William, Black and strong as a weak soul's nightmare, walked into the sundown town on a mission. Twilight glowed behind him. It provided an aura redundant, given the size, beauty and determination of him.
At his back, the city of Raleigh raged in the distance. From fifteen miles away, even he couldn't hear it, but the chaos left a crackle in the air. It crawled across his skin, following right behind the sweat trickling under his dreadlocks tied like a crown, down his long-sleeved T-shirt.
The town's inhabitants would pose no challenge, but at nearly seven feet tall, ebony-skinned and stacked with muscle William knew he wasn't just a challenge to them, but their fear incarnate. He knew how it would end, but the middle could get interesting.
He looked down the town center, saw no one. The hardware that ran the town lined the street. Tiny LED lights blinked randomly in the equipment's long, black cases. Alongside the cases, a row of cars charged, each one plugged into the same slim towers that housed the street lights. Below them a thin patina of dust covered the street. It vibrated under each vehicle where cooling fans barely blew.
In places like this, engines didn't idle and cars stay charged 'cause folks didn't travel; the outside frightened them and they could afford to have necessities delivered.
The LEDs' twinkle reminded William of fireflies. Those tiny lights were as close as anyone could come to them now-another extinction that haunted him, though this one, gently.
Nostalgia came with being the oldest young man in the world; doing it in secret made it mournful. William aged so slowly that it hid his years.
Like the other recipients of genetic reparations, you couldn't tell how he differed until people started to die. Unlike the other Carter Kids, William didn't just survive toxic environments and infection longer. He survived everything, including them. Only Carter Kid descendants could be found now. So ghosts filled William's world. Even in a place like this, the ancestors of the present lurked, behind every tree, down to the root of things.
Sapling woods surrounded the town, but it stood apart. Not just because asphalt filled the space between the woods and buildings, not even because Raleigh stood, densely populated and decaying, just a short ride away. The town had removed itself from the world deliberately. William didn't need a sign to tell him that though signs abounded.
First, he could see fear in the eyes of a White man who walked around the corner and saw him, though being a Black man here was supposed to be William's danger. With strength and size that rivaled the most expensive biogenetic adaptations, William knew this fear well. He had seen it every day since he'd been a boy nearly no one thought a child.
The people here wouldn't believe him, but he hadn't come to pick a fight. William drew his sidearm in a flash of movement, squeezed the trigger quicker than the man could alert anyone. The tranq entered his upper thigh. William placed it near an artery but far enough from his heart to do any lasting damage. William quietly covered the distance between them and pulled his limp body into a shadow, stepped out of it.
William had a hunch. And much as he preferred tactics, he'd spent the time since his letter's publication learning their limits.
His mama would say heroes should heed hunches just as she'd remind him this wasn't a real sundown town, not like the ones before, but William knew grease and smoke meant fire.
He also knew he was nobody's hero.
And Mama wasn't here to dispute that. None of them were-not Lala, he and Lala's girls, Raynard, Jesse or anyone else from Mound Bayou. Even if people very much like the men on this street hadn't killed his town and its inhabitants all those years ago, he'd still be on his own.
William outlived everyone. It was a thing beyond perception. A fact, like the sun and the moon, and the imperceptible turning of the Earth beneath him. In the US Black people's life expectancy stood at 52-48 for men. He defied that bleak reality simply by surviving. And he did much more than that.
His scarless skin, jet black dreadlocks and robust visage told a tale his age could not corroborate. At 67 he looked 30. He'd searched for others, in the world and online, but William, the only one of his long-lived kind, was alone and for the moment, surrounded by might-be enemies and certain danger.
In that sense, it had always been so. Even when he had his brothers to watch his back.
For the 1,000th time William wondered whether the three of them would still work as a unit if the Knight Klan hadn't blown up his brothers with rest of the town. Would Raynard still be on his left and Jesse on the right, perfectly aligned to one another and to protect the people who depended on them? He'd felt his brothers for 70 years after their murder but now it seemed Raynard and Jesse no longer walked with him, not in this world or the next.
William took a step further into inhospitability and toward the voice that had beckoned him from the road. There, finally, another townie walked into view. Better to know their location.
He leveled his gaze at the man. His look lingered just lost long enough to communicate that he belonged wherever he chose, but a second before it required the other man to acquiesce.
Submission did not thrill William. He'd discovered a lot about himself over the years, but no secret bully that lurked in him.
He hadn't come to punish. William only needed to protect the people he put in danger. Lording over others wouldn't change what he'd done. He tranqued the man.
Eight left in the magazine. If he came upon a group, he probably couldn't keep it quiet. Blood would spill. He'd rather conserve his energy, some peace of mind, but what he rathered rarely mattered these days.
As the sun dipped further down into the horizon, the street lights began to click on. Besides the street itself, they lit up a red grid of laser lines hovering 50 feet in the air. To the untrained eye it looked as if they'd been kicked into being by the dust William stirred as he walked. It wasn't his first time seeing such systems. Natchitoches had one, Arlington too. In all those places where privilege and race were bound up together, people separated themselves with the latest military measures as often as walls and manned entrances.
It's why he called them sundown towns. Only when night fell did folks know they'd stumbled into a place with no place for them.
Armed guards could be bribed, but sec-lasers attacked anyone who didn't have the right homechip implanted.
Fifteen miles down the road, Raleigh still had open avenues and highways with no gates. So did the exurbs between here and there, but places like this sprouted wherever enough money floated. They were ripe for the picking, and he knew who would choose them.
The genetic corporations would start recruiting soon. William knew it just as he knew the best countermeasure to a small artillery frontal assault. Either in places like this or the poor White neighborhoods that aspired to such exclusion, folks would be recruited. The genetic corporations needed the fearful to try and turn others to fear. They made the best recruits, recruits that would be trained to find him.
The gene corps had glimpsed his DNA, but not his face. That part he'd done right. When he sent the letter to newspapers and a DNA sample to free labs around the country, he'd used a self-degrading culture. The DNA only proved what he was, not who. But once genetic corporations saw they could sell immortality they didn't even consider buying it from the poor William planned to share it with; instead the gene corps started hunting the owner of that DNA.
Could it be just two weeks ago it started? The gene corps' contractors had already attacked Louisville, New Montego Bay. There'd be more, greater forces, destructive coalitions; William recognized an opening salvo when he saw one.
A few paces ahead, a newspaper, a real print edition, rare and soft as a lost friend's laugh teetered on the edge of a trash can. He could read the headline from here: 10,473,887. The number covered half the space above the fold. It was a Times, the third newspaper he'd seen today. The first he'd seen in forty years. The remaining independent publishers brought them back into print for one evening edition. Each one decried all that knowledge passing into oblivion.
Late last night the Knowledge Act became law and those 10 million+ records, including his letter, were now contraband, illegal to post or possess. So today he needed to ascertain the next threat and prepare as best he could.
Two men came around a corner. The one in front, with long, straggly hair and two black eyes swaggered into William's path, further exhibiting his poor judgment.
"You lost?" the man barked.
The other hung back, either smart enough to stay out of William's reach or waiting to rush him when the moment came. There would be no such moment.
William heard the voice he'd been tracking just ahead and looked that direction. Up the next block, a man in crisp fatigues motioned others toward him as he raised his voice above the group's side conversations.
William stepped around the small obstacle, warned the second man with a look and kept pace to the group.
"No! I'll get that bastard myself," he heard behind him, followed by the sound of a Heltgun being misprogrammed.
The group hadn't yet turned his direction and William meant to keep it that way if he could. He took five quick steps to the west side of the furthest building, about 15 yards away and stepped into the shadows gathered there. He listened to the man in fatigues work to rile the others up.
"Why? I ask you. Why should you have to hole up here? While thugs and miscreants take over the great city of Raleigh? And one of them, one of those black boys is walking around with your birthright? One of them dogs thinks he gets to live longer than his master!"
A man and woman from the edge of the group, drifted away.
"No need to be ashamed!" the recruiter shouted. "See!" he said to the group. "They got into some people's heads! You see that!" He gestured toward their departing backs.
"It's time to decide! Are you seizing the day, ready to restore what's rightfully yours or you gonna turn tail and go home? Hoping they'll spare you when they show up? 'Cause they're coming. You remember New Dawn? You remember the REP WAR?!" he screamed. "Bunch of worthless mongrels demanding money and land for something that didn't even happen to them. That was the best thing that ever happened to their kind! Thousands of freeloading subhumans looking for a pay day. That's niggers for you. That's what they are."
Eyes closed, William held himself steady. Growing up, he'd heard a lot worse. He'd also killed Knight Klan to protect his town and himself. This turd of a man didn't bother him. They never did. Their power bothered him. To disable it he would need to find its source.
He'd follow this fool to the others and then leave his mark.
A shock burned William's left thigh. He looked up at the darkened sky. The sensors must have passed the horizon. The next shock hit him in the chest. He smirked, must have been a warning shot then. Three more buzzed up his right side, stabbing from head to toe as he adjusted his footing and crouched down, grounding himself against the pain.
"I came to show you the way!" the recruiter bellowed. "We can go wherever we want? Whenever we want! Forever! That's our future! We just need to go out and claim it! Are you ready? Are you?!"
Two black, armored personnel carriers drove past William's place in the shadows and stopped in front of the group. The doors of the first opened and he saw racks filled with guns and assault rifles along its interior. Someone had their feet up, crossed at the ankle, on the middle bench seat. William could see long legs, but from where he stood he couldn't see the torso or face. The boot leather reflected the streetlight. The way it shined, smooth and uncracked, those boots were either brand new or untested. As William watched, they were snatched up out of sight as the boots' owner climbed out of the back and jumped down onto the ground.
He was young, obviously Adapted. He had the Aryan good looks popular with the upper White middle class 20 years ago. Before that, racial ambiguity dominated. William thought the switch a reaction to the preceding trend more so than any organic shifting of tastes. The recruiter's body language shifted. His head pulled in around his shoulders, chin dropped slightly toward his chest, deferring. The younger one had command then.
The Adapted commander stood nearly as tall as William. If he hadn't William didn't doubt that the recruiter would have found a way to seem smaller in his presence.
The commander, looked across the small crowd, his eyebrows knitted in a pantomime of sternness. Then, he barely bent his knees, two inches at most, leapt four feet into the air and yelled "Saddle up!"
The recruit group didn't need to see more. They piled into the first carrier, gazes fixed on the guns. Some squeezed their fists together, hankering to hold them William thought. The Adapted commander followed them in, closed the door.
As the first carrier sped away, the recruiter climbed into the second one. Its driver looked up from a bright screen in the dash.
"Like lambs to the slaughter," William heard the recruiter say under his breath. Louder, he spoke to the driver. "That's it. No more from here. I told him we should have gone to the trailer park." He glanced over to the screen in the dash. "There's still time. Let's head over there now."
Before the driver could respond William appeared at the side of the vehicle, grabbed him through the open window and knocked his skull into the recruiter's with a loud crack. William opened the door and dumped both men out on the ground.
He squeezed himself behind the wheel. Just as he closed the door, a wayward shot sparked against the front bumper. He glanced over at the pair of townies firing wildly at the armored vehicle and shook his head. William turned toward Raleigh and drove out onto the road.
Within a few minutes, bright, short strips of light at the roadside flashed in the headlights. He squinted, saw the forest restoration volunteers beyond their reflective vests. They planted seeds right up to the edge of the road and far into the field on either side of the highway. Strange sentinels those. He welcomed the sight of anyone trying to grow this world back, but wondered if they knew or cared about the chaos up the road. He gave them a wide berth, accelerated until he spied the first carrier's tail lights ahead of him.
When it took a downtown exit. He followed.
William gnawed at the inside of his cheek thinking of what would come next. He could kill; his body was tuned to it more than most, but the rest of him strained in every other direction. Yet it seemed the only thing left to him.
A message popped up on the dashboard screen. Audio kicked in.
"First an admission," a disembodied voice read.
William hit the mute button and gripped the steering wheel tighter. The letter was the last thing he wanted to find him right now. Impressive though that someone'd posted it so soon after the Knowledge Act. He glanced down at the screen, searching for the power button, stopped as something caught his attention.
He scrolled past his own words to the one that had been added: "Everlasting."
Someone had signed his letter.
First the illegal posting and now this signature, a further provocation.
His mouth moved, the smirk not quite a smile, as he took the exit ramp into the city. He heard the fighting first, had been hearing it for miles. As the letter's distraction faded, the sound surrounded him.
Downtown was under siege. Everywhere brown people ran-in groups, families, couples, alone-through a cloud of gray confetti that swirled through the air. A few of the people- an elderly man in his boxers, a woman in a business suit-had weapons at the ready or picked them up as they went, ready to defend themselves against the hordes of uniformed officers, genetic corporation security and who knew who else pushing Black people into a corral on an open lot.
William took the scene in, noting locations, distances and structures. He noted three gene corps companies in the mix. When he spotted the other carrier two blocks ahead, he parked and cut the ignition. He turned to get out, stopped at the sight of the artillery that lined the rear. It must have been 30,000 rounds of ammunition, 20 weapons.
William started the carrier. He drove to the lake near the university. He'd spent that afternoon waiting for recruiters there. At the edge of the lake, he put the carrier in neutral, turned off its lights and locked the door behind him. He glanced to see if anyone was nearby, then ripped the access panel off the door, broke it in into four pieces and lodged them back into the cavity. He walked to the rear and in two long strides, pushed the carrier into the water, watched until its roof sunk below the water line. William jogged the few streets back toward the corralled block.
As he passed the last big building just before it, whooshing erupted on his right. He pivoted, looked. A thick jet of water pushed people off their feet and toward the corral. William craned his head up and caught sight of a uniformed Metanoia contractor behind a water cannon mounted on top of a building and headed that direction.
When William reached him and nearly into him with a punch the water stopped.
Still the confetti danced in the air, covered the wet walls and sidewalks. As people ran, they trampled it into a thick, dirty slush. It looked like a twisted nuclear winter: the screaming, the snow that wasn't snow, the awfulness of it all. Absurd. But it all strained the bounds of reason. William remembered when people could walk freely. But power didn't bother with machinations anymore. Power had become a machine.
As William approached the corral he saw the automated shredding truck parked next to it, turning the evening newspapers into summer snow.
A chemical plant took up the entire block across the street from the corral. A network of pipes covered one exterior wall. Its rusted Chemtrex sign loomed over the scene. Below, the plant's runoff had cut a gully deep into the dirt. The ground dropped off so abruptly William couldn't see the bottom.
He looked beyond that to a low, concrete perimeter wall. If not for the holes already blasted into it, it might have provided decent cover. As it was he'd do better to take the group of guards and contractors at the corral directly. At least it would give the men and women inside it a headstart.
William walked straight to a line of armed men that surrounded the corral and, one by one, relieved them of their firearms. Two got a shot off and only one bullet found flesh to lodge in. For those two he suspended mercy and cracked their necks as he pushed them aside and ripped the corral open.
People streamed out.
As they did, surprise reinforcements arrived and hope, quick and quiet, blossomed.
Folks rose from the gully, weapons in hand, both makeshift and machined: axes, guns and boards studded with spikes thick as railroad ties.
"Everlasting!," one of them yelled.
Flecks of blood flew through the air, landed on William's boot. If only that were true he thought as security felled the first one with a brutal blow to the head. The freedom fighters surged forward with their handheld weapons.
They would not last, not like this. Only he might and for what? To watch all those around him fall? More towns destroyed, families lost, dreams deferred, interred.
Terror for them stopped his steps and William swayed, buffeted by swells of admiration for the women and men who charged at the transports and a wave of fear for those same folks.
He'd calculated the distance and their righteousness would not close the gap quickly enough or outgun their assailants.
These people didn't know what lurked inside the carriers. The new recruits were untrained but well-armed, and he'd bet they had the same kind of firepower he'd just submerged, auto-aiming pulse rifles, the perfect complement to incompetence.
If William had his brothers there would be no conflict, just a quick deading of whoever opposed them. But these people didn't come genetically equipped to coordinate and execute flawlessly. They didn't share a talent for coordination that went deeper than their bones, or perhaps even DNA, to what defined them.
It may have made them braver, but no more capable.
William could improvise, but didn't like the odds of a surprise so he weighed the world at that moment and figured out how. As he did, he palmed the packet of seeds in his front pants pocket, slowly rolling his fingers across the thick plastene that kept moisture and sun safely outside it. Then, William converted. He came out the other end of his equations as momentum, released his solutions.
First a length of pipe from the exterior plumbing line snaking itself up the factory wall. William jogged to it and grabbed a section half his height and pulled with a short burst of force, breaking it off and disanchoring the bolts binding that section to the bricks. He noted the instability, turned, and ran back to the fray, holding the pipe like a pole.
The closest transport stopped, unloaded a mass of new recruits. William stabbed the pipe into the ground, catapulted himself into the middle of them. As he'd anticipated the guards stepped back before they rushed him and he swung a quick arc around him, dropping that cluster of recruits as well as the helmets from their heads. The helmets landed in pieces, a staccato that caught another cluster's attention.
William gleaned a course to the water cannon. He sprinted to a worker shuttle still parked nearby and ran up it-bumper to hood to roof-and moved onto the compromised piping system. He only touched it twice, once to swing himself up and the second time to pull the main bolt half clear of the wall and hang his full weight on it an instant before he launched himself up to the edge of the overhang and then the roof.
He reached the water cannon, heard the rain of heavy metal as the piping system crashed onto the recruits who'd run after him. William aimed the full pressure at the front, right wheel well of an armored van cum personnel carrier approaching the block. The driver overcorrected into the edge of a concrete ditch and slammed on the brakes. The vehicle turned up on one corner of the bumper, hanging vertically in the air for one long second and somersaulted before it slammed into the ground on its side. The force crushed that side and filled the cabin with grass and mud as it skid to a hard stop.
William noticed the shape of a Moroccan star in a tuft of grass bunched up against the window well. He inhaled; his mind slid back into pocket.
He took a half step onto the next trajectory, then saw three Danza Genetics contractors in cranberry coveralls descending the fire escape on a nearby building. William flicked his wrist, triggering the holster hidden behind his cuff. An automatic pistol slipped up from his sleeve and locked into position, his finger so fast the trigger was back in place before the contractors understood. The men looked up as they fell, as if an answer might rain down with the mush of newspaper clippings.
William took the fire escape down five landings, jumped back down to the street. He watched, waited, had just enough time to wipe his sweaty hands across his pants.
A metal door slammed open, ushered out a dozen security personnel from a squat tenement building 100 yards to his left. William flicked his gaze to the left, decided to use the open space against them. He let them fill it with their hurried footsteps. Those footsteps masked the sound of a single shot squeezed just after they burst through the door, straight into the corroded bracket 300 feet above. The bullet lodged into the main bracket holding the rusted Chemtrex sign in place.
William didn't watch as it fell, took two big leaps toward the street, on to the next trajectory between him and the obstacles falling into place before him.
The cover of an electricity meter caught his attention. He approached it, ripped the cover off, and pivoted, weight centered on his heel as he spun. His toes found purchase when he needed to stop-at an angle that guaranteed damage. William pistoned his arm back, and launched the cover from the fulcrum of his elbow.
The metal sliced through every obstacle between it and a brick wall 30 yards away, powerful and precise as a throwing hatchet in his hands. Men fell; their meat followed.
The packet of seeds broke open in his pocket. As William checked the ground to make sure he hadn't lost any, the last of that group hit the ground with a wet thud. He drew a breath deep into his chest.
William could hear the hum of the buildings around him, the sound of his own breath. It took longer for the sounds of others to break through. Slowly they filtered into his focused fugue.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another carrier stop 100 yards away, on his right.
The doors opened and recruits spilled out onto the street-ran away from him. Two of the recruits stopped and stooped near the bodies of three people from the corral lying on the ground. They'd been trampled in the rush. The men carefully took snippets of hair from the people there and shoved it into small pouches strapped to their biceps.
The rest of the group just kept running; a few threw looks back at him as they fled.
Behind their departing backs, a long line of headlights wound its way to the confrontation. More carriers. William counted eight.
Ruckus overhead cut into his thoughts. Two helicopters moved into the space over them; the second carried a machine gun pointed down at the street. After a quick calculation, William's strategy changed.
He could trade his life for theirs, and they would live.
He had the distance, could see the paths between forces and sufficient weaponry along the block, but he would not survive.
Which left one problem, just presented: He couldn't die, lest his body be found. With it, they'd have all the genetic information they'd ever need to sell long life to the highest bidder, or otherwise do whatever they pleased.
William looked around the chaotic block and saw what pleased them.
Everyone fighting for their lives here and around the country might, by some spark of imagination, coordination and bravery overcome, but not if the privileged added long life to their list of advantages.
He had a single alternative. Yet everything in William stayed rooted to the spot.
He'd been designed, born and brought up to protect. More than that he'd chosen it, had always felt fortunate that his calling matched his gifts.
Right then, time, for William, stopped and split. There was who he had been and who he became in that moment.
Betrayal wasn't sharp enough a word to cut through the tarry feeling that filled him as he fled.
The rational part of him kept repeating: this is how you protect now, this is how you protect but William cowed from coward as it blasted through every other thought.
He entered that split in time, burrowing so deep it might as well have been his grave.