83. The Burnt Smell of Plastic

When Sakhr took control of the imperial spire, he dedicated the top two floors to Alexander and and his exemplar endeavors. That was ten days ago. Since then, exemplars have been arriving at the HIMS Manakin in droves, and they’d all either undergone massive changes in personality, or were mysteriously missing. Now, every floor belonged to exemplar operations.

Sakhr had since moved to the office at the top of the bridge spire, leaving the imperial spire to become Alex’s playground. Christof had asked Sakhr what was going on up there. All Sakhr knew was that he’d come over twice a day, and Alex would have another batch of terrified men and women tied to chairs awaiting swap. Christof asked how many people there’d been in total. Maybe a hundred, Sakhr had answered.

Christof entered the ground floor of the spire. It had been converted into a security checkpoint made of portable pieces such as foldable tables or stanchions. The body scanner here would fall over if he pushed it. One jolt to the ship and everything would topple. It seemed to Christof that they must be violating some protocol by not having the structures bolted down, but then corner-cutting suited Alex’s “exemplars”.

A female exemplar waved him over to a desk. “Hello, Officer.”

“General.”

“General, sure. You need to fill this out.” She handed Christof a tablet. He glanced it over. It was an entry submission form.

“…I’m General Soto,” he said. “I’m here to see High Exemplar Cho.”

She smiled blandly. “Just fill out the form, General.”

“I am expected. The queen sent me here directly.”

“Everybody fills out the form, General. Let me know when you’re done.” She went back to working at her computer, but her aura radiated a sense of smug superiority. This was probably a great job for her, he thought. She went from a prison or a detainment facility, right into a position where should could order around the same soldiers she probably resented.

He filled out the form. When he handed it back, she wasted time on her computer before taking the tablet. She scrutinized the results closely. According to her aura, this was just for fun.

Finally passing him on, she directed Christof to proceed into the checkpoint. A male exemplar manning the scanning machine was diddling back on a chair while reading a tablet. He didn’t look up when he waved for Christof to stop. “Woah there, soldier. Empty your pockets. Then step into the machine. Hands above your head. Feet on the footprints.”

Christof filled a small basket with a wallet, an ID badge, a USB stick, and a handful of tissues. Feeding the basket onto a conveyer, he stepped into the scanning machine. Decades ago, Christof heard that metal detectors were less likely to go off if you stepped through them slowly, but technology had changed, and this wasn’t a metal detector. He still stepped delicately inside the machine.

A vertical bar spun in the tube wall.

The exemplar studied a screen out of Christof’s view. “You’ve got something in your coat?”

“Yes.”

“Go back. Empty it. Start again.”

“It’s this.” Christof took out his shield plaque. “I’ll just show it to you.”

The exemplar frowned. “What is that?”

“It’s a plaque.” Obviously so.

“You’re, uh… not an exemplar.”

“It was specially issued to me by the queen.”

“You’ll have to leave it here.”

“No. It’s to stay with me at all times.”

“You’re not supposed to have a plaque. Only exemplars have plaques.”

“I just said it was specially issued. I’m not putting it down.”

“No one except exemplars can have glyphs inside the exemplar wing. For security.”

“Look, I don’t care what Alexander told you, or Cho, or whatever name he’s going by. And I don’t care who you all really are. I’m not forfeiting that plaque.”

Startled, the exemplar glanced around as though someone nearby might overhear. “Would you keep it the fuck down?” His tone had become less professional. “Don’t go yelling that shit out.”

“Then stop wasting my time.”

“Just leave the fucking plaque, old man.”

“No. It will self-destruct if I leave it. You should know this.”

“Okay, fine. I need you to look into my eyes.”

Christof did so.

The man studied him. After a moment, he frowned. “I uh, can’t see your mind.”

“I know. I’m shielded. That’s what my plaque is for.”

“Then put it down for a moment.”

“No.”

“Jesus Christ. It’s not going to blow up. Just put it down.”

“No.”

The exemplar grabbed for it. “Put the fucking plaque down, guy!”

“No. You’re not reading my mind. I have information you are not privy to. That’s why I have the damn thing in the first place.”

“I’m not supposed to let anyone in without reading their mind first.”

“Would you read High Exemplar Cho’s mind?”

“No. He’s my boss.”

She’s your boss. Keep it straight.”

“Whatever.”

“And it’s General. Not Soldier.”

Whatever.”

“If you’re going to impersonate an exemplar, at least learn protocol.” Christof collected his things. “If you have a problem with me, take it up with the High Exemplar.”

He walked on toward the stairwell.

“Hey,” the exemplar yelled. “You forgot something.”

Christof looked. The exemplar flipped him off with both hands.

He turned back and entered the stairwell. He reached the first landing out of view before nearly collapsing.

His legs were jelly. His hand trembled, but they clenched his plaque with a death grip. If he were to drop it for a moment, a hundred exemplars would suddenly notice an aura nauseous with anxiety.

Once he’d recovered, he continued up. The top floor would be where Alexander was, but he had a quick stop to make first. At each door, he got a feel for the auras on that level. Floor ’11N’ was too packed. Floor ‘12N’ had fear among its inhabitants. That must be Alexander’s prisoner floor—spare bodies and desperate minds. Sakhr had suspected Alexander was keeping his own cache of bodies.

‘13N’ was adequately sparse. Though the state of it nearly made Christof turn right around. Anyone who came here would know that the Exemplar Committee was no longer the incorruptible beacon it was supposed to represent.

Christof walked down a curved hallway, passing office after office. Each was converted into makeshift dorms. The acrid smell of burnt plastic filled the air. Christof knew drugs well enough to guess what it was. The office dorms had window walls toward the hall, left over from its business days. Some exemplars had covered them with posters or sheets. The ones that weren’t covered showed exemplars lurking in cliques. They crowded small assembled tables covered in drinks, tech, and drugs. They eyed him like cats in a dark alley.

Sensing their auras, Christof knew he made them nervous,. He wore his clean and properly buttoned officer’s uniform as though it meant something. He walked like a soldier. Simply put, he didn’t belong here.

Their cliques were racially based, which baffled him. The only care Alexander and Sakhr made when swapping out bodies was to preserve gender. Brazilian gang members found themselves in white bodies. North American detainees had darker skin than ever before. Yet despite how arbitrary it was, there was little exception to that rule.

Christof had survived through body swapping for nearly half a millennium. Never before had it seemed so wrong. These men put drugs and alcohol in bodies that good men and women spent their lives cultivating. They enjoyed rushes only lightweights could experience. They fucked one another thinking consequences no longer existed.

This wasn’t a corrupt Exemplar Committee. The Committee was gone. All of this was just a tasteless parody.

Seeing it reaffirmed what Christof came to do.

He found an unoccupied break room. Beside a microwave and minifridge was a small assembler meant for simple food stuffs and office supplies. He tapped through the touch screen menu. Someone had hacked this to produce pharmaceuticals without a prescription key, but it would still work for his purpose.

He locked the break room door, inserted his USB stick into the machine, and navigated the menu that popped up. The machine hummed to life. Unlike a microwave, there was no window to look into, so Christof sat on the break room table and waited while his handgun assembled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.