SHIP OF THESEUS’ CHARACTER CARD: The Tonys
TONY POSEIDON was once the warden of an Evil East Penitentiary, utilizing an illegal Janusian hive-mind technology to keep the inmates in line. Now Poseidon fancies himself a mob boss, using that same technology to control his gang of Tonys while his vast fishing and processing empire serve as a convenient front for moving black market goods from Janus as well as the nanomechanical “drug” called bliss.
The Tonys travel in groups of three, called a Triad. With little in the way of independent thought, Triads carry out Poseidon’s marching orders like worker bees. While they are strongly connected to the hive-mind, some individual personality traits may still express themselves, particularly the traits of the Triad’s strongest personality, the so-called Alpha Tony of the threesome. This is why members of a Triad tend to share similar postures, grooming, and personal hygiene.
Scott’s mother had given him a machete, and he walked twenty paces in front of her, hacking and slashing at the edges of the trail. He was unselfconscious in a way that a boy can only be when alone with his mother, singing and talking to himself, pretending, forgetting that he was a teenager, numerically obligated to put away the childish things. Occasionally, he called her over to check out a bug or a mushroom or the corpse of some decomposing Janusian fauna. This was an adventure for him.
The treetops choked down the sun into the gut of the Earth. Both of them were uneasy about it. They pretended that the sounds of the forest at night were worth little consideration, but they both felt the primal fear of nature. Every rustle of leaves was a stalking predator. Every unnamable screech was the last utterance of an innocent creature murdered for food.
They lay in the grass, wrapped in their sleeping bags, admiring the unpolluted night sky, the weather as fair as ever. Why bother with the tent? What protection was a tent from a mountain lion or swarm of nocturnal lightning wasps anyway? Both of them had come equipped with a bolt action antimatter beam rifle, which they kept in arms reach, just in case.
“Trick question,” the boy was saying. “It’s the big dipper, but the big dipper is part of Ursa Major, the big bear.”
“The mother bear,” Callie said. “What about her son?”
“His name was Arcas. Ursa minor, over there,” he pointed. “The little dipper.”
“Okay, smart guy, you know your star constellations, but do you know your stars?” She pulled her sleeping bag up to her chin. “Tell me this, for a cash prize and an exotic vacation to Red City, what’s the closest star to our own?”
“Another trick question,” he said. “It’s Alpha Centauri, but it’s not one star, it’s a binary.”
“And our winner, ladies and gentleman, with $200,000 and a trip to Blue City…” His father would be proud. “Scott Turner!”
“The crowd goes wild!” He applauded himself and made a poor attempt at audience noises. “Ratings soar! The network orders a second season!”
“The boy genius gets his third PHD!”
“I’d like to thank the mosquitos for keeping me humble.”
They went on like that for a long time. Pretending.
They had granola and dried fruit for breakfast, strapped on their packs, and were back on the trail before five in the morning. “Why so early?” Scott groaned, dragging his feet behind his mother, who had woken with fire in her belly.
She stopped, turned around, and smiled at her son. “Confession time,” she said, dropping her pack at her feet. “Pull up a log.”
Scott went down into a cross-legged position as if his knees had vaporized, searching his own pack for a snack before his butt hit the dirt. “Oh, yeah?”
She sat on a fallen chimera maple. “This camping trip isn’t all fun.”
Scott lined up two little plastic packets of dried cranberries so that he could tear the corners of both open simultaneously. “What do you mean?”
Callie kicked at the dirt. “Scott, you’ve never left Green City before, so you don’t...”
The boy dumped cranberries into his mouth. Some of them spelunked down his chin and into his shirt.
“We’re currently in the northernmost territory of the Surgeons of the Evil East, just south of Iago.
The boy stopped chewing. “The Evil East?”
“Border is less than five miles from here.”
“Whoa.” Like so many other boys, he had spent hours with his friends, speculating, repeating the latest rumor, putting on a brave face when asked if he would dare venture to the Evil East, given the opportunity. “Wait, did you bring me along for work?”
“I’ve been promising, right?” She smiled a painful smile at her son. A viberaptor sang/barked somewhere in the woods. She had been promising for years but always found an excuse to put it off. She wished she still could.
From a clearing at the top of a particularly steep and rocky hill, they could see the vastness of the refugee camp, an undulating sea of canvas tents in the valley below. They stopped to catch their breath and take in the sight. Scott wore his heart like a mask. His mother said, “These people…”
The boy looked to his mother, excited and nervous. “You still haven’t said… What are we delivering, Mom? A vaccine? Blood substitute?”
A lazy cloud meandered past the sun, and its ominous shadow followed suit across the landscape. She ignored her son’s question. “Used to be, if you wanted to live in Green City, you’d come to any number of camps along the coast to apply for asylum or citizenship. Now we’ve just got the one official camp, which I’m sure makes things easier from an administrative point of view, but -“
“These folks…” interrupted Scott, nodding toward the refugee camp. “They’ve been forgotten.”
“Ignored.” Callie gave a solemn nod. “Because they’re sandwiched between the Evil East and Iago, a Green City gangster - a terrorist, Scott - named Tony Poseidon, is exploiting the refugees here. You remember that awful gang that used to terrorize our own neighborhood, yeah? Poseidon’s their leader.”
“The Tonys.” Scott knew the gang well. “Always in threes. Triads. I heard Skyrat ran them all off.”
She scratched her nose. “Poseidon’s moving in on the bliss trade, meaning he’s actively recruiting new Tonys, and he’s having a hard time finding volunteers.”
“Who’d want to link their brain to a bunch of criminals?”
“Not much different than joining the military, is it? Listen, I’m not saying that I’d be really proud if you came home and announced the Tonys as your career choice, but it’d make sound financial sense and keep you at home in Green City too. Instead of being shipped off overseas, interstellar space, or to another dimension to pillage in the name of the federal government, you get to do it at home in the name of a homegrown, respected businessman. Tony pays better than the Army and the ET Corps combined. Better benefits too. Join the hive mind for a couple of years, get out with a small fortune, a civilian job at one of Tony’s legit businesses, and a place in the city. Unlike the military, where you make a conscious choice to pull the trigger every time, the Tonys offer you a blissfully ignorant solution... Maybe you can even convince yourself that you’re not really responsible for your crimes since you were acting on behalf of the hive with literally no will of your own. ”
“Yeah, right!” Scott guffawed.
“You’d be surprised what story someone desperate enough would tell themselves... What they’d sacrifice… Who’d they’d partner with...” She sighed. “Anyway, there aren’t enough desperate people left in Green City - or here for that matter - to get Poseidon the numbers he needs to be competitive, so he’s blockading the camp again. Nobody in, nobody out. No food, no medicine, nothing. Until it gives up another 37 young men.”
“37 sounds arbitrary.”
“Down from a hundred. Aerial vehicles are being shot at when they get too close, and the mouth of the valley is the only way to get supplies in by land. I flew in with a skid of nitrile gloves and antimicrobial a year or so ago, in between blockades. It was ugly, even then. I...” She stood up and shouldered her rifle. “We’re here to set them free.”
Scott jumped to his feet. He couldn’t believe this was happening. “I thought you were just a courier!”
“A courier who goes the extra mile for her clients. Come on.” They began hiking again, pace quickened by anticipation. “We’re delivering the means to mitigate the Tonys without a fight, but we’ll have to leave that to the campers. The extra mile only goes so far, I’m afraid.” They hiked into the woods, quiet as possible, and stopped at the edge of the trees, fifty yards or so from the encampment’s edge. “Move quick, stay low. We’ve gotten a few scouts in and out this way, and we’ll be safe enough once we get out of the open. The patrols around the perimeter back here are few and far between.”
Her son was so excited he could barely contain himself.
She started to move forward, then paused. “Scott, maybe it was irresponsible for me to bring you along, but as a parent, I feel I owe it to you to show you... Some things aren’t understood until they’re experienced. Understand? Telling you about them isn’t enough. You have to see this suffering for yourself. You have to see it so that you’ll want to do something about it.” She began fooling with a clasp on her pack, opening it and closing it. “Most parents would be horrified… Horrified to bring their child into this situation. Who am I kidding, I’m horrified. I mean, it’s essentially a war zone... But isn’t Green City a war zone too? Are the comforts of our life inside those walls not a thinly veiled illusion of safe living?”
She had put the lid on his enthusiasm. “Oh. I…”
“Don’t think about it. Come on.” They crouched and raced through the tall grass, hearts racing, stopping behind a tent. “Tell me the plan again.”
“Don’t make eye contact, don’t talk to anybody. Don’t stop for anything until we get to your contact, Dr. Juno.”
“Exactly. Tuck your shirt in.”
“Okay, Mom.” He sensed regret in her. “I’m glad you brought me,” he said.
She smiled another weak smile at him, believing deep in her heart that he’d be a better man for this experience. “I’m not,” she said.
His mother had not prepared him for the smell. It attacked without mercy as they made their way through the crowded encampment; first the sinuses, then the stomach and lungs. Scott could hardly breathe. People appeared at the entrances and in the spaces between the worn and soiled canvas shelters, quiet but for their painful shuffling; so quiet you could hear them blink. Their eyes were sunken into their skulls. Their ribs. Their distended bellies. The flies. The tattered rags they wore. Their children. That smell. The boy and his mother were interlopers in purgatory. He was ashamed of being healthy in their unhealthy presence. He was ashamed of the weapons they carried (“Tools,” the memory of his father’s voice repeated inside his skull). He was ashamed of his own disgust for them.
It took an awkward eternity to march through the crowd to the massive canvas hospital tent. Inside were a dozen cots. Boxes and shelves which had once been stocked with medical supplies were barren. Nurses attended emaciated bodies, adjusting the thin plastic lines running in and out of them, wiping brows and whispering soothing promises they knew they couldn’t keep. At a table in a corner, three young girls were cutting strips of canvas, old clothes, and blankets to make bandages.
Two of the cots held bodies with sheets pulled over their heads. A lifeless hand draped out from under one of the sheets, the pale digits grazing the dirt floor beneath it. In his mind’s eye, Scott saw Ezra’s hand, Ezra’s blood crusted at the edges of those fingernails. A single fly was landing, orbiting, and landing again. He thought of Ezra’s mom at the funeral, leaving her son’s casket and then rushing back to it, sobbing, refusing to let him go.
“You people can’t be here!”
A bearded doctor was approaching them. Following the doctor were three well fed young men with greased-back hair and goatees, each wearing a dirty, short-sleeved, blue-collar workmen's uniform. A gold chain adorned each of their necks. Their sunglasses were mirrored. On the left breast of each shirt was a patch that said, “Tony.” A stylized trident was tattooed to each of their right forearms.
The doctor stopped when he recognized Scott’s mother. He adjusted the white coat on his wire frame. She said, “Hello, Juno.”
“Callie…” The doctor was pale. “What are you doing here?”
“You’re expecting me. I’m the courier. This is my son, Scott.” She motioned to the boy and said to him, “Scott, this is Juno. He’s the friend of your father’s I was telling you about.”
He shook Scott’s hand with a nervous fury, looked to the Tony Triad behind him, back to Scott. “This is a curious arrival time, as I’m sure you can see.”
“What did…” started the first Tony.
The second continued, “...you bring…”
“...for him?” the third finished. The sentence came out fluidly, one brain speaking through three mouths.
Plasmite pistols were holstered at each of their sides. Scott was afraid for his Mom, but she didn’t look the least bit shaken. Actually, she looked amused. Mischievous even.
“Papers,” she answered, removing her backpack.
Their sidearms were unholstered. The second Tony in the Triad was left handed, a rare individualistic phenomenon Scott hadn’t seen in a Triad before. “Slowly,” said the first. He was their Alpha Tony. The Alpha always spoke first.
The second said, “Slowly.”
“Slowly,” the third one said.
Scott tensed. He looked around, sized the place up, noting the civilians. He would fight the Triad if he had to.
“You should not…”
“...from Tony Poseidon.”
She moved slowly, kneeling to the floor, reaching into her backpack. “We’re authorized. It’s in the papers, fellas.”
Pistols were primed, and they hummed in D minor. Scott stepped in between his mother and the Triad, palms up, saying, “You don’t want to do this.” He forgot about his own gun. He didn’t need it.
Their pistols went toward him.
Shiny Red Nothing is proud to present Ship Of Theseus, a genre-nuking novel that pits a troubled young writer named Wayne Bird against his own demons before rocketing him 150 years into the future to meet Skyrat, the superhero he created when he was a little boy.