Six Billion Dollars in Debt (F.B. Wood)

Dwayne wiped the sweat from the palms of his hands on his pants legs.  He looked at the sliding glass doors of Mega Mall, sniffed, and thumbed his nose.  The doors spread apart smoothly as he entered Mega Mall for the first time and probably his last. The security drones turned to focus their lens on him.  His heart raced up his throat from inside his chest. 

   “Relax.” He told himself “the bots look at everyone.”  His heart didn’t stop pounding, though. Like most men Dwayne knew exactly what he was shopping for.  He had no desire to browse. He was on a self- imposed mission for making one wrong mistake to many times to count.  He rounded the women’s clothing department. Glancing over his shoulder he couldn’t believe that fashion was torn shirts and pants. “It’s 2089!” He thought to himself. “You’d think they would’ve sewed those patches up by now.” He shook his head and headed for the big black and white sign hanging from the ceiling that read “Photronics/Electronics”.  There was a six-foot high wall that ran the perimeter of the department leaving only a ten-foot entrance.  It was cleverly disguised as shelving, but Dwayne knew a fence when he saw one.  Only one other person occupied the department with him.  She was a short plump brunette saleswoman who looked like she hadn’t moved from the stool since she first got the job.  Her face appeared very manish and Dwayne thought he saw a 5 o’clock shadow.  Her head sunk so low it made it look like she had no neck at all.    

     Next to her stood her replacement, just as soon as the mainstream had worked all the bugs out.  It was an A.E. An automated employee.  She had her fake smile stretched across her plastic face.  Perpetually standing up with her left hand by her side and her right hand on her hip. This blonde hair blue eyed talking mannequin could answer simple questions, without moving her mouth; like the location of merchandise, or the price.  They can also spout information, like directions or prices at other stores as most every machine in the world is “wi-fi”ed  into the internet, but you ask little questions like “How was your day?” or “How do you feel?”  And that thing usually starts beeping at you and powers down.  That’s what the woman on the stool is for, to hit the reset button. 

   Dwayne passed by them coolly, without making direct eye contact with either of the employees. He walked to the back of the department, down the aisle with all the discounted Entertainment Discs.  At the back of the department was the longest and tallest wall.  It was also where they kept all the Living Liquid Crystal Video Cubes, a five -sided photonic video screen that would play five different vid channels or E.D.s simultaneously.  Some people would paint one wall of their living rooms because of the projection feature available at the touch of a button. Dwayne had never actually looked at the V.C.s only because he could never afford them.  Then again he had recently picked up a “mondai” habitat that was rapidly approaching about the same price.  Dwayne’s hands started to shake a little as the thought of that Japanese blue powder came into his mind.  The rush as he inhaled just a few particles of  “mondai,” every fiber of his muscular system pulsing at once letting Dwayne feel every pump of his heart as an orgasmic wave.  He quickly put his hands in his pockets and began walking around the department once more.  It was fairly quiet. He had decided the best day to do his “shopping” would be a Sunday evening when most people would be at home and out of his way.  He knew Mega Mall didn’t have the money for a security system with a full drop in energy cage, but there were enough cameras.  There were three just on the vid screens, all the A.E.s had them and Dwayne counted at least five in the ceiling just on his way to the department, decoratively disguised as ceiling lights.  They didn’t matter though.  They’d have to catch him and if there was one thing in this world Dwayne Delaruse knew how to do, it was run. He just wasn’t sure if he could maintain his top speed while carrying a forty-kilogram V.C.  

     Dwayne made his way back up to the A.E. and mannish looking customer service desk clerk who was now running through her e-palm with a motion that almost looked like she was scratching the same itch over and over.   He walked back down the aisle of E.D.s and feigned interest in a few of them before approaching the desk. 

  “Hello and welcome to Mega Mall. How may we assist you?” The voice of the A.E. was of a female woman who had had way too much coffee.  She was trying to sound up beat and perky but Dwayne knew it was just advertising.  The mannish woman, whose name tag read “Heidi”, did not look up and in fact picked up her cup of coffee right in front of her.          

 “How much are the clearance E. D.s in the back discounted?”  He looked directly at Heidi hoping she would look up, but the A.E. answered long before Heidi finished her sip of coffee.

 “Take an extra twenty percent off all our already marked down clearance entertainment discs.”

  “How ‘er you doing?” Dwayne asked the automated woman with a grin.

  “My day is going well sir thank you for asking.” The plastic woman responded placidly.  At this Heidi looked up from the three dimensional screen that was emulating from her hand.  “Nice try.” She snorted. “They updated the software a few weeks ago to cut down on glitches.”

 “Really.  Cause I hate these things. They never send me to the right place.”

  “I hate them as much as the next person but the company paid for them and wants to keep them up and running.” 

 Dwayne grinned at the A.E. “Then maybe you can tell me how you feel about the election?” 

  “Election includes Governor Dean Worzy, Republican, and Democratic Senator Phil Dilton. Analysts speculate that the percentage of black people voting for Phil Dilton is 21%.” The A.E.s eyes flashed red and she started spouting off various statistics of the election based on polls that had been recently taken and opinions by various important dignitaries posted on the Internet.

  “Oh God!  She’s going to be at that for another hour.  Thanks a lot.  Not only do I have to listen to this, but I have to reset her too when she’s done.” 

  “Job security.” Smiled Dwayne.  “You know I wanted to get one of the V.C.s in the back.” 

  “Anything to get away from her,” snarled Heidi.  He followed Heidi down the aisle of gaming accessories and stopped at the locked clear plastic case that held the V.C.s.   Heidi passed her I.D. badge in front of a black square on the case.  There was a light click and Heidi opened the door.

  “Which one did you want?”

  “That Lynron there.  That’s the only one with the projection feature, right?”  Heidi scanned the other boxes briefly. 

   “It looks like it.”

  “How much it weigh?”  Heidi looked at Han quizzically. “I got this table at home it can only hold so much weight.”  Heidi read the box and then said quickly.

  “Thirty-five kilos.”

  “Not as heavy as I thought.  I’ll take it.”  Heidi pulled out the box and placed it on the floor.  She slowly stood back up and Han began to sweat.  He could almost smell the minty smell of “mondai”.  Heidi let out a loud groan holding her lower back as she stood. 

   “Every year these damn things get heavier.”

  “I could carry it for ya.  I use to run ball for the Boston Belair.”

  “Oh you were a professional tramp ball player.  I always like that sport.  The mid air collisions between some of you guys. Did they hurt?”

  Dwayne chuckled, “Even with the pads on.”

  “I’d love for you to carry this box, but article 6 section 7.5 of the Mega Mall manual states that I must maintain possession of said merchandise until receipt of payment.” Heidi smiled.  “I’ve gotten in trouble for it before.”   Heidi bent down and picked up the box with a grunt.  She waddled back up to the counter where she put down the V.C. on the counter and sat down once again.  She pulled out a booklet and ran through the pages.  The A.E. continued on its political information rant.  Heidi quit flipping pages and pulled out a white piece of paper with a bar code.  Dwayne looked from Heidi and glared towards the exit.

   “It can’t be more than a hundred and fifty meters to the door.” Dwayne thought.  “I run the fifty meter in under six seconds.  No quicker way than the way I came in.”  Dwayne looked back toward Heidi and heard the A.E. say sweetly “Living Liquid Crystal Video Cube Eight thousand five hundred thirty one dollars and nine cents.”  He heard the price and his heart began to race.  He could feel the sweat accumulating on his palms and under his arms. “Will it be Credit or Direct transfer?” the A.E. queried. Heidi looked to Dwayne as he reached behind to his back pocket. His mind racing, “I don’t need this. I was a star tramp ball player.  I out scored them all…  What about Wanda? What about Robert’s little face? What if I get caught? This isn’t small shit.  This is eight large. I wouldn’t see my son for a long time…But they can’t catch me. Nobody can catch me out here. I’m fast!  I’ve always been fast.”

    The sweat was pouring from Dwayne’s forehead as he struggled to get his wallet out of his back pocket.  Heidi looked at him and cocked her head a little to the left and slowly said, “Are you okay?”  It was with this that Dwayne realized that he wasn’t okay.  He wasn’t allowed in tramp ball.  His wife left him with his son and he was out of money!  The worst part was he hadn’t had any “mondai” in almost three days and his body was beginning to de-tox.  Dwayne’s hands began to shake more violently.  It was this sign that Heidi had been trained to look for and reached for the com box.  He saw the panicked look on Heidi’s face and in an instant Dwayne realized he was going to be kicked out of Mega Mall without the V.C. He grabbed the thirty-five kilogram V.C. and dashed off for door, his heart pounding in his chest. 

   “Why do they put this shit in the back?” but Dwayne couldn’t even hear his own voice his ears were ringing so loud. He made his way past the women’s apparel.  He didn’t hear the store wide siren that was blaring.  He missed the red flashing lights at the end of every aisle.  The store became a blur as Dwayne ran as fast as his legs would carry him.  He carried the V.C. close to his chest and held on tight.   He could see the exit and knew that all cameras were on him.  The bots on either side of the door only moved their lens to get a better shot of Dwayne.  Just as he came up to the sliding glass doors and his hopes were at their highest, he realized the doors were not opening for him.  The V.C. crashed through the glass panel first with Dwayne’s hands breaking the glass.  As Dwayne came through the razor sharp opening his foot hit the bottom of the door and he tripped.  He tucked, rolled, and came to rest in the very spot he started.  He stopped to take a breath.  The only thing he could hear was the sound of his heart thumping.  It died down just in time for him to hear the sirens of the approaching police.  Dwayne was back on his feet with the V.C. in his arms, ears thumping and running through the parking lot.   He heard a noise over a muffled mega phone somewhere behind him. He assumed they were saying stop, but that only made him run faster.  Dwayne dodged and weaved through pedestrians walking up and down the streets or Chicago.  He couldn’t recognize where he was going.  All the buildings were flying by at a speed he had never seen before.  Dwayne could only focus on the sirens behind him and how loud they were beginning to be.  There was a lull in the pedestrians and he looked up at the passing street sign and smiled.  He was only two blocks from his buddy’s house.  He could hide there until the heat was off.  It was the last time Dwayne Delaruse would smile for a long time.  He heard what he thought was a rock hitting the pavement next to him, and then a really loud pop. The next thing he knew he was falling towards the side walk.  He landed on the backs of his hands which were then crushed by the V.C. and then finally by the weight of his own torso. Dwayne started gasping for air and rolled off the V.C.  He heard the sirens getting closer and a few people were getting off their vid-phones to see what was going on.  He tried to stand up but could only flop back down on the ground.  All he could think was “Who tripped me? I’m going to kill ‘em!” He flipped over on his back and sat up, taking huge gasps of air.  It was then that he caught sight of his lower legs laying six feet away from the rest of his body.  He tried to scream, but he just didn’t have the oxygen and Dwayne lay down to wait for the police.  He blacked out before he ever saw anyone.

     Dwayne Delaruse woke up in Chicago Memorial with an I.V. in his right arm and energy cuffed left hand.  He didn’t speak to anyone.  He didn’t say anything to his ex-wife when she came to visit or his son.  He didn’t say anything to his court appointed attorney. He didn’t even ask any questions when the doctor told him they couldn’t put his legs back on. 

   “The muscles had inexplicable exploded and are in such a disarray that they couldn’t be organized for a reattachment.” Dwayne could tell the doctor had no remorse about the news he delivered.  He was offered prosthetics but when they found out he never had insurance they were withdrawn.  When the bleeding had subsided they transferred Dwayne over to the state penitentiary where due to an extremely streamlined judiciary system, he was given a skin graph and sentenced to nine years, no parole.  Dwayne had heard from no one for almost four months after his sentencing.

     One morning, without any explanation at all, a guard wheeled Dwayne into one of the interrogation rooms on the old side of the jail and he could have cared less.  His wheel chair barely had enough room to move around. Dwayne didn’t hear the door close when the officer left.  The room was well lit by a single overhead light. He paid no attention to the four-foot reflective glass window or the criss-crossed bars over it.  His chiseled black features were motionless as he sat in front of the stainless steel table.  The only things that Dwayne could focus on were the two white gauze bandages that covered up the two stumps that were, only four months ago, his legs.  He reached down with his cuffed hands and tried to touch what was left of his legs.  All he got was a little blood on the ends of his finger tips.  He wiped the blood onto the concrete wall next to him adding to the red crusted mural that speckled three out of the four walls.  He slowly put his energy cuffed hands on the table and hung his head low with a fixed gaze on his lower half.  Dwayne waited.  They kept him waiting for more than two hours.  By the time the door opened Dwayne’s shirt was drenched with sweat from the lack of air conditioning.  The door to the interrogation room burst open and a thin white man wearing a gray polyester suit, swinging a black fake leather brief case, swooped in.  In one smooth motion he opened his briefcase, spread out the contents of two black file folders and placed his briefcase, with built in Touchbook, on the table.  Dwayne could recognize a few of the papers. They were his driver’s license, social security card, and his T-ball contract.  The little white man pulled a hand held voice imprint module out of this right coat pocket.  He released a little door on the side of the imprint module and pulled out a thin cord that plugged into the Touchbook. He pressed the record button and flatly dictated, “Agent Don Vaughn. Case Number TKM9I87. Subjects name is Dwayne Delaruse.  Post incidental interview. August 11, 2089.”  His words appeared on the Touchbook as he said them.  Agent Vaughn placed the recording device on the table half way between himself and Dwayne.  He began to look over the papers he had laid out in front of Dwayne.

   “Look at this.  Two thousand years of evolution and the bureaucrats still make you fill out hard copies. Alright Mr. DeLaruse.”

   “Dwayne.” He corrected him without looking up.

   “Alright, Dwayne.  I’m not here to judge you nor am I with the district attorney’s office. I am here simply to document your account.  I am here to record the past four years as you can best remember them.”

   “Read the papers.”

   “Mr. Dwayne it says here that you have attended several medical experimentation groups from ’82 to ‘85. Is that so?” Dwayne stared blankly.  

   “I see.”  Agent Vaughn adjusted his glasses and quickly jotted down a few notes on his Touchbook.  “In 2085 you went onto play professional tramp ball. Correct?”

   Dwayne smiled a little. “Yeah that’s right. They said they hadn’t seen anything faster.” His smile faded. “But, they just used me… to sell sports drinks.” Agent Vaughn made a few more notes.

   “And when you say they used you. What do you mean?”

   “You know who I am.  I’m Dwayne Delaruse. Fastest man in professional T-ball.”

   “You were the fastest man in T-ball.”  Dwayne clenched the muscles in his jaws and slowly made two fists in his energy cuffs.  Agent Vaughn just stared at him in a moment of silence.  “Have you noted any side effects in the last four years?”

  Dwayne said noting.  Agent Vaughn didn’t move except his right finger making notes on his Touchbook.  A voice came over the intercom.  “Vaughn, do you need the needle?”  Vaughn raised his hand and finished his notes.   He looked calmly up at Dwayne.

  “This has nothing to do with your apprehension nor with the vid screen you stole.  I could care less about your petty crime. I’m here about your legs.”  Dwayne glared up at Agent Vaughn.  “What about my legs?”

   “Now, Mr. Delaruse according to this report from the police you were carrying a 35 kilogram vid screen and running almost seventy kilometers an hour when and I quote”, Agent Vaughn looked over the papers in front of him “your legs exploded sending blood all over the street and buildings.” You were then knocked unconscious when your head hit the sidewalk.  Does this sound correct?”  Dwayne looked down at the torn pants and white gauze surrounding two stumps. He sat quietly not moving.  “Mr. Delaruse does this sound familiar?  Mr. Delaruse?  Dwayne!?  Shock him and let him know we mean business.”

   Dwayne looked up defiantly from his legs.  There was a long pause in which Agent Vaughn took off his glasses and pressed stop on the recording device.

   “Look after you’re done telling me what happened maybe,” Vaughn smiled smugly, “I’ll tell you why your legs exploded.”

   “You did this!”  Dwayne had come to life for the first time since his arrest.  He lunged for his interviewer but the electro-shocks in his cuffs came to life long before he even got half away across the table.  Dwayne seized in his chair for a minute and then slumped with a little drool hanging out of his mouth.

   “Dwayne.  Dwayne.  Dwayne, are you with me?”  Vaughn snapped his fingers a few times. Dwayne groaned lowly at first and slowly said,

    “Yeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhh.  I’mmmm with ya.”

   “Please remember that those are just the warning shocks.  Any further action like that and you could fry where you sit for a simple vid screen theft.” Agent Vaughn smiled and organized his papers and placed them in the black folders from where they came.  “Now if you will kindly explain why you were stealing a 35kg vid screen at seventy kilometers an hour?”

   “You got a stick?”

   “I don’t chew, but I do carry around a pack of cheapies for just such occasions.  I’ve found that it helps people in your situation loosen their tongue.”  Vaughn pulled out a pack of Gnaw-alls out of his briefcase and handed a small brown tube to Dwayne. 

   “Thanks.”  Dwayne threw the whole stick in his mouth and started to chew vigorously.

   “I’m sorry I didn’t bring a spit cup with me maybe you should…” And as if on cue Dwayne spit a huge black wad onto the wall and smiled at Agent Vaughn.

   “Looks like I don’t need one.”

Vaughn smiled and hit record on the device sitting in the middle of the table. 

   “Now Mr. Delaruse, have you always had the strength you exhibited in the police chase?”

   “No.”  Dwayne spit on the wall again.

   “When did you notice a change?” 

  “I needed some money so I offered myself up in ’84 as an experimental guinea pig.”

   “What experimental drugs did you take?”

   “Most of them were just skin creams and hair dyes.  My hair fell out once and I got a couple of rashes but there was this one time that was different. I only did it once.  Dexametha something or other.” Agent Vaughn pressed a few buttons on his notebook.

   “Dexamethapropylene?”

   “Yeah maybe.  I don’t know I took the pill and woke up in some white room.  The nurse said I was free to go whenever I liked.  She gave me the credit transfer and I left.”

   “Did you happen to catch what the date was when you went in for your surgery?”

   “Surgery?  I never said nothing about no surgery?”
   “You must have. My Touchbook tells me that Dexamethapropylene is a heavy sedative used primarily before surgery.”

   “But I never had any surgery.  I’d have scars or something.”

   “Surgery or no surgery, after this visit that’s when you noticed you could run faster?”  Dwayne let another spit wad fly.

   “I didn’t notice it until about a year later when I was running with my buddy.  We were just having fun racing, you know, and I took off.  I was running faster than I ever had. I had been working out a little. I figured it was the vitamins and the new tread mills at the gym.” 

   “You said you didn’t see any scars.  Did you notice anything peculiar about yourself? Any side effects?”

   “Not really.  Although, my ears would ring really loudly.  Coach hated it because I couldn’t hear people in the T-ball games, but when you’re as fast as me you don’t need the other people”

   “Deafness?”  Vaughn entered it into his Touchbook. “You never had any spasms?  Your legs never randomly kicked people?”

   Dwayne cocked his head to the left. “They’re my legs.  They do what I tell them to.”

   “Of course they are. Your drug screen tested positive for “mondai”?  When was the last time you used?”

Dwayne let out a loud chuckle.  “It’s been almost five months.”

   “How about prior to the arrest?”

  “It had been three days.”

Agent Vaughn turned off the recording device.  He placed it into his briefcase and then placed the black folders on top.

   “So, that’s it.  I told you everything you needed to know.  So, what happened to my legs?”  Agent Vaughn looked down at the newly crippled man and smiled.

  “The truth Mr. Delaruse is that you did in fact have surgery on your legs.”

Dwayne exploded at his interrogator.  “No scars! No surgery! What really happened?!”    Agent Vaughn smiled and headed for the door.  He opened it and paused in the doorway.  He looked at Dwayne and then at someone who had obviously been standing behind the one-way mirror. 

  “Show him.”  Agent Vaughn said to the man.  The overhead light began to dim and an antique three-bulb projector lowered down out of the ceiling.  Agent Vaughn closed the door.  With the lights dimmed Dwayne could see Agent Vaughn through the one-way mirror.  He was standing next to the guard who had wheeled Dwayne into the room and a third man Dwayne didn’t recognize.  He paid them no attention once the numbers started counting backwards in the lower left hand corner of the projector’s screen.  Dwayne almost couldn’t make out the numbers from all the blood and stick juice on the wall.  When the numbers reached zero he heard a voice from the projectors built in speaker.

   “Operation Augment.” Dwayne didn’t recognize the voice but he did recognize himself lying on a silver steel table much like the one in front of him. The red bulb had burned out in the projector and Dwayne lay there in shades of blue. The voice continued. “Early tests have proven conclusively that mammals can be augmented by technological implants known as “syn-chords.”  The camera panned over to a group of rats inside a very large plastic cage. “These mice have shown exceeding progress in their muscle development. Because the implants are powered by adrenaline, it’s been proven that the more afraid the rats are the faster they move.”  The camera panned back to Dwayne and the voice went on. “Dwayne Delaruse. Subject 45-CY. The government has informed us that it can’t afford to lose anymore of their space marines. We have resorted to testing on unknowledgeable civilians.”  A thin Asian doctor in a long white coat and facemask stepped into view holding his latexed hands up in the air.  “Are you ready Dr. Xin?” The Asian doctor gave a nod and Dwayne could tell the camera had been put on a tripod.  The man who was speaking came out from behind the camera.  Dwayne recognized him as the same man that was now standing next to Agent Vaughn. He came walking into the camera view wearing the same outfit as the Asian doctor. “Let’s begin.” said Dr. Xin.  Dwayne could feel the color drain from his face. He watched in hues of blue as the two men lasered his thighs open.  His eyes transfixed as they inserted what looked like eight thin silver tubes into each one of legs. Dwayne turned to look at the three men standing behind the one-way mirror.  The guard was no longer standing there and the doctor who was performing the operation on the screen was jotting something down on a Touchbook.  Agent Vaughn was the only one looking back at Dwayne and he was smiling. Reveling in Dwayne’s horror.  Dwayne looked to his legs and then back to the screen just in time to see the movie end.  He looked back at Agent Vaughn and met his gaze for a brief instant before the lights came back on.  Dwayne could only see his reflection then. 

   “Our guess,” said Vaughn over the interrogation room intercom, “is that your increased adrenaline levels combined with the “mondai” de-toxing is what caused your legs to explode.”   Dwayne continued to stare at his reflection in the one-way mirror.

   “So, now what?” Dwayne spit his entire chewed up Gnaw-all onto the ground.  “Ain’t you gonna help me?!” Dwayne screamed at his reflection. “You did this to me!” He almost fell forward out of this wheelchair. Vaughn said nothing.  

   “The United States government would like to thank you.” Agent Vaughn’s voice broke the silence over the intercom. “For your sacrifice, because without your little mistake we never would have found any bugs with the system.  Our entire space marine division could have ended up paraplegics like you.” Dwayne Delaruse, who didn’t shed a tear when his parents died, began to weep only slightly.

    “Don’t be surprised if you get a bill for six billion dollars.” Dwayne didn’t need to hear Agent Vaughn to know he was laughing at his own joke.

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