Replica prolog: A would-be assassin thinks too much

Before long you’ll be seeing Replica at your local ebook store.  Here is its prolog.  Its job is to grab you by the throat, pull you into a near-future world, and make you excited to be there.  It needs avoid bogging you down in excessive explanation — the bane of science fiction novels — but it needs to get across what’s at stake.

The would-be assassin in the prolog is closer to McKinley’s killer than to Garfield’s; he has an ideological axe to grind with the president.  But he thinks too much.

************

It was the last day of his life, and the man in the blue nylon jacket was getting nervous.

He stood on the common, hands stuffed in his pockets. It was a little after two by the town-hall clock. He would be dead by a quarter to three.

The crowd was growing now. Lots of Norman Rockwell families: pink-cheeked grandmas, kids in snowsuits clutching balloons, strong-boned women pushing strollers. Plenty of bored, burly policemen. And the occasional gimlet-eyed man in a gray overcoat, watching.

The high school band was playing next to the temporary stage; a young woman was testing the sound system; the hot-chocolate vendors were doing terrific business. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

He hadn’t expected to be nervous. But everything was real now, and nothing can prepare you for the reality of death.

He had parked his car in a supermarket lot at the edge of town. It occurred to him that he could turn around, walk back to it, and drive away. Life would go on.

This struck him with the force of great insight. He had been anticipating this day for so long now that the idea of living it like any other day was strange and compelling.

Which would be harder: dying, or living with the knowledge that he had failed?

A helicopter swooped by, and then returned to hover overhead. The band played “From the Halls of Montezuma. ”

He remembered sitting in the bleak apartment and listening to the others spin their crazy schemes. They were dreamers; worse than dreamers, because they thought they were doing something wonderful and dangerous, when all they were really doing was wasting their lives. “You’re trying to get something for nothing,” he told them, “and you’re not clever enough for that. If you want to do this, then you’ve got to be willing to risk everything—and then it becomes easy.”

But they weren’t willing. And he was. So he had left them behind, to end up here and take the risk.

He had been on the road for days. The distance to be traveled was hardly great, but he felt a need to disappear, to find some anonymity in the grimy motels and the self-service gas stations and the fast-food restaurants. Family, lovers, friends, work—it would be easier, he had thought, if he left them all far behind.

But here he was, and it was hard.

Distant sirens. Little boys had climbed the bare trees; infants were perched on parents’ shoulders, necks craned, placards waved. Flashing lights, the roar of motorcycle engines, the cheering of the crowd…

…and there he was! Yes, look, in person—something to tell your grandchildren. Reach out and maybe he’ll touch your hand!

The man in the blue nylon jacket stood in the crush and gaped like all the rest. The reality of his prey was paralyzing. The high forehead gleaming in the sunlight as if polished, the sharklike smile, the large nose red from the cold… Look, it’s him!

We’re both going to die.

He was on the stage now, waving. A local politician stood at the microphone and gestured for quiet. “It is my great privilege…”

Hard to breathe. The anger was returning before the man had spoken a word. How could they cheer him? Why couldn’t they see?

Would one of the gimlet-eyed men notice that he wasn’t cheering?

The introduction was finished; the cheers continued.

The man on the stage waited for silence, then began. Bad joke, gratitude to the crowd for coming out on such a cold January day. Then on to the substance.

“Four years ago, when I came to New Hampshire, I asked a simple question: do you think your lives are as good as those of your grandparents? As meaningful. As rich in the things that make life worth living. Now as you know, in a couple of years we will be celebrating America’s two hundred and fiftieth birthday as a nation. So today I want to ask you fine people a slightly different question: do you think your lives are as good as those of the men and women who brought this great nation into existence? They had no jets to take them across the country, no robots to do their work, no nuclear weapons to wipe out their enemies. But I think you’ll agree they had a better chance at happiness than many of us have today, a better chance to attain the dignity and self-respect that go with having a purpose in this life, even if the purpose is as basic as providing food for your family.”

How could he say that stuff—and how could the crowd listen to it? Inoculated, anesthetized, sanitized, with twice the life-span of their ancestors and half the pain, they didn’t know how good they had it. Maybe they wouldn’t know until they destroyed what they had.

“For years we have been fooling ourselves that technological progress must inevitably produce happiness. But now we have come to realize that it produces merely complexity, and tension, and fear. The technologists say: machines make life easier. I say: I don’t want my life easy; I want it real. The technologists say: you can’t pick and choose your progress. I say: why not? I’ll be happy to let them cure cancer, but I’ll be damned if they’ll force me to own a robot. The technologists say: you can’t stand in the way of the future. I say: wanna see me?”

The crowd roared. Someone slapped him on the back. He jammed his hands deeper into his pockets. He should be past trying to understand or to argue now. He should just get ready to do what had to be done.

“And now they are going beyond even robots; they are putting robot brains into living human flesh. They call these creatures androids. I call them the work of the devil, and if I do nothing else during my second administration, I am going to see that their manufacture and sale is made illegal in this great nation.”

As he watched and listened, the speaker’s head seemed to grow until it filled his field of vision. He imagined it exploding, like a ripe melon dropped on concrete. He imagined the screams and the terror, the hands pointing at him, grappling with him; imagined everything as he had imagined it a hundred times before. But he had run out of time for imagining now; reality was here, ready. He had only to seize it.

He didn’t move, and the speech continued.

“I know many of you have been put out of work by robots and similar machines. And in trying to get the jobs that remain, you find yourself competing with immigrants who are willing to work for pennies. Now, contrary to what my opponents are always saying, I have nothing against immigrants. When the wars of the millennium broke out, it was right and fitting that we extended our generosity to their victims. But over twenty years have passed, and we are still paying the price for our good deeds. I say: enough is enough! Let’s put a stop to immigration! Let’s call a halt to the incursions of technology on the quality of our lives! Let’s regain control of our nation!”

Cindy Skerritt. He hadn’t thought about her in years. He wondered how she was doing. Still living in Montpelier? Still fooling around with those stupid Tarot cards? Geez, they had had some good times together. Why did they ever break up? He could be in Montpelier by nightfall.

He could turn around, walk back to his car, and drive away.

He didn’t want to die.

Maybe he could kill the man and still escape. Why not? He wouldn’t miss. He knew he wouldn’t miss.

The common was overrun with Secret Service agents. He had even seen one with a robot scanner; they were convinced a techie was going to send out a robot to do the deed. But they couldn’t be everywhere, couldn’t watch everything. He just needed a little distance.

He made his way through the crowd out onto the sidewalk. It was full of cops standing next to their cycles, waiting for the motorcade to resume. He crossed the street. A few people were perched on the steps of town hall. He looked around. There was nobody by the Methodist church. He sauntered over to it and turned. He was almost directly behind the stage now, and he no longer had a clear shot.

But he wouldn’t miss.

He climbed the stairs and stood in front of the white double doors. He casually tried them. They were unlocked. He opened one a little and stepped back inside. The stage was still visible, his target still there, head bobbing slightly as he reached the climax of his oration.

His dying words.

“I truly believe that for the first time in generations we are headed in the right direction—toward an America that is more concerned with its people than with its machines, more concerned with its spiritual well-being than with its physical comfort, more concerned with life than with progress. If you will give me your help once again—”

He imagined walking through the streets, unnoticed in the turmoil, getting into his car, driving away. No one would even know he had been in town. Montpelier by nightfall.

And a lifetime to enjoy the memory.

He took the gun out of his pocket and lifted it into firing position. The crowd was cheering.

And the people on the stage were on their feet, applauding, surrounding the man, shaking his hand. The speech was over.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

He fired and fired and fired. Felt the arm clutching at him, heard the cheers turn to screams, saw the jumble of bodies on the stage, the pointing fingers. Then he turned and faced his attacker.

It was a minister, overweight, jowls trembling with fright. Doing his duty even though it meant he was going to die. He knew that feeling. He shrugged off the minister’s feeble grip and shot him in the face.

Blood everywhere. Had to get out of here. He raced down the center aisle of the church, taking off his bloody jacket as he ran. The place smelled of furniture polish and flowers. Had to get out. Past the pulpit, through a door, into darkness. His knee banged into something sharp. He cursed and limped ahead. He found a knob, turned it, and saw sunlight. He forced himself to run down the stairs and along the side street. Which way to his car? If he could only get to his car, everything would be all right.

He heard sirens, squealing tires. He veered onto the sidewalk and dived into a shop.

It was a drugstore, brightly lit, antiseptic. No customers—just a pharmacist, bald, skinny, terrified. He realized he still had his gun in his hand.

The clock over the counter said quarter to three.

“Rear door,” he gasped.

The pharmacist pointed past the shelves of pills. The man hurdled the counter and made his way through a storage room piled high with empty cartons. The door was bolted. He slid the bolt back and wrenched the door open. A dumpster, a car, a chain-link fence with houses beyond. He headed for the fence.

The wire ripped his pants, cut into his hands. He didn’t feel it. A Doberman was running toward him. He shot it, then noticed it was on a leash. A woman stared at him from her kitchen window.

He ran.

Had to find his car. The parking lot couldn’t be far. Montpelier by nightfall. Sirens everywhere.

Cindy, will you tell me my fortune?

His knee was on fire. Couldn’t run much farther.

Just around the corner. I’m sure it’s—

The first shot hit him in the shoulder as he reached the corner. The car wasn’t there. All he saw was flashing blue and red. He stopped and breathed the pure cold air.

The car wasn’t there.

He wanted to apologize to that woman for killing her Doberman. Reflex. Unavoidable.

The second shot hit him in the left buttock.

And a lifetime to enjoy the memory.

The third and fourth shots hit him in the spinal column and the right kneecap, respectively, and he fell to the ground. The fifth shot smashed through the rib cage and lodged in his heart.

The thing of it was, he didn’t know if he had succeeded. And now he would never know.

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One thought on “Replica prolog: A would-be assassin thinks too much

  1. Pingback: Computers a block long and other hazards of near-future science fiction | richard bowker

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