a hard-ass he could be. Licking a few boots might help make you the director of the Secret Service, but it wouldn’t keep you there for the seventy-six years and counting he’d put in.
“Do you like living, Dooley?” he asked.
When we’d been chatting in the hallway before, he’d been willing to cut me some slack. The idea that the hallway was private was a thin fiction, of course, but one most agents bought into for the sake of convenience. Here, though, in an office and directly in front of a subordinate, he wasn’t about to let me push him around.
“I seem to have grown attached to it.”
“Good,” he said, allowing a self-satisfied smirk to grow on his face. “Then you know what you need to do to remain attached to it.”
I cocked my head at him. “You’re not threatening me, are you, sir?” If he wanted me to pretend to respect him, then I’d do just that – and no more.
Patrón pushed back from the desk and stood up straight. “Of course not. I’m just reminding you that the access you have to the Amortals Project starts and ends with your employment here. If you were to force me to fire you, I’d do so only with the utmost regret, especially considering your long record of service to your country.”
“No one has ever served longer or better, sir,” I said. I knew where he was headed with this, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with an implied threat here. If he wanted to put me in my place, he needed to spell it out.
“If you were to leave your position here, you would lose out on your generous salary.”
“What does money mean to me, sir?”
“I read your tax filings every year, Agent Dooley. I know you’ve made a number of wise long-term investments. They might even come to enough to purchase a revivification policy from the Department of Health and Human Services for you – as long as you weren’t fired for cause. In that case, they wouldn’t be permitted to sell it to you.” He almost seemed apologetic. “By law, you understand.”
“All too well, sir,” I said. “You’re snapping my leash.”
“I prefer to think of it as a gentle correction.”
I sat forward in my chair and shrugged, dropping the false respect. “It comes down to the same thing. I play the good little agent, or you pull the plug on my amortality.”
Patrón raised his eyebrows gave me a sage nod. “You would be free to live out whatever time you have remaining in this life, of course,” he said, peering at my head as if watching the bullets that had blasted my predecessor to death. “However long or short a period that may be.”
Querer chose that moment to interrupt. “Since you were just publicly murdered by an individual who demanded you not be revived, the odds that your assailant might wish to become a repeat offender are high.”
Patrón had me in a box, and he knew it. It annoyed me that Querer not only knew it too but was willing to help him seal me in.
“All right,” I said to Patrón. “I’ll do it. I’ll take any partner but her.”
Neither Querer nor Patrón smiled at this.
“Normally I’d be happy to agree with you,” said Patrón, “but Querer was hand-picked to partner up with you if you happened to get killed.”
“What jackass made that decision?” I asked.
Querer smiled down at me. “It was you.”