A Prickling of the Skin

From the moment I woke up, I knew that something was wrong.

Ever feel that prickling at the back of your shoulder blades, that phantom sensation that just won’t go away?  It happens when you’ve missed something, something important.  One time, I totally forgot about the fact that I had jury duty, and I walked around all day with this prickling in between my shoulder blades, sure that the Sword of Damocles was waiting just above my head, about to drop.

That was how I felt today, ever since I woke up.

Try as I might, however, I can’t remember what could be wrong, what I could have forgotten.  I caught my bus as I hid from the rain in the shelter of the stop, went to work, put in my mindless eight hours of sitting at my desk and transferring files between spreadsheets, got on the bus again, came home, cooked the last pizza in my freezer (I need to get more food), and went to bed.

The next day, the prickling was still there.

Now, I knew that something was wrong.  That sense of unease was stronger, as if there was something right in front of me that I should be seeing, that my eyes were just skipping past.

I knew that something was wrong.

I just didn’t know what it was.

I went to work again, putting up my coat to cover my hair against the rain.  I did my work, toiling away at those endless spreadsheets.  At home, I popped open my fridge, pulled out the frozen pizza (last one, I needed to go shopping), and tried to think as I ate.

What could be wrong?  I felt my skin was a size too small, like I itched inside of it.

It took a long time for me to fall asleep.

The next morning, the feeling was even worse.  Prickling all over, pins and needles coursing through my entire body.  I could barely think as I stared out the window at the pouring rain.  I knew that I had to go to work, but I felt as though my thoughts were moving through molasses.

Dash through the rain to the bus.  Open up my spreadsheets – sometimes, it seemed like I wasn’t even making any progress on them.  Eight hours and change later, I stumbled back into my apartment, going for the frozen pizza (last one) in the fridge.

I needed to go shopping for food, I thought blearily to myself.  I had a small pad of paper sitting on the counter, and I picked up a pen.  I noticed with annoyance that I was down to the last sheet of paper.  There was something written on it already, but I crossed that out and wrote “buy pizza” underneath.

I was already getting tired.  I collapsed into bed, but I knew that I was missing something.

I almost slept through my alarm the next morning.  Clamber up, pull on my coat against the pouring rain outside, and run for the bus.  Data entry.  Frozen pizza.  The prickling was still there.

I know something’s wrong.

Maybe I’ll figure it out tomorrow.

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Hacker’s Heart: Rooftop Infiltration

The man was silent as a ghost as he drifted along the rooftop, crouching down amid the sensors and antennae.
Actually, Shard reflected, that wasn’t a great turn of phrase.  Most ghosts tended to be somewhat loud, rattling their chains and moaning.  If anything, they were quite obnoxious with all their noise.
He, on the other hand, was most decidedly not loud.  His boots were outfitted with chameleon soles, shifting and flexing with each step to adjust to the terrain beneath.  Each step was sure-footed, the shifting soles making sure that not a single pebble was disturbed or moved out of place…
The rest of Shard’s outfit was similarly well-chosen.  He wore a tight black jacket, one sleeve cut at the elbow to reveal the flexible computer screen strapped onto his forearm.  The jacket was covered in pockets, most of them bulging with several other little high-tech gadgets that could come in handy.  Shard had a pair of skin-tight black gloves pulled on over his fingers, concealing his prints while still giving him full range of movement and the ability to activate his touch-screens.
Shard’s head was bare, but he preferred his night pursuits that way.  As he picked his way among the weather vanes and satellite dishes, monuments to technology, he moved with purpose, carefully placing each foot.  Even though it was nearly pitch-black, the man seemed to have no trouble seeing where he was going.
That was no illusion.  Shard’s eyes had their own augments, helping him make his way without a single step out of place.  Of course, those augmentations weren’t cheap, even with his own considerable modding skill.
That, he thought to himself, was one of the reasons he was up on top of this roof.
His destination lay just ahead.  The door was recessed back into the shadows, but Shard’s eyes could see the glowing yellow halo surrounding the frame.  That put the man on edge.  He hesitated, slowing down and carefully checking each footstep before shifting his weight over.
Finally, Shard was standing in front of the doorway, gazing up at the yellow halo around it, visible to his eyes only.  The handle was right in front of him, beckoning for him to try it, to see whether it was open.
Shard didn’t touch it.
Instead, he lifted up his left wrist, running his fingers over the flexible display attached to his arm.  A few touches, and it sprang to muted life, displaying readouts and outputs in night-friendly green.  Shard scrolled through a few menus, tapping on different buttons, until he found the options he wanted.
With the program set, Shard dipped his other hand into a pocket, pulling out a handful of what looked like small marbles.  He held them in the hand attached to the screen, waited for the portable computer to recognize and connect with the objects, and then activated his program.  After a beep, he closed his hand around the small spheres – and then tossed them forward.
The spheres flew to their points on the door, sticking to the metal frame.  Shard couldn’t keep his grin off his face as the glowing yellow pattern in his eyes shifted, now bounded by his new additions.
He reached out and grabbed the handle, gave it a twist, and waited, feeling his heart leap up into his throat.
The glowing yellow field of electricity around the door didn’t change.  Shard’s grin widened, and, more silent than the average ghost, he slipped inside.

The Roach

I just sat there, staring at her across the table.  Something was wrong, I knew it.  There was something off about her, something that just didn’t feel right.

It all started a few days ago.  She had gone to sleep before me, as usual, turning in and crawling into the sheets on her side of the bed while I stayed up late, trying to finish the never-ending pile of work.  But when I finally stood up, rubbed my eyes, and headed to the bedroom, something wasn’t the same.  Something was different.

I barely noticed it, then.  I saw her in the bed, curled up, and just felt uneasy.  Sometimes, when a roach crawls on my skin, I just barely feel it, something wrong moving about on me.  That’s the best way I can describe the feeling.  Something about her wasn’t right.

That night, I was too tired to think much of it.  I shrugged it off, crawled into bed beside her, and fell asleep without much issue.

But the feeling didn’t go away.

For the next few days, it just grew stronger and stronger, every time I looked at her.  She wasn’t the same.  Oh, she acted like nothing was wrong, smiled and joked with me, but sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I thought that I could see her expression melt away into blankness.

I began staring at her, watching all of her little habits closely.  The way she pushed back her hair – had she always done it like that?  Did she always curl her finger around the strands as she tucked them up behind her ear?  I couldn’t remember.  But it wasn’t right.  It was somehow off, different, a mocking imitation of what I remembered.

It crept into her speech, too.  When I asked her a question, something about our history, our past, I could see it.  For just an instant, she’d freeze before answering.  She almost looked like she was thinking.  Like she was recalling the answer.

But I could see that brief moment of total blankness in her eyes.

There was something in her head; I was sure of it, convinced of it.  Something on her brain.  Or in it, pulling all the strings to make her move like a marionette.

I began staring into her ears, into that hole of blackness.  It’s such a big hole.  Any number of things could crawl inside of there, could invade through those open gates.

We went to the doctor, under the guise of a yearly checkup.  The doctor checked for brain tumors, at my request.  He saw nothing.  But I didn’t feel reassured.

See, it’s getting worse.  Every time I talk to her, I see that moment of blankness.  I’ve trained myself to spot it now, to see it whenever she tries to get near me.  She says she just wants to comfort me, to hold me in her arms like we used to, but I don’t remember that.  It, that thing inside her, can’t truly pretend to be her.

I know it’s inside her.  When I look at her, I see a roach, a nasty little insect inside her brain, scuttling around and making her dance.  I shudder, I look away, but I still see it inside of her in my mind’s eye.

I am positive it’s there.

Please, you have to believe me.  I knew it was there, but I knew no one would believe me without proof.  If I could just find it, could cut it out and hold it aloft in triumph as I crush it between my fingers, I would finally be able to rest again, to sleep.

It’s in here, somewhere.  I had to cut in, to search for it.  I know it’s here.

I was careful.  I used plastic sheets, made sure that it had nowhere to escape.  It must be in one of these pieces, hidden away like a roach.

It must be here.

Setting study: Hacker’s Heart

First, I want to apologize for using these last few posts to talk about my behind-the-scenes work on developing my next novel.  Sometimes, I just need to write things out – and I’m one of the writers who always needs an outline, and cannot write a long story without one.  Normal stories will resume next week!

For Hacker’s Heart, the story is set in the future, and there have been some significant advancements in technology and how it affects everyday life.  However, despite so many different aspects of life, many things also remain reassuringly familiar…

Year: 2140

Location: Minneapolis, MN.  Why Minneapolis?  Because I’m fairly familiar with it, and it’s always nice to have a setting that’s well known (for anyone who’s actually been there).  Obviously, I can play around with the details a bit, as it’s over a hundred years in the future.

Technology: This is the big one.  There have been some advancements in many areas (cars now run on electricity, are much cleaner, and tend to look like rounded bumps, for example), but the biggest one is bio-augmentation.

Different types of bio-augments:

  • Physical augmentation.  These enhancements increase physical abilities, such as speed, strength, jumping ability, height, mass, or other similar traits.  Most of the time, these augments can be observed with a glance; strength still needs muscle, and so people with strength augments tend to be very bulky and dense.  Speed implants tend to cause a “twitchy” status, due to the increased movement speed even when at rest.  Obviously, augmentations that change body shape, such as height augmentations, are instantly visible.  
    • Physical augments tend to be seen more among the working class than the upper-middle class and rich, and are often used for jobs.
    • These augments tend to be cheaper than most others – and are also most often done in shoddy workshops where they may not take properly.
  • Mental augments.  These enhancements are designed to increase thinking speed or intelligence.  Designed to, at least.  These are brand-new, have not been fully tested, and don’t always seem to properly function – at least, not without causing some side effects.
    • Mental augments are rare, but occasionally seen.  They can’t be observed physically, so they are easier to keep hidden.
    • These augments tend to be most popular among the wealthy, who can both afford the incredibly high expense of these augments, and also make the most use of them.  They are also sometimes seen in people holding high jobs, such as prosecutors, surgeons and doctors, and some military agents.
    • Mental augments come in two “flavors.”  The first type allows the brain to access outside sources of information, such as the internet, with direct thought queries.  These augments allow people to almost instantaneously recall information from other sources.  The second type, newer and even less tested, is designed to enhance raw brainpower.  These appear to work, but often have strange side effects (vampires?).
  • Utility augments.  This third group of augmentations is the most varied, and serves as a “catch-all” for any augments that don’t fit in the first two groups.  These are often related to a job or career, or sometimes a hobby.
    • Shard has several of these utility augments, such as an ocular augment allowing him to see the flow of electricity and interfacing nannites at his fingertips to allow him to jack in directly to computer systems.
    • Other utility augments include GPS systems for people on the road, lockpicking tools for burglars or locksmiths, enhanced vision of various types, bone plating to protect against gunshots for soldiers, a blade that withdraws into the body for chefs or construction workers, implanted magnets, and other systems.
    • Many police officers have a radio implant so that they can hear chatter and take calls without needing an earbud.  Some also invest in lock picking tools or armor plating.  Heart, obviously, cannot use any of these implants.
    • Utility augments come in a wide range of qualities, from professional implants all the way down to back-alley jobs.  Obviously, paying more tends to lead to a better quality augment.
    • Another sub-class of utility augments includes those for vanity or appearance.  These vary widely, from breasts that adjust in size up to hair covering one’s entire body in various colors.  Some people even get enhancements to make them look more like animals, or creatures of myth and legend.

Character Study: Shard

Attention, fellow writers!  NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is fast approaching!  While getting started on the actual writing before November 1st is forbidden, we are free to plan and plot as much as we choose.  So for this week, I’m doing character studies on my characters that will be in my upcoming story.

Name: Richard Galt

Nickname/Preferred Name: Shard

Job: Freelance hacker, security consultant, suspected in several hacking crimes

Background: Richard Galt has always had an affinity for technology.  After nearly getting expelled from school at age thirteen, he returned and graduated in less than a year.  He’s widely known in many tech circles, and is considered a “gray hat” – he occasionally seems to stray towards illegal prospects, but he’s never been caught doing anything strictly illegal.  He works during the day as a digital security consultant for big companies.  At night, it’s anyone’s guess.

Skills: There isn’t a digital system Shard has met that he can’t break open.  He has several augments to aid him in this ability, and he considers it a point of personal pride that he’s one of the best hackers alive.  He’s also gifted with an excellent memory and almost insatiable thirst for knowledge, and uses his almost encyclopedic memory to solve puzzles.

Carried Items:

  • Wrist-mounted computer.  Shard uses this device as his portable hacking station, and can hook it up to most machines he encounters.  The flexible touch-screen extends up his forearm, and responds to both mental signals and to touch commands.
  • Electronic interface nannites.  Also known as “IO nannites” among hackers, these tiny little electronic devices allow him to directly interface with many computer systems.  They establish a microscopic bridge between his index fingers and a computer port.
  • Sunglasses.  A classic part of any hacker’s wardrobe.  Shard’s glasses also give him some enhanced low-light vision.
  • Optical nannites.  Give Shard the ability to “see” electrical currents around him.  Great for detecting alarm systems…
  • Sensor bundle.  Looking more like a octopus-shaped blob of wires than anything else, this device can be plugged into most machines to remotely stream data to Shard, even when left behind.

Strengths: Richard has a powerful, inquisitive mind that is constantly working and tackling new problems.  When he has something to think about, he ferrets away at it, refusing to give up until he has an answer.  He’s also fiercely intelligent, and also has a strong independent streak, leading him to work to be self-reliant.

Weaknesses: When Richard doesn’t have a problem to occupy his attention, he tends to search for one.  This often leads to him getting into a lot of trouble when left without a problem – especially when he’s not being watched.  He also has a blatant disregard for rules, which often leads to him straying to the outskirts of legality.

Pet Peeve: When Richard gets an idea, the worst thing anyone can say to him is “No.”  That is the easiest way to make him charge in, just to prove his opponent wrong.

Character Study: Detective Heart

Attention, fellow writers!  NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is fast approaching!  While getting started on the actual writing before November 1st is forbidden, we are free to plan and plot as much as we choose.  So for this week, I’m doing character studies on my characters that will be in my upcoming story.

Name: Lovely A. Heart

Nickname/Preferred Name: Leah Heart, Detective Heart

Job: Police Detective

Background: Leah has always wanted to be a detective.  Even as a kid, she used to try and hunt down bad guys.  She enrolled in the Police Academy straight out of high school.  Not only was she top of her class, but she also took many community college classes at the same time, working to broaden her knowledge.  After graduating, she quickly established herself as one of the most talented and dedicated officers in the field.

Skills: Extensive combat training, including multiple forms of hand-to-hand combat.  A crack shot, proficient with a wide array of weapons besides her usual sidearm.  Smart and logical, able to remain calm and reason in tense situations.  Skilled in many police-related skills, including nonlethal combat, tactical driving, infiltration tactics, and other abilities.

Carried Items:

  • Car keys.  Leah has her own unmarked police cruiser, which she’s tweaked for peak horsepower and handling.  The vehicle is silver gray, and shows slight evidence of dents despite Leah having hammered them out many times.
  • Zip tie cuffs.  Officers have found these cuffs to be more efficient and useful than standard metal cuffs, and have switched to using them.  Leah has a supply on her at all times.
  • Police badge.  Equipped with holographic seals to prove authenticity.
  • X5 stun pistol.  The X5 is the standard-issue weapon now given to police officers.  It fires a pair of charged steel flechettes that conduct an electrical charge between them – no wires required!  The stun is usually enough to bring down an adult male human.  Leah has modified her personal pistol to also fire a wide-angle burst of electricity, stunning in a wide arc.
  • Medical bracelet.  This marks Leah as a “darkie” in case she is unconscious or immobilized and requires medical treatment.

Strengths: Leah Heart has an uncanny ability to ferret out answers for many crimes, even when it may be confusing to other officers.  Her combination of determination, intelligence, skill, and fierce competitiveness gives her a strong intrinsic drive to succeed, to come out on top.

Weaknesses: Is a natural “darkie” – her body is unable to accept bio-augmentation implants, and any attempt at augmentation could cause a potentially fatal allergic reaction.  Because of this, she must work even harder to keep ahead of her fellow augmented officers.  Leah also can have a short temper, a lack of patience, and is easily fed up and frustrated by bureaucracy and incompetence.  She doesn’t tend to do well with jokes.

Pet Peeve: When things don’t make sense.  Leah doesn’t hold much stock with the supernatural.  “There’s always got to be an explanation.”

My birthday, and time for a little introspection

It’s my birthday!  Happy birthday to me.  Another year definitely older, probably more experienced, potentially even wiser.

I’ve now been alive for a quarter century – one-fourth of my entire life (hopefully less than a quarter, but we’ll see!).  Twenty-five years.  So long, and yet so short.  And to think, I spent a decent percentage of this time crawling around on my hands and knees, trying to not choke on my own drool or leave a steaming, smelly pile in my own absorbent little diaper.  Definitely didn’t accomplish much at that time.

That’s the real question, isn’t it?  What have I accomplished?  What have I failed to accomplish?

I’d say that I’ve accomplished a fair amount.  It’s tough to really draw a conclusion on this without resorting to comparisons to my peers.  If I try hard enough in either direction, I can find peers far below me, or above me.  So comparisons are out the window.

Instead, let me consider what I’ve done over this last year:

1. I wrote a novel!  Actually, I’ve written several novels, but this is the first one where I actually took the plunge and self-published it.  Want to check it out?  Click the Novel page in my top menu bar.

2. I have now survived for more than a year on the far side of the country, distant from my family, childhood home, and snow.  A year ago, living out here felt like a vacation.  To be honest, it still sometimes feels like a vacation (my apartment complex has a hot tub, for goodness sake), but I’m getting more used to it.

3. I have survived my first year of graduate school!  Not only survived, in fact, but I won a fellowship, and have successfully managed to stave off poverty for the next eleven months or so.  Of course, now I’m worried about the money after that, but at least my woes are nearly a year away.

4. I’ve chosen my lab!  All my fear of not finding a graduate school lab, of being forced to drop out in disgrace, was unfounded.  I have a lab I love, a research project I feel passionately about, and actual hope for my future.  Sure, I’ve still got a scary qualifying exam to pass, manuscripts to write, and more tests to run, but at least I have a direction.

5. Because she may be reading this, my lovely SO deserves a mention.  She willingly dropped her old life, moved halfway across the country to join me, and is now able to squeal and grab onto me whenever she chooses.  For me, moving simply seemed like the next natural step; I can’t imagine how scary it must have been for her.

Sure, I’ve done other stuff in the last year.  I have a side business now, making money off of my writing.  I have moved apartments, purchased vehicles, learned new skills (including computer programming), and have run the first 3 5k races since I was approximately sixteen years old.  I’ve spent far too much money, not saved nearly enough, have made new friends and drifted away from old ones.  I’ve seen Yellowstone, and haven’t yet found a breadfruit to eat.  Goals accomplished, goals still waiting for that check mark.

In the end, though, am I satisfied?

Not yet.  I think that’s a good answer.  I’m not satisfied yet, not content to stop climbing – but I’ve made a good start.

Now, bring on the densest chocolate cake in the world!  I’m ready to eat!

The Prank War

Okay, I’ll admit that the prank war has grown a little bit out of hand.

Yes, I started it.  But in my defense, you were snoring really loudly, and only getting a couple hours of restless sleep a night tends to wear a guy down after a week or so.

Maybe giving you permanent eye shadows with a Sharpie while you were asleep was a stupid move, in retrospect, but I felt that at least we should both look sleep-deprived….

As you remember, you retaliated by painting all my nails.  This wouldn’t have been so bad if you’d just done my fingernails, but you did my toes, too.  And painted little flowers on them.  I’m a little worried about how well you made those, you know.  Those seem disturbingly neat for a guy’s nail painting skills.

Of course, I couldn’t let that go.  No one could.  And replacing the cream in all your Oreos with toothpaste seemed like adequate revenge.  I was helping you eat healthier!

There really was no call for you to follow up with those mayonnaise filled doughnuts.  You know that I’m pressed for time in the mornings on my way to class.  I nearly puked on the professor.

But after that, I decided that I wouldn’t mess with your food any longer.  You should have been happy about that.  The fact that I glued all your toilet paper rolls together really should have been the last sally, the final blow before the peace treaty.

Instead, you blew up all my condoms like balloons.  Haha, funny, but I *told* you that I was bringing my girlfriend at the time over, and that this could be “our special night.”  And when I stepped into our room, not only was the mood ruined, but you didn’t even leave me a single condom!  Dammit, man, blocking me like that is against Man Code.

Once again, perhaps I was acting in anger, after she stormed off.  Maybe bleaching a dick onto all of your polo shirts was a little too mean.  I suppose that it is technically property damage, like you pointed out.  But you ruined all my condoms – and my shot at a girl that could have been my future wife!  So I stand by my actions.

Besides, those polos totally made you look like a tool.

I will admit that when you put the slime inside my pants, it was a good slow-played revenge.  I didn’t realize what was wrong until probably a good ten minutes after I put them on.  I’m still not sure what that slime was.  My best guess is lime gelatin mixed with Elmers glue.

So to make up for the dick shapes on your shirts, I put spray glitter on them.  Now, no one will notice the offensive shape, because you’ll look fabulous!  Girls love sparkly objects.  I was doing you a favor.

But you apparently didn’t take it that way.  Instead of thanking me, you covered my bedspread in little hairs.  I don’t even want to know where those came from.  I had to wash my sheets four times to stop the itching.

And once again, I might have slightly over-reacted.  I think you ought to be proud of me, however.  Figuring out how to program a script to make your computer blare Chacarron Macarron every hour, on the hour, took a lot of work.  Be proud of me for learning!

But as I can see now, you instead insisted on fighting back.

So I’ll ask you again, oh roommate of mine:

John, why is my table on the ceiling?

The Singularity is Coming, and It Will Be Terrible

Many scientists will talk about an upcoming event called a “singularity.”  This event, championed by very brilliant man Ray Kurzweil, is the point at which machines become smarter than humans.  And once machines are as smart or smarter than humans, the machines can design their own improvements, at an incredibly accelerated rate.  Whether this singularity will happen, and if so what exactly might happen, is a point of significant debate among scientists and other forward thinkers.

I believe that this singularity will happen.  And I believe that it will be absolutely terrible.

I believe that the singularity, this point where machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence, will eventually arrive.  Perhaps not quite within 30 years, as Kurzweil predicts, but it will arrive.  Prediction and heuristic algorithms are growing constantly more powerful, allowing for computers to extrapolate from incomplete data to make predictions.  Even today, Google can take a search string and not just provide a best-hit output, but can integrate keywords, linked phrases, and other information to create a more holistic guess as to what the searcher is after.  It seems like a sensible conclusion that this will eventually grow to at least an approximate facsimile of human thoughts, with a trillion times the background information and references to draw upon for support.

However, unlike Kurzweil, I am pretty sure that this technological singularity is going to prove to be incredibly frustrating.

The internet, for example, is an incredibly disruptive tool that has led to the rise of countless new opportunities.  Yet it also brought new problems and conflict; net neutrality, Comcast-Time Warner oligopolies, the increasing concern of personal security and privacy in a world that is growing more and more digital; all of these problems tag along with this great breakthrough, like remoras attached to a shark.

Even today, in class, we debated Eli Lilly releasing synthetic human growth hormone (HGH), allowing for short children to be treated and to grow to a height more comparable to their peers.  This treatment ran $20k-$40k per year, mind you.  That immediately raised questions of inequality and the growing divide between the rich and poor.

Now, how will people respond to the option to upload a brain, to create godlike robotic bodies, to find new and inventive ways to cheat death?  (How much does one of those robotic bodies cost, anyway?)

One of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world cannot even provide an acceptable health care system to its citizens.  Introduce the option to purchase lab-grown organs or brain-scanning nannites, and I cynically imagine that the divide among the populace will further increase.

We are approaching the ability to sequence the human genome for a thousand dollars or less, yet six in ten Americans still don’t realize that ordinary tomatoes contain genes (now that’s scary).

The singularity, a huge leap forward in innovation and discovery, will open up amazing new abilities that previously were believed to be squarely in the domain of miracles.  But that doesn’t mean that they won’t immediately be covered with a fine grime of human pettiness, price gouging, misplaced anger and distrust, and pure dumbfounded incomprehension.

Think about when you had to teach your grandmother to send emails.  Now, try and imagine explaining to her that cell-sized computers are going to create a digital backup of her brain to transfer into a robotic artificial intelligence.

Imagine the cries of “class warfare” when the ability to create real-life save points is released – for the low, low cost of $7 million per year in equipment, processing power, implants, and data storage.

The singularity is coming, and it’s going to be terrible.

The Drug Dealer’s First Day… In Police Academy!

Oh, dammit.  I knew that this was a bad idea.  I stared at the huge, imposing man, praying that he somehow wouldn’t remember me from the dozen collars, all those searches.  Please, I thought to myself, let him only think of me as “faceless drug dealer number twenty-three.”

And then his eyes fell on me.  His face lit up in furious, scowling recognition, and I felt my heart sink down into the ground through the soles of my police regulation boots.

The man came stomping over, and I had to consciously squash my instinct to turn, sprint away, maybe hop a hedge or two or look for one of my friend’s houses to duck inside.  Instead, I forced my back to stand up straight, to gaze ahead and waiting to be addressed.  Never mind that I was shaking in my stupid uniform.

“You!”  The man’s roar was filled with disbelieving fury.  “What in the nine bloody hells do you think that you’re doing here?”

Now that he addressed me, I returned his gaze, forcing my eyes not to pull away.  “Here to protect and serve, sir!” I called back, desperately willing my voice to remain strong.

As the man chewed his jowls, his face growing red with apoplectic fury as he searched for words powerful enough to convey his displeasure, I suddenly flashed back to when a Mexican gang had attempted to move in on my selling territory.  I’d been snatched off the street, blindfolded, and hauled before their jefe, a hulking man in an ill-fitting suit.

That jefe had tried to intimidate me, too, to scare me off of “his turf.”  I hadn’t backed down.  I warned him that my bosses wouldn’t tolerate his intrusion.  I had stayed strong, and four days later, the darkly tanned man grabbed someone that he shouldn’t have touched and “mysteriously vanished” in the middle of the night.  He didn’t even have time to grab his product or his cash.

This was no different.  So despite the quaking in my bones, I stared evenly back at this huge, hulking police sergeant as he panted in my face.

The man was still struggling for words.  “But, you can’t be a damn officer,” the man finally spat out.  “You’re a criminal!”

I felt a couple of the other recruits in my line shifting their eyes over to me, and groaned internally.  I’d known that it would come out at some point, but I had hoped for more time to bond before it was revealed.  “He’s scum!” the instructor continued.  “Listen up, recruits, because this is your first learning experience!”

The man stepped back and stabbed his thick, meaty finger out at me.  “This man,” he went on, “is a small-time drug dealer, and has been busted on many occasions, often by me personally!”

“But never charged.”

Whose voice was that?  Wait a minute, it was my own!  What in the world was I doing?

“You never convicted me, never pressed any charges,” I went on, my voice only quivering slightly.  “And every time the police needed a lead, I always helped out.  I did my part – and now I’m going straight.  Is it so bad to want to join the good guys?”

I glanced around at the other men standing on either side of me.  Their eyes were lingering, but I caught a couple faint nods.  Maybe they were, just the slightest bit, impressed.

The sergeant had gone bug-eyed at my little speech, and as he looked at the rest of the recruits in the line, he could see that they weren’t turning against me as he’d hoped.  “Well, maggot, I hope you’re ready to have every last ounce of that old life beaten out of you,” he snarled.  “Because I know you, recruit.  I know that you’re scum.  And I’m gonna punish you for every single plastic baggie you’ve pushed!”

For a long minute, the man held my gaze.  I forced myself not to break eye contact, not to look away.  And finally, almost reluctantly, he stepped back and surveyed all of us in the line.  “As for the rest of you,” he announced, “don’t expect me to go any easier on you, just because you weren’t drug-dealing little punks in a past life!  Now, fall in, and get into that classroom!”

We fell in, trooping into the indicated room.  I glanced around at my fellow recruits, half expecting to see the same angry stares that the sergeant wore.  And there were a few.  But there were also some nods of comfortable acknowledgment, even a couple quick little grins.

Maybe I could do this, I thought to myself.  Maybe the leopard really could change his spots.  Maybe I could really leave my old life as a dealer behind, become an officer – go legit.  I certainly knew what to look for, how to deal with the gangs and the pushers!

I was certainly going to try.