Pieces of Mind – Prologue (3200 words)

This is the opening chapter of a novel-length piece that I’m working on. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it’s a really fun story with some interesting surprises. I suppose that this can serve as a bit of a teaser. Like most of my writing, it’s sci fi but the strongest sci fi aspects aren’t necessarily present in this chapter.

 

Pieces of Mind

By Carl Hinchey

Prologue: James

In hindsight as he lay dying fifteen minutes later, James would consider that he should have been more cautious. He was living proof that no one, not even the most noble and decent, could avoid making enemies. James had accepted this as the price of success, but he had never considered that it would cost him his life.

The glossy top of his desk gave him a glimpse of the old man he had become, and the man sitting on the other side of the desk reminded him how the majority of his time had been spent in the last decade. The days of the gentlemen’s agreement had passed long before his own rise to success, but James still resented the daily necessity to meet with his lawyer. It should not be so hard, he often thought, for people to keep their damn word.

“Mr. Randolph.”

The words brought him back from his reverie too abruptly, and he gave the lawyer a slight frown. Likely it went unnoticed, and probably it did for all the effect it had on the man.

“Mr. Randolph, it is important to make a statement tomorrow morning, and I would like to draft something as accurate as possible. The blowback will be less severe if we can respond right away.”

The man was curt to the point of being dreadful at times, but twenty years of exceptional service had taught James to allow him some special treatment that few could garner from a man of his stature. “Of course… Yes, ah, you were saying…?”

They both knew that he had already finished saying, but with a bit of a dramatic breath Harper prompted him once more. “The Department of Transportation and the Securities and Exchange Commission have filed a joint report. The latest version of AutoDrive software, they say, steps too far into anti-trust territory and they warn that if upgrades continue as planned they will file for official action against the company.”

AutoDrive, James thought pensively, my greatest asset and my worst liability. It’s a wonder that it even came this far. The initial installation of his transportation system constituted the biggest government contract in history, but that success was tempered sharply. Fresh lawsuits were a daily occurrence, though most proved to be only frivolous attempts to squeeze from his very full pockets. Even worse however, were the government agencies themselves. They had demanded a unified system for the entire country, but complained when it seemed to stifle competition. What they wanted was a monopoly that did not behave like one. He pushed his head through his hands slowly until his face was turned down at his desk thoughtfully.

At 76, he was hardly an old man these days, but one certainly would not call him young. The last twenty years had helped to thin his hair and draw lines into his face. Both had become more noticeable lately, gleaming form the polished wood of his desk during the days and faintly reflected in his window on the ride home at night. I blame the lawyers, he thought briefly, all of them.

Actually, Mr. Harper had done a truly heroic job in his commission to protect the Randolph name and assets. That snake Simon would have taken every bit of it had we let our guard down even once, James thought, and after pondering a moment more, though without his lawyers, we wouldn’t need ours, now would we? But dwelling on the past had never served him well, especially when it came to Simon. If he wanted to make it home at a reasonable hour, James would need to send this lawyer away with some answers.

“File an official response that assures them that we will be in full compliance with regulations before phase three rollout. Remind them that our company has been on the forefront of establishing industry-wide standards that are open to all.”

He paused briefly to clear his throat and collect a few more thoughts. What are they really after? Control? Prices?

With an irritated shake of his head, he attempted to put the issue behind them, at least for now. “And that we continue to work with the expectation and hope that a competitive free market will drive the innovations we began to great new heights.” He knew that by morning that brief statement would be several minutes long, spilling over with even more false enthusiasm, shallow promises and, of course, plenty of legal ambiguity. “Hopefully that will buy us a little time until we can figure out how the hell to do that and still remain a profitable business…” He trailed off, hoping that it would be enough to satisfy Harper for the night. The lawyer made a few hurried notes on a thin screen in front of him, but James could tell that he would not be rid of him with such a non-committal answer.

“Of course, Mr. Randolph. But a response telling them that we already do what they want will not buy you that time. They already believe you are walking a very dangerous path. Might I suggest something to show your future intentions, a sign of good faith?” Harper’s gaze was piercing and relentless. James could not begin to imagine what it would be like to have him staring you down in a courtroom, assaulting you with questions to which he already knew the answers.

After a bit of silence he prodded some more, without asking for a lie outright. “Perhaps there is a new policy I’m unaware of that you are implementing which will provide new levels of transparency? Some technology sharing perhaps?”

It was irritating to have to play this game, but the man knew his trade, which was primarily protecting James’ own. With a reluctant sigh, he agreed. “Right. Perhaps we can release some older products open-source and royalty free at the same time. We can plan to unveil all the details in a press conference at the end of the month. Openness is the word.” The phrase “technology sharing” was slippery enough to mean just about anything, whether it was a humdrum schematic for a street light or free licensing for their entire portfolio. The words meant little but would be enough for now.

“Excellent,” Harper agreed, with force but not enthusiasm. “That is the last of the matters I had marked for our discussion. Is there anything further I can do before I leave you?”

“No, Sheldon. You may go.” With a nod, Harper quickly rolled the screen through the small slit on his coat sleeve and walked to the door. He gave a brief pause at the door as though he had one more issue to discuss, but it was barely perceptible. Silently, he slipped out the door and was lost to the night.

James spun his chair around slowly to face the wall of windows behind him. He disliked sitting with his back to them all day, but it made for a more impressive and daunting backdrop for the numerous meetings held there. From his office, James Randolph could see most of the city. Night provided the best view, largely because it hid the grunge that was so apparent during the day. At night, the only face of the city was made of sparkling lights and a dim bath of moonlight. Once when he was young, he had come across an old movie in the bottom of a storage box in his parents’ basement. His boyish mind intrigued by the thought of the world of the 2100s, he would often take an afternoon to watch it and daydream about the marvels of the future. At night amidst the dim radiance, he could still pretend it might come true.

Most nights he found himself staring out these 64th floor windows until his eyes were heavy. Better to let his mind wander for an hour or two here than to spend them at home, alone. Lately it had begun to take its tolls on his mornings as well. His arrival to the office was delayed by late mornings following late nights. It was a fair trade, he had decided, for the morning was not nearly so attractive a sight from here. The super-city had grown quite tall, such that his building could be called only mid-height, and deep in the crevices of the skyscrapers was a mixture of filth, crime and poverty. Yes, some areas were better than others, and a perspective this high afforded him views of the prettier aspects of the city. But it was a far cry from the gleaming “metropolis of the future” he had dreamed, where the evening commute might take him away from the planet instead of down a long elevator to a private garage and a dismal ride through the city blocks. As 2100 quickly approached, that future faded.

He turned back to his large, shadowy office and breathed out slowly. As his gaze drifted past the sitting area of rich leather and wood, the expensive scotch, and all the other trappings of affluent autumn years, his breath stopped short and hung in his throat. The way the shadows played off the bookshelf made it look like a face was peering out at him from the darkness beside it. He leaned forward to rub at his eyes roughly, like a punishment for fooling him and toying with his nerves, and looked again to the bookshelf, scanning over the trinkets and books that had not been touched in years if at all.

The eerie face was exactly where he had left it, solemn and unwavering yet somehow mocking his tired eyes and restless brain. He glanced at the dim clock projection hovering over the bookshelf making the figure of a somewhat disheartening “10:48PM”. Probably should be making my way home anyway, he thought. Frederick always gets so… Wait – Are those… teeth?

Had those always been there? He had not noticed it before, but the face most certainly had a gleaming smile creeping out from the shadows as well. I’m losing my mind, he thought consolingly, though how that helped him to feel better was somewhat of a mystery. Stop jumping at shadows and get control of yourself, he told himself, taking a few deep breaths. He smoothed his shirt thoughtfully to compose himself. Weary from the day and remembering the hot bath waiting at home he leaned forward slightly and pushed himself out of his chair.

“Good evening, James.” The voice was deep, heavy and just startling enough to send him back into his chair roughly. “Please, don’t get up.” From the tone in the voice, and his familiarity with the man behind it, it became apparent that the smile was actually mocking him. Rolling back slightly from his rough landing, James watched Simon creep out of the shadows holding a gun. When he moved to trigger the silent alarm, the amusement vanished abruptly.

“Don’t!” Simon shouted, and James froze. After a moment, Simon returned to his former, irritatingly casual tone. “Please, James, I’d rather talk for a bit. I can’t do that very well if you go reporting my presence.” The smile was back, and he stepped closer. The arrangement of chairs before the desk was awkward to enter from where he began, but rather than nimbly slip through the small space between the table and a chair, he walked fully around the side. Simon’s eyes and the gun however had no trouble keeping him in sight throughout the process.

James studied the situation carefully, but remained unable to decipher any useful information about the attack. There was an unnatural sense to Simon’s walk, but the cause was not yet obvious. Glancing down at the gun briefly he said, “Simon. Since when do you like to get your own hands dirty?” Only a smile. He is enjoying this too much for my comfort, James thought. “What are you doing here?”

“Why, James, I’m just here to catch up!” His eyes wandered about the room theatrically, though the tip of the gun moved hardly at all. “Looks like you’ve been doing well for yourself. What was it now? I saw it in the news one day… Cars, was it? I have to say, I thought that one was already figured out, but you must know more than I do.”

“I might say the same about guns. I’m sure you are quite excited about whatever you’re holding there.” The cat and mouse game they were playing was insufferable. But it was true to Simon and until he could devise a clever escape it seemed to be necessary. “Are you going to tell me what you want?”

His assailant seemed disappointed to be the only one enjoying himself. “You used to be more fun. Yes, I will tell you what I want. I’m here to tell you that I’ve won.”

“I wasn’t aware that it was a competition.”

Simon gave a quick shake of his head. “Of course it was, and don’t play dense with me. It’s been a competition ever since you left with half of my business. You couldn’t have really thought that was a fair split. I built that company. Every move that lifted us higher was slowed by your conscience.”

The smile had returned after a brief retreat. In the light, James could see his old partner better than before. With a bit more pleasure than he might admit, he noticed how the face before him looked just as weary as his own. “But that’s the past, James, and I’m not angry. No, I’ve vowed to be a gracious winner.” When James only sat silent and pensive, he prodded a little more. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I mean? Come now, I’m in your private office, pointing a strange weapon at you and declaring I’ve won. Do you really have no follow-up questions?” The broad smile stretched out the skin on his face, but not enough to completely hide the brief twitch around his right eye. Old though his own eyes were, James saw enough of it to presume a bit more about the present situation.

“Don’t worry. I think I have it worked out, Simon. Your unsteady gait and facial twitches you hoped to hide behind that smile are a bit of a giveaway. You’re starting the late stages of SDV, and you’re here to kill me before it kills you. I have to say, your definition of ‘won’ has changed since I last knew you.” It was not so much a surprise, though. Simon’s final goal was never riches nor power, but a more primal need to conquer and vanquish. The contest did not matter, only that he won, and apparently James had the honor of being high on his list of competitors.

With a widening of his lips that implied his smile was not purely a cover for some degenerative nerve disease, Simon answered, “Well, you’re half right. I’ll let you wonder a bit about which half that might be.

“James, I’ve been quite thrilled by your ability to compete with me all these years. I know that early on I gave you plenty of ridicule for your relentless love of… ethics, I suppose. But with honest respect, James, you’ve done quite well! If you had my ruthlessness as well as your business brilliance, I think you might have done me in long ago.” He looked at the table beside him and seemed to notice the expensive liquor for the first time. Looking up at James he asked, “May I?” With a small chuckle, he removed the stopper and poured two drinks. Passing one to his captive and raising his own, Simon declared, “To a very worthy adversary!” He sipped it gently and looked back to the same dull stare from before.

With slow purpose, James scooted back to the desk where the glass was sitting. He met the happy eyes before him and reached for the glass, but just before he took it his hand dropped and pressed the button on the side of his desk. There was no indication that an alarm had been activated, but it was obvious that it was too late to do anything to stop it. “I don’t know what kind of game you think we’re playing, Simon, but I will not…” Suddenly all the life went from his body, and his face bounced roughly off the top of the desk. Without his support the rolling chair slid backwards, and his entire body slumped feebly to the floor.

Simon frowned for the first time. “You certainly do have a knack for taking the fun out of things, don’t you?” The weapon in his hand was making a shrill whine as it presumably recharged itself. Having no further need of it, Simon placed it on the table and hobbled around the desk. Knocking the chair out of the way, he flattened James out on the floor. “I’ll have to work quickly, thanks to you. That is not an enjoyable way to do things for me anymore.”

As he walked back across the room, James stared up from his conscious prison, listening but unable to move.

“By the way, what do you think of it? The military is just wild about the idea. I mean, honestly, the ability to render a man completely powerless but leave him available for questioning later? And with no casualties or PR hassles? They’ll be signing the checks without even looking at them!” He came back into view with a small case that James had somehow missed before.

Simon chuckled, “Of course, they’re mostly accustomed to that by now. You know, James, I redid my math from earlier. I think it turns out that you’re more like two-thirds right. You fail to give me enough credit in my motives.” He was pulling things out of the case now, but just outside of James’ view. Some metallic items clinked together, a plastic bag rustled. He could not piece together what they were.

“You see, this is checkmate between you and I. I understand that may be confusing, because in chess that’s the end. We dance around each other until all the pieces line up for an unavoidable victory. We look at them and say, ‘Would you look at that! Looks like you’ve got me!’ Then the game is reset, and we begin again. This isn’t chess, James, and the pieces keep moving. My final play is not that of a jealous child. ‘If I can’t win, no one can…’ That simply is not me, James.”

His head was propped on Simon’s leg now, staring into the bottom of his desk. He willed his arms to flail out, his legs to get under him, but they would not. He could hardly recall even what that felt like now. He was looking out from this body, but it was not his own anymore, merely a vehicle that he had once known how to operate. How did I ever move those things?

“I’m here to announce checkmate, James, because you deserve to know when you’re beaten. Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time now, and I can’t go into the details. I’m also afraid you won’t be around to see the end-game as it plays out.” A knife came into the bottom of James’ view, sparkling with the city reflection.

As it slowly came across his neck, Simon leaned close. James’ ears were distant, all the more so as the life drained out of his neck. “I thought you knew, James. I simply love to get my hands dirty.”