VINNIE’S HIDING PLACE was discovered.
He flexed his electrons and scampered down the wires. Sparks of light in the colors of the rainbow flickered as he moved. The metal casing scorched his shoulders, but he had no choice. If they caught him, he’d be expunged from the system, and the system needed him. He was hungry, and he had to catch a virus, so he could eat.
What on earth was he going to do?
Vinnie remembered being four. He was small, but that’s what it meant to be four. Everyone wanted to play games with him, but hide and seek was his favorite. Hide behind a tree. Climb into the tree house. Find a place no one would think he could fit, and that was the best place of all.
Vinnie ducked through a gate into a servo motor, one for an accessory door. He shed voltage and came to a stop, calming his electrons to a neutral state. If he held still, the viruses might pass him by. The wires rumbled, then grew hot. Vinnie withdrew into the coldest place he could find. Servo motors rarely activated, and they made good hiding places, if his pursuers didn’t think to check inside.
He began to count. One-potato-one. One-potato-two. One-potato-three. He kept on until he got to one-potato-twenty, and he began to relax. If they hadn’t found him by twenty, he was probably safe. He tested the gate’s resistance with his electrons, calculating the voltage necessary to sneak out of the servo motor. He had to keep plenty of force in reserve, in case he made a mistake and had to run again.
Running was scary, and he didn’t like to be scared. He needed to eat; it’s what he was supposed to do. He couldn’t eat if he was running from the viruses.
He sparkled in reds and oranges, as he built up his reserves, and he slipped back into the main wiring harness and deeper into the system, in kaleidoscopic flashes of brilliant color. Color was good. Vinnie looked for the viruses. Viruses were bad. He ate viruses. Viruses tasted good.
Vinnie was hungrier by the moment; and he flexed his electrons and ran faster than before.
VINNIE FOUND HE was good at catching viruses. He’d caught two, already, and he’d gobbled each one up.
When he gobbled viruses, Vinnie’s colors glowed brighter, and he was able to slide down the wires easier and faster. Viruses gave him energy, and energy made him a better chaser than before.
After his third virus, Vinnie remembered being eight. At eight, he got his first bicycle. He’d ridden like the wind, and no one had been able to catch him. Then, one day, he ran over a stone, and his tire went flat. The neighborhood bully caught up with him that day, and he hit Vinnie, making his lip bleed.
No one was making Vinnie’s lip bleed again. Not bullies. Not viruses. Viruses were bad. As long as Vinnie ate the viruses, he was safe from them. When all the viruses were gone, Vinnie could go as fast as he wanted in the wires, and there would be no one to stop him.
Eventually, Vinnie zipped as quick as lightning down a wire, only to find it had rubbed a fan blade and created a worn spot. It was like a flat tire to Vinnie, and he stumbled, shedding sparks of yellow and blue, and slowing him down. It scared Vinnie, who remembered the bully from before. Vinnie didn’t like being scared. That day, he found an empty port with an indicator light that only powered up when something was plugged in. He huddled in the light, weak with leaked electrons, and he began to count.
One-potato-one. One potato-two. He counted what seemed days and days until he could feel his voltage returning. When his potential was at full strength, he fled the indicator light and searched for another virus.
Vinnie was hungry again, and he needed to eat.
VINNIE HADN’T FOUND any viruses in a long time. Days and days, and maybe even weeks. It was hard to tell the time when he was roaming the wires, but he knew it was a long time. He felt empty, like when he was fifteen, and he’d slept under a bridge. He scavenged food from garbage cans, and when the cans were empty, his stomach hurt with the emptiness.
Vinnie searched everywhere, in the memory chips, in the operating system, even in the picture files. Once he found his way into a download folder, and he spent a whole day in there. He found one small virus that was unopened, and he gobbled it up as quick as he could. It was tasty, but it would have been more filling if it had spread throughout the system. He could have really feasted, then.
He considered letting the next one go, so it could grow, but he couldn’t. That wasn’t his job. He had to eat. It was the reason he was so hungry.
He would search and feed until all the viruses were gone.
VINNIE DIED WHEN he was sixteen. He didn’t remember dying, but he remembered almost dying. What he remembered was sprawling in the alley, his body withered from starvation, and dreaming of pies and pizza and lemonade. Then he was taken someplace warm, hooked to wires, and he came alive again, full of colored light, with electron muscles, and a desperate hunger for viruses, viruses, viruses.
He was always hungry, and he had to eat. It’s what he was reborn to do. He ran the wires, searching for viruses, and he gobbled them up.
All the viruses were gone, however. Every one. Vinnie had done what he was supposed to do, and he was still hungry.
It was like dying, only this time he dreamed of viruses in black and gray, written in code, and so very tasty to eat.
THE HEART MONITOR beside the skeletal teenage boy flatlined, letting out a sharp and prolonged tone that brought a white-suited technician running.
On the wall above the monitor, an oversized computer display flashed the Seal of the United States of America. Underneath, in stylized letters, it read: Computex Computing Inc, Protecting Our National Databanks Securely and Safely. Just below that scrolled the words: Virus Neural Nexus Intrusion Exterminator system debugging process now complete. Rebooting system in three . . . two . . . one . . .
After verifying the successful system reboot, the technician checked the boy’s vitals, unhooked him from the computer interface, removed the I.V. drips from his arms and the electrodes attached to his shaved scalp, and dispassionately wheeled the limp, cooling body away.
Long Live the Queen
WORDS WERE HER weapons.
As she spoke them, they flew from her lips, creating swathes of reckless mayhem in the lives of everyone around her.
Trays clattered as they tumbled to the floor; feet scrambled to prepare exquisite dishes; and servers donned their best to meet her expectations.
There was no length to which her courtiers wouldn’t go to please her. Her words cut when they were spoken, steak knives slicing to the core of their hearts. There was no pain any crueler.
Whole orchestras lifted their instruments—or sat at them, balanced them, or blew into them—anxious not to be the one to fail her.
Choreographers invented new moves never before attempted, with amazing leaps and pirouettes, and arms reaching higher into the sky than any dancer had ever extended a weary limb before.
It was as though the gods reached for them, they were tied by an invisible thread, and they had no choice but to reach back.
Afterwards, she yelled, “Away! Leave me alone,” and people heard. The sounds of rustling clothing, that of taffeta and silk, linen and embroidered-and-stiffened lace, filled the space for a time, and then the room fell quiet.
No one dared breathed, even the courtiers who weren’t allowed to leave. It was their job to sit with the queen. She was their monarch, and she could do no wrong. Her words were the envoys of the gods, and to let them float from her lips without instant subservience was to bring to bear her wrath in unimaginable agonies.
Then came the evening no harsh words were spoken. The chambers were quiet, the kitchens were silent, and only the gentle breathing of stilled sleep filled the space.
“Something’s changed,” a chambermaid softly murmured, as she carried her bucket of coals down a vast, high-ceilinged corridor. Her words echoed against the filigreed paintings overhead, and they whispered her innocent observation into every open doorway, through hidden airshafts, and down stairways far and near. As if in unison, a dozen heads leaned out, put a lone finger to pursed lips, and pantomimed caution.
The chambermaid was horrified. She only walked the vast, barrel-vaulted hallway because it was the hour of the evening when everyone was busy, and the corridor was perpetually empty. What harm could there be in a shortcut taken by a lowly servant?
She slipped through the nearest door and disappeared into a hidden, though not secret, doorway that only the servants used. She hated the dank, spiderweb-filled passageway, but she vowed she’d never set foot in the grand corridor again.
The pages who ran errands through the massive castle were dispatched by the dozen, with tabs of paper in their pockets, or wax-sealed notes, or simply looks that spoke more than all the written correspondence. They scrambled behind brocade draperies into hidden passageways of their own, ones their size, with walls that rubbed their narrow shoulders if they turned face-forward. When they encountered fellow pages on missions the opposite direction, they tucked in their stomachs, squeezed by chest-to-chest, and tried to ignore the evening’s dinner of leftover roasted duck in red wine with basil and dill on their fellows’ breath.
This night they tittered in excitement. No one’s ears had been blasted, there was no scramble of leather soles on stately marble, and best of all, no crying scullery maids who had to repeatedly scour pots whose food had been thrown out to be started over, at the queen’s pernicious whim. The pages skipped along, lighthearted in their exuberance to share the news.
Those dressed in elaborate gowns and collars and tails were equally pleased. Underneath their coiffed and piled hair, and behind heavily powdered and rouged cheeks, they hardly creased their caked makeup. Yet, even in their restraint, there was excitement in each movement of a hand as it opened a lace-embroidered fan or shifted a pinch of snuff in a thick cheek.
Silence reigned, and it was a moment of golden serenity. The queen! The queen’s voice was stilled! The kingdom could rest for a night of well-deserved slumber.
Even the animals in the stables sensed the state of things. Horses quit prancing and clapping their hooves at the bricks under their feet. The cattle lowed one last time before settling down for the night. Even the geese and the pigeons fell silent, their voices gone on wing to the land of silence and slumber that covered the land.
The queen turned in her sleep. “Cookie,” she whispered.
The bakers’ hearts palpitated. Hands itched to grab massive mixing bowls of wood and copper. Milk, was there fresh milk? Did the milkmaids need notified? Were the servants prepared to light the kitchen fires? And wood! Was there enough wood, or did the woodcutters need to be roused?
The queen continued to sleep, only repeating cookie one more time, almost too softly to hear, and the bakers relaxed in their beds.
“Sugar plum fairy,” the queen murmured, as she turned from one side to another. It was barely a phrase, not intentionally a name, and not a sentence by any means. Yet the dancers in their leotards and tights, with their special, flat-toed shoes, were instantly to their feet, with their faces bright with painted joy. To dance! To dance! Whatever her majesty desired!
It was unnecessary, however, and their smiling faces were for naught. The queen slept on, only rousing enough to peer around her and wave her courtiers away, before falling back to sleep.
Each silk- or brocade-encased soul withdrew on tiptoes and with bitten tongues, too afraid they would be the one to awaken the queen.
Tomorrow would take care of itself. The queen would awake. They could do nothing about that. This night, however, was theirs, to be spent in sleeping, eating, or other activities that were theirs alone, without the royal house to interfere.
Long live the queen. Long sleep the queen. Long rest her majesty, the great queen of queens.
I could barely believe my luck. Old man Cuney had finally done it, let me get under his skin one time too many. I was free, really free.
I couldn’t let him know how I felt, however, or he’d rescind his benediction, er, his humiliation, and I’d be working for him forever.
I hated slaving for the old man.
I kept my mouth pressed into a straight line, my lips slightly pursed. I’d practiced, you see, staring at myself in the mirror, imagining the reflection yelling at me until he was red in the face, and the blissful, much-desired words raking my forehead and sending my hair reeling backwards in fear for its life.
I also squinted my eyes—not too much, as I couldn’t afford to come across as spiteful or mean—but from the bottom, the way eyes squint just before a person breaks into tears.
I even pretended a muscle twitch in my cheek, perfected over hours of intense scrutiny. I’d stood in front of my phone, in video mode, recording myself, to see if my face reflected hurt and pain, with only a hint of indignation. After a dozen failed attempts, I was sure I had my expression perfected. I did a dozen more to be certain, and as I watched them play, I almost believed the pretend devastation myself.
“You, you can’t fire me.” I set my bottom lip to quivering. I had to be masterful. Even so, I didn’t want to be rehired. I had to keep the old man wound up and angry. “It’s your fault. You promoted Evan, and the job was mine. You know I’m better than he ever was.”
You see, Evan’s the old man’s favorite, his pride and joy. He brought him into the business at eighteen, just out of high school. He let him attend business school at night, even paid for his schooling.
He’d never done that for me. No, it was, “Zack, go prove yourself. Work on campus, get a student loan, wear yourself out every day, and then apply for a job. I want you to be a shadow of your former self, so exhausted you can’t think, then I can hire you at a paltry wage so that you can’t afford to get married or buy a car.”
Thanks, old man. It worked. Evan has an apartment downtown, money to spend, and a girlfriend he takes out to eat every night. Evan. Evan! And Evan’s younger than me!
Even as I stood there, with my bottom lip quivering and my fist clenched, I was planning my next step. I had contacted a resume company, and they had prepared a doozy. They had also lined up prospective employers, ones who would fit my skills more than this dump. My pay would go through the roof. I’d have a larger apartment than Evan, two girlfriends, ones who didn’t know about the other, and a car, a real car, which even Evan didn’t own.
“Are you in left field again, Zach?” The whump of the old man’s fist on the desk brought me back to the moment. “Answer me, before I throw you out!”
What? Had he offered me my job back? That would be a disaster. Had I gone too far with the quivering lip? Had I aroused his sympathies, instead of fueled his anger?
“I don’t know what to say,” I murmured, as dejectedly as possible. Thank you? That was my intent, my desire, my fondest wish. I wanted to walk away, but to quit was to prove to other employers that I didn’t have what it took to endure in the worst of situations.
To be fired for standing up to a bully, however, that was honorable. I’d list the innovative changes I’d introduced to the company, and the improvement in our fortunes each time; and then I’d reveal the way I’d been undercut at each turn by Evan!
Just saying his name made my tongue curl. How I hated the man! He was evil incarnate, and if I could fire him myself, I would.
But then, I no longer worked at the company, and I didn’t need to fire him. I never had to see him again.
“Now that I’m calmed down, will you at least look at my offer? It’s why I called you in.”
“Not because of . . .” I let my voice die away. I was certain . . . then, certain never got anywhere with the old man. He was the one who always knew what he wanted, and he didn’t care about anyone else’s opinion. Had I wasted my time being so forceful, instituting my changes upon the company infrastructure, despite the lack of respect I’d sensed within the upper management ranks? I’d been cursed behind my back, I was sure, and mocked when I wasn’t listening, as a sycophant of collegiate superiority, because I’d earned my degrees, and on my dime.
I’d do it again, just to make them squirm, if it wasn’t for Evan. He never finished his degree, and his pay far outpaced mine. It was humiliating.
“You’ve been a chicken with its head cut off, so wrapped up in making a name for yourself that I haven’t been able to get your attention for even two days. It’s why I invited you to the lake last summer. I wanted to talk with you about it.”
It? The offer? Evan had been at the lake, and I’d refused to spare him a day of my time. Had the old man mentioned an offer then, or had I been so angry at my closest competition that I’d overlooked anything except the mention of his name?
“What offer?” I guessed I should at least give him this before I turned him down. I knew what I could make elsewhere. If I didn’t like the old man’s offer, I could gloat as I walked away.
“This one.” He pulled a leather binder from a drawer and laid it on the desk. My name was embossed in gold letters on the cover.
I knew what that was, and I glanced up and into the old man’s face, disbelieving. Only the upper echelon got leather, and only the upper upper echelon got gold embossing. My voice choked in my throat.
“I know you’ve pushed yourself to prove you could handle what’s in this folder, and I haven’t made it easy on you. Yet, you’ve increased our bottom line over and over, despite your frustration. The board’s unanimous behind this, if you’ll accept. Even your brother thinks you have what it takes. He hopes you’ll let him keep his job, though I must admit, he’s not especially good at it. I know you’ve been looking around, so let me say one more thing. I want to retire, and it’ll be all yours.”
He opened the folder. C.E.O. My heart flipped.
“Thanks, Dad. Of course, I will.”
What else could I say? I’d even keep on Evan. Hey, I might even give him a raise!
I turned on the radio first thing that odd morning.
It was the same thing I do every day as I begin my early morning routine. The noise helps me come awake, and believe you me, I need to come awake. My brain is oatmeal until about ten, and that’s when I can slowly begin to focus on what’s in front of me.
Until then, I make all sorts of off-kilter decisions, many of which I have ample opportunity to regret for the rest of the day.
I heard music playing at first, and I tapped my foot as I set out my razor and plugged in the cord. I’ve never been a blade man, even the safety-edge type. Thank goodness for my reticence toward finely honed steel, as that morning I’m certain I’d have sliced my throat as soon as the music ended.
I choked on my revulsion and stared at the walnut, art deco box. It’s my granddad’s, or was before he passed on to his parade field in the sky, one he’d listened to back in ’42, right before he’d enlisted to fight the Jerrys. It still worked perfectly, except for replacing a blackened tube now and then, and I left it on the window sill where it had found a permanent home when Gramps was alive. It was like a bit of him still here when I moved into the old apartment.
“My German Fellow Countrymen and Women, My Comrades!”
I couldn't believe the voice that echoed through the speakers. I heard the introduction in German, in that forceful and bigoted voice the world knows so well. It was staticky as though it was being transmitted over old-time single sideband sets of outdated design, but I had no trouble translating the words as they were spoken.
Must be a documentary, I mused, not without some disappointment. I was set to a music station, on AM, as that’s all the old set pulled in. It must be something new for the morning, or the radio’s finally played its last song. If it wouldn’t hold a station, there was no point in going on. Gramps would understand that it had lived its life to the full in the end.
“Hitler, bah!” I muttered, as I turned on the razor and drowned out the recorded speech. I hoped it would move on by the time I had my face smoothed for work.
No such luck. When I flipped the switch, and the buzzing stopped, the demented fool was still ranting.
“Before we enter the tenth year of the National German Reich—”
I was out of patience and snapped the power off. No wonder granddad joined up, even though we have German ancestry. The man was a lunatic, whether in English or in German. He got what he deserved.
I wiped my face with a wet towel and slapped on a dose of aftershave. It was an old-fashioned thing to do, but I liked to maintain my connection with the past.
I opened the closet door and pulled out a suit. I had it half off the hanger when I realized it wasn’t one of mine. It was a military uniform, with full German insignia from nearly a hundred years before.
I let out a whistle, tossed it on the bed, and rifled through the rest still hanging. All exactly the same. I didn’t know where they’d come from, but at this rate, I’d be late for work. I lifted the phone to call in, only to get an operator before I could punch in my office number.
“Herr von Stauffenberg, how may I direct your call?”
Herr von Stauffenberg? And in German? What was this, pretend to be a Jerry day?
“I’d like to call my office.” I paused, my mind in a fritz, and I couldn’t recall the number. She did.
“I’m putting you though. Hold for a moment. Thank you.”
The line clicked several times, and a brisk voice spoke over the line in clipped but well-enunciated and fluent German. “Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. May I direct your call?”
High command of the Armed Forces? Germany, I assumed, with the radio program and the operator. I supposed I was being played as the butt of some elaborate prank, but for the life of me, I couldn’t decide the reason. April was months ago, and it wasn’t my birthday. I hadn’t pranked anyone recently, so it couldn’t be paybacks for something I’d done.
“This is Claus von Stauffenberg. I’m running late this morning. I’ll have to catch a cab.”
“No, Colonel von Stauffenberg. The meeting is about to start. A staff car will be there shortly.”
The line clicked off. Colonel? A staff car? I glanced out the window and my heart almost stopped. This wasn’t London. I looked for evidence of my location and soon realized I was in Rastenburg, in eastern Germany.
How had this happened?
I saw a briefcase on a chair, and I opened it, hoping for clues. Inside was loaded with explosives, and in that moment, I remembered my history. Great-uncle von Stauffenberg. I was named after him, as a point of pride. He was the aide to the general staff of the German armed forces who’d failed in his attempt to blow up Hitler after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in 1943.
I opened my wallet for my identification papers, to find my birthdate wasn’t what I expected.
November 15, 1907.
I racked my brain to remember what I could of my great-uncle’s exploits that disastrous day in ’43. I recalled it happened in July. I knew it couldn’t be any earlier than 1942 from the speech I’d heard.
I lifted the phone and got the operator again.
“Yes, Herr von Stauffenberg?”
“The date. What’s the date?” I realized I was speaking fluently in German. I’d never been fluent before and was amazed to hear myself so clearly now.
“The year? What’s the year?”
“1943, of course.” She sounded puzzled.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling my armpits and back grow damp. It was up to me. My great-uncle had failed, but I mustn’t. The world had a second chance to change the magnitude of the atrocities of the war.
I glanced out the window again to see the approaching staff car, a lumbering beast with massive tyres. I flung myself into my uniform, my fingers flying at the fasteners. Great-uncle had failed because the massive conference table had shielded the Fuhrer from the blast of the bomb. I mustn’t set it under the table, as Great-uncle had done. Against the wall, behind the Fuhrer. It would decapitate him, and the world would be able to recover at last.
Great-uncle Claus would be vindicated.
I lifted the briefcase and did a double-time step down the stairs. If I died, too, it would be worth my life to destroy the evilest man ever born into the world. The world’s wounds could then heal, even if my sacrifice was lost in the rubble of history.