I Am the Storm
Tash McAdam © 2018
All Rights Reserved
I didn’t ask to be Talented, but I am, and because of that, I endanger everyone around me. Every day. The government wants people like me under their control, or dead. So we hide the best we can out here in the shadowy and factory district. It’s hot, same as always, even in the shade. Out here isn’t much to look at—especially compared to the inner city, which sparkles like diamonds. Around me, buildings in grays and browns loom into the blue sky, blocking the vicious sun and removing the need for the transparent aluminum shields guarding the open spaces from the UV. Those are for the rich.
This area is always in the darkness. We’re part of the City, but only just. Pressed up against the inside of the Wall, this end of town really isn’t much better than the slums. Nah, shit, I take it back. At least I’ve always had a roof over my head and food in my belly, even if it tastes pretty bland. My mom made sure of that.
People in the slums aren’t as lucky. Mom moved us out to the poor end of town because of me—it’s obvious, even if she lies whenever it comes up. She had a good job back before I was born, as a teacher in one of the elite elementary schools, and she loved it. I hear in her voice how much her heart aches when she tells stories about her old students. Now, she pulls levers fifteen hours a day in a plant and can’t stand up straight anymore. It’s my fault.
I’m snapped out of my musing by a warning shout and barely avoid a speeding mini elec-car, piled high with boxes and strips of metal. A second later, I’d have been another smear marring the tarmaxx. No point in putting solar panels here, after all, so the road is far from shiny and clean. I curse at the driver’s back.
Shoving my hands into my pockets, I chew my lip and dawdle down the road. I’m not in a hurry. Medical exams are one of my least favorite pastimes, but if I want to stay in school, and damn straight that’s what I want, I have to go. Being weighed, prodded, and poked isn’t nearly as fun as going home and relaxing with a hacked satellite feed, but we do what we must, right? Since I have these checkups twice yearly, along with every other Citizen in our glorious metropolis, I know how late I can be—without getting penalized—to the second. Although, I don’t have any idea what the time actually is since I don’t even have my comm unit with me. For once, I don’t have any tech in my pockets, and it makes me feel naked and exposed.
But it’s the only way I can keep from blowing my cover.
I’m a lucky sod, for sure. As a technopath—able to control technology with my mind—I have a unique power, and I’m not noticeable the way telekinetics are. They throw stuff around with their Talent. Obvious stuff right there. Me? Hell, if I get really angry, I can cause a blackout, but it’s doubtful anyone would trace it back to me. Living in an area without electricity helps, though. Thanks, Ma.
Giving up the creature comforts for your only son is a noble thing to do, and it’s kept me under the radar for years. Off the radar and above ground, instead of locked up in a facility designed to destroy any aspect of me deemed not “useful.” So, you know, my memories, my personality, and sense of self, for a start. If the Institute had their way and nabbed me as one of their brainwashed weapons, I’d lose everything making me myself.
I should get a bit of a move on, though. If you’re not there when they call your name a third time, you get bounced off the list and marked as “uncooperative,” which isn’t a good thing. They watch the uncooperative, in case we’re considering a life of rebellion and insurrection. And I’m exactly the kind of person they’d love to catch. Besides being Talented, I do my fair share of cybercrime. They’d only have to watch me for a few days before I ended up with a hood over my head and a gun in my spine. I might not be tall, strong, or rich, but I’m definitely dangerous.
I pick up the pace a little and, rushing around the next corner, thud right into the broad chest of a watchman. I stumble and lose my balance, and then I’m knocked off my feet by a powerful and unnecessary uppercut to the jaw. I cry out in pain, rebounding off the wall and crumpling in a heap.
Blinking back stinging tears of shock, I clap my palm to my throbbing face. The brute looks down at me, pathetic Sam, crouched on the ground, wearing worn-out clothes. He spits on me, daring me to retaliate so he can arrest me and throw me in the clink. Power tripping. The Watch—military police—are government thugs, but many of them aren’t bad people. Just people with a sucky job.
This one appears to be your standard petty thug in a uniform.
I cringe away enough to make him think I’m respectful, but he still raises his boot, so I drop my eyes, every inch the persecuted worker. It’s enough. He decides not to go through with the kick and heads off instead, whistling tunelessly. I stay down until he’s around the next bend. Then I close my eyes and suck a thread of technopathic Talent out of the ever-comforting ball of power waiting inside me, longing to be used. The invisible strength has been a part of me for longer than I can remember, and it fills me with confidence. I can operate any piece of electronic machinery in the world without even touching it.
Twisting my fingers to the side, I unleash the power, sending it after him, honing in on his gadgets. The movement isn’t usually necessary—I could do this with my mind alone, on any other day—but the pain spiking through my jawbone is distracting, and physical motion gives me an extra layer of control.
When the power reaches him, I use it to blow out every single one of the circuits on his equipment. It’s going to look as though he’s been in a huge electricity surge but somehow escaped personal damage. I grin, despite my aching jaw. I wish I could melt the soles of his shoes, too, but that’s outside my abilities. I can only manipulate electricity, not create it. Unless there’s a handy lightning strike in the next few minutes for me to redirect, I’m stuck with the piddly amperage of his equipment.
Next time Mr. Watchman checks his equipment, he’s going to be in trouble, which makes me feel better. Not much, but a smidge. However, if I’m late to the clinic, I’ll have more than a bruise to worry about, so I stand and jog the rest of the way, wincing as it jars my rapidly swelling left cheek and jaw.
I know I look out of place as soon as I enter the clean white room, sweaty and bruised with pale hair sticking to my forehead in annoying streaks. And I even wore my best outfit—only two visible patches! Disapproving eyes belonging to the wealthy and well-dressed scan me, their faces twisting into disdainful expressions.
Not many factory kids are Citizens, with the privilege of a decent education and medical care. There are no such tests for my “peers.” I’m here because I was born in the City and had enough early education to take the tests and get into school. My friends aren’t here, because they weren’t, and didn’t. It’s hard to get a decent start in life when your parents work all the time and can’t afford real day care. Worse—if you’re born outside the Wall, they don’t want you here, so the schooling test is weighted against you.
The slum kids hardly ever have a chance of attending school. It’s all so stupid; there are kids working the line who are way smarter than me but never really learned to read. Of course, they failed the tests we had to take when we were eleven. If you can’t understand the question, how are you supposed to answer it? The whole system sucks.
My mom made sure I got a good start to my education, though, courtesy of her own knowledge, so I passed the tests. I got into real school. Hence my tightrope-walking act between privilege and poverty. A working-class kid with a middle-class right to basic amenities. Which means following rules other factory kids don’t have to follow. Taking these medical tests, for example.
These clinics are the most dangerous places I ever have to go because they belong to the government and are the heart of enemy territory; one slipup and I’m worse than dead. I take a slow breath, forcing myself to push my power into dormancy and ignore it.
I slide up to the desk. “Sam Dovzhenko.” My voice rings loud and out of place in the silence that always fills waiting rooms, as though everyone is afraid to breathe.
The receptionist looks down his bladed nose at me and sniffs. It’s an eloquent sniff, one saying “What are you doing here?” but he checks his holoscreen anyway. I wait, bored. I could type faster when I was ten and have to suppress the urge to make his computer system change his input. Always fun, messing with the snobs.
He finally finds my information and hands me a plastic card so thin it’s almost invisible. As soon as I take it from his clammy hand, it lights up, blue lines tracing a map of the clinic and a dot showing my position. Another glowing bead indicates where I should go, and the receptionist raises his eyebrow at me as though he expects me to need help reading a map.
Don’t wipe his hard drive, don’t wipe his hard drive. I repeat to myself as I head through the large metal door leading to the main body of the clinic. My power can get away from me when I’m irritated or angry, not ideal in a place like this. Or anywhere, really, even at school. It’s a huge pain in the butt to know I could relax and put my feet up while my datapad churns out exactly what I want in the most efficient way possible when I’m handed a new project. But definitely better than what would happen to me if people found out what I’m capable of.
The ability to “talk” to computers is the most incredible gift I could ask for. But my gift could also get me abducted, experimented on—oh—and wiped of all personality. So letting my control slip in a lab belonging to the very government that wants to experiment on me is a bad idea.
Willing myself to be calm, I traipse along the gleaming corridor, a superpowered vagabond in a laboratory. I didn’t understand I was different for a long time. I guess when I was really small I assumed everyone could absorb and interpret wireless signals and affect electrical currents. I can control their throughput, and it allows me to telepathically interact with any technology.
My mom says I was around three months old when I first turned the lights in my room on with my mind. I probably did it because I hated the dark. I still hate it.
Mom packed up, left my dad, and hightailed it out of there in the middle of the night. Sounds harsh, but my dad works for the government, and as such, is likely to be scanned psionically. Telepathically. They do it to everyone who works for them—scan their brains to find out what they know.
If he had any inkling what I could do, he’d put me in danger, whether he wanted to or not. It doesn’t matter if you want to give somebody up to the bad guys when they just reach into your head and rummage around. I didn’t see him again until I was six or so—old enough to understand how I was different and how to control it.
We don’t have much to talk about these days, but he’s a good guy. Takes me to ball games sometimes and bitches because my mom won’t take anything from him—no money or help.
Poverty is a great excuse to avoid linking up our whole house though—and I’d be bound to eventually mess up in front of someone if I lived in a “smart” house. Especially when I was younger and had less control. I’d end up shutting the blinds with my mind when I was half asleep or something, then boom. Game over. And as an extra piece of protection, not living in a nice area means the mind readers are less likely to catch me.
The Institute—government-sponsored jerks who get their rocks off abducting baby telepaths and screwing with their brains—mostly stick to the nicer sections when they’re after spies. They also spend a lot of time in the slums, looking for potential slaves they might have missed at birth. But I’m smack bang in the middle, and why would anyone with powers be here?
A blast of cold air makes me jump. A doctor banging out of a freeze-room, probably. I move out of her way in a hurry and then take a right, following the map. I’m a little jittery with nerves, but hopefully anyone who sees me thinks it’s natural for a poor kid in a rich place. A lot of the tests they run really hurt, which could explain my twitchiness. Great.
I get to my destination and wrinkle my nose as I see the light above the shiny door is red. There’s an uncomfortable-looking bench to wait on, but I choose to lean my bony shoulder against the wall, instead. I’m never comfortable relaxing in places like this. Too clean. It makes me feel as though I’m going to get in trouble.
People bustle past, lab coats flapping and clipboards clacking, and I tune in carefully to the signals scooting around the place. Someone’s watching a TV show about space, computers are sending files back and forth, and there’s a pretty racy conversation going on between the guy at the front desk and someone called “LeatherCowboy21.” Passively watching signals isn’t very risky. It also lets me keep an eye on what’s going on—if any Institute messages are coming in or going out. And it gives me something to do.
Suddenly, though, a particularly shocking image from Cowboy to the receptionist makes me flinch, and my Talent skids out of me, shooting toward the nearest electrical circuit. Before I can stop it, it hits the ceiling lights, and they flicker. Shit, shit. I look up and down the corridor from under my fringe, attempting to be unobtrusive. My heart racing, I carefully slide out of the signals I’ve been piggybacking on, compressing my power as far as it goes. I feel sick, as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. How could I be such an idiot, here, of all places? I’m right under their noses, and I thought I could fiddle around without getting caught? I actually thought it was safe?
Nobody comes for me, though, and my heart rate slowly returns to normal.
The door light clicks to green and a mellow-voiced robot woman calls out, “Sam Dovzhenko. Sam Dovzhenko to room sixteen, please.” Soaked in fear sweat, terror clawing at my ribcage, I stretch my neck, take a deep breath, and prepare for the indignities to come.
The door slides back as soon as I touch it, almost gliding out of my way. Inside, the room is shiny and smallish, with a padded bed and various buzzing machines, all of which are filling the air with information. The doctor sits at a large desk, a huge computer array in front of him.
Forgetting my fear for a split second, I automatically assess the capabilities of the machine. Looks like a stallion, works like a pony, as my mom would say. Usually about men, though. Gross.
The doctor looks at me over his compu-spec and doesn’t smile. It’s a deliberate non-movement of the facial muscles, as though he’s trying not to grimace at my appearance, so, palms slick, I give him my best grin. The one saying “I’m adorable; you can trust me, yes sir! Why, I’m just a sweet, sweet child trapped in bad circumstances.” I practice it in the mirror. I’m not a handsome guy, but I can pull off cute, and this is the face I use at school when people are picking on me for bringing lunch in a box instead of paying for canteen food. Look harmless enough and some people will start to feel guilty for treating you like dog dirt. Not everyone, of course, but any advantage you can get is worth taking, in my opinion. Especially if you screwed up monumentally and are possibly about to get arrested.
He seems to buy it, softening slightly and gesturing me to the chair in front of the desk, then turning his attention from me, his eyes glazing over for a moment. I assume he’s looking at information on the miniscreen over his left eye, and wait.
A moment later, he comes back to me. “Sam Dovzhenko, fourteen-point-seven years old, classified as a Citizen after outstanding test scores.” It’s a musing tone, not requiring an answer, and I wait expectantly for him to continue. “Last checkup showed slight signs of malnutrition. You were provided with a free scrip for vitamins. I see you’ve been collecting them. Good boy. Anything you want to raise with me?”
I manage not to clench my jaw at his patronizing tone. I brought it on myself with the baby face, I think wryly. Sigh. I shake my head.
The doctor gets to his feet, having to heave himself up with the arms of his chair. Overweight. I wonder what his checkup is going to say about his weight. I bet he has a system with one of the other doctors in the clinic allowing him to get through the tests even when he shouldn’t. Hypocrite. Tell me I’m malnourished when you clearly eat enough to feed an entire family.
Knowing what’s coming, I follow his example and stand up. He motions me over to the padded bed, and I sit on the edge so he can check my eyes, ears, throat, nervous system, and heartbeat. Then comes the sucky stuff. Cancer suppressants are the absolute worst part of the medicals for me, but I can’t get out of them. I’ve tried. I grit my teeth as he preps the hollow needle and sucks the suspended nanobots—miniature robots that will zoom through my blood, finding any mutated cells and destroying them—into the plunger. The silvery fluid shoots up and fills the plastic part of the syringe, where it swirls ominously. The last time I did this, a year ago, I passed right out when the doctor punched the little buggers into my jugular. But this time I’m determined not to. Or…maybe I will.
He presses his fingers against my neck, looking for the throbbing artery. My pulse is going a mile a minute already, anticipating the stabbing pain followed by the awful sensation of liquid forced into my body.
I pull the digital representation of the space show I noticed earlier up onto the ceiling to distract me. I shouldn’t, but I know this will hurt so badly I can barely force myself to stay on the bed. I need something else to look at.
On the screen, some cowboy-looking guy is climbing from a spaceship ramp onto a dusty planet. The picture loses a lot in binary format. I wish I could get the detail, but it’s impossible; my power is green, so if I use it to see something, then what I watch is in green, which means the picture kind of sucks. I don’t know what it’s like for other Readers—people who use telepathy as an extra sense, getting information from their surroundings—but for me, this is as good as it gets.
The needle touches my skin lightly and then jabs in. It’s pretty much as bad as I expected, but I don’t actually pass out this time. Macho.
I do, however, squeeze my eyes shut and clamp down on my power, which fizzes in indignation at the control and its need to break free. It busts free when I’m upset or hurt, and if I don’t keep a tight grip on it, I could blow every circuit in the building. But I don’t usually lose control these days. I’ve been practicing. Breathing deeply through my nose helps, and I count as I force myself to relax. The needle finally pulls out, dragging against the soft skin of my throat, and I can’t repress a little whimper of pain. Google, I hate this.
The doctor gives me one of those looks meaning “Are you a man, or a mouse?” that always irritates me. The annoyance distracts me from the throbbing sensation, and he presses a small square of cloth against the wound before I notice. Then he grabs the suture gun with the other.
The sutures thud into my skin while he holds my head in place. They don’t hurt quite as badly as the injection, but I’m still having tiny staples stabbed into me, crisscrossing over the new hole in my artery. Two minutes later I’m patched up and ready for the chest X-rays and measuring portion of the checkup.
It’s boring and uneventful, and I can never figure out why they want to do it in this order, instead of letting the worst part come at the end. All I want to do is curl up in a ball and maybe have a little cry, but instead, I have to stay in front of them, obeying their stupid requests, running a pathetically slow mile on a treadmill, half naked. The doctor looks at my skinny chest, ribs visible, noticeable dent in the center, and shakes his head. I’m clearly not as muscular as he would prefer.
You can talk, chubby.
I’m panting and sweaty by the time he allows me to sit again and busies himself at the pretty-on-the-outside computer. I’m expected to wait, like a good boy, for my results to be popped onto my thumb chip. But I’m anxious to get out of here. The myriad of hoops I’ve jumped through have left me exhausted, and keeping my power under wraps is getting harder and harder. It wants to burst out of me and punish the people who are hurting me. To distract myself so I don’t lose control, I push against the hard point in my thumb where I feel the lump of technology I, and every Citizen, have to carry everywhere.
I love my thumb chip, but mostly because it provides a fantastic focal interface for me. My power means I can use any computer in existence, regardless of security and complexity, but I need a place to start. And the government conveniently put one in place for me—right in my thumb. Minicomputer in the hands of the computer guy. Idiots. I don’t think they know people like me exist, but here I am. And there’s probably more out there. I did the math, once. Around ten percent of the population are telepaths, according to the Institute’s files; I had a look-see a few years ago, just to keep ahead of the game. Had to follow a crew around and stay out of sight so I could jump onto their network, but it was worth it. It’s unlikely I’d be the only technopath, even if it is clearly rarer.
The doctor clears his throat, shaking me from my thoughts, and I start. He waggles a device at me, and I obediently place my right thumb on the datapad, blinking innocently. I’m capable of changing whatever data I want on the chip in my thumb. These chips are how we use money, and also how the government keeps track of us, but I rig mine so it reports I’m at home, like a good boy, no matter what I’m actually doing. Nothing too nefarious, but sometimes knowing I’m off grid is a good feeling. Freeing.
Right now I’d give anything to be feeling free, but there’s a sick sensation in my stomach that I don’t think can be tied to the injection. Something is off. The way the doctor’s looking at me sets my teeth on edge.
The transparent screen lights up in a series of green gridlines, zooming smaller as they get to my digit, indicating the transfer of data, and I parse it carefully as it inputs. I think it’s worth the risk, to know what they’re saying. If they’ve marked me. But it’s nothing surprising; a standard report of my physical non-prowess.
When it’s done, and the lights go off with a depressed-sounding beep, I glance at the doctor for permission and he nods. I remove my hand and fold it carefully back into my lap. He doesn’t say anything else, and I stand, planning on removing myself from the unpleasant room—and pressing danger—as soon as possible.
But he lifts his hand in a “hold it” motion. I freeze, halfway out of my chair, and then lower myself back into the seat, wondering what he wants. My foot jitters nervously, and I grit my teeth as I force myself to become still.
“We have a few more tests to run today, unfortunately. If you’ll wait here, I’ll get the nurse to come and take care of it. Nothing to worry about.”
Liar. There’s always something to worry about. Right now more than ever. I messed up. I know it. The air freezes in my lungs, and my mind starts whirring until I barely stop myself from flinging my body out of the chair and making a break for it. But running would be a dead giveaway, and I don’t know for sure I’m busted. I just really, really think I am. If I’m not, then running for it is a terrible idea. The lump in my throat makes breathing difficult, and my hand slips on the arm of the chair, where I’ve apparently been tightly clutching the plastic. My muscles ache as they move.
The doctor bustles out of the room, a small screen clutched in one hairy paw, and I flick my eyes from side to side. Should I bail now? A loud noise behind me makes me jump, skidding the chair sideways in fear, a horrible screech filling the air as the legs drag across the smooth floor. Jerking around, I see it’s only a nurse, looking at me in surprise. The sound was obviously the small, wheeled table she’s pushing in front of her. She must have banged the door with it to tell it to open.
I’m terrified, cold sweat making my palms and neck clammy. I just want to get out of here. But the nurse smiles at me kindly, her warm brown eyes comforting. “Did I make you jump? I’m sorry, dear. Here, hop up on the bed for me, and we’ll get you started. We need a couple of blood samples to see how your body is dealing with the cancer suppressant.”
Oh. Okay. More needles, but no danger. Okay. My heartbeat slows its madcap gallop, and I nod, stumbling over my own big feet as I get up and head for the bed again to tak