Writing > Code

Chapter 28


Chapter 28

A few hours later they were on the water, approaching Scheria. They were using one of the electric motors, which were slightly less powerful, so the wind wasn't quite enough to drown out their voices.

"I want to thank you, Vicky," Tom called out over the noise. "I'm sure they wouldn't let me live on the island again if you were against it."

Vicky gave him a strange look briefly, before turning her attention back to their course. "Well, I argued for it, but you'll also want to thank Abner. He made a case for you as well."

That threw him for a loop. Abner had argued for Tom's return?

In uncoded politics, whenever someone did something out of character, they were either being stupid, being brazen, or they were doing a favor for someone else. At first Tom was inclined to think that Abner was doing that last one, probably trying to get some leverage over Vicky. That didn't make any sense, though. Coded people- especially people living out here on the islands- only did something if they truly believed it was in everyone's best interests. Abner must have actually believed Tom deserved a second chance. Or maybe he thought Tom might be useful in the future. Regardless, Tom wasn't about to pass up the opportunity.

Vicky slowed them down a bit on the approach, and Tom could see why. Man had this place changed. The beaches were still dotted with people, but all the tourist boats that had once sped by the island regularly were gone. In their place were huge slabs of concrete sticking out of the water. They didn't encircle the island completely from what he could tell, but gaps were few and far between. From their perspective on the boat, Tom guessed that the slabs would be about fifteen feet thick from inside to outside when completed.

He whistled slowly. "I had no idea the dome's construction had already started."

Vicky seemed to be caught up in his awe for the moment, and nodded. "And this is without any of the iron and steel we're expecting. Once those shipments start arriving, we'll really kick things into gear. Hamedi estimated that a full third of the Need Board will be construction tasks. He had to come up with a new training program just to prepare people for most of those jobs."

Tom chuckled. As usual, they were thinking a few steps ahead. "Assuming all the resources arrive on time, how long until the dome is complete?"

He was painfully aware that asking such a question of any uncoded construction company would get him angry glances in return, but here they could accurately predict things like that. Vicky confirmed it. "Maybe six months? We should be done before the next storm season. About time, if you ask me. Each year they get worse. I'll breathe a lot easier once I'm sure we don't have to worry about getting washed away."

There was something else, at the administration building. Tom squinted ahead, wishing he had binoculars. "Is that a helicopter?"

"Yup. We put a helipad on top of the Uptown offices last year, and brought in the chopper a few days later. It runs on gas of course, but it's only there for emergencies. We actually had to use it a few months ago, when we needed to get one of our people back to the States for an emergency surgery."

That did make some sense, but it felt weird. Tom was used to coded people being fiercely independent. They had developed manufacturing facilities here and in Elysia, which could be adapted to fit many needs. They could even synthesize some medications now, which was good news for diabetics especially.

Strangely, there were some people already on the docks as Vicky brought the boat in. One of them was Abner, and behind him stood a larger coded man Tom didn't recognize. There were about two dozen people in front of him, apparently listening to him speak. From their bald heads they were all recently coded, and they paid rapt attention. Vicky apparently didn't want to interrupt, so Tom followed her lead and helped her tie up the boat quietly as Abner went on.

"Think about it this way," he explained to one of the closer listeners. “In a society where everyone is selfish, and the vast majority believe only their first impressions of people, it’s necessary to lead from strength, and to never appear weak. In a society where everyone trusts every other member of the society, leaders can actually be themselves, and appear weak if they need to. In fact, it could be argued that such a society has no weaknesses. Every government in history has had to control their people, or at least tell themselves that they had to. Until we came along. Here, we can control ourselves, so we don't need anything like a government.”

He glanced at the boat for an instant. "Excuse me," he said to the group. "I need to welcome our ambassador."

As they dispersed, he and the big man behind him helped Vicky and Tom climb out of the boat. Even more oddly, Abner reached out and hugged her. "Welcome home, Vicky. You've been missed."

"It's good to be back," she responded before letting go.

Abner looked over at Tom, and extended a hand. "It's good to see you again, Tom. You look well."

Feeling a little surreal, Tom shook his hand. "So do you. I understand I have you to thank for my return. I want you to know how much I appreciate it."

With only a slight smile, Abner nodded. "Not at all. This is Mark Koenig," he introduced the big man, who also shook Tom's hand. Come to think of it, the big man hadn't taken his eyes off of Tom yet. His handshake felt just a little too firm as well.

Vicky seemed to pick up on the possible tension. "Everything went smoothly over there," she explained quickly. "They needed some assurances, but eventually the Indian Department of Commerce agreed to all our terms. They'll be delivering the iron, steel, and other components every few weeks, as we deliver the catalyzers and show them how to build more." She looked over at Tom. "I didn't say this over the phone because the Americans like to tap into our lines," she added in response to his confused look. "In fact the only reason I'm saying it now is because it's hard to listen in on people next to waves on a beach."

Tom felt a bit of a chill at that. Somehow he'd hoped that after the terrorist attack, his countrymen might back off a bit and leave these people alone. So much for decency.

"I'll get Tom settled in next to the coding center, and then head Uptown to give you more details," she said to Abner, and he looked relieved.

"Good work, you two. Now we can finally get this construction project in gear," he added, looking out at the concrete, before heading off. Big Mark followed in his wake.

"I assume you installed some security features after I left," Tom said casually, as they grabbed their bags. "Did you pick up any more spies? If they're willing to listen in on your phones, I assume they've tried worse."

Vicky nodded. "Ramon Diaz, Max's replacement, told me about a few incidents over the years. We keep an eye on them to make sure that they don't get near anything of value before they leave. Or if they do, that they steal the wrong information. I guess they're just keeping tabs on us, which is fine by me."

There were no guards here, and no guns. What other point of entry into any country had no security at all? Or just passive security. Even after all the coded people had suffered- even after Vicky herself had nearly been killed! When she said nothing would change, she meant it. Tom's opinion of this place jumped up another notch.

"So, what's with your new Servant's big guard.. gorilla?" Tom asked as they made their way up the beach.

Vicky chuckled. "Mark does give that impression, doesn't he? He doesn't talk much, but I heard he was in the Air Force for a while, before coming back to the States. When he got coded, Abner was his guide during orientation. After that he just kinda stuck with him." She hesitated a bit. "I think Mark feels that this is his way of contributing to the Need Board. Our last Servant was killed, and even if it's a meaningless title, Mark seems to think it's his personal duty to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to Abner."

Maybe Tom had misjudged Abner after all. Vicky clearly trusted him, and he seemed to reciprocate. And there was no doubt he was beneficial to the Coded Nation.

"What are your plans, Tom?" Vicky asked suddenly. Her stance had changed, but it wasn't confrontational so much as direct. Another sign of her leadership skills emerging. "Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you're here. But I need to have some idea of what you'll be doing. You're too well-known to go unnoticed, and I'm known as your friend."

"I get it," Tom said softly. "I'm putting you on the spot here. So far, the plan is to continue with business as usual. I'll live here, but I'll be going back and forth to the States. There are still tons of Humanity First fans out there, and I have to debunk them as publicly as possible. From what you told me, there are still plenty of legal situations that you still have to work out. I may be able to help you there. If invited by both sides, of course," he added hastily. There was also the matter of Kenshi Saito, who was no doubt incensed that they were releasing the very technology he'd been after. He wasn't a vengeful man as far as Tom knew, but everyone could change.

Vicky ignored those last words. "Do you plan on asking for a code, too?"

There it was. The fact that he wasn't coded had been like background noise for their friendship for years now. Was he ready? Did he really want that after all this time? Did he deserve it at all?

"There have been a lot of advances in coding," Vicky went on, looking up at the Uptown offices. "We built what we call auto-coders. They're amazing. All you have to do is wear one on your head for a few hours while it scans your brain's structure. Then you lie down, it sedates you, and when you wake up, you're coded. Devin keeps on complaining that we've made him obsolete."

That did sound impressive, but Tom didn't like the idea of a machine tinkering around in his noggin. If he did get coded, he'd want Devin to do it. "No, I'm not going ahead with coding. Not yet, anyway. If anyone asks, I'm here to help you as an ambassador of sorts to other uncoded people. Tell them I'll only be here as long as I'm welcome. All they have to do is say the word, and I'm gone. I hope that's good enough."

"It should be, as long as you stay on the outer rings of the island unless I'm escorting you." She gestured down the hall near the coding center. "Your room is down on the far end, on the left. 24A."

Vicky turned away, but came to a stop after only a few steps. "There's something else you should see," she put in after a few seconds, turning back. "Later on tonight I mean, after I'm done Uptown. It's a project of sorts we've been working on. Abner might not like me telling you, but I don't think I would have gotten through those negotiations without you. I think you deserve to know. Meet me down at the docks at nine pm."

At that she turned away again, and took the north exit. Intrigued, Tom grabbed his bags and headed to his new home.


He was only there a few hours before there was a knock at the door. Curious, Tom moved over there and opened it. There were no peep-holes in Coded homes. They implied that you might not be willing to speak to someone just because of who they were.

It was a young woman, recently coded. He guessed it had been a few weeks, given that she had no obvious swelling and her hair had started coming out again. "Hello?" He said tentatively.

She gave a massive grin and extended a hand, shaking his vigorously. "Mr. Penderton! It's so good to finally see you in person. I can't tell you how glad I am that they let you back on the island. I mean, I get why they kicked you out, but it just didn't seem right, you being gone from this place. You belong here, and they deserve to have you here. I mean we deserve it. You know what I mean. I didn't mean to imply the opposite- you know how it can be when you're still in orientation. I mean you don't know know, you've probably seen it a lot, though."

She finally ran out of steam at that point, and just stared at him momentarily.

"Thank you," he said hesitantly. "Miss..?"

"Sorry. I'm Alyssa," she said quickly, grabbing his hand and shaking it again. "I've just been such a huge fan of yours for so long. You're the reason I got coded in the first place!"

Feeling a little bemused, Tom tried a soft smile. "Even though I'm not coded?"

"I'm sure you have your reasons," she waved a hand dismissively. "Besides, you're basically an honorary coded person anyway. If I had to guess, I'd say you stay this way to better represent them- us- to the rest of the world."

"That's very astute, Alyssa," he complimented, wondering if she was going to start another rapid-fire speech.

She grinned again and opened her mouth, probably to thank him, but another voice echoed down the hall. "I'm looking for a Miss Tainer? I was told she lives in this complex, but not which room. Anyone know where I might find her?"

The voice was male, and authoritative, if a bit tentative. Tom leaned forward slowly, to get a look down the hall.

"That's me," Alyssa said, looking curious, and beckoning the man over. "Can I help you?"

He let out a sigh of relief and approached her. He was a few inches shorter than Tom, and a bit out of breath, but otherwise looked well enough despite the tropical heat. He looked familiar too, but Tom couldn't quite place him.

"I'm Simon Hawke," he introduced himself gravely, shaking her hand. "I have a sort of.. offer for you, Miss Tainer." His eyes traced Tom's presence briefly, but there was no sign of hostility. "One you might want to hear in private."

"Call me Alyssa," she insisted, and gave another dismissive gesture. "And anything you say to me can be said to him. He's kind of my muse," she paused, looking troubled. "Now I have to become an artist, don't I?"

Tom smiled. He certainly recognized the man's name. It was Dr. Hawke, actually. He was one of Devin's more recent colleagues, coded about a year ago. Tom thought, but wasn't entirely sure, that Hawke studied blood disorders. Maybe.

"Very well," Simon said gravely. "I study rare genetic traits in the hopes they can be used to cure diseases both here and on the mainland. I got a look at the blood sample they took from you just before you were coded, and it seems like your DNA could be quite useful to some of my research. Unfortunately since we don't keep records of who we code, all I had was your DNA and the day you were coded. It took a few days to get your name."

"Wow," she looked impressed. "Sorry you went through all that, but they don't keep records intentionally. If someone-"

"Yes, I know. And I agree. It's just a little aggravating at times," he said with a tentative smile. "At any rate, if you'd be willing, I'd like to run some tests on you in the Uptown genetics lab. That is if it doesn't interfere with your orientation. Or your social life," he glanced at Tom again.

"How could my DNA help you?" She asked curiously. "I've never been sick a day in my life. In fact my coding was the first time I've even been in a hospital since my brother was born!"

"Have you heard of James Harrison or Henrietta Lacks?" Tom put in, hoping to allay any fears Dr. Hawke might have about him. Alyssa shook her head, so he went on. "Harrison's blood is so unique, it was used in transfusions that stopped a fetal developmental disease. His blood personally saved thousands of babies, and the research on it saved millions more. Lacks died of cancer over fifty years ago, but her cancer cells grew so quickly that they astounded researchers. They were used by Salk when he developed the polio vaccine, and then later with Zika and HPV. Neither of these people had any medical training or expertise, but they saved countless lives anyway."

He paused there, thinking about the problems with the second case. "The trouble was, Henrietta Lacks didn't give any permission for her cells to be taken. She wasn't even asked; they just experimented on her without her consent! That was common practice for that hospital at the time."

"That's right," Hawke said, obviously surprised. "A lot of doctors who treated black folks at the time, well, they just assumed that their bodies were open source: to do with as they pleased."

He sighed as he turned to Alyssa. "I can't make that right, but I can try to do right myself. That's why I'm here. If I'm correct, your DNA could help with muscular dystrophy or other protein production disorders." He looked down at the file he was holding. "According to this, you're working in the food processing center making nutrient bulbs, when you're not in orientation. Any one of a thousand coded people could be doing that, but you are literally one of only two people who could help me with this. The other is living in California. I contacted her last week, and I'll be flying out there in a few days."

"Wow," she said again, sounding a little more serious. "You don't need to take like, my bone marrow or anything, do you? It's just blood, right?"

He looked uncomfortable. "Uh, we might eventually. It all depends on what we find. I don't want to put you under any pressure, believe me. Just please think about it?" He extended his interfacer, a little tentatively.

After a moment, she nodded and tapped it with her own. Just like that they exchanged contact information, without any need for business cards. But then again there was no business here, so that made sense.

Unlike the phones offered in America, these were free, standardized to be reliable, not loaded up with invasive spyware, and most importantly not the center of everyone's lives. They were used for voting and polling, but other than that were purely for communication. If any coded person lost their interfacer, it would be nothing more than a mild inconvenience and they could function without it just fine for however many days it took to get another. How many others in the so-called modern world could say the same?

After Hawke thanked Alyssa and left, she looked somber. "Ok, so this is.. a lot. Is this how it feels to be coded all the time?"

"You're asking the wrong guy," he reminded her. "But Dr. Hawke wouldn't be asking for your help if he wasn't sure he needed it. That is a coded thing."

"Right. Thanks." Her gravitas faded a little, as she shook his hand again. "It was really great to meet you, Mr. Penderton. Tom, if I may. Hopefully I'll see you around."

"I'd like that," he responded genuinely as she made her way back down the hall. He didn't have an interfacer of his own yet, or he would have followed Hawke's example. Closing the door, he laid down on the couch sideways.

Amir had told him about James Harrison and Henrietta Lacks, years ago. He'd found it fascinating, how people with no real education or business acumen had been so beneficial to so many people, just by being who they were!

Ever since Scheria had been founded, he'd been putting more and more thought into medical ethics. Specifically how medical research was justifiable.

During World War 2, Dr. Mengele had performed barbaric and entirely unacceptable research on the many condemned prisoners in Germany. His subjects had died en masse, horribly and gruesomely documented by his team of sociopaths. Still, as terrible as his methods were and as obvious as his disdain for the value of human life was, there was no debating his experiments were effective. The same concepts extended beyond medicine as well. Why else would so many German scientists be snapped up by America and Russia after the war; given immunity for their crimes in exchange for their knowledge?

There was no concern of that happening here. If Hawke needed bone marrow for his research, he could only get it if Alyssa Tainer was willing. Any pain she experienced would be her choice, as mandated by the code. He was literally unable to do any more than that.

But did that make it right to ask her? She might want to do any number of things in the Coded Nation, but now that she knew her DNA was valuable, the code might compel her to do nothing but cooperate. Tom knew it wasn't actually her code forcing her to do anything- it was actually her own sense of right and wrong- but the result was still the same.

Was this progress? Forcing people to participate in their own deaths was horrible, but this was also forcing people in another way. It was only compelling them to live up to their own ideals maybe, but force was force. Troubled, he tried to focus on other things for the moment.


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