I will set you free!

People.

That was the difference.

If they had a mission, they would have put him somewhere secret, somewhere no one would see. Given him orders.

When they put him in the middle of a crowd, he knew they wanted chaos.

Bryson Beatty sat on the bench looking at all the happy families. It was a zoo. They woke him up in a fucking zoo.

Children had ice creams and popcorn and colorful stuffed versions of the animals in the enclosures. So many animals. So many smells. So many voices. Americans, it sounded like. The last thing he remembered was . . .

People. Animals. Smells. Voices.

Vibrations.

The market in Somalia.

Bryson put his head down and tried not to cry. “All those people,” he whispered.
He clutched his head with his gloved hands. His masters had covered his arms in a long coat, even though it was summer. He rubbed his head and tried not to think what he must look like, sitting alone in a heavy jacket and gloves.

“You’re missing all the fun.”

Bryson raised his head. A man. Thin. Tanned. Print shirt. Khaki shorts. Salt-and-pepper hair.

“Stay away from me.”

“Okay. I hear you.” The man took a step back.

“Go!”

He reached into his pocket. “Look, I’m a counselor, okay?” He pulled out a card and held it out. “My daughter saw you sleeping over here. I just thou — ”

Brickbat turned. “Go away. Save your family.”

“Save them?” That got the man’s attention. He looked at the foreigner’s long coat and gloves. “Are . . . are you planning on hurting anyone?”

“Naw, mate. Not planning. But that don’t mean it won’t happen.”

The interloper was clearly suspicious. “Can I get you some help?”

“No. Now bugger off and leave me the fuck alone.” Bryson shut his eyes. They were bloodshot and wrapped in tears. He probably looked like a nightmare. How long before the security men came? How long before it started?

The counselor looked around at all the families. He looked to his own, waiting. “Where are you from? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“What’s it fuckin’ sound like? Germany?” Bryson immediately felt bad. He wanted the man to leave, for his own sake, but he didn’t have to be an asshole.

The counselor took it in stride. “I can’t always tell English from Australian. Sorry.” He took a step back toward his family waiting at the railing of the great ape den across the tree-lined walkway. The animals milled on a short lawn. People passed, laughing, or stood and watched from under the shade of trees poking through the new brick path.

“Right.” Bryson rubbed his short hair. It hadn’t grown much. How long had he been under? He didn’t even know. Jesus, he didn’t even know what month it was.

The man turned to leave.

“Hey. Mate. Sorry. It’s just . . . what month is it?”

“Month?” The man stopped. “June.” He was skeptical.

“Shit . . .” Bryson realized he had asked the wrong question. His voice was soft. “And the year?” That would give it away. No way the man would leave now.

The counselor looked grim. He walked closer and showed Bryson the date on his phone as if to prove he wasn’t lying. The man with the metal arms lowered his head again.

Almost two years.

He’d lost nearly two whole years of his life. It was the longest he’d ever been under.

His lip quivered. “Jesus . . .”

The counselor sat on the far end of the bench slowly. “I’m Jacob. I’ll understand if you want me to leave. But, you know, this is what I do. I think we both know this isn’t where you should be. If you need something . . .”

Bryson was teary. “My pills.”

Jacob nodded. “What kind?”

Beatty shook his head. “I dunno the name. I — I can’t remember. Epraxis? Ephestor? They help. My head. You know, keep calm.”

“I don’t know those names. I’m sorry. Do you have a regular physician? Is there someone I can call?”

Beatty shook his head. “They control everything.”

Jacob stiffened at the word ‘they.’ “I see.”

Bryson shook his head in disgust. “Naw, you sodding prig, you don’t see a goddamned thing. You dunno who the fuck I’m even talking about. So why don’t you go back to your effing family and leave me the fuck alone?”

“And what if I said I wanted to stay?”

“Free fuckin’ country, as far as they let it. You wanna stay and get yourself killed, be my fuckin’ guest.”

Jacob the counselor sat in silence. Beatty could see him give his wife and daughter reassuring glances.

“Do you know where you are?”

Bryson shook his head. “Place looks brand new.”

“It is. You’re just outside Jacksonville. Florida.”

“Florida.” Beatty tried to remember if he’d ever been to Florida.

“Do you remember how you got here?”

Bryson shook his head.

“Do you know who brought you?”

Beatty nodded. “They don’t have a name. All right? If they had a name, then they’d be real. These people, they aren’t real.”

“I see.” Jacob swallowed. “Well . . . Can you tell me what they want?”

Bryson had to think. He’d never asked. He’d never had the opportunity. “If you don’t get outta here soon, you’re gonna fucking regret it.”

“I thought you said you weren’t planning on hurting people?” Jacob gripped his phone.

Bryson saw it. Good ol’ Jacob was wondering if he should call 911, and whether that would send Bryson over. “I told you. Not planning. Don’t mean it’s not gonna happen. They’re gonna push.”

“Why would someone want to do that?”

Beatty turned his eyes from Jacob’s phone. “Because you’re a fucking Samaritan. Because you’re trying to help. Because you’re talking to me. And if you think I’m a fucking loon, keep an eye on your phone, ’cuz right about when they’re ready to fuck you up, your signal’s gonna go dead. Scrambler. No bars so nobody can call for help. And look at this place. A zoo. Fenced on all sides. Nowhere for people to run.”

Jacob looked at his phone. He didn’t turn back. He stared at it, confused.

Beatty could tell by the look on his face.

It had started.

“Shit.” He started rocking back and forth. He rubbed his hands together. He pulled off his gloves. “Shit,” he repeated.

Jacob’s eyes went wide. Metal hands. The man in the coat had metal hands. He looked around. Everything seemed so normal. People laughing. No one else noticed. No one had any idea. Jacob suddenly got a very bad feeling. He waved to his daughter out of instinct. She waved back, enthusiastically. She was so proud of her daddy for helping a stranger, a sick man.

Jacob shifted uncomfortably. “So what happens now?”

Bryson Beatty was rocking. It moved the whole bench. “Something bad,” he whispered.

Jacob stood. “Let’s get you out of here.”

“Go!” Beatty yelled. People turned to look. “Stop talking to me! Run! If I don’t do what they want, people get hurt. That’s how it works. That’s how it always fucking works.”

“So let’s get you — ”

“You’re not listening!” Beatty stood. Jacob took several steps back toward his family. “There’s a reason but it never looks like there’s a reason. Okay? So just ’cuz you can’t think of a reason doesn’t mean there’s not one. They think you’re all cattle. Anyone normal. Regular p-people. They think you’re like, like, standing in the way of something. Something epic. They’re trying to get the world to evolve. To force it. To be better. For the others. It’s all part of some plan.

“There’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to take me. There’s nowhere to run. No one can stop them. People have tried!” Beatty screamed. “And you know what happens to those people? ME. And people like me. Guys with voices that can talk you into just about anything, even shooting yourself. Guys who can electrocute you just by shaking your goddamned hand. There’s a girl, doc. A girl you can’t even see. No one can. She could be standing next to you right now, getting ready to inject a little air into your carotid, give you a fucking stroke.”

Jacob wasn’t sure what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened before. He looked at his phone again. No bars. Better to be safe. “I’m going to go now, but I’ll send some people — ”

“There’s no people to send! It’s too late. You’re phone’s dead. You’re dead. This is like . . . a test. Or something. They want to see how long I can hold it together.” He lowered his head and wrapped both hands around it. His metal skin was cool on his scalp. “I can keep it together.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “I can keep it together. Fuckin’ keep it together, Beatty, you fuckin’ coward.”

There was a soft THWIT. Jacob’s head twisted violently in a puff of pink and he went down. His wife, wide-eyed, twitched in shock before her head erupted with a THWACK, leaving her daughter screaming on the ground.

Someone yelled the word “sniper.” People screamed. They started running.

Bryson Beatty clutched his head. “Nonononononono . . .” It was happening again. “No, please,” he whispered. He could feel himself slipping, like over an edge. His mind held on with greasy fingers. Gravity was taking him. He needed his medicine. He needed his pills. He could feel his grip slide toward his fingertips. Any moment now. Any moment he’d have to let go.

And all he could do was shiver and watch it happen.

“Please, no,” he breathed. “Not again.” He needed his pills. He needed a drink. He needed some nice music and a couple old mates. He needed the last two years of his life back.

But all he had were screams. And a memory of explosions. Then his arms were gone. Then they were metal, scratching everything. Clinking on glass. No feeling. He couldn’t feel. He couldn’t feel the warmth of a lover’s skin or the damp label of a cool beer on a summer’s day.

And then came the vibrations. Shaking everything. Rattling his teeth. His bones. His soul. Shaking it loose. His mind. Like a high-mileage car, full of leaks. Running loose at the seams. It didn’t take much . . .

This is what they wanted. They wanted him unstable.

“Run!” he screamed at the panicking crowd. He was so mad at them. Why weren’t they moving faster? Didn’t they know what happening? Couldn’t they see? “Run! You stupid fucking cows! I hate you! I hate the lot of ya! Why do you make me hurt you? Why don’t ya run?”

Bryson Beatty triggered the engines in his arms. He felt the reassuring shiver move across his joints, his heart. Thump. Thump. Thump. Faster and faster until his arms hummed and his sleeves tore and then shredded from the force of ten million shocks.

Brickbat turned and struck the tree that had been shading him and it splintered at the impact site. Several hundred pounds of wood and leaves flew through the air and crashed through the curved fence of the great ape den.

The male silverback beat his chest as his harem grabbed their children and rushed for the den. The big ape charged the fence, roaring. It clambered over the fallen tree, which bridged the gap to the new hole.

Bryson roared back and ran at the beast as the crowd screamed and cowered and ran in all directions. The engines in his arms accelerated, like a thousand speeding trains, turning his arms into a barely visible blur.

Brickbat struck the ape and cracked it open. Blood flew as the carcass flipped end-over-end and struck the faux stone at the back of the enclosure. The man turned and screamed and ran through the zoo and raved and yelled and smashed everything. Brick. Metal. Stone. Animals.

People.

“Which one of you is them? Which one of you has the disease? Huh? Who gets orders in the night? Who gets orders from the night? Who gets orders? I have orders. I have so many orders. I have more orders than any of you. My orders are my orders and yours are yours, but who knows them all? What if the puppet has no strings? What do we do then? Because it makes sense, see? It makes sense why things are the way they are. Everybody says, how come things aren’t better? I want things to be better. Everyone I know wants things to be better. How come they never get any better? It’s because of them. That’s what they do. They’re the shadow. They’re the unreality. They’re the thing you can’t believe but you know is out there still. They’re the reason. And you can’t stop it! No one can stop it. I know. People have tried. Then they go all Lee Harvey. Then everyone says they’re crazy. Everyone says I’m crazy. But I know what every crazy person knows. You can’t argue your way out of a lie. You can’t untie a knot that don’t exist. And when you see what I see. Do you know what I’ve seen? Space dragons. Chicks who can throw fire. Twin boys who can make you see things that aren’t there. I’ve seen dead bodies get gassed and rise like machines. Limbs twisted. Fucking laser beams out of their eyes! That’s what I’ve seen. It’s in the water supply. It’s in the head. There’s no way around it. There’s no way but through. You got to go through it. You’re all like animals in cages. Do you hear me? You got to go through! You’re all diseased. You’re all animals! You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You don’t know. But I do. You live in their shadow. In their cage. You’re in their zoo. All of you. And there’s no way out. No way out but one. Just one. But don’t worry.

“I will set you free.”

Brickbat’s blurry, thumping fists shattered all. He dashed them, everyone, screaming the same words over and over.

“I will set you free!

“ALL OF YOU!

“I WILL SET YOU FREE!”

 — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

selection from THE MINUS FACTION, soon available in a collected omnibus edition.

cover image by scabrouspencil is from the comic “Killing Machine”

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