Ria Neukamp exited her auto-mobile and cast a world weary eye over the dreary, battleship grey street, a perfect match for the equally dreary battleship grey sky, not to mention her severe battleship grey uniform. Even now in the humid afternoon weather, walking through the front foyer of the flat-block she lived in, she still couldn’t permit herself the indulgence of loosening her black tie and unbuttoning the hard white collar of her shirt. Her public image had to be upheld at all times, collar crisply starched, tie perfectly straight, jacket buttoned up and her long, dark hair tied back tightly from her scalp.
A small boy entered the elevator with her. In that way that young children will do, he stood brazenly staring up at her. She stared loftily back, regarding him with a deadpan expression, her arms folded primly across her chest.
“My daddy says you’re a Kino Runner.” the boy informed her in an accusatory tone.
“Did he really?” Ria replied sardonically. “And what’s his name, your daddy?”
The boy gaped at her, horror stricken, his lip starting to tremble.
Ria relaxed, a wave of wistful feeling washing over her.
“It’s alright.” she said in more a placatory tone. “You don’t have to tell me.”
The bell rang, informing Ria she’d reached her floor. She paused in the doorway of the elevator.
“I want you to tell your daddy I said hello.” Ria instructed.
The boy nodded obeisantly.
Once inside her flat, Ria removed her jacket, hanging it over a chair, and then loosened her tie and unbuttoned her collar. She untied her hair and let it flow in long tresses over her shoulders and down her back. After pouring herself a large whisky from a bottle in the bureau she kicked off her shoes and flopped onto the couch next to her husband, who was sitting watching drivel on the television. She let out a long sigh of relief.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Busy.” she sighed, squeezing through the crisp material of her shirt with her fingers at the knots of stress in the muscles of her shoulders and neck. “The workload’s still picking up.”
“Why don’t you put in for some leave?” he replied in a concerned tone.
“And do what?” she replied. “Sit around here all day and breathe whisky in your face? No thanks. I’ll see this next few months out until the project’s set up. After that I’ll ask for something simpler on my next assignment and we can enjoy the money I’ve made out of this…….. shit.”
“Ria!” he chided in a stern tone.
Ria didn’t bother to reply, opting to drain her glass of whisky and pour another instead. This time she kept the bottle sitting next to her.
“That little brat from upstairs called me a Kino Runner.” she said. “He said that’s what his father told him I was.”
“Are you going to report it?” her husband asked.
“No.” she replied. “When I told him I wanted his father’s name he started to cry, so I decided to let it go this time.”
“You what?” he replied.
“There was no one else around, so I let it go.” she repeated. “Please, don’t. I’m too tired to argue.”
“Just be careful Ria.” he warned.
Ria downed her glass of whisky and lay her head back on the couch, drifting off to sleep.
The next morning Ria awoke to the blare of the alarm clock. She fumbled and groped around with her hand until she found it and disarmed it.
“Fuck.” she moaned.
Ria enjoyed the hot, fresh blast of the spray from the shower on her shoulders and neck as she rubbed conditioner into her hair. There were some simple pleasures in life, simple exquisite little pleasures that nobody could ever legislate away from you.
After showering, Ria transferred her black and silver epaulettes onto a clean, white shirt, slipping into it and buttoning it up, wincing slightly at the constriction round her throat as she fastened the button of the stiff collar. She knotted her black tie in front of the mirror, adjusting it until it was flawlessly straight, then slipped into her battleship grey skirt and jacket, buttoning everything up. She felt, as she did every morning, like a prisoner in her own body. After tying back her long, dark hair and putting on her shoes, as always, she looked in the mirror to see if she recognised the jumped up, stuffy little bitch who was peering back at her.
The air was crisp and fresh as she stepped out of the front foyer of the flat-block at this ungodly hour, the sky still not fully lightened. The drive to work took Ria beyond the city limits. Ria rolled down the driver side window, feeling the blast of clean, countryside air on her face. Birds were tweeting without a care in the world. Ria wished she could untie her hair and unbutton her jacket, letting it all flutter in the wind generated by the hundred and ten kilometre per hour speed of the car. She laughed out loud at the thought of how good that would feel, the temptation building in her. Just once, she’d like to be a little bit brazen and wanton in public, just once to just let herself go. She still remembered vaguely from the early years of her childhood when people could do that. They could do that with abandon and without fear. Just simple little pleasures, taken for granted, taken without fear.
At work, Ria was called to the Director’s office. She forced a smile when the Director’s personal assistant approached her with the summons, wondering what kind of petty bureaucratic nincompoopery he had in mind this time. Usually he wanted to pour over progress reports and have her justify and clarify minutia, pointless pedantry that had absolutely no bearing on her work and was, in her opinion, a complete waste of perfectly valuable time.
Ria felt a pang of envy as she regarded the personal assistant, dressed in a slim, dark pin striped skirt and a gorgeous blouse. The blouse was black and had vertical stripes of varying shades of purple, the thick cuffs tied with jewelled links. She was even permitted to wear make-up. The contrast between this and Ria in her drab, dowdy grey uniform with her scrubbed face was all too stark. Ria wasn’t stupid. She knew it was all about perception. The personal assistant was merely a chattel for the Director to show off to his visitors. Ria, on the other hand, had to project an entirely different image. Still, Ria desperately longed to see herself and be seen in those fabulous clothes.
The Director was giving Ria a knowing look, spotting her looking his assistant enviously up and down. That was okay. Jealousy was an acceptable emotion.
The Director motioned at Ria to take a seat on the other side of his desk. He sat musing for a moment, playing a rallentando on the wooden surface in front of him with his fingers.
“I’ll come straight to the point.” he said. “I’m being moved to another district.”
“I see.” Ria replied, puzzled as to what this had to do with her.
“Someone,” the Director smiled, “is going to have to take charge of all this.”
“Of course.” Ria agreed. “Wait a minute… You mean me?”
“Who else?” asked the Director. “To put anyone else above you would be untenable.”
“But…” Ria interjected.
“Oh don’t worry.” the Director continued. “I’ll be here for the next few weeks to show you the ropes. After that, this will be your baby.”
Ria forced a smile. The implications of this were not lost on her. She and her husband would not be enjoying a happy life together once the project was set up. How could she have been so stupid? They would never let her walk away from this.
“Thank you sir,” she replied, “for this opportunity. I appreciate your confidence in me.”
How Ria managed to hold it together long enough to make it from the Director’s office to her laboratory she would never know. Once there she swiped herself in using her pass card, found herself a secluded corner and sat down. She was safe here. No one could enter here without her knowledge and the lab was sound and light proofed so no one would be able to hear or see her. The computer would ask her for clearance before letting anyone in, a precaution put in place to avoid interruption to any critical research she was engaged in. She was quite alone.
“I can’t do this any more.” she sobbed, tears flooding down her face.
Ria punched the wall beside her, once, twice, three times, hard, wanting to hurt herself, shouting the word “fuck” as she landed each blow.
“I want to go home.” she wailed piteously.
She slid off of the chair she was sitting in and folded into a foetal position on the ground, sobbing inconsolably. Not that she would have dared to allow anyone to see her in this state even if they might console her.
“I want to go home.” she snivelled.
At lunch time, Ria was intercepted on her way to the canteen by Laura Novak. The two of them had been close friends for years, right back to their days of national service in the armed forces. Laura was a big shot in the intelligence services. Whereas Ria did cerebral laboratory work, Laura was hands on, working in the field.
“I need to talk to you Ria.” Laura said.
“Of course.” Ria answered.
“What happened to your hand?” Laura asked.
Ria looked down. The back of her hand was covered in an angry black bruise where she’d thumped the wall.
“Oh, that.” Ria laughed. “You know how clumsy I am. I smacked it off the side of a desk.”
Laura was dressed in exactly the same grey uniform as Ria, but she had flaxen hair and azure blue eyes, giving her a splash of colour that couldn’t be regulated away.
“What do you need to talk about?” Ria asked.
“I’m sorry Ria.” Laura replied.
“They know?” Ria asked, crestfallen.
“They’ve had you under surveillance.” Laura explained.
“Why would they do that?” asked Ria.
“It’s the nap you take on your lunch break.” Laura replied. “You talk in your sleep.”
“Oh.” Ria responded. “How remiss of me, letting my guard down like that.”
“I tried to think of a way to warn you, but… I couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t obvious. They know you and I are friends.”
“It’s okay Laura.” Ria reassured her. “I totally understand. There’s no point in both of us disappearing.”
“You were put in the at risk category.” Laura told her.
Ria shrugged her shoulders, looking down submissively at her polished black shoes.
“They were going to send a full swat team to apprehend you.” Laura said.
“A full team?” Ria replied. “I’m flattered. What the hell made them think I’d be difficult to handle?”
“You’re a legend Ria.” Laura answered. “You’re not just a Kino Runner. You’re the Kino Runner. People are scared of you. It took some persuading, but I managed to talk them into letting me do it my way.”
“I’m glad it’s you Laura.” Ria replied. “You’ll make it quick, won’t you?”
“You don’t understand Ria.” Laura said. “I wasn’t sent to disappear you. I was sent to bring you in so they could run the process on you. They still want you to run things when the Director leaves.”
Ria covered her face with her hands and made a noise that was somewhere between a growl of rage and a scream of despair.
“Why?” Ria asked.
“Perception.” Laura answered. “If the person who invented the process turns against it, what is that going to say to people?”
Ria permitted herself a little humourless laugh at the irony of the situation.
“Poetic justice I suppose, the queen of the Kino Runners hoisted on her own petard.” she said sardonically. “Does the condemned woman get a last request?”
“What do you want?”
“I want us to go to the nearest village so I can have a last drink and a cigarette.” Ria said.
“I don’t know Ria.” Laura replied. “You’re putting me on the spot here.”
“Come on, we both know there’s nothing I can do.” Ria pleaded. “I’m a geek, not a warrior.”
“You’re also smarter than I am.” Laura responded. “You might have a cunning plan up your sleeve.”
“You have my word I will not try to escape.” Ria promised. “I just want one last chance to enjoy a simple pleasure in life.”
“Alright.” Laura agreed.
Laura drove, taking them through the gates and off site. Ria tried to think. If she went for her side-arm now, Laura would simply reach over and take it off her. In physical terms she was absolutely no match for Laura in anything. Unarmed combat, shooting, athletics, swimming… She was the tortoise to Laura’s hare in everything physical. She had to make space between herself and Laura.
Laura parked in front of a small public house. Thirty seconds after they entered the premises they had the place all to themselves apart from the landlord, who stood behind the bar with a look of terror on his face like a rabbit in car headlights. The minute his patrons saw Ria and Laura’s uniform, they’d exited the premises in such haste that they didn’t even wait to finish their drinks.
Ria unbuttoned and removed her jacket and untied her hair, shaking her mane of dark hair from side to side. The crisp fabric of her shirt stretched over her shapely breasts as she threw her head back and laughed.
Laura was absolutely horrified. The barman’s look of terror had given way to an openly libidinous expression.
“What the hell are you playing at?” Laura hissed.
“I’ve always wanted to let myself go a bit.” Ria grinned. “Now that I have nothing to lose, I can. Bar tender, two large whiskies. Just leave the bottle sitting on the table.”
Ria lit up a cigarette, inhaling deeply and then blowing the smoke out in two jets from her nostrils.
“I love that.” she sighed.
“You know,” Laura said, “After the process is run, you’ll be fine. You’ll be happy even. As you know, it’s all quite painless.”
“Someone will be happy.” Ria replied, taking another drag on her cigarette. ”She’ll look like me. She’ll sound like me. She’ll smell like me. She won’t be me. I’ll be gone forever, my personality obliterated and rebuilt. Basically, I’ll be changed into a superficially identical copy who’ll be blithely saying things I would never choose to say and doing things I would never choose to do.”
Laura looked as though she was about to argue, but then held her silence. She downed her whisky instead.
“Think about it Laura. If it were that harmless, why should I prefer to be shot dead than go through it?” Ria challenged.
“My body will live on, my intelligence will live on.” Ria continued, “My mannerisms will be the same. No one looking at me who didn’t know me well before now would ever be able to tell anything was wrong. My personality, on the other hand, will have been completely reconstructed beyond all recognition by the very process I invented.”
“I’ve seen the people you’ve helped.” Laura countered. “They live happy, productive lives after processing.”
“The people I’ve helped.“ Ria snorted and poured herself another drink. “It was never supposed to be this way. When I came up with the idea for my PHD thesis, the idea was that it would help people who had violent, destructive impulses that they couldn’t control to have a normal life. That’s what I had in mind. Gods help me, if I could only have known then what I know now.”
“I don’t accept this.” Laura argued. “You know what it was like before. The violence, the hatred, the rioting, the pointless damage and the wasted potential. You’ve seen the people we’ve rehabilitated. We’ve cut the rates of insurrection to virtually zero. There’s no mass violence, no organized crime, there’s no open political unrest… We’ve rid the country of that in less than five years.”
“And replaced it with the Kino Runners.” Ria sneered.
“This is the first society that has ever had a chance to last for the long haul.” Laura continued. “In taking control of the destructive impulses we’ve taken control of political will. Every other oligarchy in history has either been overthrown or capitulated within a few decades because they’ve politicized their opponents.”
“I may as well tell you,” Ria responded, “since I’m already up to my neck in it, that my projections indicate that this society will be no exception. How many Kino Runners do we have and how many machines?”
“Enough…” Laura replied hesitantly.
“One laboratory for every large city.” Ria shot back. “How many people do you think we can remove from their friends and families and return changed beyond all recognition before we politicize enough people that they’ll be queuing out the front door for processing?”
“This is crazy talk…” Laura replied. “Not to mention illegal.”
“Let me tell you something Laura.” Ria snorted. “Power resides wherever the hell people believe it resides. Hundreds of years ago power was with the Church because its leaders convinced enough people that dissenters were going to burn in hell to keep the number of politicized dissenters low enough to manage. In the twentieth century, power lay with whatever countries had nuclear warheads because everyone believed those countries had the power of life and death over them. Then there was the power of the neo-liberal market deregulators because people believed that money was power and that you could buy happiness. Like all these other fictional constructs, people aren’t going to believe in the Kino Runners forever.”
“The free market economists had the right ideas.” replied Laura. “Their hearts were in the right place. They just didn’t have the technology to deal with the politics of envy on a curative basis. Thanks to your work, we do have the technology.”
“Politics of envy?” Ria snorted in disgust. “The people weren’t envious of the corporate entities and financiers that took all the money. They weren’t envious of the politicians that colluded with them in stealing it. The people were angry with them because when the markets crashed, the resulting austerity ended up leaving millions of people dispossessed. I actually remember it, when I was a kid.”
“If we’d had Kino Runners back then,” Laura demurred, “They’d soon have been brought to heel and would have lived happily, knowing their place.”
“Look at me.” Ria pointed at herself with the index fingers of both hands, her bombast escalating in intensity with each passing drink. “I invented the theory behind fucking Kino Running and even I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown after watching what it does. Oh, there were others involved, but the real kernel of the theory behind it was mine. The rest is just electrical and biochemical engineering with components that are easily available. I’m only twenty seven years old and I can’t take any more. How am I supposed to do this until I’m seventy?”
Ria took another long drag on her cigarette.
“You can be down on yourself and your work all you want.” Laura chided. “If you ask me you’re a fucking hero. You’ve created peace where there could have been only conflict. I feel honoured to have known you. All you have to do to fix this is to undergo your own painless process. Your stress, anxiety and despair will be taken away. It’s almost like magic.”
Ria looked down and put per face in her palms.
“I suppose I only have myself to blame.” she admitted. “That display I made of myself in the lab was a pathetic disgrace. I should have known I was being watched.”
“The lab?” Laura responded. “That’s not what this is all about. It was your conversation with the little boy in the elevator. You felt pity for him. You were afraid for him.”
“I should have known.” Ria snorted. “My outburst in the lab was symptomatic of honest to goodness self pitying narcissism. That’s a perfectly acceptable emotion.”
“It is.” Laura agreed.
“What’s so wrong with caring about the feelings of a little boy?” Ria demanded. “What’s so wrong with trying to keep your neighbour from harm? Why is that bad?”
“It starts there.” Laura replied. “Harmless enough, or so it seems. But then there’s an incessant creep. What happens when you end up wanting to look after strangers? Pensions for the elderly? Medical care for the poor? Shelter for the homeless? You see where it can end up? It would be like the latter half of the twentieth century all over again. People living till they were eighty five at the expense of the state.”
“I remember the last vestiges of that system from my early childhood.” Ria snarled. “It wasn’t bad. It was better than what we have now. Now, you get old, you die. You get ill, you die. If you disagree and manage to get anyone to listen to you, it’s off to the local Kino Runner to have your personality edited just like cutting and splicing a film strip. It’s pathetic. I was too young and stupid and blinded by childish dreams of changing the world to see it when I came up with the hypothesis. I never realised what uses a corrupt Government could dream up for it. I never realized that I had absolutely no right to tamper with people’s thoughts, desires and feelings in the first place, even if I did mean well. What I’ve done with my life is unethical and it’s immoral. I hate it, and I wish I’d never had anything to do with it. I hate myself.”
“On that note, I think you’ve had quite enough to drink.” said Laura coolly. “It’s time to go Ria. If you say much more I’m going to have to disappear the fucking barman.”
The two women stepped out into the car park, Ria walking unsteadily and giggling to herself. She tried to put her jacket back on, failed miserably, gave up and threw it away. She’d hardly be needing it where she was going anyway.
Laura had moved round to the driver’s side of the car. With the bonnet of the car between them, Ria saw her moment. She unholstered her side-arm with her right hand.
“Now Laura.” she said.
“Don’t do it.” Laura shouted.
“I must.” Ria replied. “I can’t live with what they’ll turn me into and it’s my very last chance to take a stand against who and what I’ve already become. They won’t blame you. It’s self defence.”
“I can’t kill you Ria.” Laura screamed. “You’re my best friend.”
“You can kill me Laura.” Ria replied. “And you will. Your warrior’s instinct will take over and choose life.”
Ria swung her gun round and aimed it. Laura ducked under the arc made by Ria’s swinging arm, drawing her own weapon as she lurched to her left, avoiding Ria’s wild shooting. She fired three times, the bullets ripping through Ria’s torso, knocking her to the ground, her ears assaulted by Ria’s blood curdling shriek.
She was still alive, her white shirt soaked in a spreading crimson stain. Laura kneeled down beside her, taking off her jacket and placing it like a cushion under Ria’s head. She held Ria’s hand. All around there were net curtains twitching in the windows of the surrounding houses. A few people had stopped in the street, gaping in horror. There was no way this was going to be contained without the spin machine churning out such unadulterated nonsense that half the country would be laughing contemptuously behind closed doors.
“I’m so, so sorry…” Laura sobbed.
“No, I’m sorry Laura.” Ria gasped. “I… didn’t know for sure how to kill myself… I couldn’t risk making a mess of it and surviving. I knew you would do it properly…”
“Oh, Gods Ria.” Laura snivelled. “Just hold on. I’m calling for the medics. I love you Ria.”
Ria just had time to squeeze Laura’s hand and offer one final and short pearl of wit and wisdom.
“Careful Laura.” she rasped. “Your sentiment is showing.”