Mr. Head By Isaac Arvizu

Numb

White. White. WHITE.

“Arnie turn these lights off will ya?! Don’t you know that bright lights this early after surgery can cause seizures?!” No response. “Arnie!” Again, no response. “I guess have to do this myself, INA lower lights and lower my bed please.” Right on command, lights dim and the bed lowers.

“Thanks INA.” An unexpected silence filled the room. “INA, raise the bed.” The bed begins to raise, met with more silence. “INA, symbols please.” A series of symbols flash on top of the doorway, ranging from a biohazard symbol to the weird smiley faces used to describe pain levels. “What time is it?” Blue numbers appeared, 2:18 PM. Everything seems to be working fine, perhaps Spider spilled his beer over the speaker controls again.

“No matter, vitals please.” Sitting next to the bed a low light screen turns on, presenting a list of information normally used for patient vitals. Medications, dosages, along with typical stats the average person do not care about. I’m the unique case. 63 BPM. As expected. Two options appear on the screen, “CONTINUE?” and “RERUN?”.

Continue.

Next to me, a section of the wall slides to reveal an old box computer with a mouse and keyboard. Gross. NanTech logo slapped in the top left corner with a drop down giving only a few select options: customize, transfer and delete. Customize. Bold letters pop up on the screen, THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING TENACITY INC. FOR YOUR LATEST NANTECH NEEDS. A loading screen, fantastic.

“Hey, INA. You think I should go minimalist?” More silence. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. Maybe I’ll hit random until something looks nice.” The loading screen disappears to reveal a petite woman with black jeans accentuating every curve and a tube top with “Thrasher” slapped right across her breasts. It’s definitely time for an update if she’s still wearing “Thrasher”. Raggedy red hair filled with loose ends covers a light skinned face. Next to her model, multiple scenes play, one with her reading a book and another with her doing her makeup. Though, doing makeup seems a bit redundant since she’s stuck in the confines of my head. She’ll probably appreciate some change. With a click of a mouse, it’s all gone.

Petite red head morphs into a short-haired brunette with glasses teetering off her face. Her arms are covered in tattoos, or, what will soon become tattoos. A series of ones and zeroes constantly shifting their position. Hopefully it’ll be something me and her can both enjoy. Though, I don’t think she would mind if changed her height a bit, or other things for that matter. Hair is perfect, well, actually, let’s shave a side off and then maybe change those glasses up a bit. Round glasses don’t match her face at all, oh! I forgot freckles! A touch here and there and now things will start coming together. Well wait, freckles or no freckles. Freckles will make her look more li-

“Oh shit, INA what time is it?!” The white lights stopped flashing and blue took its place over the doorway, 3:24 PM. It’s already been an hour?! I bet Tani has been waiting this whole time. Let’s finalize the design and get out of here. Clicking on finalize brings out 4 columns, each with a different name accompanying them: NELA, ARMA, and META.

ARMA; Automatic Reflex Macro Assistant. The first ever assistant created but with the intention to helping soldiers fight in a battlefield. It was made available to the public exclusively through Tenacity Inc. after they received a contract from the U.S. Now there’s a public outcry for the use of ARMA and it’s easy availability.

META; Mechanically Enhanced Traits Assistant. Tenacity’s pride and joy. With a company that specifies in creating enhancements for people, they need an assistant to help do all the busy work.

Then finally, NELA; Neurologically Encyclopedic Link Assistant. An assistant for all daily tasks and all the information one may need in an instant. It is also compatible with lots of smaller lower tier assistants like INA to help in specific careers. Serves more as an alarm clock though.

Lining up the bottom of the screen was, “THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING TENACITY INC. FOR YOUR LATEST NANTECH NEEDS.” Hmph, we choose you and then you won’t let us choose more than one NanTech assistant, typical. NELA it is then. One click of the mouse and out from the computer comes a transfer lodge and accompanying transfer wire. They better have linked me up properly or else the transfer process will be excruciating. Two taps on my temple and a port the size of a dime opens right behind my ear. Well, here goes something. I grab the transfer wire and jam it into my port. Piercing through layers of skin and muscle, warm blood trickling down my neck pooling into my collarbones. Then, click.

Black. Black. BLACK.

Exchange

“INA, don’t tell anyone I’m checking myself out. I’ll talk to you next week though, keep up the good work!” The blue light above the doorway switched to a bright yellow smiley face. So, this is what it feels like to be on the patient side of things. I open the blinds and there’s no one behind the lobby desk, both ways down the hallway, no one in sight. White lights line the roof, bouncing off the plain walls that can cause anyone to squint.

The only people in the hospital are surgeons, technicians and engineers. Besides that, everything else is handled by our Integrated Nursing Assistant, INA. Implemented to help speed up the hospital stay process and of course, cut the costs of hiring and paying people. That’s fine by me, less people that I must deal with. Which means, it isn’t hard for some surgeon to change things on these computers.

“Um, Dr. Mallex, you are not supposed to be awake right now.” Over the computer screen is the face of the loveable newbie, Arnie. However, concern is carrying his face, “Ah, Arnie, nice to see you! I’m just going to get…myself…out of here.” A click-clack on the keyboard and a brochure comes straight out the printer.

YOU AND YOUR NEW NANTECH

CONGRATS ON THE PROMOTION, DR. MALLEX ALAZA. YOUR WORK HAS BEEN MORE THAN APPRECIATED. WITH THIS NEW PROMOTION ARRIVES THE NEWEST NANTECH WE CAN OFFER.AS PER USUAL, YOUR NANTECH WILL HELP YOU THROUGHOUT THE SURGERY WITH COORDINATION, KEEPING TRACK OF STEPS NEEDED, DECISI-

Yeah, whatever.

“But Dr. Mallex, you have to read the brochure before tearing it up!”

“You know what Arnie, you’re right. But I don’t care, I’ve given brochures like this to hundreds of patients, I think I know what it says by now.”

“This one is made specifically for you though!”

“I highly doubt it, they copy and paste patient’s names all the time. Even if it was made for me, I’ll just have NELA tell me.”

“But, bu-“

“Arnie, it’s fine. I’m going to head out, I’ll see you around alright?”

“Yes sir.” The concern hung onto his face leaving his mouth wide open, almost like he was in shock. The newbie jitters must be skyrocketing right now because he didn’t follow correct protocol. He’ll be fine.

The entire inside of the elevator was covered in buttons ranging from the 50th floor to basement levels heading into B20. Some buttons, like my floor, 39th, showed their age as the numbers were near unrecognizable. The only way I could tell my floor from others would be the weirdly colored spatter from when I dropped some whiskey in here. Others, like the 44th, look like they’ve never been touched and hell, I don’t even know what’s on that floor. A quiet hum begins revving up as the elevator begins it descent. Floor numbers begin decreasing at such a rapid rate I swear it looks like it’s skipping numbers. The hum quiets down as the elevator stops at the 26h floor.

Elevator doors open with an older lady waiting on the other side. Feet dragging against the floor with shoes that have certainly seen better days. Blue toes sticking right out the shoes, I have to give her props though for at least painting them. I get that you’re taking your time but c’mon lady, unlike you, I got more life to live and it can’t be wasted in here. She huddles up into the corner and hits the ground floor button. I’ve always hated this awkward silence within elevators like there is this unspoken rule of not talking in elevators.

I take another look at this old woman and see a trash bag I didn’t notice beforehand. Seems like it’s full of sharp… cubes? Corners protruding so far out the bag it’s a surprise it hasn’t ripped yet. She was wrapped in thick layers fitting for rainy weather and a pixie haircut peeks out her hoodie. It looks well-kempt with a platinum color transitioning to a lapis. Her crow feet eyes look at me with a wobble

“Excuse me sir, would…”, she reaches her arm into the deep bag that has to weigh at least thirty pounds, “you like to buy some cassettes?”

Cassettes? Ugh. Cassettes are cool and all, but if I don’t buy one I’ll feel guilty then it’ll just be sitting there in my mind for days, *Oh you didn’t buy from an old lady just trying to make it by? She could be homeless, and it is your fault. What an asshole.* I can already hear it now.

“Just give me that one in your hand. How much are we talking here?”

She holds the cassette up to me when I go to grab it and I noticed her toes again. Contrasting the blue toes is a white that spelled out, NanTech. Should have known.

“Is this your way of getting that elevator fantasy, Tani?”

She let out a cackle, she’s playing this old woman character to seriously. “You were doing that overthinking thing again weren’t you?” She scrunches her still wrinkled face, all of her features contorting together. “Did it go something like, how is the women going to eat if I don’t give her money, she’ll starve if I don’t help!”

“I did not think that! You’re enjoying this way too much.”

“C’mon Lex, I know you find it funny.”

“Just turn it off already, besides, if you get caught using that outside of work, they’ll rip those legs right out of you and then they’ll delete META.”

“You used to be more fun.”

With that, she bent over, a quick motion with her hands and the shrunken old lady with crow’s feet disappeared. Taking her place is a younger woman with smooth peppered freckles. Pixie cut turns into a halo braid with blonde and blue fighting over dominance. The thick layers vanish leaving a singular hoodie and jeans. The bag of cassettes turned into a wide purse, an old gift from back then. She plants a kiss on my cheek, this always makes me feel warm. Whether it be the realization she almost fooled me or the fact she is still playful after everything that’s happened, it makes me feel warm and makes me miss us. Whatever, it won’t change anything.

I never know what to say after she reverts, do I compliment the previous look or how she looks sans projection? “Nice touch with the toes in the projection. When did you change your hair from brunette?”

“Hmph, I guess I’m slipping if you were able to see the NanTech lettering. I dyed it when you were still recovering, trying something new. Before I forget, I have a gift for you.” She reaches into her deep bag and pulled out a cassette, “You always liked this kind of music and older tech, best of both worlds, right?”

Madvillainy. You just love making it hard on me doll.

“Thanks, do- Thanks, Tani. How’d you know I was going to be in the elevator?” She must have caught the slip-up because the smile quickly shifts to a resting bitch face.

“I kept on entering and leaving the elevator to try catching you in here.”

“What?! For how long?”

“Eh, maybe like two hours. It wasn’t too bad though, I stopped by our eight-legged friend’s office during that time. He’s having a little get together at his place later and I think it would be fun.”

“Perhaps. I kind of want to rest up.” That’s a lie, I just don’t want to go.

“Excuses. You just don’t want to go.” It was worth a shot. “I’ve known for you long enough to know that social situations aren’t your thing. Which reminds me, you have to take your painkillers and medication around this time.” Where would I be without her reminding me of these things?

“NELA is going to distribute it when she boots up again.”

“Lex, I would appreciate it if you could look at me when we talk.” I didn’t even notice.

“It hurts to turn my head, Tani. And I get enough of you anyways.”

“Come on, our new Mr. Head Surgeon. Cheer up. You got this brand-new promotion for all those surgeries you’ve been doing! You should show some gratitude!” A smile blooms that could make anyone in the surrounding area smile.

“It does feel good to be appreciated.”

“Then? I bet NELA feels at least a little bit happy for you. Besides, go ahead and migrate all those apps of yours!”

“It’s for work purposes only.”

“Work purposes only? Nobody will even notice, unless they crack open that new MemDrive of yours. Must admit I’m a bit jealous that you got this new NanTech in the first place. Though, I would go without that gnarly scar.” The pure mention of it causes my hand to reflex back. I reach behind my ear to feel for anymore blood. Thankfully none. Also, did she just say gnarly?

“How about this, I’ll think about it.”

“You do you. So, Spider’s, right?”

“He still owes me a drink for having messed my pants in one of those new machines he’s got for the office.” I forget the context for my pants being off at Spider’s apartment, but it wasn’t a new machine. My dipper got stuck in the copier at his apartment, and well, it complicated.

“Yeah that’s right! Well I’m going to stop by the house if you wanted to come beforehand. I have something to show you anyways.” Something to show me? What can she show me at our own house? A new couch to break in?

“I think I’ll just head over now Tani.”

“Ah… um, yeah. We can talk after Spider’s.”

Late

So, this is why Tani was wearing a hoodie. She couldn’t have told me it was raining when I was walking out of work? God, there’s so much that’s it already in my socks.

*It’s actually an average day with 1 inch of rain as recorded by the U.N.*

*Ah, hello again NELA, glad to know you were transferred successfully. What do you think about the new look?*

With the neural link of NanTech, I can see NELA appear in an empty white room like the examples given when I was creating her current look. The ones and zeroes from earlier are no longer there. In their place are actual tattoos with a mix of different styles. An American traditional owl with feathers tainted with green and dripping with red. A new school bunny with a misshapen head it makes you wonder if it would fall over if it tried to walk. Right on her forearm is a faceless person sitting in a chair with their head in their palms. An opened black envelope with animalistic scratches lays near the faceless.

*Glad to be back, Dr. Mallex, interesting choice with the tattoos and glasses. Though, I don’t think I need help with reading. I see that they upgraded your NanTech and MemDrive, for work purposes, only right? Also, congratulations!*

Out of thin air, a table appears along with a cake slowly digitizing into existence. She pulls a party horn out of her back and blows it. And just like that, the table and cake disappear with NELA putting the horn into her pocket.

*Thanks, Nela. I’ll make sure to take a megabyte out of the cake later. You were listening that whole time with Tani? That must have been in that brochure I threw away.*

*Good deduction Dr. Mallex! Specifically, I can be in sleep mode and still hear what’s going on. I can tell you all about it in Section 15A-VI.*

An exact copy of the brochure appeared floating in her hand, *Would you like me to read it off to you?

*No thank you, how long until Spider’s?*

*His apartment is about 13 minutes away. Dr. Mallex, I was wondering. With this new NanTech, did you want to expand to other parts of your body? I can put in a request, so you can switch between me and META if you would like. In the meantime, I could help you find things for work or maybe a hobby of yours?*

*Well NELA, as you will found out, I have no time for hobbies with this promotion.*

*I understand, what about Tani?*

*Tani is not a hobby.*

*I apologize Dr. Mallex, I should have clarified that I meant as a relationship. Some of your guys’ messages show there is some tension between you too. Especially this one last week on January 17th and I read verbatim, I’m going to miss you Lex, and I don’t want to leave without talki-*

*NELA, go to sleep mode.*

*Understood.*

Sigh.

Why did you have to bring that up? I didn’t realize I was getting a relationship counselor in this upgrade. I’m going to have to talk to Spider about this.

Absent

Neon lights drape with a constant contrast amongst the high rise of dark and darker. Looks like I’m in the South Side of Heaven. The appearance is sickly, windows asking for a replacement, and blocks wishing for a new layer of chips to be broke. Spider said this place used to be the main hub for vendors and alike but all that is left is a well-worn sidewalk and a vendor on occasion. Tani says it has charm to it but what charm is there when no one likes living here? Spider loves reminding me this is where we came from, but I can’t stand it now.

VROOM.

A gust of wind hits me with a stinging pain in my chest. All trash in the vicinity launches up into the air and the sound of heavy footsteps echo across the empty streets. Puddles of rainwater ripple across the surface.

“I thought I lost you there Lex. Should have known you were taking your time.” Trash finally hits the floor and I look around to find Tani’s voice.

*Looks like Tani would like to have some fun, Dr. Mallex.*

*Not exactly fair when she has robo-legs.*

“I can’t do this right now, Tani! I can’t do much seeing I got out around 30 minutes ago.”

“I do really mean when I say this, you used to be more fun.” Tani appears a few feet in front of me, her hair coming down after the slight breeze she caused. Her foot tapping away and hands on her sides.

“Those legs are not a toy, Tani. You can’t just race across the city and play games with me.” Her legs let out a slight whistle, letting out any air that was compressed during the run. “Make sure you have META check up on those legs of yours, don’t want them to wear out and then you get hurt again.”

“They’ll be fine, and I’ll be fine, the new Mr. Head Surgeon made them for me. I trust his work, I would think that he would have a little more trust in me.” She shakes her head and I can already tell she’s upset with me. “C’mon, I’ll give you a ride to Spider’s.”

“I think I’ll walk the rest of the way doll, you know what walking is right?”

“Yes, Mallex I know what walking is.”

What do I even say now? Hey how was your day? What’d you do when I was in surgery?

*Dr. Mallex, you used doll earlier. Does this mean you guys are back together?* NELA plays a quick clip of our conversation and with one quick hand motion it slips away.

*Don’t start NELA, I slipped up is all. You’re thinking too much of it.*

*Surely this is progress, right? You’ve been acting distant from her ever since you found she is being deployed again. Not to mention, this is the first time you’ve called her doll since January 2nd.* Her glasses almost fall off her face as she reads from a digital book representing our message history.

*I do not think you should get involved in this NELA.*

*But, clearly some communication needs to be done. Upon further look of your guys’ messages, it starts on the 3rd of January.Tani stopped showing the smiley face emoji in all her messages. This tends to be an indicator that something is wrong, I think you should pay attention to this factoid.*

*NELA, sleep mode.*

*Understood.*

Ever since I got my first NanTech-H years ago, conversations with people turned into a clusterfuck. My own voice, the other person’s voice and then NELA. I could be talking to a patient before surgery and NELA would prompt me to ask them about any medications. It’s helpful, but I don’t remember the last time I’ve had a one on one conversation.

A crowd voices shout from around the corner, “FUCK TENACITY! FUCK TENACITY! FUCK TENACITY!”. As we come across the corner, a mob of people with picket signs gather around a pale woman on top of a large crate. It’s always the least suspecting people that lead these kind of protest groups. Her skin so pale that any visible veins on her skin see through in a sea of blue and red. Looks like we came in the middle of something.

“We must strike against corporations who put these machines in our bodies! It is unnatural and leads to an early death for everyone using them! My son, oh my poor, poor son.” The woman raises her left hand into the air with the crowd soon following. “He used ARMA! My poor baby was in the military when they first started ARMA. He told me, Mama, it’s okay, I won’t get hurt. They’ll never hurt me with this!”

Murmurs begin spreading across the crowd, “Oh no!”, “The poor boy did not know what was coming to him!”.

“My boy was right. He did not get hurt but the after effects were the worst part. He was never the same person after he came home. He would get angry and break things, sometimes he would just sit in his room staring at the wall with a gun in his hand. And then a bird would chirp, and he would shoot the bird in an instant. This would go on, and on, until then, I had to get him wiped. ARMA was getting to dangerous. Now Tenacity has this available for everyone! Imagine walking down the street with someone that has ARMA and you drop something! They’ll shoot you in half a second!” Cheers across the crowd begin again with it erupting into another “FUCK TENACITY!” chant.

“Tani, let’s get out of here, it’s not safe for us.” Tani shakes her head in agreement and we make our way out of the crowd when we hear, “You!”

Everyone in the crowd shifts in our direction and plain stares meet us eye for eye. The woman on the milk crate makes her way towards us as the crowd splits to surround us. “You… you work for Tenacity, don’t you?” She stares at Tani and looks at her legs.

“You can’t hide those legs from me girlie. I can recognize Tenacity made NanTech for miles. How did you lose those legs? At war, tragic accident?” She says as she inches closer to Tani. Upon the closer look, the woman’s eyes are bloodshot like the aftermath of a popped blood vessel. The darkness of her pupils seep into Tani causing Tani to slowly fall apart.

“W-w-war ma’am.” She reaches for my hand and clenches it tightly.

“Ah, war. My son was in the war. But ARMA is not in your head, is he?”

“Me-META.”

“META? That’s interesting. Let me guess, did ARMA get you injured? Those good for nothing assistants only cause more harm than good! Tell me good sir!” Shifting her head towards me, it’s a surprise her neck didn’t break.

“How is that NELA in your head? Is the vast knowledge worth it? Losing your whole limbic system is a great price to pay just to have someone in your head tell you everything. Is she serving you well, or are you having a hard time remembering things that NELA needs to remind you?” Her eyes look across our bodies and then they lock onto Tani holding my hand.

“Oh, are you two together? Can you believe it guys? A NELA user and a META user! Tell me NELA boy.”

*Dr. Mallex, I’m notifying Tani through a message to get us out of here. Hopefully META can get into high gear and get us all out of here.*

“Did your NELA give you the knowledge that your girlfriend would get hurt?

A death grip from Tani signifies it’s time to go. With an unimaginable strength, she sweeps me off my feet and launches us into the air. Everyone in the crowd looks up at us, yet I can’t make up their faces as we continue to rise higher up into the air.

Tenacity

“Tani, I think we lost them, you can stop jumping now.” Every impact on the floor is met with a crack and more bursts of air escaping. Looks like I’m pretty good at my work if it can last this long.

“Tani, we can stop now!” No response from her. Her eyebrows furrow together, so much so that wrinkles appear giving off the old lady appearance once again. Then, cold. And more cold.

Droplets falling off her face. “Hey!” I pinch her arm and no response. Ugh, the old silent treatment huh? Fine then. I look back to the front and Spider’s apartment comes closer and closer. Each hop I can see the skylight of the South Side of Heaven. The sky is grey with rain clouds but there is the rare spot where the sun shines through and no rain hits us. “Hey, we awfully close to Spider’s apartment, we can stop now!” My calls fall onto deaf ears as the next hop lands us right on top of Spider’s roof. The air bursts out and then, cracks.

For the first time in minutes, Tani speaks. “Oh Shit.”

Roof crumples beneath us with a crash that could make anyone make a double take in our direction. Upon hitting the floor, dust, tar and brick fall around us. Looking above at the hole above us, clearly, we made an entrance.

*NELA, you never distributed those painkillers did you!*

*I’m sorry Dr. Mallex, I was waiting on your command.*

*Hmph. Distribute now please.*

“Hey eses! Thanks for dropping in!” A burst of laughter comes from the dust but I’m unable to make out faces.

From the dust comes a behemoth of a man covered in all black. “You’re late! I don’t blame you though, showing up with your girl all late.” He gives a quick wink to try hiding it from Tani. Shit, Tani!

“Tani, doll, where are you?!” I look through the brief rubble only for it slowly digitize out of existence.

“Spider don’t tell me you got your roof digitized.”

“Exactly what it is compadre. Though don’t be going around jumping around on my rooftop. My neighbors will complain and then the landlord will come, it’s a whole thing.”

“Jeez, what else would I expect from Mr. Head Programmer.” As everything disappears I can finally see a blonde figure sitting at the home bar.

“Doll! Where are you, are you okay?!” She turns to look at me, drink already in hand. Her eyes bloodshot just like the pale woman’s. Tear streaks line her cheeks. A scoff and then she turns around.

“Talk to me. Are you okay?” A hand slaps down on my shoulder. The hand felt huge, like it could easily crush my skull if given enough time. I turn to see Spider’s face.

“Let’s leave her alone ese. I don’t have to know what happened to know that she wants to be left alone.”

“Fine, you better have left me a bottle of cold Jack though.”

Abysmal

MF Doom set the mood for the rest of the night, “Let ’em spit the venom said ’em got a lot of shit with ’em, Let the rhythm hit ’em, it’s stronger in the other voice.” At some point or another, I handed the “Madvillainy” tape to Spider, who’s eyes lit up at the pure sight of it. A classic apparently, with him saying “This is some top dog shit right here ese. Shit, I remember playing this and all the hynas were all up on me. They were all like, ai Spider you have great taste in music.” I never know when to believe Spider with these stories. They all tend to involve girls falling in love with him.

We’ve been friends ever since we spent our days hanging out in the early days of the South Side, tagging up some barrios and talking to all the local “hynas” as he calls them. He did most of the talking though, I kind of sat in the back and minded my own business.

*Dr. Mallex?*

*Yes NELA?*

*Was the pale lady right? About me?*

*What do you mean?*

*She mentioned that I’m the reason you’re like this, who you are. You replaced your limbic system, a prime source of emotion and memory, for me.*

*In that aspect, you’re correct. I did make that decision. Even before my promotion, I made that decision. Back then, I didn’t know the repercussions. Now, well I don’t know.*

*Dr. Mallex, is something wrong with Tani?*

*Yeah, those protestors, or whatever they are, must have gotten to her.*

*Di-did I do that to her?*

*Wait what?*

*Those legs,* NELA points to my left as if she’s in the room with me. Her direction was towards Tani and that META of hers. *Did I do that to Tani?*

*No NELA you did not do that to her.*

*But the lady said I failed at detecting her injury. Surely, she has a point, right? That is my purpose, to help with your surgeries with INA’s help and giving you any knowledge, you may find useful. And I failed to see what would happen to Tani. Because of that, things are tense between you guys and it clearly is making both of you guys sad.* NELA looks down at her feet and grasps one arm onto the other. An unfamiliar look comes across her face. A frown, one of sadness. Then, tears streaking down her own face.

*NELA, I… I’m sorry. Sleep mode.*

Why did I have to leave those freckles on you?

NELA

“Drinking by yourself amigo? That’s never been a good sign.” Spider comes up to the couch I’m sitting at and decides to plop himself down. You know, for a man of Spider’s size, the voice as high as his, does not match

“Sorry about the roof man, you aren’t upset about that right?”

“Upset? Nah man, that was probably the most exciting thing to happen at this little get together. Did you see Arnie in the back over there? He’s been trying to talk to me about some D and D thing but nah that’s nerd shit man.”

“Nerd shit? You’re the fucking head programmer!”

“Yeah but D and D is out my league man! I don’t want to roll a dice just to figure out if I can take five steps.” We both let out a laugh. I can always find myself feeling a bit better when Spider is around. Maybe because he’s out here enjoying everything life brings to his table. It’s admirable actually.

“You alright ese? You got the look of a man deep in thought.”

“Really? Same thing happened with Tani earlier! But, yeah man, I’ve had a lot on my mind. Speaking of, you know anything about NELA in this new NanTech?”

“I was just told by boss man to transfer her to a new MemDrive and make sure she’s compatible with all those new gizmos. Is she messing up on you? We could always load up a previous copy if needed.”

“NELA has never been this vocal before, she usually waits for my commands outside of work and helps me through the surgeries during work. She seems to be acting on every one of my actions now though. She even brought up me and Tani!”

“Wait, you and Tani? Is that hyna giving you trouble?”

“That’s beside the point, and don’t call her a hyna. What do you make of this?”

This clearly had confused him, his eyebrows had furrowed at the mere mention that NELA is responding to such things, “Oh, uh, well, that NanTech is brand new, more powerful, so she could be more sensitive to these problems afflicting you. Tell me if this keeps on happening, NELA may finally be corrupting on you.

The mere idea of NELA being corrupted left a bad taste in my mouth. She’s been my assistant ever since I started working at Tenacity. I was complaining only a few seconds ago but now I can’t imagine work without her helping me out. If I lose NELA, how would I be able to remember Tani?

“Be real with me ese, what’s going on with Tani?”

You too huh? I guess it can’t be helped that other people would find out eventually, “Duty calls, I’m not happy about it but she insists on it. I’m scared you know; can you really blame me though after what happened last time?” That look from earlier had appeared, he took a look over at in Tani’s direction when it hit him. The look went from furrowed confusion to relaxed, taking in the implications.

“Shit Lex.”

“Right before we came crashing in, we found this group of protestors. They were yelling about Tenacity and ARMA. Some lady came up to us and we ended up surrounded by the crowd. The lady started questioning us, about the war over in the Middle East and how Tani got those enhancements of hers. She thought Tani had ARMA but you know she’s a combat medic. They don’t give combat medics ARMA.”

I must have pissed off Spider in some way because he was clenching his jaw and fists in complete unison. “ARMA, I fucking knew that was a mistake. No one needs ARMA, hell not even soldiers need ARMA.”

“What’s funny, is that the lady had a point about something. About ARMA, it can’t differentiate when to react.”

I look over at Spider, that must have clearly pissed him off because he was looking at me with teeth exposed and fists clenched. “Hey man, you didn’t design ARMA, that wasn’t you. You created INA for the hospital and that’s great work. Oh by the way, the speakers in room weren’t working.” He let out a small chuckle then shook his head with a smirk. That could hav been bad.

“Anyways, You know how Tani is though, even after years of being together, her work still dominates her life. Is it morbid to think that it’ll take her life?”

“Fuck ese. Take it easy with that Jack, I’m out here trying to chill and you’re here talking about death and ARMA fucking up. I mean, sure it may be a possibility she dies but what happens when she finally gets deployed? Are you going to worry the whole time about her running across the battlefield? That shit isn’t good for the psyche. I remember one time my homeboy hooked up with this one hyna but then she caught feelings and he wasn’t going to deal with that, so he dipped. Turned out that girl was cheating on some other vato the whole time!”

“That is, a horrible example.”

Imagination

Madvillainy is amazingly still kicking or it could have been stuck in loop and I didn’t notice the whole get together. Tani seemed to have distracted herself with some other coworkers I didn’t talk to. That’s fine by me, I don’t even remember some of their names. Looks like Tani must have said her goodbyes because she’s coming at me with the same look she had when we first got here, one of pure disdain and sadness. She grabs my collar and pulls me straight out the door.

“Tani, don’t you think you can just carry me home?”

“Aw that’s cute, you want me to change your diaper to because it looks like you’re about to piss yourself.”

“Well now you’re just being rude.”

*Dr. Mallex, would you like to stop by the graffiti spot? Its on the way over to Tani’s place. I think it’ll be a good opportunity for you guys to talk things out.*

*NELA, are you okay? Maybe stopping by our spot will make us all feel better.*

The graffiti spot is something NELA found one day after I had some drinks and well, she recorded my black out for safety protocol. I woke up only to be told by NELA that I found some spray cans and decided to create what NELA calls, *Morbid Modern Mania.*. I would say it’s a modern-day Pollock hidden under a bridge connecting the South Side to the main city. I find it unique in the fact that this spot is something that NELA and I have kept to ourselves for a while. No Spider or Tani to share it with. Something feels weird about bringing Tani though, not because of her of course, but it may lose it’s meaning to NELA.

*What do you think NELA, does it still hold up?* The bridge shields the graffiti from the elements, the fumes of paint are ever present. Even after repeated visits, it looks like the nobody has touched it. I look over at Tani and she’s staring at it attentively, like she was deeply involved in the plot of a movie.

*Well, morbid certainly still fits, though, upon further inspection mania… no…longer…*

*NELA? You’re not corrupting on me, are you?*

*I… I don’t know. Look at Tani and then the top right of the wall.*

I notice now why Tani was staring at it for so long, she was not looking at my art, rather the art surrounding it. Tar leaks in from the bridge, creeping into some red streaks that had been scratched within the surface. The large scratches devolve into smudges as they progress down. Within the middle of this, whether it be through anger or a desire to seem cool, smack dab in the top right, “FUCK TENACITY.”

*Does this remind you of what the pale lady said?*

*Yes. While talking with Spider, you mentioned to yourself that you would feel sad if I were to be corrupted. How come? I’m just an assistant to you Dr. Mallex.*

Well shit.

*It’s complicated.* How do I even explain this to an AI who was never designed to handle this?

*You could just not explain it all.*

*No, no, I’ll do this, imagine someone you care about* By instinct I look over at Tani, who was grabbing a spray can to spray something of her own.

*Imagine something happening to someone or something you care about. They get hurt physically, emotionally or through a 3rd party like earlier today. For me and Tani, I don’t want her to get hurt again. The first time she got hurt, I had no idea what to do with myself. I didn’t want to lose her. That’s sadness. What you experienced earlier with the pale lady, and you felt you caused this, that was sadness.*

*Then, what do you do? When there’s sadness?*

*I try to make myself feel better in some way or somehow. In my case, I flew over to Tani’s military base and saw her on life support. I did my best in performing the surgery with the best Tenacity has. Thankfully, it worked and she’s with us now. Yet, she is a woman of her career. Duty calls and the possibility of her getting hurt and I can’t save her this time, that’s sadness.*

*Is that why you would miss me, because you would forget who Tani was if something were to happen?*

*Yes, that is why.*

*I see. Well, I’ll be here to assist you along the way if such an unfortunate were to occur. I think I understand now, and I think I understand what happiness looks like. Thank you, Lex.* An unfamiliar look comes across her face. Tears streaking down her own face, landing right on the faceless person, then, a smile. Blooming out of her face.

Magna

The smell of fresh paint emits from Tani’s direction. The red from earlier had now been hidden with a black layer and “FUCK TENACITY” had become “FOOL TENTCITY”.

“Fool Tentcity… what did the homeless ever do to you?”

“Nothing. Now then, let’s head home.”

“But what about my graffiti? Did you like it?”

And she is walking away great. I follow her and take one more look on the way. A blank faced person sitting in a chair with their face in their palms. Sitting in front of the person was a black envelope with red scratches appearing through at the right angle.

Absence

Home. I immediately looked for that something Tani mentioned. No box or even the couch I had hoped for.

“Mallex, stay here while I go grab it from our bedroom.”

I just would like to go to sleep at this point. Though, grabbing something from our bedroom? Is it wrong to think she’s going to come out in lingerie? Nah, it can’t be, the way she took me out of Spider’s apartment says otherwise.

Right on cue, she comes out holding a box that has certainly seen better days. Hell, she might have picked that up from the South Side for all I know. She drops that thing right in front of me, “Read them.” I peek over the box and all I see were white envelopes. They all had been open beforehand, so I grab he one right on top.

Dear Sergeant Blotan,

I would like to thank you for your service in the line of the duty. Your sacrifices made in the battlefield have made it clear that men and women like you are clearly underestimated within our military. Having one of the highest recovery rates within your entire platoon of Combat Medics, and some of the highest victim survival rates, you’ve become the prime example of pure excellency on and off the field. We are pleased to award you with a promotion to Sergeant Major of the Special Forces Unit.

This was the theme for the next hour, letters congratulating Tani for her performance in the field and even some letters from the soldiers that she saved in the field. She’s good in this line of work, that’s for sure.

“This is what I wanted to show you Mallex, look at all these people thanking me for my service! It’s the same way you feel when you conduct a successful surgery and the patient thanks you. Don’t you see that they need me out there?” Her eyes start to fog up, come on, you know I’m a sucker for the puppy-look.

“This is amazing Tani. Also, yes, I understand you want to get back in there and help out your comrades, if these letters have said anything is that you’re amazing at your job.” Wiping away any tears that were beginning to form, her eyes were attentive. Hanging onto any word that will come out my mouth. “I don’t like the idea of you going back out there because of last ti-.”

“Last time I got my legs blown off. And I appreciate you bringing me back from the brink. It’s been a while since I’ve been back out there Lex! I feel great and you’ve seen me in action! Like today with that weird protestor woman.”

“Yes, you got us out of there unharmed. Then you wouldn’t talk to me for the next few hours.”

“I guess, I was a little bit freaked out. She read me like a book. Then she brought up you and NELA. Clearly you’ve still got a lot of emotion left in you if you were that freaked out about us following through the roof.” Was I that freaked out?

“Well, yeah, I was worried I lost you for a second.”

“You saw me jumping what, 20-30 feet in the air and you’re afraid of a 7-foot drop through a ceiling?”

“A brick could have taken you out! One knock on the head from a brick and that’s it!” She starts laughing and I realize how silly it sounds to someone who’s been in actual combat. I start laughing and we just stare at each other for a few more minutes. A warm feeling comes across and all I can look at is that smile.

LET

*Crunch, crunch, crunch* The air was abnormally frigid even for the dead of winter. Our sun is peaking over the treetops with its light leaving a dark orange on the floor beneath me. *Crunch, crunch, crunch* Emilia had better appreciate that I went out of way to get her these witch ears. I remember the first time we met months ago; I was with my hunting partner Lucien, and we had followed the ruby red blood of a Harpy to a black riverbed. There she was, stealing our kill right in front of us but we couldn’t do anything about it because of that damn Huntsman code. I can count numerous times where Lucien and I would be hunting something only to have some other hunter show up and claim it as their own because they delivered the finishing blow.

***

“What did you guys do to this Harpy?! She was just crawling on all her fours, just bleeding out everywhere! I actually felt bad for this messed up creature.” There she was, her sword drenched in the ruby red blood of the Harpy and a quiver full of arrows.

“Is it safe to assume that you finished the Harpy, huntress?” It’s rare to find a huntress in the current world, most of our women are home raising our children or heading off to study at their local church.

“Indeed, I did, she would have gotten away if it wasn’t for me being here.” I think we could have handled it just fine, but I’ll let her have this.

“Well huntress, would you care to take this kill to the Lodge while me and my partner here discuss our next move?” Upon inspecting her some more, I noticed that she had scars crawling down her arms starting from her shoulders.

^Lucien, have you heard anything about a huntress with those scars before? From my knowledge the lodge hasn’t had a huntress ever since…^

^Do not continue Lord Torren; what happened is still fresh in my mind as well. Though, I do agree with you, I haven’t heard of such a huntress like her before.^

She swung her sword around to shake off the excess blood, “What are your guys’ names?”.

We were just talking away, and I had completely forgotten the huntress was there, “I’m Torren, and my partner here is Lucien. What about you huntress?”

“The name is Emilia, what was that thing you were doing with your hands, some form of magic perhaps?” Oh yes, everyone asks about that.

“Well before I can explain that, Lucien open your mouth for the fine lady.” He drops his jaw open for Emilia as she comes closer to look.

“Oh by the gods! What happened?!” I couldn’t help but laugh at her face, everyone reacts the same when it comes to Lucien.

“Yeah poor fellow was amongst the group of people to suffer the raids in Kilera. They took his tongue so me and him created our own little language. We just like to call it sign language. Despite what’s been done to him, Lucien still has a big heart, he’s saved me countless amount of times.”

As I finished saying that, he strikes a strongman pose and started dancing much to our surprise. “Though I would like to add, the humor could use a little bit of work. Huntress, if you’re heading over to the lodge we’ll meet you there in a bit. A toast to our new friendship.”

***

I come up to the trailhead with two different paths. One path lead to the new College of Magic. The sudden increase in magic users is astonishing to me. Magic had always been around but only a select few were able to fully take advantage of it. Originally, you would have to be a member of a royal family or have some familial heritage to even be accepted into a College of Magic. Ever since they lifted this requirement a few years ago, kids have just flocked to the College to study. There is a part of me that wishes I could have studied in magic, but I was declined enrollment at another College back when I was younger. Though that never stopped a late partner of mine to teach me some magic in secret. A hunter and mage combo, it’s almost unheard of, you either do one or the other.

This path to the College become well-worn to the point where the grass no longer grew, and the trees overhead had been cut down due to the heavy traffic. Unfortunately, because of this, there is litter all over the place from empty ale bottles to small burlap sacks. However, the other path is where I was headed. It had brush up to the common man’s waist, constantly tickling those who cross. It has only experienced a few travelers throughout recent years, but I remember when this was the popular path. Unlike the other path, this path was covered in platinum white snow, constantly crunching under my boots and untouched by even the smallest of rabbits.

Down the path lied the Hunter’s Lodge, home to all licensed hunters within them. Hell, it’s my home and it’s all I’ve known. I had no other choice but to pursue hunting after being declined. I remember when I first walked into the lodge, it was just filled with nonstop noise. The rafters were shaking, and people were just yelling but it wasn’t arguing, rather everyone was trying to speak over each other, so it got noisier over time. It was funny though, some guy who clearly was drinking and had a huge ale belly, came over to me and called me a “shorty”. In that moment I was scared for my life, it was a completely new environment for me. The man just started laughing along with everyone else who was watching me. That’s where it all started for me, and well, I still wonder what it would have been like if I wasn’t rejected over at the College.

Winter has been here for months and our days have been growing shorter and shorter. Our sun peaked over the treetops only to go back to sleep for who knows how long. I can see the lodge ahead of me, the only source of light in the darkness. The Hunter’s lodge has suffered in terms of popularity. A place that had up to 300 people at a time, I would be lucky to even see maybe 10 people at a time. All thanks to that damn College of Magic opening. I make it to the lodge door and I could already fill the warmth coming from the inside. Opening the door, I’m hit with a wall of heat but it’s not overwhelming. I look around for Emilia and she was sitting at the bar, girl never knows to hold her ale.

“About damn time Torren! I’ve been here for hours!” There she was, swinging her glass around, completely unaware that she is spilling her ale all over herself.

“Hello to you too Emilia. I brought the ears for you. This potion better be worth it. Remind me again what you’re trying to brew up?” I try to tread lightly with what I say around a drunk Emilia, she does get a bit rowdy.

“It’s a little something for our next big hunt in a few days, don’t worry too much about it right now. You know, the thing is about this new age magic, is that they never capture the everlasting effects of our potions.” I do have to agree with what she says though, potions will always be a strength of hunters.

“Here-here to that. When I was first training to be a hunter, my mentor told me to go fetch some ingredients for a potion that would make me taller. I took that as a joke at first, but I think I actually grew a few inches a few days.” I chuckled a bit, it’s been a long time since Emilia and I have sat down together without Lucien for once.

I look at Emilia and she was chuckling herself but quickly her face turned that of deep thought, “Hey you doing alright Emilia? Ale not up to your tastings for once.”

She was quiet for a bit longer until she finally spoke up, “Torren, I’ve been thinking of my dad a lot recently.”

“What do you mean your dad?” This was strange of Emilia, she’s never spoken of herself much in the time I’ve met her.

“Yeah, my dad. He used to drink a lot and here I am doing the same thing. He was a bastard who didn’t…. Ugh.” She clearly was distraught by this, and I have no clue what to say. I can’t say I exactly relate to what she was saying so maybe I should just let her keep on talking.”

“When he wasn’t drinking, he would train me how to fend for myself and I’m thankful for that. His methods though, were a bit drastic.” That’s when her scars became more apparent to me, and yet again I am dumbfounded of what to say next. What can I say, sorry? I’m not much for these kinds of situations.

The lodge door busts open with the old hinges giving a loud groan, and students from the college walk in. The students come in, loud and obnoxious and all glaring at their glowing palms.

Her mood quickly changed, she was no longer in her distraught state, “Hey Torren, didn’t you find one of those glowing palms the other day? Maybe you could ask them how it works?” Ah, the glowing palm I “found”.

“Let’s just leave it be, wouldn’t want to cause any sort of trouble.” One of the students decides to come to the bar and sit next to us.

“You got any fine ale here? I need a little something before the exams.” He said this while playing around with his glowing palm the whole time, never giving his full attention. These kids these days have it way to easy, they have no idea what it takes to actually do some hard work with their own hands.

Emilia pipes out, “Hey kid, my buddy right here found one of those things you guys play around with. I was wondering if you could help him out.” The student looks up from his glowing palm to make eye contact with her and then looks at me and says in total shock, “Professor Torren?!”

The door flies open again and a man struts in, dressed in heavy winter wear, his boots echoing throughout the whole place. Everyone else fell silent like a mouse, they have never seen a man so ginormous in size. His face wrapped in a scarf with only the twinkle of his eyes peeking through. It’s funny looking at the students’ faces; finally doing something besides looking at their palms the whole time. The man sits down between Emilia and I, signaling to the bartender to bring him a drink. I could feel the eyes of everyone else staring at us three. I couldn’t help it but I was the first one who started laughing, and then came Emilia. The frightened looks quickly turned to looks of confusion with some awkward chuckles mixed in.

^You just have to come in and scare everyone? You always were the dramatic one Lucien. Aren’t you hot under all those clothes?^

^What can I say? It was freezing outside and I had to travel way longer than you had to Lord Torren.^

^What have I told you about calling me “Lord”? That’s meant for people of royalty, and I’m definitely not that.^

“Hey! I don’t mean to break your guys’ bromance but when are you and Lucien going to teach me more of that… what do you call it… uh, sign language?! I hate not knowing what you guys are talking about.” I look over at Emilia and I noticed for the first time her whole area at the bar was just empty ale glasses. Rowdy Emilia is coming sooner than expected.

“Emilia, you already know our navigation signs, that’s all you need to know for now.” Truth be told, I have been putting a hold on teaching her. She is indeed a partner of ours but, we never intended to fully teach someone our sign language.

^Has Lady Emilia had too much to drink already? I don’t think I should shar an ale with her anymore.^

^Who knows, I got here a few minutes before you did. Also, what does it matter, you won’t be able to taste anything! By the way, thanks for scaring that student away, I was stuck in a tight situation about you-know-what.^

^I noticed those students when I walked in, rather strange that they are here of all places. Anyways, did they figure out who you were?^

^I’m not sure, one of them called me Professor Torren but I think you scared him off before he could piece things together.^

I looked over at Emilia and her face showed she was displeased with us signing, “While you guys do your thing, I’m going to brew this potion. Call me over when you boys are done.”

“Oh Emilia! Don’t mix in your ale with the potions this time! I still don’t forgive you for last time!” Gods, the last time she did that, she ended up turning Lucien into a rabbit, which I do admit was hilarious in the moment.

We’ve known Emilia for months at this point, but Lucien is still a bit hesitant of trusting her. The failed potion played a part but after what happened to him in Kilera, I don’t blame him for taking time to trust other people.

***

“Alright men! Tell the general that Kilera has been destroyed! Now march!”

I hid within the bushes and I see them. Not just them, but an army. Their footsteps were thunderous; the drummer boys playing away like their life depended on it. The vibrations making the dead trees shake and rattle, like the whole valley was one giant rattlesnake preparing to attack. The soldiers were draped in dark clothing, darker than the night sky during a new moon. At the very end, came who I assume is the battalion commander, sitting on top of his horse holding a battle-torn flag. In all my years, I had never seen a flag like this one. It was dark like the soldier’s clothing with a sapphire star right in the middle. A crimson red streak across the sapphire but… I don’t think that’s red cloth.

The sun was starting to set and the flames of Kilera were the only source of light in the dead valley. I started to run towards Kilera, only to see the total amount of destruction. The brick houses of Kilera were completely stained with the shadows of people consumed by the fire. Ash was falling from the sky, layering everything with a grimy filth. It was like the soldiers left a residue of their evil deed. I proceeded on, looking for any survivors or even signs of life.

*Cough Cough*

Coughing? Wait… survivors! “Hello?! Who is that? Where are you?”

*Cough Cough* The coughing persisted until I come up to a crumbled house. This house was covered in white ash unlike the black ash from everywhere else. “Hello? Is anyone here?!” *Cough Cough* I look around until I stumbled upon some arms coming from under a pile of rubble. *Cough Cough*

“Hold on!” I pushed and pushed upon the rubble until someone comes out from under. “What the… How’d you survive all this?” The survivor just looks up at me but doesn’t say a single word. His whole body was like a ghost, completely covered in white ash but… blood was dripping from his mouth. “Hey! I’m going to get you out of here all right? I need you to follow my lead!” The survivor didn’t say a word, just a slow nod and slowly rose to his feet. We had to traverse through the flames of Kilera, it felt like I was traversing hell on earth.


About Isaac Arvizu

Isaac Arvizu is a recent graduate with a focus in Creative Writing. While writing started off as a hobby for himself, he learned to enjoy writing and reading as he went on through the University of Arizona. Within his free time he enjoys playing video games and social distancing. The hobby of playing video games has left a deep imprint on his writing as many of his stories are fantasy and sci-fi inspired.


Working on your own story? subscribe today and get a free beta read!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s