My New Career

 “They used to say Hell is other people. Bet you didn’t know that.”

I actually hear the sharp intake of breath I take at the sound of his voice. I swear to God, I feel my nostrils flare.

“Now it’s supposed to be Heaven,” he adds, spitting at the floor in some attempt to show me how much he hates the world, as if I didn’t already know.

I ignore him, concentrating on the entrance to Viatogney, across the plaza.

“You’re like the rest of them. Don’t know nothing about life before the Awakening,” Eddie continues. “Years of my life, my whole life, studying it. I should have someone who knows what they’re doing.”

“Right. My ‘new’ career. I trained for this too, harder’n you,” I add, glancing at his heavy gut. “If you’re so smart, you know why we can’t have field experience.”

That shuts him up. But I can still feel his petulance in the corner of my mind. And I know he can feel my irritation every time he whines and complains.

“The building’s emptying,” I say, watching the plaza fill up with people. Which you’d know if you’d just shut up for a minute and pay attention. “We’re up. You ready?”

“I’m ready. If anyone’s gonna fuck this up, it won’t be me.”

Eddie grabs his suit jacket. It’s cheap, the best Control could provide to help us blend in when we pass through the plaza, but the sleeves are too small for his thick arms. I try to hide my amused disgust as I watch him struggle into it. Pointless, of course. He knows what I’m feeling as surely as I receive his anger and humiliation.

We are Awake, Eddie and I, trapped by our proximity to each other. But not for much longer, thank God.

We make our way across the plaza, through the crowd of evacuated employees, towards Viatogney. This part’s risky, and why both Eddie and I need to be newbies. We’ve been trained to keep our emotions masked, but the chances of someone picking up on experience is high. So it’s better to have none—that’s what Control said.

Control have done their work. The Viatogney staff are anxious, alarmed, nervous, bored, angry… horny… Nice… They’re not paying attention to us as we slip through them.

And then Eddie opens his Goddamn mouth.

“You won’t know this because you’re dumb, but before the Awakening there was this civilisation of warriors, they transformed warfare. They made it bloody. Took no prisoners, killed anyone they didn’t have a use for. Before them, war was just a scrap in the fields and all home for supper.”

Shut up, shut up, shut up!

I send all my emotion at him, hard as I can. What the Hell is wrong with him? A couple of nearby Viatogney employees turn to look at us. It could be because they felt my wave of fury rolling out, but I know it isn’t.

“They took over the whole region, back then. What they didn’t know, though, was that they were showing others how to fight as well. Refugees from one area went on to conquer another, blood and death everywhere. Idiots,” Eddie prattles on, oblivious to the attention he’s drawing. “That’s like the Awakening. We ain’t supposed to know everything everyone else knows.”

I grab him by the arm, ignoring the revulsion touching him elicits, and spin him round to face me. “Shut up,” I hiss, trying to look nonchalant as I manhandle this slob, five times my size. “What the Hell is wrong with you? You’re gonna get us killed. Just… shut up for five minutes. Can you manage that?”

Eddie opens his mouth, and I tighten my grip. He might be bigger than me, but I’m stronger. He glares at me, but his mouth slams shut.

A few people are watching us now. I send out embarrassment, which isn’t difficult to conjure up, and sprinkle it with a bit of tiredness and – and here’s part of the reason I was saddled with Eddie – even love. I love this fat, disgusting slob. He’s old. Mad. But I love him. Family, huh?

I get back sympathy, a bit of respect. Poor girl, good girl, the old ones never quite adjusted, good for you. I smile at the nearest Viatogney employees, grateful. They smile back, turn away. Go back to their own problems.

Empathy. That’s what the Awakening promised. With empathy, there’d be no more war, no crime, no cruelty. And, oh yeah, the Awakening delivered. But it didn’t just take away the bad. It took away the good, too. The arts went first. Hard to enjoy a painting or a piece of music when you know what everyone around you feels about it. Then friends. Lovers. Family. You don’t realise how important private feelings are until you don’t have them anymore.

I was Awoken as a baby, but sometimes I think I can imagine what it’s like to be alone. Especially after being stuck for days with Eddie.

He manages to keep his mouth shut the remainder of the way, a small miracle he of course knows I’m grateful for. We get inside easily. Everyone’s distracted by the terror warning, and Control have done their job well, the swipe card getting us up ten flights before we hit trouble.

The security turns up from nowhere—I mean, literally nowhere. I didn’t feel them approach, not one of them. Eddie was droning on about his war mongers, right up to the moment we turn the corner and find ourselves facing a firing squad.

Five soldiers, five blasters, five helmets.

“Shit,” Eddie says, for once taciturn. Too late, Eddie.

I step in front of him, eyeing the guards. Helmets. Is that why I couldn’t feel them? “We’re lost,” I offer, focusing on my confusion and fear, trying to sell the story. “We need to get out. We heard the alarms. I’m visiting my uncle… he’s confused…”

The five shiny black helmets remain fixed; the five blasters aiming straight at us. I can’t feel anything from them. I have no idea what they’re going to do.

“This is what it was like, before the Awakening,” Eddie says behind me. “Silence… silence… I can be myself…”

And then Eddie bursts into tears. Heaving, messy, disgusting sobbing. He reaches forward, grabs my shoulder, a terrible, guttural wailing emerging from his filthy chest and spewing out his cracked lips to spill over us.

The helmets recoil in perfect unison, taken aback by the sudden, visible emotion. Alien to them as it is to me.

I seize the moment, perhaps because I’m so sick to death of Eddie that nothing he does can throw me anymore. I kick backwards, my foot hitting Eddie slap in the centre of his gut, propelling myself forwards in a spin. I catch the first guard with my booted heel, cracking his head into number two. Duck, spin, punch up and they’re on the floor, dead or unconscious I can’t tell because I can’t feel them.

The remaining three turn together, their movements mirrored in each other. Some part of me realises this, and I take advantage. They aim together, and I feint left. The blast hits the ground where they thought I would be, but by now I’m up on their right, roundhouse into the nearest one’s helmet, sucker punch to the stomach, knee in the groin and now there’s two.

I hear a couple of blasts, but I’m not paying attention. I’m somewhere else, blissfully removed from Eddie’s screaming cries and the danger we’re in, my body and my mind lost to the fight. I feel leather and metal as my fists make contact, and the sweet, sharp pain up my arms and legs as I kick and spin and jump.

And then it’s over. I’m back in my mind, my chest heaving, my body aching. The five guards lay crumpled around me. I feel a surge of triumph and turn to Eddie, delighted that he can feel it too.

“See that, you smug bastard? That’s why I’m here—”

Eddie is down, blood pooling around him, a gruesome sunset against the white stone floor.

“Shit, shit, shit,” I babble, pulling him to his feet.

“I knew… knew you’d fuck… it up…” His voice is thick and heavy.

“Shut up.”

“Blast… Blast...”

For a moment I don’t understand, but then I get it. I grab a blaster, stick it in my waistband, and then half carry, half drag Eddie to the elevator. I don’t know how, but I manage to wave the security card against the panel and we begin to climb. Using the elevator is dangerous. Eddie bleeds out, yet somehow still manages to tell me how useless I am, while I image the signals being sent to central security. Who’s in the building? What’s happening? Send more guards…

We make it to the top floor, but not before the alarms start to sound.

I drag Eddie along, sweat stinging my eyes. I can feel his pain. His confusion. His fear. Thank God, evidently his chip is still functioning. I push his emotions aside, as best I can. Focus on my feet, one step and then another. Forward, forward.

My vision falters, blurry and black for a moment. I blink, look at Eddie. He’s losing consciousness. I hit him, hard, and he comes back, bringing his filthy feelings with him.

“Bitch,” he says, blood bubbling around the word.

But we’re here, in the control centre. I drop Eddie into the nearest chair, dash to the console, and enter the various codes I have memorized. Nothing happens. I glance at Eddie, relieved to see he’s still awake. And then the lights go green. I grab the nearest Nest, hauling the wires over my shoulder, back to Eddie.

“My chip… You need to take my chip…”

I open my mouth to refuse, but he’s right. He’s as good as dead, and the chip’ll die with him.

“How long will I have?”

“Sec… seconds…”

I nod.

“Make sure… you… get it…” he coughs blood, his eyes glazed. “…the right... way… up…”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck… you…”

“Bye, Eddie.”

I blast him in the temple, plunge my hand into his skull, his brain soft and wet and disgustingly warm. He body jumps and shudders, but I find his chip, pull it free, and he goes still. I launch myself at the Nest, plug his chip in, execute the code and fall to the floor, spent.

I don’t know how long I sit for. No one comes. No guards. No military. I think about Eddie. Did he know, when he told me to get the blaster? Probably.

Eventually I pull myself to my feet and make my way back down to the plaza. Either it’s worked or it hasn’t. Time to find out.

I step outside and…

It’s quiet.

There are people everywhere, but I can’t feel any of them. For the first time in my life, I am by myself.  I am alone, surrounded by hundreds of people.

I don’t realise I’m crying until I taste the tears on my lips.

And then every single person turns to me, their faces distorted in anger and sulky, petulant hate.

“I told you to make sure you put it in the right way up,” they say in Eddie’s horrible, whiny voice.