(Author’s Note: This is the final chapter I will be posting. As with other chapters, this has skipped ahead to the point when Sam finally meets Walt, the leader of the Unit.)
Lloyd’s expression darkened. He spun towards the door, then quickly back to me.
“Walt’s here,” he said. “Now listen to me: Walt is brilliant. His intellect is beyond yours or mine or anyone else’s in the Unit. I’m second in charge and decidedly more advanced than anyone in the Unit besides Walt, yet Walt is worlds beyond me. I tell you this because although he is far more evolved than the rest of us, he is a miserable human being. He lacks manners and politeness. You’ll find him to be rude and gruff, I’m certain of it. But you must understand that everything he does has a purpose and nothing he says is intended to insult. Well, usually. Just be patient with him. Do not take his behavior personally. Do you understand?”
“Don’t worry, Lloyd,” I said. “I’m not easily offended.”
His smiled returned. “Good, but trust me on this,” he said. “His abilities are dizzying, but his social skills are those of a wasp. Just don’t tell him I said that.”
The glass door slid open and a man I presumed to be Walt stepped in.
He was tall, well over six feet. His limbs were long and thin but appeared strong and sinewy. He wore a three-piece suit, the fabric of which appeared to be wool. Round spectacles perched on the bridge of his slightly hooked nose and a top hat concealed what appeared to be short grey hair. His face was old and weathered but he had a look of vitality that belied his many years of life. He strode into the room purposefully, then stopped. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the room, moving his eyes from Lloyd, to me, back to Lloyd and then down to Cooper, who rose and positioned himself in front of me. He did not growl, but I could sense that he was anxious.
Without a word, Walt walked towards me. His steps were effortless but remarkably fast. With one hand, he removed his hat. With the other, he took off his glasses. Then he leaned in and studied my head. He reached over Cooper and grabbed my skull, turning it slowly but firmly from side to side, his eyes no more than a couple inches from whatever he was examining. He did so for about twenty seconds. Then he released me and stepped back. He slid his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and spoke to Lloyd even while staring directly at me.
“It’s healed well,” he said. “Are we satisfied?”
“Oh, most definitely,” Lloyd said. “No hitches to speak of. Exactly as planned.”
“Good,” he said. He turned and walked over to a corner of the room. A folding chair I had not noticed before awaited. Walt picked it up and placed the chair about five feet in front of me, then sat down. He leaned forward and continued to stare at me. I stared back, waiting.
“How much has he deciphered?” Walt said.
“Quite a bit, and all on his own,” Lloyd said. “He’ll learn much more once training begins.”
“Advanced,” Lloyd said. “As it was even before the procedure.”
“Hmph,” Walt said, grunting as he leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms and eyed me from behind his round spectacles.
“I’m going to speak to you as if you were not an idiot,” Walt said, now apparently addressing me. “I’ll assume you understand me in a manner comparable to any other member of the Unit.”
I smirked. Walt noticed and his face contorted slightly with disdain.
Lloyd was right: Walt was an asshole, of that I was already certain. In the Normal world, his condescending attitude likely would have drawn me into an unnecessary confrontation. But I remembered what Lloyd said about his lack of social skills, and I reminded myself that my main objective was to gather information, especially now that I was faced with the apparent leader of this new world. I breathed in deeply and tried to remain calm.
“The future of mankind is at risk,” Walt said. “We have brought you here to be part of a group that will define, develop and create the next generation. If we fail, our projections suggest that we will be killed or enslaved. I have no intentions of allowing either.”
He waited for my reaction. I offered none. So far, Walt had given me nothing but words that made little sense. I waited for more.
“Lloyd has explained the creation and function of the Unit to you, yes?” he asked.
“To a degree,” I said. “I’m sure there’s more I need to know.”
“There is much more you need to know and that undoubtedly will always be the case,” Walt said. I couldn’t tell if the insult was intentional.
Walt stood abruptly and pulled a handgun from his jacket pocket.
“A demonstration,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
He held the gun by the nose and thrust the handle in my direction.
“Take it,” he said.
I hesitated. As a child, I had only shot guns at Boy Scout summer camps. As an adult, Pacy and I never had a gun in our home because we didn’t feel the need to live in fear. Besides, I figured Cooper and a baseball bat were all the protection we needed.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Take it,” Walt repeated. “I assume you know how to use it. All of you Normals do. I’m going to demonstrate to you how far we have advanced, and I’ll do it in a way that even you can understand.”
I felt like a boxer facing a vastly superior opponent, one who overwhelms him seconds after the bell rings. Walt was no longer merely bothering me. He was frightening me. As he impatiently held out the gun, I tried to think. Logic dictated I should take the weapon and defend myself. But I also had a strong sense that, armed or not, I was no match for this man. I feared that taking the gun could be seen as an invitation to aggression.
“Take it,” he said, his voice becoming terse. “You can’t hurt me. Not permanently. Take the gun and you’ll understand.”
Still I did nothing. Cooper pressed into my legs and let out a low growl, unsure if he should protect or attack.
“If you don’t take it, I’ll be forced to demonstrate on Lloyd,” Walt said.
He waited several seconds, then sighed and turned to Lloyd.
“Unbutton your shirt,” he said.
Lloyd did as instructed. Walt turned towards him with the gun in his left hand. When Lloyd finished unbuttoning his shirt, he slid it off his shoulders, exposing his chest and shoulders but keeping his arms inside the sleeves. I began to sweat. Lloyd showed no emotion.
“You’re not going to shoot him, are you?” I said.
“Of course I am,” Walt said. “You are refusing to shoot me, and somebody needs to be shot for my demonstration.”
He raised the gun. Lloyd closed his eyes and turned his head. Walt aimed.
Before he could pull the trigger, I shouted: “Stop! I’ll take the gun. Just don’t shoot him.”
Walt lowered the gun and without hesitating walked over to me, as if he had expected precisely that outcome. He placed the gun in my right hand then took three steps away from me. He turned to face me and unbuttoned his shirt as Lloyd had done.
“You will shoot me here,” he said, motioning to his right shoulder.
I held the gun in my hand, trying to think. I returned in my mind to that night years ago outside the Fish when I’d considered killing someone for the first time in my life. I wondered what might happen—to me, to Lloyd, to the Unit—if I shot this man in the face rather than his shoulder. But the thought was short-lived. This was different. On the street that night, I was convinced that the drunk man beating his dog deserved to be punished. Here on the Bridge, I was only convinced that I did not like Walt. Beyond that, I knew little about him. Killing him would not be an act of justice. It would be murder.
“You won’t miss,” Walt said calmly. “You have yet to start your training, so I still have some control over you, despite the procedure. Just aim, pull the trigger and I’ll take care of the rest. Now—raise the gun.”
I raised the gun and pointed it at his shoulder. I closed my right eye and lined him up with my left. My hand shook. I had never shot anyone before. It wasn’t something I’d ever planned on doing. Even now, I didn’t know if I could.
“It’s OK, Sam,” I heard Lloyd say. “You won’t hurt him.”
I pulled the trigger.
Cooper yelped. The gun jolted back in my hand with a kick not as fierce as a shotgun’s but surprisingly powerful for such a small weapon. Walt staggered back two steps, then caught his balance. A red hole appeared in his shoulder. Blood formed at the edges and smoke wafted from the cavity. Walt looked down at the wound, his expression emotionless and stern.
“Come,” he said. “Observe.”
I walked towards him with the gun hanging from my right hand. I watched as the hole in Walt’s shoulder bled briefly, then stopped. The blood seemed to coagulate almost instantly. Within seconds, a scab had formed. It covered the hole and hardened. Walt’s expression did not change. He stared at the wound intently. Once it was done scabbing, the wound began to make noises. It hissed and twitched, as if boiling just beneath the surface. Then it started to bulge. Something below the surface was pushing against it. The scab cracked down the middle and the bullet I’d just fired into Walt slid out of his shoulder and dropped to the floor. The scab bled briefly, then stopped. It dried, scabbed over again, then peeled off. Only a small circle of pink scar tissue remained, and even that was only temporary. A few more seconds passed and the pink faded. The spot on Walt’s shoulder, into which I had fired a bullet less than a minute before, was now a perfectly normal patch of human skin. As if nothing at all had happened.
Walt buttoned his shirt, then seized the gun form my hand.
“The brain possesses remarkable healing powers,” Walt said as he re-holstered the firearm. “You also have healing powers. You don’t know how to use them yet, but once you start your training, it will be one of the first things Lloyd teaches you: How to heal the body through enhanced focus. Now—sit.”
Again, I did as instructed. Cooper followed me back to the chair and positioned himself at my feet, still shaking from the gunshot, as was I. He craned his neck to look up at me. I patted his head, trying to calm our nerves.
“I trust that my demonstration has had the designed impact,” Walt said. “We have serious issues to discuss. And we must start now.”
He sat in the chair opposite me and waited for a response, but I couldn’t say a word. I had just shot a man, watched him heal himself in seconds, then learned that I apparently could do the same. My brain whirred, and that was bad. I needed focus, clarity. I needed to calm my emotions and gather information. I breathed in slowly, then exhaled through pursed lips.
“We have evidence suggesting that we are not the only Unit,” Walt said. “We have identified at least one but there could be more. The Others pose a threat to our mission. We must deal with this threat.”
I nodded, then surprised myself by asking a question: “What mission?”
“I already told you: to define, develop and create the next generation,” he said.
Silence filled the room. Despite his explanation, I still did not understand and my expression revealed my ignorance. This exasperated Walt. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. Lloyd, standing behind him and nervously shifting from one foot to another, intervened.
“If you don’t mind, Walt—may I?” he said.
Walt nodded, granting permission. He rose from the chair and walked away, turning his back to me and staring out the glass wall towards Downtown. Lloyd stood off to the side of the chair where Walt had sat.
“As you know, the Unit strives to ask and answer every question,” Lloyd began. “But what of the information we discover through answering those questions? As I explained earlier, Walt settled that issue for us. He declared, and we agreed, that we have a moral obligation to use our knowledge to help Normals, to drag them along the path of evolution even if they choose to remain ignorant of the forces doing so. And as we discovered over time, hiding our tracks did not prove difficult. This was fortunate, because while it was determined that we must help Normals, we also knew that it was crucial we do so without them knowing of the Unit’s existence. Only by working unencumbered by Normal interference and any attempts to regulate our work could we achieve the greatest results. To reveal ourselves would jeopardize everything. To give Normals any control whatsoever would only slow our progress. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “You see, Sam, the genius in Walt’s decision was that it gave us a cause. Before, we only had a goal: To increase our intelligence. That’s precisely what we did, only with no real motivation besides attaining and accumulating knowledge. But for what purpose? Walt gave us that purpose. He gave us a mission. He gave us altruistic motivation, an understanding of what we were to do with the gathered information: Help the world. Help Normals evolve. Protect them from themselves. Walt gave us someone to care about, to look over. We needed that. Although knowledge itself should be reward enough, it helped the members of the Unit to know that we were using our knowledge to make the world better. Do you believe that, Sam?”
I did. At least, I believed that Lloyd felt that way. Walt gave them direction, a cause to serve a people from whom they had only recently separated and to whom they no doubt still felt a degree of attachment. Why else would Lloyd fake his death to his parents? Because he cared about them. His words made sense to me.
“I believe it,” I said. “So far.”
He nodded and continued.
“We retreated to our laboratories and research centers with purpose while you—the Normals, that is—were free to pursue relatively carefree lives, unburdened by the most pressing challenges facing mankind,” he said. “When the time came to begin sharing our knowledge, Walt created the Data Transfer team. Their job was to take our most important discoveries and plant them with designated Normals, someone who worked in the appropriate field. They would manipulate the target and his or her research so that they believed they had come up with the discovery on their own. The plan seemed perfect, but, well … it did not go as expected.”
Walt turned to face me, awaiting my reaction to Lloyd’s words. I ignored him and focused on Lloyd.
“You already know about the cures,” Lloyd said. “But there’s much more. Energy production, for instance. You’ve seen the plants. By now, every home in the world should be well-lit, at little cost, by organic plant life. But they are not. We figured out ways to achieve peace accords to longstanding conflicts, but certain powerful Normals hid the solutions because they preferred the world to be in a more profitable state of conflict. In some cases, our discoveries were incorporated into mainstream society, but used for utterly bastardized purposes. Media, for example. We created avenues for an evolving species to share information with others all over the world, but instead of using such mediums to increase knowledge, Normals chose mindless entertainment designed specifically to slow the intellectual evolution of the masses. It was frustrating and deeply discouraging. While we in the Unit continued to advance at an accelerated rate, Normals’ progress ground to a virtual halt. And it wasn’t simply the result of laziness, which could be explained if not forgiven. No, Normals had to actually try to become less informed and less evolved. It was an astounding phenomenon to witness.”
The shame I felt earlier when Lloyd explained what had happened to the cures returned. Every word he was saying was true, and I knew it. On a certain level, I knew even before the procedure. We all did. But Normals—myself included—are skilled at ignoring obvious truths.
“No matter what we shared, Normals either could not comprehend it or rejected it altogether, even when your researchers and scientists bypassed leaders and took their discoveries straight to the public,” Lloyd said. “Think about it: smoking? You’d have to try pretty hard to convince yourself that filling your lungs with chemical-laden fumes is anything but deadly. Yet, to this day, millions of you continue doing it, including you. The same scenarios played out with vaccines, pollution … we tried repeatedly to plant information, to let your scientists know precisely what was going on and how to reverse it. Sometimes when their leaders sat on information, they did what they could to get the message out. They shared it with colleagues, journalists, anyone who would listen. Often, they managed to rally the scientific community and create consensus among experts. They believed that the evidence was so strong it could not be refuted. But what then did your Normal leaders do? They marched in people devoid of the expertise required to question science to do just that. Then they created fake controversies to distract you. They shifted the focus to issues that weren’t remotely important: people’s sexual orientation, the way your president pronounced the word nuclear, what words to use when greeting people at Christmas …”
Lloyd paused, unable to speak through his exasperation. He had spent years trying to figure out Normals’ behavior. And while he continued to love them, he had long ago stopped understanding them. I suddenly related.
“None of it matters,” he said. “And yet, somehow, Normals made these trivial nothings the only things that mattered, even as so many urgent and obvious problems loomed. Did you know that there is an alien culture just outside of our galaxy that is in the process of building a solar panel dome around its sun? Think about that! They are so vastly superior to Normals it is frightening. And we can see them doing it. Everyone can. Even Normal telescopes are strong enough, and while Normal scientists have documented the alien mega structure and tried to tell the masses, nobody listens. Instead, they focus on theatrical political debates and meaningless games of sport. It’s … maddening.
“So we were forced to make a decision: Do we continue wasting our efforts dragging Normals along the path of evolution, despite generational proof that you have no interest? Or do we refocus our efforts on creating a new generation of properly-evolved humans who will inherit and properly manage the earth and beyond?”
Lloyd stared at me, waiting for an answer. I didn’t grasp the full implications of what he was saying, however, so all I did was sit there, saying nothing, waiting for him to continue.
Lloyd shrugged. “The answer was clear,” he said. “We had no choice, and we made our decision.
“But first,” he continued, “before we can advance our new plan, we must deal with this new development—the existence of the Others. At this point, we know little about them, except this: They’re hostile. They want to take us out. Whether it’s for the control that we seek to create the next generation, or for sheer world domination, we don’t know. But they have already attempted to attack us. The planes crashing—that was no accident. It was an outright declaration of war. The 737 and the Cessna were targeting the Bridge. They were headed directly for us. It was only after we were able to penetrate the pilots’ brains that we could turn them away. It was not easy. Their minds had been hijacked by some very powerful forces.”
I closed my eyes and summoned the details of that day. Everything Lloyd said made sense. None of the planes appeared to have sustained any type of mechanical failure. There was no smoke, no holes in the fuselage. They soared steadily and with purpose, as if aiming at a specific spot on the Allegheny—the spot where I now knew the Bridge stood.
Hearing Lloyd explain that the Others had caused the crashes was a relief. From the moment the planes went down, I’d felt a strong sense of responsibility. As the divers scoured the river bottom for the black boxes, a part of me worried that the information contained in them would somehow implicate me. I did not know how to make a plane crash, yet I feared that I had done so, if only inadvertently. Indeed, from the moment unusual things started happening to and around me, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was somehow making it happen. It made no sense—the suicide, the bridge collapse, the assassination … of course I had nothing to do with them. But why was I always there? The planes crashing particularly bothered me. How had I known? And even if I didn’t cause it, why couldn’t I stop it if I knew it would happen?
As was often the case, Lloyd appeared to read my thoughts.
“You had no involvement,” he said. “You were there only because of your heightened awareness. You were able to subconsciously tap into the minds of the people on that plane and identify that something was about to happen to them. That’s why you stationed yourself there to watch and record it, not because you caused it. I, too, thought it was odd when you went there that day. As you’ll recall, you saw me that morning. I was curious as to what might happen, and even when I first saw the planes, it did not immediately occur to me that we were under attack. In other words, while you undoubtedly feel relief, you should also feel triumph.”
“Triumph?” I said. “Why in the world would I feel triumph?”
“Because you sensed it was coming, and we did not,” Lloyd said. “It was only at the last minute that we were able to identify the attack and redirect the planes. Consider it another example of why we chose you: Despite our superior intelligence, you can connect with other humans in ways that we can only dream of.”
“But I don’t know how I did it,” I said. “I didn’t even realize it at the time.”
“That hardly matters,” Lloyd said. “You did it; that’s all that’s important. And it also brings us to you. The time has come, Sam. It’s time for you to finally understand why we chose you.”
Lloyd’s smile, which had disappeared the moment Walt entered the room, finally returned. He was eager to tell me. I was eager to hear it, but also terrified. I was about to find out, finally, what the Unit wanted of me.
“Shall I continue?” Lloyd said, addressing Walt.
Walt nodded, then turned away again to face the glass wall.
He stared out the window at the approaching storm.
It appeared to gain strength as it barreled upriver.