In the near future, fugitive Chase Sterling evades the transhuman life his creators intended him to lead. He connects with the Underground Church, confident his enhanced strength and intelligence make him the perfect guardian for those forced into a strange and secret existence.
What could possibly go wrong?
His unimpressed bodyguard is out to get him. His affection for a certain young woman may not be mutual. A deceitful recruit accompanies Chase on a rescue mission…with plans to kidnap him. The leader of the underground is dying. The government is closing in. The super powers Chase relies on are switched off by an enemy he thought he’d escaped.
It’s enough to make a transhuman give up. Will he find the courage to keep going before all humanity is lost?
Life underground mystified the man who used to own the world. Chase leaned against a white partition in the bunker constructed under an abandoned museum. Getting here had consumed his thoughts. Even his dreams.
He scanned the sixty-foot-wide room that used to be nothing more than a cavernous hole. Computers and holographic displays filled the space now, along with a group of people all intent on giving God credit for this techno-cave. Odd.
Maybe there was a higher power behind it. Something had pressed Chase, caused him to give up everything. Urged him to seek refuge in this strange world.
Or maybe it was just his coding, since he’d gotten blown apart and reassembled—turned into a transhuman.
Whether Providence or programming, he’d made it. Now he’d do what he came to do: connect these people with others like them around the world. Protect them. Keep them a step ahead of government forces bearing down on them. But somebody had better tell him what all this was about. Why the believers held to their faith. His other reason for coming—to find the truth.
But here? Was every branch of the Underground Church literally underground?
The middle of the busy command center housed ten computer stations, three to four feet apart. Old-fashioned bulbs hung from the white drop ceiling. In the thirty-eight hours since his arrival, he’d become acquainted with the massive network of information and communication programs. The exoself—the computer built into his very being—now seemed at one with the systems Mel had constructed. No wonder, she’d designed him too. At least in part.
She lifted her deep brown eyes and gave him a reassuring smile, then she motioned toward the door to his right. He returned the smile and nodded. Almost time for the meeting.
Melody Reese—the third reason he didn’t stop looking until he found this place. He watched her move across the room. Maybe seeing her again had been at the forefront of his reasoning.
She’d been the one to organize his days at the Synvue complex, making the coffee and handling the calls. Friendship might have become something more if their lives hadn’t taken such an unbelievable turn. The whole world knew what had happened to Chase, but Mel had harbored secrets. She’d trained in Artificial Intelligence and Chase never knew it. Not until she was gone. After his transformation, they told him that he didn’t need an assistant anymore. Mel was reassigned. Then she disappeared.
They’d had little time to talk now that they were back together. She wasn’t the same girl he’d known in Chicago. Black curls, longer than when he’d last seen her, framed her pretty face. The sparkle hadn’t abandoned her eyes. In fact, they had a fire in them now. An urgency.
Of course, Chase wasn’t the same either.
He took the hallway leading to the rest of the compound. He hadn’t interacted much with these people. They didn’t know what he could do for them. He possessed unlimited intel and processing capabilities—the stuff Mel hid in the exoself. Now he’d upload the programs into this massive computer.
When he wasn’t merging the exoself with the systems, he rested. It’d been a while since he had a bed of his own. And he spent some time with the only other resident he knew, his mother. Kim Redding: stellar mom, upstanding citizen. Active member of the underground? Of all people. Mom had accepted the Lord. That’s what she told him. No more surprises could exist in the universe. Was it because of him? Did she need something to cling to when they made her son a transhuman?
Transhuman. The term hadn’t caught on, though the movement had started decades ago. Chase was the computer man, a cyborg. A bionic disappointment, as far as he could tell, to the millions who once adored him.
He hated the labels. He was just a man.
He continued through the complex until he reached the largest of six meeting rooms, where he took his place on a make-shift platform. No amount of paint and silicon could diminish the dank odor of a cave. He forced a breath out his nose and waited for his audience to arrive. Mel said it was time for him to speak to the people. Ninety-seven lived and worked in this branch of the underground. What did they think of him?
They shifted in a few at a time and sat in white resin chairs. Not unlike most of the believers Chase had encountered over the last several weeks, they were practiced in unobtrusive charity, offering whatever Chase needed then moving on with little to say. Nobody had time to explain this reckless existence.
But it seemed they were anxious to hear his story. Three men dawdled at the back of the room. All the chairs were taken. Chase stepped across the platform.
A few people were missing—some mothers and their small children. And his own mother. She stayed in the command center to monitor the computers, which was fine with Chase. He’d already told her everything. Well, almost.
Also missing was the cocky guy the group called Switchblade. He’d gone up top in the little town of Herouxville, but the exoself didn’t have access to Switchblade’s agenda. Probably out spying on local officials, making sure they hadn’t noticed the Underground Church had set up operations below the streets of the Quebecian village. The guy had a hero complex.
These people didn’t know Chase could wipe out the communication programs of the local police with one carefully directed thought. That would take care of the would-be spy’s high opinion of himself.
Chase brought his focus back to the gathering. In the past he’d stood before thousands, while millions watched on GrapheVisions across the continents. Something in his gut grieved the loss of stardom. Maybe Switchblade wasn’t the only one short on humility. He shook off the yearning for his old life and addressed his waiting audience.
“Good morning. Most of you know me as Chase Sterling. My real name is Charles Redding. My mother was the one who nicknamed me Chase. It was Synvue that changed my last name. I’m changing it back.” He smiled. “But what Mom says, goes—I’m still Chase. Never argue with my mother. You may have noticed she’s the only one who refers to the supercomputer you’ve built here at Blue Sky Field as the ‘desktop.’”
Laughter rose from the crowd. Chase let the moment pass before continuing.
“I was the beloved host of Change Your Life. I remade pathetic souls—plucked them from a life of hardship and dropped them into a dream existence where they had everything they’d need for the rest of their lives. Riches, beauty, position, restored health. I considered it the ultimate salvation to take people with failing bodies, or unattractive ones, and make them thrive, make them stunning. The envy of everyone who witnessed the miracles. Then I made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, gave them the career—the government assignment—they’d always wanted. Or if they didn’t want to work, I made sure they had enough funds to squander until they died.”
Chase spotted Mel at the end of the first row of chairs. She gave him a nod and he continued, “As you know, I became a project, a scientific endeavor of the Western Republic.”
A few derogatory comments and groans preceded one voice, feminine and aged. “We must pray for our leaders. God appoints them for a time and purpose.”
More remarks followed, some too unkind to be directed at an old lady.
Chase raised his hands. “Let’s not get caught up in knocking the WR.” The crowd settled and Chase continued, “I worked within the entertainment network, Synvue, which is controlled by the WR. Or maybe it’s the other way around.” He stepped to the edge of the platform. “Those of you who’ve been underground for some time may not know what happened to me. I’m sure you’ve all heard something of my injuries. Of my death.”
Whispers carried confusion through the room.
“I was reborn. The first of an evolutionary leap. So said my creator.”
The murmuring continued. Chase’s superior hearing picked up every word.
“He thinks he’s reborn?” someone whispered.
“He doesn’t know his Creator,” another added.
These people were ready to toss him out.
He glanced at Mel. She pulled out her VPad and Chase read the text in his mind as she typed:
They have a different understanding of what it means to be reborn. They don’t really go for the whole evolution thing. And God is the only creator.
“OK,” he said. “I guess I know as little about you as you do about me. Let me explain. I didn’t die, I suppose. I was mortally wounded and then rebuilt with bio-genetic lab-grown organs that will never wear out. My vision, hearing, and strength were enhanced. And I have computer-generated intelligence and a connection to multiple cyber systems around the world.”
A roomful of eyes stared. Jaws dropped.
“And I think I can be useful to you. I want…to help you.”
He waited. If their expressions were an indication, they weren’t convinced.
Mel rose from her seat and joined him on the platform. “I told many of you about this already, so don’t look so surprised,” she said. “I know it’s a lot to take in. I designed and installed programs and added them to his processors to give us—the Underground Church—a way to connect all the branches around the world. To help us with supplies and transportation. With protection. Chase is willing to let us utilize these programs, even though I didn’t have his permission for any of this. Everything that was done to him, whether by me or by the scientists who rebuilt him, happened without his knowledge. He lost the life he once had and got transformed into the something he didn’t want to be.
“He could have stayed up top and lived like a king. There’s no one else like him. But he chose to escape, to become a hunted man, to seek us out, and to help us. Please, give him a chance.”
“If he’s a hunted man,” a voice called out. “How do we know they won’t hunt him down and us with him? We heard what happened to the group in Atlanta.”
“Exactly,” Switchblade said from the back of the room. His black eyes seemed to laugh, but his thick arms crossed to deny any humor in the situation. “In fact, I think they’ve already tracked him. We got federal deputies in town and I don’t think they’re here for the local cuisine. Didn’t see nobody with a plate of poutine.”
People rushed from the room. Frantic voices faded into the hallway. Mel wrapped her hands around Chase’s arm. The laughter in Switchblade’s eyes found his lips, which formed into a judgmental smirk before he dashed away.
“They tracked me. I thought I could hide.” Chase pulled free from Mel’s grip. “I should never have come here.”