Forget faith and uncertainty, rebellion and slavery. Forget beauty in all its forms. Forget ugliness, too.
Forget A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and the Kaddish. Forget an army of notes marching across a sheet of paper that are transformed into the Goldberg Variations. Forget the Taj Mahal at sunrise and the Grand Canyon at sunset, Shakespeares sonnets, War and Peace, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Forget the dabs of bright blue paint that became the eyes of Vincent van Gogh.
Forget the fingertip sensation of fur, velvet, a cashmere shawl, and a smooth green chip of beach glass. Forget the moist texture of raw meat and dry brittleness of dead leaves crushed in the hand.
Forget the taste of honey-soaked baklava. Ripe mango. Roasted garlic. Pickled herring. Licorice. Chocolate. Strawberry ice.
And smellsforget them as well. Crushed lilacs and the harsh scent of hot tar. A babys neck. Moist earth. Fresh-baked scones.
Forget the dead children from the Day of Rage and the speeches and sermons and memorial parks with names carved in stone. Forget every lesson from a teacher, every joke from a joker; every judgment from a judge.
Forget what your parents told you. Forget what you were taught as a child and what you learned on your own.
Forget what you think is right. And wrong.
Do all this and you might become me: a Spark contained within a Shell that stood in a doorway on Sixty-Second Street in Brooklyn while a Russian businessman named Peter Stetsko attempted to park his car.
It was November in New York Citydamp and cold. Death was present in the street, but there was nothing dramatic or sinister about my appearance. That night, I was neatly dressed in gray slacks and a V-neck sweater. In the outside pocket of my black raincoat, I carried a Brazilian-made semiautomatic pistol with skateboard tape attached to the grip. My Freedom ID card was concealed within a specially designed sleeve that made it impossible for the EYE system to detect my location.
A delivery van passed through the intersection, its tires hissing on the wet asphalt. I slipped on a phone headset and Laura whispered into my ear.
Ten-Thirty-Three on Flatbush Avenue and Farragut Road. One unit responding.
Any police activity in Bensonhurst?
Checking... It felt as if Laura was a real woman looking up a message board or gazing out a window, but she was only a Shadow. Somewhere in the Internet, one computer was talking to another, checking the data on a Web site that provided live-time reports of New York City police and fire department activity.
Nothing, Mr. Underwood.
My target had rented a two-bedroom house that reminded me of something a child would build with plastic blocks. It had a low brick wall in front that guarded a patch of concrete, painted grass green. There were red aluminum awnings over the two front windows and the front door.
Since my Transformation, I am capable of a limited range of emotional responses: curiosity, boredom, and disgust. I had been curious if Stetsko could squeeze his Mercedes-Benz between a blue delivery van and a mud-splattered Toyota. Now I was bored with his cautious maneuvering and ready to complete my assignment.
A young woman wearing a sequined green nightclub dress was sitting in the passenger seat of the Mercedes. Because she was a witness, she would also have to be neutralized. I would start with a head shot for Stetsko through the side window, circle the car and deal with this secondary target, then circle the car again for confirmation shots. The sequence wasnt difficult, but it would make more noise.
Any police activity, Laura?
A minute passed.
When Stetsko pulled out again for another try, the woman got out of the car. Like a photon of light, her green dress shimmered down the sidewalk, passed through the squeaky gate, and disappeared into the house. At that moment, my job became simple, direct, and clear.
The Mercedes moved six inches back toward the curb and then stopped. Stetskos head swung back and forth like a man watching a tennis match. He pulled the steering wheel hard to the right and the car made a squeaking noise.
Sixty-Second Street was dark and no one was on the sidewalk, but that didnt make me feel lonely or frightened. The rotting smell from a Dumpster appeared as a brownish-green color in my mind, but it didnt generate an emotional reaction. X = X. The world has no meaning aside from what is.
Across the street, Stetsko finally finished parking the car. He smiled, switched off the engine, and patted the steering wheel as if the Mercedes were a racehorse that had just survived a dangerous steeplechase.
Show scanned photograph, I told Laura and my targets face appeared on the smartphone screen.
Look right. Look left. No one was in the street. I walked over to the car, held up the phone, and compared Stetskos photograph to the reality in front of me. Then I raised my weapon and shot reality in the head.
I turned away from my target, walked five blocks east to Gravesend Park, and tossed the gun into a storm drain. Perhaps one day a city sewer worker might find this artifactrusty and covered with mudbut it would have no connection with my identity.
A few blocks from the park I waved down an unregistered cab and paid the driver cash to take me back to Manhattan. For the last two years, Ive lived in the top loft of an industrial building in New Yorks Chinatown. My landlord, an older woman named Margaret Chen, likes the fact that I always pay in cash and never ask for a receipt. There were only three rules for the tenants in her building: no checks, no fireworks, and no slaughtering chickens.
Before my Transformation, I lived like an ordinary Human Unit in an Upper East Side apartment with cooking pots and self-assembled teak-veneer furniture. Nowadays I try to own only one object in each category: a chair and a table, a bed and a blanket, a cup and a spoon. The loft has been used as a factory space by different businesses, and some of them left obsolete equipment bolted to the floor or shoved against the wall. Theres an industrial sewing machine with a black rubber drive belt, a drill press, and a piano-sized machine that used to stamp advertising slogans on pencils.
My living space is quiet and clean and unencumbered. None of the objects I possess trigger memories that are separate from their function. I own a cup that is only a cup, not something that reminds me of a trip to Italy.
After locking the entrance door, I removed all my clothes and placed them in nylon bags. Everything worn that evening would be washed or dry-cleaned at a laundry on Mott Street. Within twenty-four hours, all the invisible burned and unburned particles from the fired bullets would disappear.
I took a shower, pulled on a sweatshirt and warm-up pants, and returned to the main room. Rule #4 states that I must supply my Shell with a minimum of two thousand calories a day, so I opened a bottle of a nutritional drink developed for the elderly called ComPlete, poured it in the cup, and mixed in a tablespoon of a coarse fiber supplement.
I have a good memory, but dont like to re-experience the past. If thoughts are not controlled, then each remembered experience becomes an alternative reality. When I thought about shooting Peter Stetsko, my mind brought up different detailsthe sound of my shoes walking across the street and the vision of the first bullet shattering the side window. But these memories didnt generate feelings of regret or happiness. I have a Spark that creates my thoughts.
The Spark is bright and pure and transcendent, but its held captive within a Shell of flesh and bone.
The woman in the green shimmery dress and all the other Human Units walking around New York City feel emotions because their Spark is attached to their Shell.
But all my attachments have melted away. Yes, I can breathe and swallow and fire a handgun. In many ways, I resemble a human being. But there is nothing inside me. Im filled with darkness.
I opened up a second bottle of ComPlete, then turned on my computer and spoke to Edward. Like Laura, Edward is a Shadowa speech-recognition program connected to a computer with reactive intelligence. After you purchase and download a Shadow, you can pick their sex, age, language, and general personality. There are Shadows that can tell jokes, help you stop smoking, or say that they love you. You can spend the day chatting with a Shadow programmed to be a cute teenage girl or a Shadow who soundsand actslike your mother.
Good evening, Mr. Underwood. Edward had a British accent and was programmed to be polite and formal. How may I help you?
Please show A Boy for Baxter.
From the beginning, sir?
Yes. Thank you.
A Boy for Baxter is a documentary film about a boy named Gordon who is given a specially trained service dog named Baxter. Gordon is a Native American child whose brain was damaged in utero when his birth mother drank alcohol and sniffed gasoline. He was adopted as a baby by Don and Pat Miller, a Quaker couple, with two other children. The movie begins when Gordon is eight years old. He throws toys at his sisters, tries to jump out of a car window, and pulls all the paint cans off a shelf at a hardware store. But Gordons tantrums are the most spectacular part of the film. He lies on the floor, screaming and pounding his fists. When Pat tries to help him, the boy picks up a lamp and smashes it against the wall.
After several boring scenes where Gordons parents talk to psychologists and cry, a service-dog agency agrees to see if the boy can live with a pet. This is when Gordon meets Baxter, a German shepherd, at a dog-training school in Oregon. During the weeks after I left the Ettinger Clinic, I watched one particular scene hundreds of times. Gordon is at the training school with his parents and two sisters, but somehow Baxter knows that hes supposed to be attached to this Human Unit. The dogs head tilts to the left, then tilts to the right, and then he jumps up onto a sofa next to the boy.
The rest of the film shows Baxter and Gordon together. When Gordon is worried or distressed the dog pushes him down, gets on top of him, and licks his face. If the boy lies on the floor screaming and curled up in a ball, the dog pushes his muzzle through the locked arms as if he is forcing open a puzzle.
I would like to own a service dog that would be trained to perceive the different emotions displayed by Human Units. The dog would bark or wag its tail or lick my hand to tell me what someone else was feeling. Together, we would be almost a person.
The following morning I took another shower, drank a bottle of ComPlete, and wrote a message in soft language to Miss Holquist, the woman in charge of the Special Services Section. Miss Holquist is my supervisor. She picks my targets and pays me when Ive completed an assignment.
// Made a successful presentation to the customer. No further meeting is necessary.
Later that day, my payment would be transferred to an account with a British-owned bank on the island of Malta. For my day-to-day expenses, I keep a few thousand dollars with an American bank that has ATM machines all over the city. Both banks require that you use an optical fingerprint sensor when you access your account. My real fingerprints would have been tracked back to my previous identity, but Miss Holquist solved that problem. When I changed my name, she gave me three gummy fingers made out of soft plastic. Each finger had the loops and whirls of an unregistered print that was probably taken from someone who lived in a jungle. If I pressed one of these plastic fingers against a sensor pad, my bank account appeared on a display screen.
Peter Stetskos death was mentioned two days later in a brief article in the New York Post. According to the police, Stetsko was an investment consultant to the Russian community in Brighton Beach. He had no criminal record, but had once been questioned at Kennedy Airport about the large amount of currency in his carry-on bag.
Now that my job was completed, I resumed my usual activities. I dropped off my laundry, bought a case of ComPlete, and dust-mopped the floor. I like watching sports on my computeranything with continual activity that makes my eyes follow a ball. That night I spent three hours watching a Gaelic football match even though I didnt understand the rules.
The next morning, I woke up at 6 a.m. An orange light glowed behind a line of buildings, and then the sun floated upward past rooftop water tanks. At 8 a.m., my computer beeped and Edward spoke softly into my earphone.
Good morning, sir.
I hope youre feeling well, sir.
Theres some new e-mail in your message box.
Usually, Miss Holquist sends me e-mails with soft language through the public Internet, but this was coded information sent through the Darknet. I accessed the decoding software on my computer, typed in the activation key, and read:
// I realize that youve just finished a job, but weve received an emergency request to deal with a problem in Great Britain. Please let me know in the next 24 hours if you wish to accept or reject the assignment. HOLQUIST.
As usual, the message included the name and photograph of the target, his last known address, and the fee I would receive for the job.
I went online and did some quick research. The target was an Englishman named Victor Mallory who was the former CEO of a private equity fund called Endeavor Investments. Endeavor had gone bankrupt a year ago and now Mallory was being sued in several countries. I assumed that I had been hired by an investor who wanted a more direct means of expressing his annoyance.
Normally, I would be given a few weeks of free time before my next assignment. Miss Holquists unexpected request made my Spark bounce around inside my Shell, so I decided to calm my agitation by visiting the pedestrian walkway that runs across the Brooklyn Bridge. Two granite and limestone towers hold a pair of massive cables that display catenary curvesa three-dimensional display of a hyperbolic cosine function. Attached to the curves is a web of diagonal and vertical cables that hold up the bridge platforms. When I stand at the center point and look outward, it appears as if the sky is divided into clearly marked sections. Randomness disappears, and Im able to sort through my wayward thoughts and place them in different boxes.
Excerpted from Spark by John Twelve Hawks. Copyright © 2014 by John Twelve Hawks. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.