Baldwin held onto who he was with all of his life. Death might be the price he would have to pay to escape Evy, but he was determined not to end trapped beneath a wailing hologram, a demon that had to be the making of Evy herself.
Baldwin punched, kicked, screamed and did everything he could think of to get the apparition off him. Nothing worked. It continued to wail, continued trying to invade his mind. He saw images of things that would have frozen him solid, had he not been in a state of survival. Then, the howling stopped. The images stopped. He looked up, and Baldwin saw that the apparition was looking to his right, in the corner. The fencewire. He’d kept it for its obvious usefulness. He’d brought it inside just in case another UN cop came bounding into his new momentary home.
The apparition began to slide away from him, then Baldwin felt a grip in his neck. A grip tight enough that he knew there was nothing he could do but to hold on. He was dragged from the bed as though he were the size of a small child, then dumped onto the floor without ceremony. He looked up at the apparition. It was pointing at the wire. Baldwin tried to speak, had to stop and then try again.
“Y… you want the wire?”
The apparition nodded no.
“Tell me what you want,” Baldwin said.
It looked as though the apparition couldn’t use its phantom limbs properly. It seemed to be fighting itself and with great difficulty. For a brief moment, he saw a human within that struggle. Once he saw that, he began to understand its gestures: it wanted him to get the wire himself. With a lot of effort and pain, Baldwin stood and moved to the corner and picked up the wire. He then looked back at the apparition, only to find it prostrate on the bed where he’d just been. He didn’t need prompting as to what to do next. He simply laid the wire atop the apparition.
It’s face began to clear. It was like watching one face in a film moving at normal speed while the rest of the film flew around in fast motion. The outline of its body still moved, shifted and vibrated. But now, he could see that this was once a man. And the face was the most exhausted expression Baldwin had ever seen. He was nearly overwhelmed with pity for the thing. On the other side of his bed, the watch he’d worn started making noise, like someone talking. He went around the bed and picked it up.
“You?” he asked the man beneath the wire. The man nodded. Baldwin raised the volume on the watch. The man’s voice came through crackly; tinny and thin. But he could understand him just fine.
“Can’t… can’t escape. Can’t… can’t be me… noise. Noise. NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”
“Calm down,” Baldwin said. “What can I do? How can I help?”
“P. P. P… P… Pistol.”
“But that didn’t do anything to you before. You just redirected it.”
“Work now. Wire. Distrupts. Can’t see me… can’t remake… She never…. never stops.”
Baldwin didn’t want the man to suffer much longer, but he had to ask: “Are you one of the augmented? The ones she killed?”
The man nodded. Baldwin understood: Evy had, in fact, kept them as data within herself. She was remaking them, over and again. Never allowing them rest. He bent down and picked up the pulse pistol. “Why are you out here?”
“Tried… wanted get away. Can’t. Price. I asked…”
Baldwin could see the resolve in the man’s eyes. He knew, there was no escaping. No going back. He’d asked. Wanted to be augmented. Baldwin felt himself wishing there was more he could do. But giving the man peace seemed like a fine option, if all he had.
“I will ask him to forgive you.” He pointed the pistol. He looked down and the man had his holographic eyes closed. He pulled the trigger. Then, Baldwin closes his eyes and did as he said for the man.
As he sat back on the old couch in the old house watching the sun rise, Baldwin thought of the ‘ghost’ he’d encountered. In a way, he thought, a ghost was exactly what the man had become. A shell, albeit digital, of his former self. A self that had given into temptation. He sometimes wondered why he bucked the entire system. What was the point, he asked himself. More often than he liked admitting. The man’s face had burned itself into his mind that night, however, and he felt he’d never need to ask the question again. The point? he said to himself, is to finish. To stay what he had managed to stay for so long. Human. Imperfect, flawed and sometimes cruel. But nonetheless, human.
There was madness in being human, he knew. He’d accepted that a long time ago. But what he’d seen since Evy appeared defied even human madness. Since he’d first heard her voice, he knew that underneath possibly (but highly unlikely) humanitarian intent, humanity had created something capable of madness beyond his own.
Then, Baldwin put this all aside. His ankle was healing, though still bruised. He limped only slightly to the Blazer and reached beneath the front seat. The older man had left three cartons of cigarettes underneath the seat. Baldwin took out a pack and opened it. The sun shone into his eyes and the burn was wondrous to him. He leaned his head back and let the light fall on his face and neck, then he put the cigarette into his mouth and lit, taking the drag in long, once again enamored of the wonder of tobacco.
Leaning back on the front quarter panel of the old truck, Baldwin smiled. He understood that there was nothing else. For his consequences for choosing what he believed as the only real choice were not unlike those who’d chosen augmentation: there was no going back.