Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 9
Stories
The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matt Rotundo
Cassie's Story
by David B. Coe
No Viviremos Como Presos
by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Red Road
by David Barr Kirtley
Blood & Water
by Alethea Kontis
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
A Cart Full of Junk
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

No Viviremos Como Presos
    by Bradley P. Beaulieu
No Viviremos Como Presos
Artwork by Jin Han

Miguel jogged up the last flight of stairs to his grandfather's fourth-floor apartment, but stopped short when he realized a bald guy in a gray herringbone suit had just closed his grandfather's door and was now walking toward him. The guy had the look of a lawyer all over him. He paced down the hallway and tried to sidle past Miguel, but was forced to stop when Miguel placed his linebacker's frame into his path.

Miguel glanced at the briefcase. "Were you here to see Sandro Rivera?"

"That's confidential." The man at least had the decency to look a little nervous.

"Not when my grandfather's the one you're talking to."

"Do we have a problem here?" He asked while touching his ear. He'd no doubt primed his net phone and could have the Vero Beach P.D. here in minutes.

"Look --" Miguel softened his expression and jutted his chin down the hallway. "He's my grandfather. I'm just trying to protect him."

"Be that as it may, any business I have with Mr. Rivera must remain between me and him."

Miguel wanted to wipe the I'm-the-one-in-control expression off the guy's face, but instead he tongued the control that activated the camera embedded in his artificial eye. Miguel's vision blinked almost imperceptibly as the shutter release captured the image. Over the next few milliseconds, the microprocessor at the base of his brainstem intercepted the picture, sent a copy to permanent store and embedded another inside a message addressed to Rich Carlsen, asking him to track the suit down with the Post's facial recognition software.

He'd find out who he was one way or another.

Miguel stepped aside. "Got a card?"

"Sorry. Fresh out." And with that the suit was past him and headed down the stairs.

Miguel continued down to his grandfather's apartment. When he stepped inside and saw Sandro, he shifted up three f-stops and immediately tongued the shutter release.

Sandro's gaze is lax and unfocused. The beaten armchair cradles him, as if he might shatter if released. His weathered cane sits forgotten between his knees, and though the shade behind him is pulled low, the sun is bright, casting ochre shadows over the geography of Sandro's face.

He labeled it: Sandro, just before I tell him I'm moving back to D.C. He wasn't all that surprised that Sandro looked so morose -- he'd been like this for the last several months -- but he expected something different with the lawyer having just left. He scanned the room, trying to find any papers or memchips or anything else that might give him a clue as to why the lawyer was here, but there was nothing.

The newsfeed was playing on the holovision in the corner. It showed a portion of the U.S.-Mexican border wall in Nogales, Arizona, one of five cities receiving strong opposition against the newly announced Customs and Border Patrol project to control immigration, but the sound was muted, and Sandro might as well have been watching a children's show for all the attention he seemed to be giving it.

Five minutes ago, Miguel would have said that the drama unfolding in Nogales was the cause of Sandro's depression -- Sandro had entered the U.S. through Nogales when he was only thirteen, and Miguel had simply assumed it was the yearning for his childhood that had started his latest bout with depression. But now? Now he wasn't so sure.

"You alright, Grandpa?"

Sandro's gaze shifted to Miguel as if it pained him to make that one small effort.

Miguel took a seat on the bright orange couch, sending dust motes to dance in the air between them.

Sandro lifted a finger and motioned toward the HV, which was playing a clip of armored border patrolmen routing three Mexican men into a van. The Border Patrol had just activated the one-week test of their new immigration control system. In a single day, seventeen migrants had been tagged by the new RFID launchers and ferried back across the border. A press release from the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security deemed it an "unmitigated success."

"I haven't been following it much," Miguel said.

He pointed again. The camera view, apparently captured from one of the new border patrol bots, showed an elevated view of the American side of Nogales' thirty-foot wall in night-bright green. Ropes hung down from the top and four men wearing tattered jeans and wife-beaters were slipping down the ropes. The footage slowed. Even so, the RFID devices were barely visible as they slid across the distance and struck each of the men in turn.

"They're shooting them like dogs," Sandro said, "dragging them back across the border."

The view switched to 3D. A diagram of a human skeleton, skin highlighted in transparent blue, floated out from the plasma and twirled a few times. A blue graphic of the RFID spyder landed on the shoulder. The view tightened on the spyder, which was burrowing beneath the skin, using local anesthetics and anticoagulants. Once subcutaneous, it made its way down the ribcage before settling posterior of the sternum. It was meant to make the devices nearly impossible to remove without great expense.

"They're hardly getting shot like dogs."

"What do you call being tagged and tracked and thrown back across the fence? Told to stay where you are?"

"I'm not climbing over my neighbor's fence after the sun's gone down." Miguel showed Sandro the back of his right hand, and tapped the location of his RFID chip. "I cross them legally."

The comments seemed to drain Sandro even further. "You'd think you didn't have Mexican blood running through your veins."

Miguel leaned back into the couch, wondering where the hell Sandro was going with this.

"They could use a man like me there," Sandro said.

A shiver ran down Miguel's back as Sandro continued to stare at the HV. Miguel actually believed, right at that moment, that Sandro meant those words.

"What did that lawyer want?" Miguel asked, trying to break the spell.

"Who?"

"The lawyer, the one that was here five minutes ago."

Sandro glanced up at the door. His eyes regained a bit of their usual intent, and his back straightened. "What? Him? Nothing. Something to do with my IRA."

"You didn't sign anything, did you?"

Sandro frowned and opened up the battered wooden chess box on the table next to him. "I'm not stupid, Miguel."

Sandro continued preparations for their weekly match, so Miguel moved to the chair across from Sandro and helped place the pieces.

"Then what did he want?" Miguel asked, moving the final piece, the black king, into its starting square.

"Nothing." Sandro slid his King's pawn to D4.

"Grandpa . . ." Miguel countered with his Queen's pawn.

Sandro looked up, annoyed. "Aren't you always telling me I need to take better care of myself? That I need to be more responsible?" He made another move, slapping the piece down noisily. "Well maybe you're right. Maybe it's long overdue. This is my business, Miguel. I'll handle it."

It was true. Miguel was always saying that -- from Sandro's gambling on Vero Beach's "riverboat" to buying too much World War II memorabilia to his penchant for giving downtown bums wads of cash. One time he'd even paid for three of his Vnet friends to fly in and visit, this from a man who lived on the joke social security had become and his vet benefits and the not-insignificant amount Miguel contributed to his bank account every paycheck. So why would a lawyer suddenly make him shape up?

It wouldn't, Miguel told himself. Something had clearly shaken Sandro up, but it would wear off in a few hours or a few days, and he'd be back to his same old self.

The chess match progressed to middle game, and Miguel's mind shifted to the reason he'd come here in the first place. His mind kept trying to formulate the right words to tell Sandro his news. Nothing sounded quite right, especially in light of Sandro's odd mood. But then he realized he was only stalling. Sandro was going to act wounded no matter how carefully he formulated the message.

Miguel suddenly realized Sandro was leaning back and smiling broadly. He inspected the chess board. Sandro had won, something he accomplished only once or twice per year.

"Grandpa," Miguel said, "I got the call from D.C."

Sandro's smile withered. "Oh."

Miguel had been bucking for a promotion for years now, and he'd been given the chance to head the Post's photo studio. Twice. But both times Sandro had developed debilitating migraines that went away after Miguel had turned down the promotion.

"I'm going to take it," Miguel said. "They want me to fly up tomorrow to start working out the details, then I go straight to the G10 gig in Tokyo, and then I'll be back here for a week or so to get things settled before I move."

Sandro leaned back in his chair, frowning at the chess board. "Oh." He glanced across the room at the HV, which showed a CGI image of a man running down a street lined by transparent trees and buildings, the spyder in his chest pinging his location like a sonar beacon every few seconds. Sandro raked his fingers over his stubble a few times, then nodded. "That's good, Miguel. That's good."

Miguel could only stare. He was speechless. Both of the last two times he'd told Sandro about the promotion offer, he'd immediately listed a dozen reasons why it was a bad idea to accept. He'd practically begged Miguel to stay, though he'd never come right out and said so. He was too proud for that.

Using his cane, Sandro levered himself out of the chair and shuffled toward his armchair. "Mind if we cut it short today?" He pointed toward the holovision on top of the bureau. "I have a meeting with the boys."

Miguel stood, feeling completely out of sorts. He thought he'd be here all night reassuring Sandro that everything would be all right. "I thought you met on Thursdays."

"Emergency meeting."

"About what?" Miguel quickly surveyed the landscape of Sandro's apartment again, hoping to find some clue about the lawyer.

"Members only, Miguel." He led Miguel to the door. "Members only."

Jet lag was usually not a problem for Miguel, but it was killing him three days later on the morning of the G10 commencement in Tokyo. He had just managed to fall asleep when a high-priority call came in -- the only type besides Sandro's that he allowed at 3 a.m.

It was his new boss, Marianne.

He levered himself up in his hotel bed and took three deep breaths before tonguing the accept.

"Rich said you wanted to know right away," Marianne said.

Miguel stood and walked to the window, his brain refusing for several long moments to remember the picture of the lawyer he'd sent to Rich Carlsen the other day. Marianne's tone made her words sound like an apology, but the truth was she'd somehow intercepted Miguel's request and wanted to show him she was the one in control. She was like that.

"It's for Sandro," Miguel said in a hoarse croak.

"I gathered, which is why I allowed it. But I won't do it again, Miguel, even for my new head of photos."

"It's one search, Marianne."

"It's one more reason for legal to crawl up my ass, Miguel. And that ID subscription doesn't pay for itself. It comes out of my budget."

"Okay, okay. I get the idea." Miguel softened his tone. He was tired and cranky, but he didn't need his new life at corporate getting off on the wrong foot. "What did Rich find?"

"The guy was a lawyer, one Hilden Gramercy."

"Hilden?"

"Yeah, go figure. Works for an outfit called Ernst, Grobel, and Spitz out of Dallas."

"Profile?"

"They've got over two dozen lawyers on staff. Apparently Gramercy's a junior member, only been with them for couple of years."

"Okay, now comes the million dollar question: what was he doing at my grandfather's?"

"You requested an ID, amigo. You'll have to take over from there." There was a brief pause. "Now get some sleep. You have a G10 to cover for me in the morning."

Miguel hung up and checked for Sandro's online presence. It was evening back in Vero Beach, but Sandro's avatar was grayed out, which was odd since he usually left it active 24/7. He called Sandro's apartment. No luck. Miguel found himself annoyed that he hadn't pushed harder for Sandro to buy an embedded phone.

Miguel flopped on the bed, exhausted but beyond sleep. He felt miserable. He'd felt miserable for the last three days. That had been the wrong way to tell Sandro about his promotion, but he'd never been able to find a right way. Sandro always twisted it to look like Miguel was abandoning him.

The thing that bothered him most was Sandro's easy acceptance of the news. Why hadn't he done the same thing as before? What had that lawyer dropped off for Sandro?

Suddenly Miguel realized he might be looking at this the wrong way. Sandro might have contacted the lawyer. He and his online cadre of armchair politicos were always preaching that they needed to do something, to take a stand. Maybe he had taken a stand.

Miguel accessed Sandro's banking account. Why hadn't he thought of this before?

There was twelve-thousand in his checking, ninety-three in savings, and another forty-eight in his IRA. That would be about right. But when he went to the transaction history for Sandro's checking account, his feet went cold. He sat up in bed with his legs over the side of the mattress and stared at the display.

Seven-hundred-thousand dollars had been deposited two days ago. That same day, it had been transferred to an account held by the Bank of Ireland (I.O.M.) Ltd. Miguel tried accessing the account using Sandro's credentials, but was refused access.

He returned to Sandro's account. The last activity, posted only twelve minutes after the transfer to the Bank of Ireland, was the purchase of an airline ticket to Nogales, Arizona.

He tried Sandro's phone again.

Nothing.

He packed immediately, booking a scram to Nogales and then sending four messages to contacts that might have some clue about Ernst, Grobel, and Spitz. He sent another message to Sandro's bank, disputing the deposit. Hopefully he'd be able to find out where it had come from.

He sent one last message in the cab to a private photog forum, offering a subcontract for the G10 meeting, enabling a trigger so that when someone accepted, another message would be sent to Marianne with the relevant details.

She was going to be pissed, but there was nothing he could do about it. He had to find out what was going on with Sandro.

When Miguel stepped out of Nogales International some six hours later, a news crew was filming outside baggage claim. Traffic through passenger pickup was much higher than he thought it was going to be -- an artifact of the latest goings-on, he supposed -- and he was surprised to find a line of white, unmanned cabs standing alongside the noticeably shorter line of yellows manned by greasy-looking Latinos.

He snapped a photo, the white line noticeably longer than the yellow, and labeled it, The Cabby -- still holding strong in rural America.

Most people chose the real cabbies, especially in smaller cities like Nogales, but Miguel was in a hurry, and the annoying Norteño music coming out of several of the yellows made him walk that much faster and duck into the front seat of one of the whites.

The video screen built into the windshield lit up, flashing the Advantage International Shuttle logo. Then an attractive Latino woman with an attractive Latino voice appeared in the display and said, "Where can Advantage take you today?"

A call came in while Sandro was rubbing his eyes. Crap. It was Marianne again. She'd called twice while he was in transit. He routed the call to voicemail and glanced at his watch. Nearly 7 p.m. local time. He'd have enough time to head back to the hotel and take a look around Nogales before crashing.

"Sir?" the cab said.

He leaned back into the comfortable leather seat and said, "The Montezuma Hotel, on Escalada."

"Ah, very good. Then please buckle up. We'll be there shortly."

The cab turned south on I-19 and headed for the city. The sounds of the road fell away as Miguel pulled up the latest newsfeeds.

Tempers along the border had flared while he'd been in Japan. Human rights groups in both Mexico and the U.S. had converged on Nogales. Most held marches, organized and unorganized, near the border walls and the downtown area and at the crossing from the U.S. into Mexico.

But one group took a bolder stand and had been helping dozens of Mexicans cross the border. They'd found a weakness in the RFID firing software: they wouldn't fire at a target when someone with a valid U.S. RFID was standing nearby, and so they'd set up ferrying points along the border. Five or six simultaneous crossings were organized each night. Most were foiled, with many arrests made for each, but one or two of these "Big Brother" crossings, as they'd come to be known, would succeed, and it was beginning to fuel the opposition to the Border Patrol's new system.

For the last two nights, resistance to the BP officers' arrests had escalated beyond the boiling point. Firearms were involved, and the police, rightly so, had protected themselves. The results: five dead, eighteen wounded.

Miguel had called the police and all the hospitals he could readily find the numbers to after boarding the scram in Tokyo. Something in his gut twisted every time he forwarded Sandro's picture and asked if Sandro had been found among the dead or wounded. Miguel had let out a long, thankful breath when all of them replied no. He thought of making contact with Sandro's online chat group, but was embarrassed to realize he'd never kept track of where Sandro surfed, or the identities of his online fraternity.

The cab dropped Miguel off at the New Montezuma Hotel, a few blocks north of the wall. He checked in and headed south, but slowed when he saw a crowd.

Along International Street, the street that hugged the U.S. side of the wall through most of Nogales, two lines of protesters were marching, one on either side of the street. Something must have happened only minutes ago, because there was a crowd of people in the center of the street, the two halves being dismantled by a dozen police. Miguel snapped a couple of shots, though he could already see three news teams on the scene. Doubtless there were ten more photogs like Miguel sprinkled throughout the crowd.

Miguel pressed forward just as the police were zipping people's wrists and packing them into the waiting vans. The next few moments passed by in slow motion, Miguel snapping frames the whole time.

An Anglo woman -- five-six maybe, weighing a buck and a quarter, tops -- was browbeating this hulk of a man. The woman's face was beet red, and she was choking back tears as she shook a papaya-sized hunk of asphalt at the man. "My son died because those animals snuck across in the middle of the night and needed a car!"

The guy, Mexican by the look of him, went two-fifty and ninety-five percent lean. He was wearing broken-in jeans, a black tee, and a cowboy hat. He looked calm, like he wanted the woman to do something with the asphalt.

"When he stopped at a light," she shouted, "they shattered his window with this!" Her knuckles were bone white as she shook the asphalt at him again. "They dragged him out of his car, beat him to death, and took off, all before the light turned green!"

The man smiled. "I'm Mexican," the man said without a trace of an accent. "Does that mean I'm going to kill children?"

"Maybe not --" she shook the asphalt at the wall "-- but your Godless indios over there will if they're given the chance!"

"Yeah, and maybe I'll tell them how to get to your house."

That's when Miguel saw him.

Sandro.

He was standing at the back of the crowd on the far side of the street, watching. Miguel snapped a shot immediately, but the woman got in his way. She'd lifted the asphalt high over her head while the man glanced nervously at two cops who were zip-tying a nearby protester's wrists. The woman heaved the asphalt as hard as she could. It caught the man just above his left eye socket and sent his head sharply backward. He went limp and fell over like a giant redwood. His cowboy hat tumbled between legs as his head thumped against the street.

Miguel backed up and scanned the crowd for Sandro. He kept the shutter release clicking -- no telling what the camera might see that he would miss. The crowd noise intensified. A handful of people fought their way forward in defense of the woman, a few more for the man. And then the lines on either side of the street stormed forward like warring packs of wolves.

The police didn't stand a chance.

As it turned out, neither did Miguel, because by the time the violence had eased, Sandro was nowhere to be found.

The buff Mexican, Miguel found out that night, had been taken to intensive care with intracranial hemorrhaging. Three had died, one from a severe reaction to the tear gas, two by trampling. Forty-seven more had been wounded. The woman ended up in jail on charges of assault, but hadn't received so much as a scratch.

The chaos of the riot, the shouting, the screams of pain, and the tantalizing closeness with which he'd missed finding Sandro all spelled sleeplessness for Miguel. He stayed up until four drinking single village mezcal and horchata and scanning the riot pictures for Sandro. He found only two pictures that had something resembling a clear shot of Sandro. One was obscured by the woman and her damn asphalt, and the other caught only the back of Sandro's head, but in both there was the telltale sign of a cane among a veritable sea of legs.

It had to be Sandro, which led Miguel to the uncomfortable conclusion that Sandro had had something to do with the conflict. Just how, he didn't know, and before he could figure out where his grandfather fit into this increasingly complex puzzle, sleep finally took him.

The next morning, while wolfing down greasy eggs and bacon from the buffet, Miguel realized he had three new messages from Marianne. He tagged the messages for follow-up and left the hotel.

He attended two marches near old town that morning and asked around while weaving among the crowd and the old adobe buildings, showing a recent picture of his grandfather, but no one admitted to knowing him. After absorbing six hours of shouting and sign-waving and staring at an endless sea of faces, Miguel was ready to give up. He was never going to get anywhere this way.

Just as he was heading toward one last crowd, an incoming message popped up -- it was from Sandro's bank. He opened it immediately and scanned the contents. He hadn't expected anything from them, certainly not this quickly, but it verified that the monies had been transferred from the estate of one Dr. Anthony Bayless.

He sat down on an ancient wooden park bench and searched the net. There were several references to Bayless. Some were recent, reporting his death five months earlier. He'd lived in Nogales for eighty years and -- Miguel whistled -- had died at the age of 153. The age was not completely unheard of, but it was still impressive.

Bayless had moved to Nogales after being crowned a hero when he'd helped to combat the outbreak of tuberculosis in 2041. It was a scary episode in Nogales' history, a time where nearly ten thousand died from the development of the tuberculosis superbug. It was yet another super-resistant pathogen, the fourth to achieve that status since the first in 2025, but it was the first that claimed airborne transmission. The outbreak wasn't given much press in the States at first because it was localized to the Sonora portion of Nogales. But when the outbreak crossed over, and was attributed to an illegal immigrant crossing, it had fueled a mass political hysteria that had given the President the firepower he needed to upgrade the entire Mexican border wall to a thirty-foot monstrosity.

Late that night, after a fruitless seven-hour search for anything that might connect Sandro to Bayless, Miguel's hunger finally got the best of him. He ordered up a chicken Caesar and lay on his hotel bed, watching the local news, which did nothing to ease his nerves.

"Officer Adam Giaterri of the Border Patrol," the female anchor was saying, "was shot through the neck at 10:18 p.m. local time in what the authorities are calling a ruthless sniper attack. No others have been reported wounded, and no group has stepped forward to take responsibility. The President earlier called it a clear retaliation over the violence that erupted two days ago . . ."

Miguel threw down his fork, no longer hungry. "What the hell are you doing, Grandpa?"

An incoming call trilled into his earpiece: unknown number, no handle.

He tongued the pickup. "Hello?"

"Hello, Miguel."

"Grandpa, thank goodness, where are you?"

"Never mind that. I need you to do something for me."

"Come to the hotel. I'm staying at --"

"Miguel, listen to me. I don't have much time. They've frozen my assets, and I need money. Bad. I need you to send it to this account number. As much as you can spare." A bank account and routing number popped up via Miguel's overlay system. He recognized it as the same Bank of Ireland account Sandro had used to transfer the Bayless money to.

Miguel brought up Sandro's bank and attempted to log in. A message appeared, asking that the owner of the account call Bank Security in Tallahassee.

"Grandpa, this is getting out of hand."

"Miguel --"

"Did you have anything to do with this border patrolman?"

"Miguel! I can't talk. Not now."

"Then when, because I'm not giving you anything unless we talk."

The line was silent for a long time, but Miguel could hear a hushed conversation going on in the background. "You know the downtown fountain in Sonora?"

Miguel paused. "I'll find it."

"There's a panadería due east of it. Meet me there tomorrow. Eleven o'clock."

"Why did they freeze --"

But the line was already dead.

He tried calling the number back. No one answered.

Miguel poured himself two fingers of mezcal and stared out his window at the amber lights of Nogales. In the distance, the blinking red lights of the wall trailed off to the horizon like some celestial device set to take his grandfather farther and farther away.

He downed the mezcal in one gulp.

He stared at the wall for hours, drinking, wondering what he might have done differently, wondering how he could deliver Sandro from this gathering storm when Sandro himself seemed to be at the center of it.

Ninety-three more immigrants were caught that night. An unknown number snuck through. One attempted crossing ended in gunfire: three Mexican men dead, twelve wounded. The only opinion from the CBP was that the strong success the program had already achieved would most likely accelerate the schedule for a full rollout.

Miguel woke with a screaming headache. It'd been quite a while since he'd last woken up still drunk from the night before, but not so long ago that he didn't remember how miserable it felt. Only after scrubbing his face for five minutes did it strike him that the sun was awfully bright outside. It was after nine already.

The rental he had arranged for was waiting for him in the hotel parking structure. He hopped in and rushed south to the wall, and though he tried to use his Press ID to grease the skids, it still took over an hour to make it through.

It was amazing how third-world Mexico seemed, even this close to the border -- maybe especially this close to the border. There were so many migrants using Nogales as a launching point for crossings that huge portions of the shanty towns were little more than temporary housing.

In some ways Mexico's predicament was understandable. NAFTA had been disbanded thirty years ago as an almost complete failure. Global warming had plodded on at a steady pace despite the ever-tightening global controls over greenhouse gases. Mexico's farming industry had been crushed, and its Gulf-side tourism had been pummeled to the point of collapse by the incessant arrival of hurricanes storming in from the Atlantic.

It was a shame, too, because the United States, ever since the wall had been upgraded in the mid part of the century, had become progressively wealthier, both technologically and monetarily. Various administrations paid lip service to helping their southern neighbors, but those initiatives, no matter how heartfelt, would often be dismantled within a decade of their conception, leaving Mexico in the same place it had been a century earlier.

It was well after eleven by the time Miguel found the old square which held the bakery. Miguel knew in his gut that Sandro had already come and gone, and sure enough, no one was in the cramped bakery when he arrived except a hunched old Mexican woman who eyed him suspiciously from the far side of the counter. Over her shoulder, a squeaky air conditioner fought vainly against the oppressive heat. It was hot, but Miguel liked the ancient and fragrant smell of the bakery.

Miguel took out a hundred-peso note and laid it on the counter. "Café y dos churros, por favor."

Miguel took his coffee and churros and sat down to regroup. A few minutes later, while Miguel was nursing his hangover with the scent of the coffee, Sandro entered the bakery. He used his cane -- more heavily than usual -- to make his way between the tables and sit across from Miguel.

Miguel snapped a photo immediately.

Sandro's cane leans against a nearby chair as he wipes the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his faded denim jacket. His disheveled gray hair, his baggy eyes, his listless face -- all telltale signs of a man who hadn't slept in days.

"You look like hell," Miguel said.

"Back atcha," Sandro replied.

They both managed a weak smile.

An uncomfortable silence passed between them before Sandro reached into his jacket, pulled out a beaten manila envelope, and set it on the table next to the plate of churro crumbs. His hand rested a moment over it. Then he tapped it once and folded his hands in his lap. "The way I figure, you have a right to see that."

Miguel left it there. "I don't care what happened anymore. I just want to take you home."

After a moment's pause, Sandro nodded seriously to the envelope.

Miguel removed the contents. The top page was crisp and white. It was a letter, handwritten by Anthony Bayless. Miguel read it, and looked up at Sandro.

"An apology?"

Sandro nodded. "Keep going."

Miguel flipped the letter over and found a yellowed x-ray. It was a sagittal x-ray of the head. It seemed normal except for the bright white outline of a device near the base of the brain, where the spinal cord entered the cranial cavity. It was eerily similar to Miguel's own CT scan taken only hours after his camera interface had been installed.

The next photograph was of a boy lying in a hospital bed. Miguel had seen a number of pictures of Sandro as an older teen, and though the top of this boy's head was wrapped tight in white bandages and his face was slack as he stared upward, Miguel knew it was Sandro. Miguel assumed it was taken after the surgery for the implant he'd seen in the x-ray.

Miguel couldn't help but judge the photograph with an artist's eye. It seemed bad at first -- the balance was all wrong, and the lighting seemed to suck the life right out of the subject -- but then again, there was clear synchronicity between the lighting and Sandro's blank expression. What had the person behind the camera been thinking as he took this photo of Sandro? Probably nothing. Probably it had been the doctor who'd performed the surgery, or a member of the medical team who'd taken it. Doctor or photographer, he'd probably become numb to his patient's feelings long ago, much like Miguel had become numb to the suffering around him.

Miguel flipped through the rest of the documentation: doctor's notes, medical tests, psychological workups. He saw the phrases "tuberculosis in check" and "poor reception of implant" and "response times decreased" in the monthly summary pages from March and April of 2041. By the Lord above, Sandro had only been thirteen. Were they even allowed to do something like that to a boy so young? He flipped a few more pages and found a note from August of the same year that said "implant removed successfully" and "recovery slow but consistent."

The year, 2041, was notable in that it was the same year of the tuberculosis epidemic in Nogales, the same year Congress approved the expansion and strengthening of the border wall. Sandro's parents had emigrated at that time, but they'd died in the outbreak. Sandro nearly had, too, but he recovered when the bacteriophage for the superbug had been developed.

But what did the implants have to do with it?

"Do you remember any of this?" Miguel asked.

Sandro shook his head. "Nothing."

"I don't understand. A doctor was using the tuberculosis patients?"

"Several of them, yes. To test their company's prototype HMI implant." Sandro touched his right eye with one finger. "The grandfather of your interface."

"But tuberculosis patients?"

"That's how they got access to me and over forty other people. They thought we were all going to die, and they weren't far wrong. Twelve of the patients did die, and probably not from the tuberculosis."

"Who got access, Grandpa? How who got access?"

"The company Bayless was working for. InterGenome Sciences."

Miguel reeled. IGS was the same company that had developed dozens of different brain-enhancement implants. It had started with the military in 2047 -- human-machine interfaces to enhance reaction time and replacement eyes that could display messages and provide overlay information like the head-up display in a fighter pilot's visor. But military spending had become anemic, forcing IGS to leverage their technology into the private sector. They added memory banks to store simple data like phone numbers, addresses, account locations and passwords and PINs. Cameras and photo storage came quickly after, and Miguel had been one of the early adopters of the technology.

It had all been a chain of cause and effect that had started with IGS's experiments on Sandro and the others, and suddenly Miguel felt like he had profited from his grandfather's pain. He blew air through his pursed lips. "I know this must be a shock, Grandpa --"

"You have no idea what it must be."

Miguel realized that Sandro's depression these last few months must have started with some initial contact from Bayless's lawyers, perhaps a letter telling him about the experiments and the inheritance Bayless had left him. Why hadn't he told Miguel about it?

But as Miguel sat there, looking at Sandro, he realized why. Miguel had been trying to cut Sandro out of his life for years. Yes, he went to visit Sandro -- they played chess and talked a few times per month -- but Miguel had always been looking for a way to get out of Vero Beach for good. And Sandro knew it. He'd been trying to spare Miguel the pain he was bearing.

"Tell me about it," Miguel said softly. "I want to understand it."

Sandro stared at Miguel, his face expressionless, but then he softened and leaned back in his chair, scraping it noisily against the white tiles. He jutted his chin toward the far wall, northward. "When I decided to come here I thought I was like this city, that I was split in two, one piece damaged and rotten, the other healthy but not whole." Sandro paused, frowned. "I felt . . . incomplete. Broken.

"I couldn't stop thinking about what was gone." He glanced out the window to the littered street outside of the bakery. "Maybe the parts that were damaged didn't mean anything. Maybe I turned out exactly the way I would have without the surgery. But maybe not. Maybe I only achieved half of what I might have, understood a tenth of what I could have. I felt like a ghost of a man, like seventy years of my life had been going in the wrong direction. You can't know what that's like as young as you are."

Sandro picked up the picture -- a boy on a table, a broken implant destroying something vital. He'd never seen his grandfather look so sad.

Miguel took the picture from him and laid it face-down on the pile. "You don't have to throw your life away just because something was taken from you so many years ago."

Sandro nodded seriously. "No, you're right. That's why I came -- to prove that my life wasn't worthless -- but when I got here, I realized it was all bullshit. Good part . . . Bad part . . . It doesn't matter. What matters is doing something in your life that you can be proud of."

"You've done a lot," Miguel said. "You served your country."

"That was sixty years ago," Sandro said. "I've done nothing but stew and live off my bum knee and my family since, and it's high time I did something about it. I want you to come back with me, Miguel. Take the stories of the others: El Movimiento para las Fronteras Abiertas. I want you to spread their stories, just as you hear them, just as you see them."

"There are reporters all over both sides of the wall."

"Come on," Sandro said. "When's the last time you saw anything about a Mexican family, one that doesn't show them as illiterate beggars? I need you to tell their stories, Miguel. That's the only way I'll know it'll be told fairly."

The door of the bakery tinkled opened. A middle-aged woman came in and stepped up to the counter as the air conditioner continued to squeal. As she chatted with the owner, Miguel tried to sort his feelings. Part of him felt proud to be Sandro's grandson -- he was taking a stand; he was trying to do something he felt was right -- but another part of him saw a wizened old man with a bad knee and a guilty conscience.

"You don't owe anyone anything."

"I do!" Sandro gave Miguel such an intense gaze then, a gaze filled with more purpose than he'd ever seen in the eyes of his grandfather. "I owe me. I owe you. I owe those that came before me. I owe those that come after. Don't you believe that, Miguel? Don't you want to leave the world a better place then when you came into it?"

"Yes, but --"

"There are no buts! My time has come, simple as that."

Miguel realized that this had become just another chess match, though the stakes were unbelievably high. Sandro had convinced himself there was no other way than the one he'd chosen, and he wasn't going to back down.

Miguel had to accede. He would hear their stories, take their pictures. He'd even see about publishing them. And once Sandro had some time to calm down . . . then he would see reason. Then he would come home.

As soon as they left the panadería, Miguel was blindfolded and shoved into a car. He'd been blindfolded twice before, once in Riyadh and another in Pyongyang -- they had been the two times he'd most feared for his life -- but in that car, on the mercilessly rough ride to the MFA hideout, he feared not only for his life but Sandro's as well.

They took him to what Miguel assumed was a butcher shop -- even through the musty blindfold, the smell of meat and blood was strong. Everything seemed oppressive in that dark, dank basement. But the woman Miguel met with first -- a thick woman, a skilled cheese maker -- began to ease Miguel's mood. There was an earthiness to her that Miguel had never felt in his life. He'd been so wrapped up in school and travel and technology and his career that he rarely noticed such things. But while he was talking with her so intimately, asking about her dreams and reasons for joining the movement, he couldn't help but notice it. She was a decent and honest woman. She wanted a fair shake in life, as simple as that.

And so it went. He interviewed eighteen more members, and took a dozen pictures of each. He tried not to draw any conclusions while interviewing them. He tried to follow Sandro's wishes and merely let them tell their story. The important thing was to get to the human side of the conflict, the one that was getting lost beneath the politics of walls and spyders.

When it was done, Miguel was driven back to the panaderia with Sandro. Sandro walked Miguel over from the ancient Ford Torino to his pristine blue rental car and held the door open for him.

"Come back with me, Grandpa. Let them fight this war."

Sandro shook his head sadly. "I'm in it for good, Miguel." He smiled, like he used to when Miguel had won a tight chess match, the smile that said he was proud of his grandson.

"We still need to talk about the money," Sandro said softly.

"I know," Miguel replied. He'd been thinking about it on the ride back, unsure how he was going to break it to Sandro. "I can't give it to you."

Sandro straightened his back, and his aged face looked more hurt than Miguel could ever remember. "It's not for me. It's for them. There are dozens coming back every night with spyders buried in their chests. The doctors work for free, but the equipment and supplies are expensive."

Miguel shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I can't support this. There are better ways, legal ways, to solve this crisis."

Sandro spit into the street. "Where were your legal ways when they were cutting a hole in my skull? Where were they eight years ago when the drought struck Baja and Sonora, when seventy thousand people died? Where are they now, while innocent Sonorans are getting killed because they stepped over some imaginary line?"

"I'm only one man, Grandpa."

"You still don't get it, do you? You can be greater than one man."

"How much time would my money buy them? A week? Two weeks? I agreed to tell their story, and I will, but that's as far as I'll go. It'll have to be enough."

They stared at one another for a long time, the hot desert wind blowing through the square and kicking up dust. Then Sandro coughed, and the spell was broken. "You want to tell stories? Fine. Then tell one more. The MFA is going to issue a statement the day after tomorrow, seven miles west of the crossing. Go there and take pictures. Tell everyone what you see. Tell it honestly."

"What are you going to do?"

Sandro stepped in and hugged Miguel. "You'd better go," he said.

"Grandpa, what are you going to do?"

Sandro turned and walked away. As the Torino carried him off into the Sonora streets, Miguel's gut twisted. It felt like the last time he'd ever see Sandro.

In the years to come, he would wish many times that it had been.

Miguel made it back to the hotel late that evening, and found himself unable to sleep. He stayed up the entire night, worrying about what the MFA was going to do, and wondering if Sandro was going to be directly involved or not.

The MFA was going to "issue a statement." It made political sense; Miguel hadn't realized it at the time, but the decision to widen the system to three more cities had been made the morning he'd gone to see Sandro. Surely Sandro had known, and surely they'd chosen their timing to coincide with the dog and pony show at IGS's tracking facility. The governor of Arizona and over a dozen congressman were going to be there.

By the time lunch had come and passed, Miguel's stomach felt as twisted as a wrung-out wash rag. Why had Sandro refused to tell him what they were going to do? What would the message be? Even though Sandro claimed the MFA was for a peaceable resolution to the conflict, the fact remained: men had died on both sides. Just because Sandro wanted peace did not mean that all of them did, or that the Border Patrol or the National Guard did. Tempers flared all too easily at times like this.

That evening, Miguel couldn't take it anymore. He called the Border Patrol and told them of Sandro's plans. The captain running the anti-insurgent team asked Miguel to stay at the hotel. Miguel refused. They couldn't prevent him from being close since it was a section of the wall near a suburban neighborhood. But Miguel did promise to stay a few miles away when the captain authorized a tunnel into his embedded police transceiver. He would use it, he said, to update Miguel every half-hour, and Miguel could contact him should the need arise.

Miguel parked his rental car beneath a huge, curbside oak tree as the sun rose over a row of tan condos. It was 7:00 a.m.

He thought back to Sandro's face as he'd told him about the planned crossing, how he'd asked Miguel to take pictures of all of it. His face had been so serious, but Miguel hadn't been able to read anything beyond that. Just like when they played chess.

Miguel's veins went ice cold.

Just like when they played chess.

Dear God.

No, no, no.

This was all a feint.

"Captain!" Miguel called over his temp channel. "Captain!"

"Mr. de la Cueva, not now. It's already begun."

"No, that's not the real one."

"What are you talking about?"

"That's a decoy."

"No, Mr. de la Cueva. This is deadly serious. I'll update you when I can."

"Captain!"

He didn't answer.

Miguel started the car and punched the accelerator. The car surged forward, and he screeched onto the street ahead, narrowly missing a white sedan. He wove through traffic, heading for downtown, seven miles away.

Where would Sandro strike? What would he do?

He had no idea.

He blew through a red light. The traffic lamp blared a warning as he sped past, a signal that the police had been alerted, a request to pull over and wait.

He drove faster.

As he reached the edge of old town, it hit him. The tour of the tracking facility. The politicians. It was the only thing with enough heft to it, the only thing that would draw enough attention.

Why hadn't he seen it before?

He knew from the newsfeeds the facilities were just north of the downtown area, only a few miles away.

Halfway there, a black-and-white pulled onto the street a quarter mile behind him. It gained quickly on his sickly little rental.

He was so close . . .

He screeched into the parking lot a few minutes later, the cop nipping at his heels. The fifteen-story glass-and-steel building lay just ahead. Seven or eight news trucks surrounded a huge water fountain. He drove past the fountain and onto the lawn, braking too late to avoid slamming into one of the squat cement vehicle barriers lined up in front of the building.

Seven men in black suits and three guards were lined up on the far side of the lawn, near the street. Their pistols were drawn, and they were pointing them at the twenty Mexican men and women dressed in orange prison uniforms. Sandro was standing near the center. Each of them held a butane lighter in one hand, unlit, held near the center of their chest.

Closer to the building, three cameramen were snapping pictures with traditional cameras.

"Lie down!" one of the men in suits was screaming.

"No viviremos como presos!" they shouted as one. We will not live as prisoners!

Miguel sprinted as the police car ground to a halt behind him. Miguel was confused by the lighters, but then he smelled the gasoline, and realized their orange uniforms were damp. "Grandfather, no!"

"No viviremos como presos!"

"Acuestense en el piso!" One of the suited men was screaming. "Lie down! Lie down!" shouted another.

"Grandpa, no!" Miguel screamed, still sprinting toward him. One of the men in black suits broke away and pointed his gun at Miguel.

Sandro glanced at Miguel, his eyes watering, and just as quickly returned his gaze forward.

And, God forgive him, Miguel snapped a picture. He didn't think about it anymore. If he did, he would stop. So he just kept snapping pictures as, one by one, Sandro and the others held the lighters away from their bodies and struck the flint.

"No viviremos como presos!"

Their arms pulled inward toward their chests, toward the location the RFID chips were programmed to bury themselves.

"Please, Sandro," Miguel whispered, "don't."

Just then the sound of a great gust of air cut through all the shouting, silencing everyone.

As twenty orange flames painted the blue sky black.

The sound faded away until everything was inhumanly, horrifically quiet. And all the while Miguel took his pictures -- tears streaming from his one real eye.

Miguel parted the red curtains and took in the crowd of hundreds filling the stadium-seating auditorium. All of them had come to honor the International Photographer of the Year. To Miguel's left, the emcee was setting the stage for Sandro's suicide, telling the story as the pictures from Miguel's book played on the huge screen at the back of the stage.

Then the emcee called Miguel's name. The crowd began applauding immediately, but Miguel had to take a few deep breaths to control himself before stepping onto the stage. The applause and embarrassment and shame washed over him as he walked up and accepted the award. He gave a speech, as he had for the four other awards he'd won for various pictures and the book, which hit the stands some six months ago. It had been over a year since Sandro had killed himself, and the memory hadn't faded. It had, in fact, grown stronger, because Miguel had been forced to relive the moments over and over again in speeches, interviews, and during the book's long and intense editing process.

It was due penance, Miguel told himself. It was only right. Sandro had made the ultimate sacrifice. The least he could do was pass Sandro's message on as he'd promised.

The speech was finally over, and after trading pleasantries with dozens of other photographers, the crowd thankfully began to thin. But then he caught sight of a mousy woman calmly sitting, watching him. Recognition came, and he tried hard to hide his disappointment. He'd completely forgotten he'd granted this interview.

When the last of the crowd had left, the woman stood and made her way over.

"Mr. de la Cueva, I'm Beth Harrison."

"Of course. So glad to finally meet in person."

A wry smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "You look like you'd rather be eating worms than standing here talking with me."

"Is it that obvious?"

"Just a bit. Look, I know this must be emotional for you. We could reschedule if you'd prefer."

"No." He motioned to a nearby auditorium chair. "Please. If I don't do this now I might never do it."

She sat, placing his book on her lap. On the cover was a 3D picture of his frail grandfather, standing upon a lush green lawn with nineteen other Mexican men and women, all of them wearing orange prison uniforms, lighters held to their chests, mouths open in a perpetual scream.

The title read No Viviremos Como Presos: We Will Not Live As Prisoners.

After Miguel had sat down next to her and settled himself, Beth touched the frame of her no-nonsense glasses, activating the microphone hidden there, and leaned back. "All right. You mind if we start at the beginning?"

Miguel shrugged. "Not at all."

"OK. Tell me about your grandfather. What was he like?"

As the interview moved from the preliminaries and into the meat of Sandro's story, Miguel kept staring at the cover of the book. Part of him wished he'd never taken those pictures -- he knew, even now, they were going to haunt him for the rest of his life -- but another part of him realized that it was a small price to pay. This wasn't about him. It wasn't about Sandro. It wasn't even about the nineteen other people who'd taken their lives that day. It was about the heart of the people in Mexico, about the discourse that had long ago been dropped by the wayside. It was about tearing down walls, not building them up.

Before Miguel knew it, the interview was nearly over. Beth was staring at him. Her eyes had been noncommittal nearly the entire interview, but now there was a clear note of seriousness, of regret.

"I think I only have one more question, Mr. de la Cueva."

"Please."

"What do you want your readers to take away from this book?"

He had thought about that for some time before, knowing he would inevitably be asked by the media. The Spyder Project had ceased the day after the mass suicide, pending a congressional investigation. Talks had resumed between the U.S. administration and Mexico -- serious talks, it seemed to Miguel. But there was always the chance this would slip away, become yesterday's news. The U.S. was famous for it, and Sandro had known it. He felt, rightly or wrongly, like he'd had to make a statement so large that it couldn't be ignored. Miguel only hoped it would be enough.

"That's just it," Miguel said to Beth. "I don't want to say anything. I just want people to open their eyes. I want them to listen. That's all."


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