Hours passed, and Xana realized neither of them had bothered to turn on the light even as the penthouse grew dark. And Ian hadn’t moved or bothered to go to the bathroom. He just sat in his chair staring at the laptop on the ottoman in front of him. Every now and then his leg would start to bounce up and down or he’d scratch the bandages at the tip of his stub. Then he would become still again. And as the light from the window faded, the computer screen lit his face a blue-white while the rest of him disappeared into darkness, like a ghost.
Xana stood with a groan and turned the floor lamp on. “You’re awfully quiet.”
Ian looked up, but his eyes were far away. It took them a second to focus. That meant he hadn’t been reading the screen. He had been staring through it, lost in thought. For how long, she wondered.
“Yeah.” He sighed. He looked back to the screen. “I mean no.”
“Which is it?”
Ian sat back. He rubbed his eyes with his only hand. He took a deep breath and let it out. “What if we’re wrong?”
“Everything. Cap. The plan. All of it.”
“How can you even ask that?”
Ian turned to the dark window and stared at it for a moment. “I’m not sure I can even do it justice.”
“I’ve been sitting here looking through the files we got in New York trying to see if I could find anything about Prophet. And . . .” He motioned to the screen and made bug eyes. “I dunno. It’s just got me all tied up. The stuff they’re doing. Once you see. Once you understand. It makes a sick kind of sense.
“Remember that big school shooting out east a while back?”
“That was them?” Xana sat down on the couch. She lifted her 3XL T-shirt, which was still snug even though her breasts had become pecs, and inspected the bandages wrapped around her midsection.
Ian nodded. “Cap is right. They’re ghosts. They hide inside other stuff—shootings and car accidents and outbreaks of disease. Like a parasite you don’t even know you have.”
“What do you mean?”
“Okay, say they have something they want to do. If they do it themselves, there’s a good chance they’ll be seen. And they can’t be seen. So they have to get someone else to do it, but it has to be someone the authorities can easily believe acted alone, or for someone else. Like, they can’t leave a trail.”
“Otherwise they’ll be discovered,” Xana added.
“Right. So they start by screening a bunch of candidates, and by bunch I mean millions. Same way they found me. Online dating profiles. Social media accounts. All that stuff we don’t think twice about revealing online. Out of that, they select five individuals with oblique connections to their target. They snag these folks, so now they’re seeing everything these people see. They’re looking out on the world through their eyes. Every time they sneeze, or cheat on their taxes, or frickin’ go down on their lover, these people see it.”
Xana made a face. Ian was such a strange boy.
“Only these five candidates aren’t the most stable to begin with. They were picked because they all had some kind of extreme social anxiety or crippling depression. Exactly the people who gravitate to life on the internet in the first place.
“Now they start applying pressure. Trust me, it’s freaky to realize someone else is looking out on the world through your eyes. Anyway, eventually one of the five just snaps. They give him some orders, have him do some increasingly nasty but ultimately pointless things to desensitize him to violence and to establish a pattern of erratic behavior.
“When the time comes, they give the guy orders to kill as many people as he can, but he has to get three specific targets—all women, for example, which will fit this guy’s pathology. And he does it. By then, he’s so convinced that the world is laughing at him—everyone, everywhere—that he woulda launched World War Three if he could have.
“But of the three targets, two were red herrings. Totally innocent. Like a double-blind clinical trial, even the people planning the attack, his handlers or whatever, are completely insulated from any potentially biasing information. No one knew the reason for any of it.”
Ian shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far. These files don’t exactly read like a book. It’s all back-and-forth emails and ‘Action Updates’ and shit. But you want to know the scariest part? It’s not the shooting or how they killed the unused candidates, including one in a car accident that also killed a three-year-old child.
“It’s the tone. It’s how these people are just sending in status reports to their boss like it’s any other day at the office. I’m reading the case notes and I’m chilled. Like, literally.” He stuck out his arms. “It feels like my blood has pooled. I keep thinking, something has to be wrong with them. Normal people don’t do shit like this. Like, they have to be brainwashed or something, right?”
“Right.” Xana could believe that.
“Wrong.” Ian turned the screen around. “It goes back to the ’70s. Something called the Advanced Theoretical Working Group. A bunch of mathematicians and scientists and shit got together to talk about the Cold War and the environment and civil rights and all this stuff. Nothing formal, just like a social club for academics and geniuses. Hardcore scientists. Data geeks. They pool info from all these different disciplines and run the numbers, just to see what they can find out, and make this . . . discovery, I guess you’d call it. They prove it. Supposedly. I mean, I can’t understand the math, but if they’re right, then things really aren’t getting better.”
“Things?” Xana scowled. “What things?”
“Society. World culture. Human history. According to them, our species is literally incapable of escaping”—he turned the screen around again and read— “ ‘a stratified, hunter-gatherer-type competitive social order.’
“Most of us have this sense that things are getting better, especially versus, like, five hundred years ago or something. But what they showed is that that’s just an illusion. Things change, yes. But they change randomly. Since the industrial revolution, the world seems better off, but on any solid long-term measure, really it’s not. We purchased this momentary peace at the expense of a handful of catastrophic world wars, where tens of millions of people died—more than any war ever—and a now-inevitable global environmental collapse, where entire cultures will fall.”
Xana’s eyebrows knotted together.
“Where we are in history, it seems like things are settling down, like it’s all getting better. But it’s not. They proved it. And what’s worse, they proved that it’s because of us, of how we are. As a species.
“These people believe, as much as any of us might believe anything, that humans are going to keep killing each other, that the rich will keep exploiting the poor, that minorities will be repressed, that we’ll exhaust the planet, precipitate a massive extinction event, and on and on. Forever. Maybe some things are better some times and worse others, but it’s never, ever actually going to stop—or even tangibly improve in the geologic long run—because the function plot of our ability to be altruistic never reaches critical mass. The limit of the curve never crosses the Y-axis. It’s perpetually a negative number, so it’s mathematically incapable of matching the other variables in the equation. Do you understand?”
Xana nodded. Then she shook her head.
“The only way we’re ever good enough is in an environment of near-zero difficulty. Paradise. Which doesn’t exist.
“It’s exactly what Digby tried to tell me in California. People are cattle, he said. We’ll do a little to help each other, especially when times are bad, but that desire diminishes the more we perceive things have improved. Instead of a feed-forward mechanism, where we’re encouraged by positive change and so want to do more, and more, and more, it’s a feedback function. The better things get, the less we’re motivated, the less we do, and so we never reach that critical mass. We never hit the tipping point. As a species, we’re perpetually trapped in an alternating cycle of violence and oppression, randomly swinging from better to worse, forever and ever, for the rest of our entire existence.”
Ian took a deep breath. He had raised his hand to the ceiling. He dropped it and rubbed his eyes again. He walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge and poured himself a glass of orange juice. He chugged it and poured another.
Xana was quiet.
“So they decided to jack with the system. Engineer a different result. They don’t work for the wealthy and powerful. Digby was right about that, too. They manipulate them, same as everyone else, all to bring about the kind of utopia every science fiction writer has been dreaming about: the inversion of the power structure, the liberation of the working classes, freedom from oppression, a money-less economy, environmental sustainability, animal rights, the flourishing of the arts and sciences, all of it. That’s the endgame.”
He walked back into the living room with two glasses. “They’re not trying to destroy the world. Or conquer it. Or whatever. They’re trying to save it. Scientifically. Without appealing to morals or religion or anything. Without worrying about ends and means. It’s whatever works.”
He handed one of the glasses to Xan, who took it gingerly with two hands. They were shaking slightly.
Ian noticed it. “So yeah . . . The upper-echelon folks write these reports about the collateral death of a three-year-old without a hint of remorse. Because in their mind, no one is innocent. We’re the problem. It’s not the world. It’s us. All of us. We’re the only thing standing in the way of ourselves. So the only way to make things better for ourselves is to hurt us.”
He stopped. He took a drink. A long moment passed in silence.
Xana breathed in through her nose. “It’s almost Christian. In a way.”
Ian scowled. “What?” He walked back to his chair but he didn’t sit down.
Xana nodded. “That we are all sinners. That we are all flawed. In our souls. And that there is only one path to salvation.”
Ian looked out the window at the nighttime skyline of the city. It was gorgeous.
Xana drained the glass in three gulps. “Do you think they’re right?”
“No!” He turned. “They’re not right.” Ian paced in a small circle. It felt good to stretch his legs. “But . . .”
“What if they’re not wrong? I mean, according to their formula, it only works if we don’t believe it’s happening. That’s why they’re so desperate to stay hidden. That’s why they’ve gathered folks with special abilities and shit, so they can do more with a smaller footprint. And it’s why they won’t give themselves a name. If they have a name, then they’re real. But if people start to believe they’re being manipulated, even for a positive end, they’ll fight it and the equation goes all out of balance again. Makes sense, right?
“But that raises the question . . . Assuming we even could—like, assuming we don’t die trying—do we have the right to stop something like this? I’m not saying what they’re doing is right. I’m just asking, is it our choice to make?” He sighed and sat down again.
Xana looked out the window at the dark water of the lake, a void in the night, revealed only by the distant shimmering reflection of the half-moon, perfectly split between light and dark. “When I was little, my father took care of everything. He worked so hard. So many hours. My schooling was not free. He had to pay. And always he did. No matter what, we always had food.
“When you are a child and everything is always provided, you don’t realize the cost. You take it for granted. So when I got older, I struggled. I wondered how he did it. It seemed to me that God was out there. How could He not be? It was the only way to explain why I was not starving in the street.
“Then I found out I was sick. I was growing and growing, and the doctors said one day I would die, not so long in the future. I was angry. For many years. The nun at my school said I held God like a fiery lover. With passion one day. With rage the next. I knew He was so great, but I couldn’t understand why He would do this. Not to me. To my son. Leave him without a mother.
“I decided after a long time that it was punishment. For being with Declun. Even though my body had already started changing when I sinned, I thought that, since God knows everything, since He sees all of time at once, like a photograph, that to Him it didn’t so much matter which came first. That I was going to sin, and so I was given a great burden. And that was why it had happened.” She stopped.
“You are not a Christian. You see a different world. To me, sometimes, it seems like you just don’t want to believe. That you refuse to see the obvious. Some people, you know, they make so many excuses to hold onto things they want to be true.”
Ian smirked. “That’s funny.”
Xana nodded. “I know you would say the same about me. But anyone confident in what they believe doesn’t care if other people think it’s silly.”
“I never said it was silly.”
Xana gave a small smile. “Not out loud.”
“Yeah.” Ian wondered what he had done. “I guess.” He had no idea.
“You expect others to give your point of view a respect you do not reciprocate. So many things happen that are clearly the work of God. Sometimes I feel like some people are just being children, and if you would just—”
“Children? Come on.”
“Let me finish, please.”
Ian took a breath. He reminded himself she’d just had open-heart surgery. He lowered his eyes to the floor and nodded. It was easier not to argue if he couldn’t see her face.
“But that’s not a Christian thing to believe. It’s not right for me to think that. It’s easy for those who know God’s love, who are wrapped in His grace every day, to feel special. And when we see people who refuse that, over and over, sometimes it is easy to feel superior, even if we don’t say it out loud. But that is not what Jesus taught.”
“Oh. My. God.” Ian’s head snapped up in epiphany. He realized where she was going. “You don’t think it is our choice. You think God brought us together. Don’t you? That’s where you were going. You think He made you this way, not as punishment, but because this is some kind of holy mission or something.”
“No. Not like you think. If God exists, then He knows everything, and so everything happens because He allows it. It doesn’t have to be a crusade. It could be as simple as going to the grocery store and helping a homeless man on the way.
“You said we are not in charge. But no one is in charge. Not really. I learned that in Guyana. Not the Faction. Not the captain. Or the man Prophet. Not the wealthy. Not even God. Because He has put us in charge of ourselves.
“What you said these people believe . . . It is not so different from what’s in the Bible—that we are all sinners. But they believe we don’t have a choice. They are not leading us to salvation. They are forcing it on us.
“I don’t believe in that. It goes against everything Sister Rosa taught me. About life.
“We do have a choice. Otherwise God could not punish us for anything.
“What they are doing is wrong. It doesn’t matter what they intend. Their plan is a cheat. Like those people who want to force others to stop sinning. To put them in jail if they are not Godly.
“You ask if we have the right to stand against them. I think, if we have to ask, then we have already lost. No one has to ask permission to do the right thing. No matter what the law says, or the church, or whatever.”
Ian sat back. He took a drink. “Wink was cheating, you know. At those games we played. Over and over. Back at the garage. She re-coded the game cartridge. She said it wasn’t cheating because she was just using her skills to win the game, no different from anyone else. It just so happens that she’s a tech genius.”
“It bothered you?”
“Only that she didn’t tell me. I mean, the implicit conditions of the game had been changed. In secret. And I wasn’t given the choice of whether I wanted to play that way or not. So, yeah.” He nodded.
Xana looked at him curiously. “What?”
“It’s just, I used to game a lot. Before I had to work to pay off my student loans. There are all these cheat codes out there, ya know? Codes you can find online that make you invincible or give you unlimited money or open a shortcut through the dungeon. I used them all the time, especially when I was a kid. Junior high. High school.
“But by the time I got to college, that didn’t seem fun anymore. What was the point of playing the game if you were just gonna cheat your way through it? I mean, it’s fun to do every once in a while, sure. Just for something different. Just to see where it goes. But it seemed to me then, and even more so now, people who do that all the time don’t really like gaming. They like winning. And that’s different.”
Ian looked at his stub. He looked at the canister in a plastic bag by the door. “Why did you save it?”
Xana turned. She looked at her heart. She turned back to the window. “It seemed wrong to just throw it away.”
“You know. I had a lot of time to think while you were out. About almost dying. Losing an arm. I don’t want to use the cheat codes anymore. I don’t wanna take the shortcut. Because it’s not about winning.”
Xana smiled serenely at her friend. “We can agree on one thing at least.”
excerpt from my previous novel, THE MINUS FACTION, prompted by watching M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass,” which operates in the same space as the book but which I think tried to do too many things too slowly.