THE LESSER EVIL

A dry chill was in the air tonight. Snow was coming and Tokioka Satoru felt it in every joint in his body. He pulled the lab coat tighter around his neck and lighted his cigarette, pulling a deep appreciative suck in before releasing it in a puff of white smoke. He took a moment to enjoy the view – the park bench he was seated on overlooked the valley and the bay, with Billion City glittering in the cup of the valley. The stars in heaven were dim mockery of the man-made version that shone with all the hard-edged colors of precious stones.

The two guards that escorted him everywhere stood discreetly back near the edge of the small park, where their car was. The two young men, Pippen and Rowland, were more inclined to let him have his occasional forays out of the facilities. The previous guards who had watched him were much more strict, but one of them had been killed in a bungled attack on Tokioka and a few of his colleagues the last time they visited MacDowell to report. Another one had his leg shot up badly and he heard had taken an early retirement. MacDowell's men had been in an uproar for a while over the possible leak, but nothing had come out of it and the incident had been laid to the back burner.

Tokioka had his own suspicions on the matter.

"Dr. Tokioka."

He started at the flat, chilled voice. A shadow seemed to detach itself from the trees behind him and a tall man stepped into the diffused lights of the city.

Tokioka released the breath he had been holding, rubbing a hand over his racing heart. "It's you. You're going to be the death of me one of these days."

The man said nothing, moving as silently as a ghost before settling down with the barest rustle of clothing on the other edge of the bench.

Tokioka gave the silent visitor a once over. He was wearing the tinted shades again, a worn brown leather jacket with wool-lined collars, non-descript jeans and army boots. A woollen cap was perched on his head, further obscuring his features. The man turned his face and Tokioka could see one amber-gold eye gazing at him from behind messy long bangs. He did not look at all like any of his official pictures, or the occasional shots caught by the news photographers.

Only the eyes remained the same, those cold, wolf-like stare of a predator among men.

"Talk."

Tokioka took another drag of his cigarette, hoping it would help calm him down. The man beside him had always unnerved him, not to mention all the things that could go wrong if these meetings were found out by certain people.

But it was the case of dealing with a lesser evil to deal with the greater one.

"I had to give them a breakthrough," he began, his glance flicking at the silent man to gauge his reaction. "The project hasn't progressed in a while and there can be only so many 'failures' and 'miscalculations' before I would be held accountable. Besides, Gregory… that's my new assistant…"

"Gregory Hamelz, twenty-nine years old, graduated cum laude from U of B on bio-engineering. Only 6 months in Millenion, and he was transferred into your project."

Tokioka realized that he was staring. Sometimes he forgot that the man beside him had his own network of information sources, not to mention being highly placed enough to just access the information he needed as a matter of course. And of course, personnel information would be right up his alley.

"Right. Let me add that he is indeed very smart, and just as ambitious. He also has access to my research notes since he is officially my assistant. Give him enough time, I believe he will figure out that I've been deliberately delaying this project. I'm sure MacDowell wouldn't be too pleased to hear that."

Tokioka fell silent as he considered the gloomy implications of that happy event. He had no wish to be visited by another group of thugs to 'teach him his place', or worse, to be given to that closet sadist Balladbird Lee. And he thought the man's brother had been bad enough. Tokioka had never held any illusions that he would hold out under torture. He knew that he was not a particularly brave man, or a particularly moralistic man. Suffering or dying for what one believe in had never been a concept that appealed to him. Standing in the path of the equivalent of a bulldozer is a stupid gesture that will always get you killed, and dead men can change nothing.

Or so he thought.

"Necro-rise."

"Excuse me?"

"Tell me more about it."

Tokioka tapped his cigarette against the bench side and watched the ashes flaked down. "I've already told you about it many times. What more do you want to know? And be more specific please, I'm sure you don't want to know the details of our daily test procedures."

"Can they operate on their own? Do they always need someone to tell them what to do?"

That made him pause. "I think what you are asking is if they retain the ability to think for themselves. The answer is – maybe, to a very limited degree. We have been monitoring their brain functions and their behavioural patterns, and so far most of their thought processes did not seem to extend beyond animal instincts, and some ingrained behavioural patterns that they were so familiar with that they had become instincts. For example, throw a necro-rise into a pool, and if the man used to be a good swimmer, he will swim. Throw in a non-swimmer and he will sink like a stone. But tell a necro-rise to drive a car, and he will just sit there like a lump of… well, dead flesh. Driving is too complex. On the other hand… I had one subject who used to be a cook, and he could actually re-create a fairly decent scrambled egg." Tokioka smiled wistfully to himself. "The brain is a strange thing. Even I don't know for certain what caused certain things to be retained, and the rest to just disappear."

"Can you make one?"

Tokioka looked at the man in puzzlement. "What, scrambled eggs? I used to-"

"Self-thinking necro-rise."

Tokioka mulled that over. "Completely autonomous necro-rise? Perhaps… although what would be the point? The whole idea of necro-rise is to create 'super' soldiers who do not feel pain, who could endure abuses and damages long past what any living beings could, and who are totally loyal and obedient to their owner or handler. Creating super soldiers with minds of their own… well, that's complete idiocy."

"Can you?"

"Let me ask you first… where are you going with this? Are you trying to create one? The whole reason that I even agree to talk to you is because you said you wanted to find a way to end the whole necrolyzation project, not advance it to a higher degree! And setting aside the question of whether it is even possible, do you know what kinds of things that will do to the subject! At least the current subjects are no longer self-aware. But to know that you are dead and yet not able to die, to know that you are just a killing tool to be used until you lost too many parts of your body to continue, that you have no future and no life… I may be going to hell, but I haven't sunk that low yet!"

Tokioka belatedly realized that he was standing with his fists balled up. Funny how he thought that he could not sink any lower, but the very idea of a sentient corpse sent shivers through his spine. To put a thinking being into one of his re-animated corpses… To hell with it, if the man insisted on this, he would walk away and damn the consequences.

The man was looking at him strangely. Tokioka could not even begin to guess what he was thinking, the other man was a complete enigma to him even after a dozen or so of meetings.

"…I apologize."

"…what?"

"I did not realize that you feel so strongly on the subject."

"Well, now you do." Was that a smile? Or at least, the beginning of a smile? Usually the man made rocks look personable.

The man gave a small sigh and gazed down at the glittering vista below him. Tokioka took the opportunity to study him more closely. With those intense eyes concentrated somewhere else, it was easier to take a good look at him.

He had researched the man, back in the beginning when he first contacted him. He looked older than the age indicated in his files. There were deep lines around his eyes and mouth, and those shadowed eyes were too hard for a man who had yet to reach his thirties. The lean spare face, the firm, down-turned corners of his mouth, the closed off non-expression were all indications of a harsh life. It might be his imagination, but he thought the man had aged visibly since the first time they met. More worn out, thinner.

He knew what the public knew, and what most of Millenion members know. That the man was highly positioned, well respected by his subordinates and peers, and regarded by most to be a core member of Millenion's next generation of leaders.

He was also well known to be Harry MacDowell's best and most trusted friend. Right-hand man and enforcer for Millenion's prince-in-waiting.

When the man first contacted him six months ago, he had no idea what to think. He had been desperate for a way out, so he had taken the risk. When the leader of True Graves appeared, he thought that it was a trick, that his life was going to end any second now with a well-placed bullet to the heart. Instead, he had suggested something else. In exchange for his life and for keeping his secret, Tokioka was to tell him everything he knew about the Necrolyzation Project and Harry MacDowell's role in it. As far as Tokioka knew, he had yet to use that that knowledge. A few months further down the road, and the man had hinted that slowing down the Project would be a favourable thing to do. Tokioka, who had been doing his own brand of procrastination, had been more than willing to agree, even if he questioned the motives.

The only thing he knew so far, and half of it was guess-work and educated deductions, were that for some reason, Harry MacDowell's best friend was not in favour of the Necrolyzation Project. Tokioka would even go as far as guessing that he would like nothing better than to shut the whole Project down permanently. He had had nightmares where the crew of True Graves barge into the lab with guns blazing. That had not happened yet, and Tokioka was beginning to wonder if it ever would.

"If I am killed…"

Tokioka started. The man had spoken without looking at him.

"…I want you to necrolyse me."

For a moment, he thought his ears had deceived him. Then the impact of the words hit him.

"What!"

The man held his gaze steadily. Tokioka had to work his jaw a few times before he blurted out, "Are you out of your mind?"

"Possibly."

"First, what makes you think you're going to get killed? Does anyone know about us? And secondly – why on earth would you want to do this? You'll just be another mindless automaton, a lab rat."

The man's eyes gleamed. "This is just an insurance. And I'm not planning on being your test rat." A pause. "When you finish the process, I want you to give my… body… to someone else."

"Who?"

The man was looking straight at him, as if trying to gauge his reaction. "Millenion's Big Daddy."

Now, finally, certain things were becoming clear. It made a disturbed, morbid kind of sense, but there was a certain twisted logic to it.

"I see."

Those amber eyes narrowed at him. "Do you?"

Tokioka took a drag of his cigarette. "Tell me… you could have just told Big Daddy about this. Why haven't you? Then there would have been no need for this... insurance."

A spasm of pain, the first open emotion Tokioka had seen on the younger man's face. "That is not an option."

Tokioka smiled ruefully. "When I first met you, you threatened to expose the Project if I won't go along with you… you were lying, weren't you? From the beginning, you never intended to involve the rest of Millenion in this."

The man was silent for a moment, before abruptly changing the subject. "How much stronger will I be? Will I still be able to use my guns?"

Frowning at the subject matter, Tokioka decided to humor him. "Well, if… and mind you that this is strictly a hypothetical scenario, I haven't agreed to anything yet… if your body is necrolysed, you will be looking at a minimum of triple the strength and double the speed. That is the baseline so far for our latest version, and you are in your prime. In your case, the ratio may be even better." His scientific mind was already looking at the case presented with interest. "Reduction in pain threshold also means that you would have much greater stamina and nothing short of complete destruction of the central nervous system or the heart would stop you. How long have you been using guns?"

"Ten years."

"How good are you with them?"

A flash of dull reflection, coldness against his temple, and he jerked back in surprise. The man pulled back the matt-black Sig Sauer, resting the barrel against his cheek. There was no amusement in his down-turned mouth. "This is my life, Doctor."

Tokioka coughed on his smoke, wishing for some water for his dry throat. Of all the stupid things… "Of course. In that case, you would definitely retain your skills. It is probably an ingrained reflex by now."

"What would be the wrist strength? How much recoil can the wrist and shoulder support?"

Tokioka stared at him. "Well… I have to say that I know next to nothing about guns. I can give you the baseline muscle tensile strength, and I suppose you can extrapolate from that, but…"

The man stood abruptly, cutting off Tokioka's words. "I will handle it." The two guards, who had stayed discreetly away during the meeting, drifted over as if on cue. "You may receive a package in the future. Keep an eye for it."

"Wait!" Tokioka stood up hurriedly. "Since we are taking this so seriously… I assume that you'd want to keep your mind and memory intact? That is the purpose of your question earlier?"

"Yes."

"I can't give any guarantees that you will be able to return as anything other than a mindless necro-rise. Keeping your memory and mind intact may not be possible."

"I know."

"There are so many things that can go wrong, even with tests... Let me tell you this – a year ago there was a test subject that evidenced anomalies during cognitive memory tests. We were trying several different methods then, and somehow, this subject was able to retain some of his memories and thought patterns. We knew because he recognised one of the researchers. His own sister. He couldn't speak, but he tried. Oh, he tried. And you know what happened to him?' Tokioka did not wait for a reply, the memory burning like acid in his mind. "One week later, he took off his restraints, walked all the way down to the basement, and threw himself into the power furnace there."

"I understand. Try your best, that's all I ask."

"There's something else I've been meaning to ask you."

The man tilted his head, wordlessly inviting him to continue.

"Why are you doing this? If he is not your friend, why not expose him? If he is your friend, why are you trying so hard to stop him?"

The man stood stock still and Tokioka thought that he would not answer him.

"You're not the first person to ask me this." The words, when they came, were soft, as if the man was talking to himself.

"Because I'm his friend… that's why I have to stop him."

Tokioka sagged back into his chair, staring blindly forward. "I wish… I wish I have half the courage you have."

The reply was harsh, bitten off. "I'm not brave, doctor. I'm a coward."

Sound of muffled footsteps, receding. A wind had started to blow, bitterly cold. It carried with it the soft sounds of conversation. "Aniki, is everything all right?"

"Yes. You did fine."

"Thanks, Aniki, it's no big deal. How's Scottie by the way?"

"Good. Hard worker. Honest."

A laugh. "Yep, that's my brother all right. Can you tell him I say hi? Haven't seen him in a while, they wouldn't let us get out of the damn factories even for weekends. Tight-ass fuckers."

"Ah."

"Uh, about True Graves…?"

"… in time. Concentrate on your job here for the moment."

"Ah, okay. Sorry if I seem a bit impatient, Aniki. Just… Scottie always talked about you and True Graves, and I've always wanted to move over from just being a guard. You know, make it big? I felt like I was dreaming when you contacted me."

The click of a car door being opened and closed. "How is your mother?"

"Very well, she's doing fine. Went for a scan last week and the test came back negative all around. The doctor said we got it just in time. Our whole family owe you so much, Aniki. Anything else we can do for you, just let me and Scottie know."

"You're already doing enough." A pause. "I'm sorry."

"Huh? What are you apologizing for, Aniki? I'm perfectly happy helping you with this." Another laugh. "Millenion is going to strike it big, isn't it Aniki? Can't wait to see those monsters on the loose."

"… yes."

The sound of car driving off. Tokioka stayed where he was – wondering about the nature of men, the different faces they wore, the set of circumstances that brought them together and in turn drove them apart.

And he wondered about friendship, loyalty, and ultimately what it meant to be a true friend.