I Am the Traitor, page 19
“Alive and well.”
“Mike told me he was dead. Tanya said he was a prisoner.”
“Mike was not authorized to tell you the truth. And Tanya does not know the truth.”
“If my father’s alive, I want to see him. I want proof.”
“He wants to see you, too. After all, you’re the soldier who carries his name.”
“I’m his son.”
“His son is a soldier. If you choose to stay a soldier, you can meet him.”
“This is a trick,” I say.
“No trick,” Mother says. “Common sense. It’s for our protection and yours.”
“If my father is alive, he would want to see me whether I was a soldier or not.”
“He hasn’t seen you in five years, has he? He’s been alive that whole time.”
“That’s because you’ve imprisoned him!” I say.
“You think you know the real story, but you have no idea.”
I breathe deeply, trying not to react to Mother’s provocation. I’ve had this same thought a thousand times. If my father were alive, he would have come for me. He would have communicated somehow. He would have tried to save me.
Mother gestures to an ivy-covered building across the way from us.
“What’s your choice going to be?” Mother says.
“I’ll do anything to meet my father,” I say.
“Welcome back to The Program,” she says. “You’ll find your father inside.”
I take a step toward the building. My mind rebels, shouting for me to turn back. It’s the same intuition that keeps me safe on missions, the part of me that reacts to threats before they are revealed.
So why is it warning me now?
I set the warning aside and keep moving forward.
A large wooden door fronts the entrance. There is a keypad in the wall of the building, the telltale holes for a laser-detection system bored into the wood frame. This old building has been retrofitted with high-tech security.
I reach out and turn the door handle.
I STEP INSIDE.
The air is heavy with the smell of old wood. I am facing a long, dark hallway with a glimmer of light at the far end.
I head for it.
There are signs of technology embedded everywhere, tiny camera lenses at intervals in the moldings, the telltale click of pressure plates triggered beneath the carpet as I walk.
A door is open at the end of the hall. A man sits at a large mahogany table across the room studying a computer screen in front of him.
He looks up as I step into the room. I blink hard and rub my eyes.
This man is my father.
He is older, and he’s lost weight. But there’s no question of his identity.
He stands when he sees me. “My God,” he says.
I rub my face and my fingers come away wet. I’m crying.
I haven’t cried since I was a child.
“Is it really you?”
“It’s me,” my father says.
There are tears in his eyes, too.
We rush toward each other, meeting in the middle of the room in a tight embrace.
“How long has it been?” he says.
I step away from him.
“I thought you were dead,” I say. “You’ve been working with The Program the whole time?”
“Yes,” he says.
His energy changes, and he becomes nervous, shifting from side to side on the balls of his feet.
I lower my voice. “Are they holding you hostage?”
He gives me a sad smile.
“Oh, Zach. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m not a hostage. I’m not here against my will.”
“I don’t understand—did you know that I was searching for you?”
“Why didn’t you come for me?” I say.
He leans forward, looking me in the eye.
“I knew that you were a soldier and that you were on assignment. It wasn’t my place to interfere, so I watched you from the sidelines.”
I feel anger clench in my throat.
“You couldn’t interfere, or you didn’t want to?”
“It hurt me not to communicate with you, but those were the rules.”
He takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know,” he says.
He sits down at a long table and invites me to sit across from him.
“I heard you met Dr. Silberstein a few days ago.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“How is that old bastard?”
I think of the professor splayed on the ground, a gunshot to his head.
“He’s been better,” I say.
“He thinks I died in a car accident a long time ago, and he took over our research. He won, and I lost. I’m sure that makes him very happy.”
That jibes with Silberstein’s story of a rivalry between partners.
“Why doesn’t he know the truth?” I ask.
“We had to create a firewall around The Program, and he’s on the outside. His research is vitally important to us, but he can’t know how it’s being used.”
“How is it being used?”
My father points to my chest.
“The chip,” he says.
“He invented the neurosuppressor chip?”
“Silberstein? He’s not capable of that,” my father says.
That’s when I realize what my father is trying to tell me.
“It was you,” I say.
My father claps his hands, delighted.
“I didn’t know you were an inventor,” I say. “Silberstein told me you were studying post-traumatic stress disorder when I was a kid.”
My father leaps up and leans over the table, suddenly excited. “That’s right,” he says. “There was a great rush to that subject matter after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of our young soldiers came back with psychological issues. The fear they experienced during deployment was so powerful, it imprinted itself into the biochemistry of their brains.”
My father paces through the lab, getting more agitated as he speaks.
“I watched countless soldiers suffer, their lives forever diminished by their service. It made me angry, Zach. Why should a nine-month deployment lock people into hell for the rest of their lives? One day it occurred to me that our approach was wrong. We were treating the damage after the fact rather than preventing it in the first place. I realized that no matter how soon we got to the soldiers, the damage had already been done. All because of fear. But if I could prevent the fear from taking hold—”
“That’s what the chip does. It removes fear.”
“We installed the prototype in the first group of soldiers, and their performance improved as they became free of fear on the battlefield, but those improvements quickly disappeared.”
“The chip didn’t work?” I say.
My father looks troubled, scratching his head.
“It seemed to be working, yet the soldiers became fearful again and started to experience PTSD. Even though these young men were not feeling fear on the battlefield, they were remembering fear they had experienced earlier in their lives. In a sense, their brains knew they were supposed to be afraid—”
“So they were using old fears to replace the fear they weren’t feeling during battle.”
“Precisely. By the time we implanted the chip, the soldiers already had a memory base of fear. The soldiers were young, but they weren’t young enough.”
“You needed children,” I say.
My father nods. “Children raised on war movies and video games. They’d never experienced the repercussions of violence, so it was fun to them. If we could keep them in that place, they would be free during battle. They would become supersoldiers, and the risk of PTSD would be eradicated.”
My father says, “This is where Mother’s stroke of genius came in. She was our contact at the Department of Defense, and when I told her what I had discovered, she was inspired. The chip worked best if it was implanted in children twelve or younger, but we couldn’t send twelve-year-olds to war, and it wasn’t reasonable to wait six or eight years for them to become old enough to join the military. Besides, Mother said we needed them here at home, doing a job that nobody else could do.”
“Instead of making them soldiers, you made them assassins.”
“It was the birth of The Program,” my father says. “Can you see the brilliance of the idea? The Program was the perfect modality to test the chip.”
A wave of dizziness overtakes me. I reach out and steady myself against the table.
“And I was a part of that test,” I say.
“You were one of the first. Not the very first, because I wouldn’t do that to you, son. I was able to refine the chip through several generations, and when I thought I’d gotten close to perfect, it was time.”
“Time for me to join The Program.”
He leans forward, reaching out to grasp my forearm.
“You asked me why I couldn’t communicate with you these last few years. I know it hurt you. I know you suffered. But I need you to understand that it wasn’t my choice. The experiment required it. You had to believe you were orphaned so you would undergo the training. Then we could see how the chip functioned in the field.”
“I’m the experiment?”
“Not the experiment. My experiment.”
I get up and walk around the lab. I see stacks of narrow drawers labeled with ID numbers.
“Mother had my chip removed two days ago,” I say.
“I know,” my father says. “I ordered her to remove it.”
“You ordered her?”
My father turns toward me, locking his eyes on mine.
“I am The Program,” he says. “I invented the technology, I put it into practice, and now I manage the assets. Mother works for me, Zach.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“You had the chip removed,” I say. “Does that mean your experiment is over?”
My father clears his throat. “All experiments need refinement, Zach.”
He licks his lips, then grabs for a pitcher of water on the table. He pours a glass and hungrily swallows it down.
“Rude of me,” he says, and he pours a second glass and slides it toward me.
I don’t touch it.
“This must be hard for you,” my father says. “It’s a lot to take in all at once.”
“It’s not hard for you?”
“For both of us. That’s what I meant.”
He purses his lips, looking at me with pity.
“None of this is your fault,” he says. “Your rebellion the last few missions. Your moves against The Program. I take responsibility for all of it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The chip was flawed. Not you, son.”
My mouth goes dry. I reach for the water, drinking it in one long swallow.
“It was never you,” my father says. “It was me.”
He opens one of the narrow drawers and removes a metal tray. On the tray is a computer chip inset in yellow foam. He pulls on a glove, gently removes the chip, and holds it up for me to see.
“What is it?”
“It’s the solution,” he says. “Removing fear wasn’t enough, because it’s not just fear that cripples us. It’s doubt. It’s uncertainty. All of our emotions. You can be fearless, yet still be plagued by other emotional demons. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
I think about Tanya in the gym earlier. The feeling of betrayal.
I remember New York, where my feelings for Samara led me to question my mission for the first time. That was the beginning of a long process that led me to this room.
“Feelings are a problem,” I say.
My father nods. “Even Mike, the most loyal soldier of all, is still prone to certain—shall we say—indiscretions.”
Does my father know what Mike has been up to?
My father reaches for a forceps. “Once this chip is inside you, there will be no more feelings. No questions, no mistakes, no need for disloyalty.”
He uses the forceps to remove a plastic wrapping from around the chip.
“You are my greatest experiment, Zach. My greatest accomplishment. You deserve the best I can give you.”
I suddenly understand.
“That’s why you ordered Mother to remove my chip,” I say.
“Yes,” Father says. “You’re getting an upgrade. Right now.”
He pulls up a chair and wheels a light toward it.
“Remove your shirt and jacket,” he says. He motions for me to sit.
Mother told me I had to make a choice. Take my chances alone in the world or rejoin The Program and be reunited with my father.
Now my father is in front of me, offering me the chance to become a great soldier again.
I unbutton my shirt.
My father comes toward me, close enough to smell.
I remember the fragrance of his cologne when I was riding on his shoulders as a kid. It was similar to the smell I experienced with the mayor.
I breathe deeply, expecting the familiar scent of my childhood, but I don’t find it.
This man doesn’t smell like my father anymore.
He runs his finger over the scar on my chest. I shiver at his touch.
“It will be a bit cold,” my father says.
He swabs my chest with an antiseptic solution.
“I’m going to inject the area with some lidocaine to make it less painful. Unless you’d rather we knock you out completely?”
“I’ve been out enough in the last week. I want to be awake for this,” I say.
He nods and drapes a blue sheet over my shoulder. There’s a large hole in the center, exposing my scar to the air.
“I’ll snip open the stitches and insert the chip, make sure it’s powered up properly. Then I’ll close the wound. It won’t take more than ten minutes start to finish. There will be some pain—”
“I can handle pain,” I say.
“I know you can.”
Father takes a plastic pack from a tray. He tears it open and removes a syringe with a long needle. He removes the cap from the needle and pokes it through the top of a vial of lidocaine, preparing the injection for my chest.
“Will I remember?” I say.
He smiles. “The chip doesn’t take away your memories.”
“Just your feelings. But I promise you will have a new perspective on things afterward. And a new ability to carry out your missions.”
He smiles and pats my arm with a gloved hand.
“This will sting a little,” he says. “At least until the lidocaine takes effect. Then you won’t feel anything.”
“Good,” I say.
My voice sounds strange as it bounces off the stacks of books around us.
Father leans forward, pressing with one hand to find the proper injection point. With the other, he reaches toward me with the syringe.
I take his wrist, stopping him.
“One last question,” I say.
“You haven’t mentioned Mom at all,” I say. “Not through this entire story you’ve told me.”
“Your mother is gone,” my father says.
“Where did she go?”
I shiver. The air feels cold against my bare skin.
“How did she die?”
I let go of his wrist. He places the syringe on the tray.
“She disagreed with the way things were going. With the government contracts, the secrecy. And especially with you.”
“She didn’t want me to put the chip inside you. In fact, she forbade it.”
“But you insisted,” I say.
I notice sweat breaking out on his forehead. “She wouldn’t listen, Zach. I tried to explain, to reason with her, but she was an unreasonable woman. I gave her the choice to leave. The DoD didn’t want me to do it, but I convinced them that your mom could be trusted. I offered her a divorce, money, anything she wanted if she would leave and keep quiet.”
“But she wouldn’t leave.”
“Not without you,” he says. “The one thing I couldn’t give her.”
“So they killed her. You killed her.”
My father stops, and his shoulders slump.
“I know you loved her, Zach. I loved her, too. But she was emotional, and she could have brought the entire Program down.”
My mother was emotional. My father is rational, calculating.
I have all those qualities.
My father picks up the syringe again, sliding his chair toward me.
Once the chip is installed, there will be only one side.
“This is too much for you to take in all at once,” my father says. “We can discuss it further once the procedure is done. I think you’ll see things differently then.”
A new chip will mean a chance to start again. Without feelings, and without remorse.
My father finds the proper insertion point with his right hand. I feel the prick of the needle in my chest.
He says, “We will have a lot of time to get reacquainted. I promise you.”
“No, we won’t,” I say.
I reach up and grab his arm, pulling the needle out of me before he can depress the plunger.
He says, “What are you do—”
“I won’t let you turn me into a machine,” I say.
I wrench his arm away, and he fights me, struggling to complete the injection.
“Stop this, Zach.”
“Mother said I had a choice.”
“You have no choice,” my father says.
He is stronger than he looks, fighting me for control of the syringe, attempting to force the needle into me.
“Just like the kids here didn’t have a choice?” I say. “You’re the only one who makes choices in this world.”
“I know what’s best for everyone,” my father says. “Especially you, son.”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
ALLEN ZADOFF SERIES:
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