“Whom to Betray Today” by Tamara Wilhite

Space Couple, by Romeo Esparrago
Illustration: “Space Couple” © 2005 by Romeo Esparrago

“Ready to go?”

I nodded. We walked to an electric car. I got in, no longer caring who saw me get in. We drove past the chaos that was the city. Outside was a mix of shanties and high rises, and religious communities bounded by perimeter fences. Communications towers dominated the sky over children carrying water buckets. Live performers and 4-D screens showered the crowd with advertisements.

I knew the dead zones had forced survivors to the unaffected areas in an intolerable density. And the worst explosions of violence came from the overcrowding. Wars over water, land, religious and ethnic differences, trade routes, and any other reason had ravaged the planet, made worse by too many people and dwindling resources. That was two generations ago, but the aftermath still bubbled in the cauldron defined by old safety notices.

“Is there anything you need, madam?”

“No, thank you.” Marshak, the butler, barely contained his surprise; he was still not used to my treating him as an equal. But habits of my old life died hard. I liked the man, though I knew that was out of custom.

Chandler was waiting for me. He was sitting behind a large hardwood desk, an antique that wondrously had not become firewood. His closed eyes moved rapidly, probably reading data off his lenses. “Through your contacts with the underground, we’ve recovered most of our stolen equipment, as well as much of our competitors’.”

He opened his eyes. “How is your research progressing?”

“I send reports.”

“You leave things out of your reports.”

“I sent neutralized virus specimens from the borderland population months before they became epidemics. Your staff should have known the value — and the meaning — of those samples. If you don’t know enough about medical research protocols anymore to realize the importance of those samples, it isn’t my fault.”

“What about the smuggled antibiotics? The theft and distribution of stolen goods is certainly your fault.”

“It was to gain their trust. How else could I safely gather the virus samples without raising suspicion? It is easy to get viral samples when administering medication, especially real medication.”

“My staff didn’t know about it in advance.”

“If your staff knew in advance, they’d have never accepted the idea.”

“You’ve been discouraging drug use among them.”

It was the tone of a profiteer watching declining profits. How could I explain that drug use was morally wrong, when the vast majority used it as a means of escape from an immoral world? “They are using their money to buy other goods. You still profit.”

“True.” The barest pause. “You are only doing what we are requiring you to do.”

“Given the current circumstances, what you want is difficult enough. I can’t rebuild a disease-monitoring and control regimen overnight when its collapse took years. You have the best I can do.”

“If you weren’t doing your best, I’d have you terminated.”

“Get rid of your spies, and my performance would improve.”

“Without spies, how can I be sure of your true performance? Especially given the simplicity of your reports.”

I shrugged it off and left. I knew a dismissal when I heard one. I went back to my quarters in the complex to sleep, no longer bothered by the cameras or watchers. I dreamed of home.

* * *

“Quiet, please.” The cacophony of murmurs and electronic sounds silenced. Jerotte told the crowd a rough outline of our deal, though leaving out names. Most seemed pleased with the latest batch of antibiotics I’d led them to. Or they were thrilled for having outwitted a better-funded cooperative, the one that spied on my activities. Jerotte was careful not to look in my direction. My latest assistant/handler, it was a difficult balancing act. Here, I was his superior in both knowledge and social status. Elsewhere, he was my guardian and potential executioner.

I was grateful for the share of the finder’s fee, the percentage of the street value of the antibiotics they sold rather than used. I gave the stock to acquaintenances I’d made, knowing that for them it made the difference between living or not. I couldn’t call them friends. I couldn’t relate well enough to be friends with any of them.

Jerotte went on, assigning work details and information-gathering jobs. Did he find the job ironic? Did anyone else understand irony these days? A spy assigning people to spy on his boss. I stayed in the shadows until Jerotte was done speaking to people. To my surprise, he came straight to me, abandoning pretense of routine and protocol. The words rushed out, “You’re in danger.”

“How?”

“Chandler is concerned about your loyalty and the quality of your information. He thinks you might be trying to change employers. He’s going to have his people bring you to a ‘more secure environment’.”

“They can’t do that, not yet –” I stopped, but it was too late. I had to remember who and what Jerotte was. My freedom, my plans — I had to act now. I asked him, “Can you close down the lab?”

“No! It would rouse suspicion. You’re supposed to do vaccinations next week, remember? So you can’t close it and I can’t close it. They’ll wonder if there’s a raid they don’t know about! That’s a sure way to get killed as a traitor.”

“They’ll eventually find out you’ve betrayed them anyway.”

“Not while I’m here. I can’t stand having them face me with that. They’ll never find out while I’m here, I’ve made sure of that. They’re my friends –“

“Jerotte, I have to close it down before I’m recalled by Chandler. I can’t leave it open.”

“Is it so critical?” Jerotte was growing alarmed. “Or is it dangerous?” He was a child of the times, and knew the realm of wheels within wheels.

A thought hit me. “Yes. It’s dangerous. And I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” True, if not entirely relevant to the situation. “Do your people know where my lab is?”

“Yes.” He smiled slightly. I’d kept that secret even from him, though I knew he’d find out. “It took a long time, and quite some effort to follow you to it.”

That was supposed to be a sop toward my pride. I was losing control of the situation and running out of time. So many threads… At least I was fatally allergic to all truth serums, or else someone would have squeezed the total truth out of me long ago.

“Can I sneak out and you have someone follow me who can destroy it? Or should we go together?”

* * *

Soft blue light emanated from the holographic projector. I ejected the data crystal. A dozen others were scattered across my cot, half hidden by the projector and other equipment. On a stretch of empty work space, a crystal reader, a med kit filled with vaccinations, antibiotics, other medical supplies, and a knapsack.

Chandler couldn’t have known where the others were, or else his people would have been able to revive me properly from the spare unit in the main research complex shelter. I stuffed the knapsack with supplies of this modern age, knowing the viral and medical samples would be crucial in the future. I was wondering when Chandler’s people were going to appear.

People were coming. From the modest rebellion? Or Chandler’s guards? Hopefully, the intersection of both would buy me cover and delay. I began to run. I heard gunfire, kept running. Who was it? I kept to my priorities. The rebels were my allies in spirit, but Jerotte was a good man who wanted to bring order to chaos via a little spying — and he’d saved my life when Chandler’s idiots nearly killed me and couldn’t be bothered to provide care. But I had to betray someone… and it had to be today. I saw a flash of metal, and it fired. I ducked again, whirled, leg swung out to trip the person. He or she fell, misfired, hit the wall. I kept going.

It took six hours of crawling through abandoned passages, through alleys, over rooftops, and behind stalls and shanties. The stench in these abandoned sewers was terrible, but tolerable for me. Biowarfare vaccines might keep me safe where others wouldn’t risk the diseased cesspool. But that’s why what I sought was here.

I followed a mental map I prayed hadn’t been warped by dreams while in suspended animation. Chest-deep in human sewage was bad. Dying while lost in it would be the only thing worse.

Miraculously, the hatch came into view. Every person had needs, and machines took care of those needs. And for those bound in a long sleep, machines still had to dispose of the waste. These sewers were designed to last centuries, draining into the deep sea, with only a few openings into the old city.

I opened the maintenance lock. The lock had been meant as a possible exit if the surface entrance was destroyed — and it had been — and for repairs. I climbed up what had been meant to only climb down, wondering how I’d ever get clean.

One of Chandler’s projects was to flood these tunnels. They’d be filled with unusable plastic waste laden with heavy metal within twenty-four hours. He needed to dispose of the material, and from my advice, he thought doing that would wash it all into the sea. Even if it didn’t work, no one would be able to trace me through here by any means after that. Or ever find the hatch.

Tiny echoes chased my footfalls as I found an emergency decontamination shower. This place had been designed after all as a refuge from a major war. My clothes were torched by a sterilization unit. My pack was unloaded, contents put in storage, and the catskin leather bag was torched as well. I wouldn’t risk leaving a plague to fester here for my friends.

I took my time wandering the tight corridors. The systolic action would eventually clear the tunnels of Chandler’s industrial waste. Two or three decades, at least. If the waste outlet was blocked, the machines would adapt for a while. There were always redundancies. Except for the humans.

I found it. Unit 8X. I rubbed away the frost from the cryogenic unit. Jaden was there, perhaps a year older. And I’d aged at least 5 years. The others were here, both friends and strangers, sixty years out of date. And I was no longer in sync with them.

Perhaps it was better I’d been awakened. They’d need the data I’d gathered, and the medical supplies I’d brought. And the knowledge that all the others who’d taken shelter at the alternate facility were dead by Chandler’s attempts to awaken those he thought would cure his world of its ills.

I concentrated on entering the program, well aware a mistake would kill me. Beads of water ran down my neck, dampening the collar of the bath robe. Unlimited hot, clean water — something I’d not had in too long. It didn’t exist now. Nor would it for some time. Whether reinvented by the living or reintroduced when the genius sleepers awoke, I didn’t know.

I lay down to join the sleepers. Unlike them, I knew home was gone forever and lived only in my dreams. I didn’t care about my coming dreams; nothing was worse than the reality we’d left behind. Would they criticize my decision to join them rather than try to improve the world I’d leave by joining them? But they’d chosen the life raft together to float the generations by; I’d not regret fighting to rejoin it.

It was another sixty years before we were scheduled to be awakened. I doubted my colleagues would like this time. But they were colleagues from my time. They were refugees of my kind. Jaden had been a familiar acquaintance; the others were strangers. I’d already lost my world, and those in the world today were accustomed to betrayal. But these people I would and could not betray, the sleeping strangers. Not yesterday, not today, not ever. *

About the Author: Tamara Wilhite is a full-time technical writer, part-time science fiction writer, and always a mother of 2.
(c) 2005 Tamara Wilhite TamaraWilhite@hotmail.com

About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is a cryogenically preserved head-hand chimera, awakening only when summoned to draw illustrations for Planet Magazine.
(c) 2005 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com

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One Comment on ““Whom to Betray Today” by Tamara Wilhite”

  1. Romeo Says:

    A well thought out and effective story – it left me with a feeling of melancholy.


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