Zachary Taylor.

I am Zachary Taylor.

The words tumbled through his mind but could not find purchase. They rang both foreign and familiar, as if from a childhood language that time had stripped away.

I am Zachary Taylor.

He couldn't lock a definition to the words. The loves and hates, mistakes and accomplishments, that went into that name had blurred, a roadside mural lost to the whipping rush of traffic.

The man squinted into the high mountain glare, waiting. He spent a lot of time waiting—for the perfect shot, the clean kill. In those small eternities, he toyed with memories of his life before. There had been a childhood, a father he loved, a lover he abandoned—and a kid of his own. But all that was gone now, wiped to a distant flicker. Gazing back into that life, his life, he felt like a voyeur.

He had a new life now. A new existence, circling a different star. Now he ran on clean assurance. No doubt. No confusion.

And yet the memories caught his attention like scratches on an old film reel. He shook them away. Just glitches in the system.

I am Zachary Taylor. The words calmed him. Like a Zen koan, they stilled his thoughts and allowed him to wait. It was almost time.

The city of Lhasa sprawled through the valley below him. What was once a Shangri-la nestled under Himalayan peaks had faltered with time and the demands of progress. Gone was the exotic mystery that had enshrined the city. In its place, Lhasa had become a center of trade and finance, a haven for hackers and hard-core city men. Amid the vaulting peaks, Lhasa sprawled dark.

Taylor gazed down from the roof of an eighty-story tower. The boxy vertical farm dwarfed most of Lhasa. Its dark carbon frame, cut at angles by huge sheets of plexi to reveal the thick vegetation within, had become one of the city's trademarks. The tower was crucial to Lhasa's prosperity, offering a consistent food supply despite the harsh climate and political strife that plagued the region. It had allowed Lhasa to thrive. And it would now be the setting for Tibet's ruin.

The slow whack-thump of wind turbines gave rhythm to the teeming masses below. Over Taylor, giant blades sliced through deep blue sky, powering the farm.

I . . . am . . . Zachary Taylor. The words had the pathetic humor of a bad joke told by a drunk. The Zachary Taylor of his memories would have shrunk from the act he was about to perform. No, he was not Taylor. He was a stranger—even to himself.

Pulling a scope to his eye, he sighted in on the procession forming at the main gate of the Potala Palace. Built in 1645, the palace crowned Marpo Ri, the Red Mountain, and marked the center of Lhasa Valley. Its inward-canted walls, rising up to rows of windows, had once been the most formidable structure in the area. Seen from above, those sloping walls became a pedestal, a building designed to cradle the city's beating heart. For centuries that cradle had lain bare. No longer.

"Zach Taylor," the man whispered to himself. He rolled the words in his mouth like marbles.

Taylor rubbed his hands together to fight off the Tibetan chill. His fingertips itched, an aftereffect of the print-removal operation. Part of the price. He lived with that itch and woke every morning to a face he did not recognize. So much knife work in the last years. So many faces, all fading to blank.

The man shrugged off the discomfort as he watched the procession advance through the smog-strangled streets below.

It was time.

Taylor turned and walked back to the rooftop's main vent, next to which another man stood rigid. Chinese, thin, graying hair. He had the deep-sagged eyes of a man who worked long hours. The terror in those eyes contrasted with his body's stiff immobility. Taylor ran his hand up the man's cheek and dug the neuro-block from his temple.

It popped free and the man crumpled into a prolonged seizure. As the racking spasms eased, he propped himself on an arm, breathing in stuttering gasps. Finally, he looked up, doe-scared. "Please," he stammered in throaty Chinese. "Just let me go. I won't do it. I can't."

Taylor responded with a brittle smile. His face felt different after all the operations, removed—like a mask to be manipulated. He replied in English. "You have no choice, Cheng."

"No choice," the man whimpered, his fear thick and twitchy.

"In minutes, it will all be over," Taylor said. While he tried to infuse his words with hope, they hit Cheng with cold finality.

Desperation drove up through Cheng's terror, supplying a final beat of resistance. Taylor watched the emotion crimp the man's features. So many times, he had witnessed that rush.

Cheng rose on wobbling legs and locked eyes with him. Zachary Taylor might have cared about this man's plight, but the stranger he had become felt nothing. He stared back with cruel indifference.

Cheng held under his gaze, fighting surrender. "Kill me. It does not matter. I will not—"

Taylor cut him off. "You don't want to say no to me." He stepped close. "Saying no comes with a heavy price—one that others will be forced to pay."

Taylor's hand shot forward and Cheng flinched. The hand stopped short of Cheng's cheek and opened. In it, a com-link chirped.

Taylor flipped the link to active. Through the device came a scream so full of pain that it made Cheng stagger.

"Zhen?" he croaked, recognition amplifying his horror. "Zhen!"

The screams settled into hulking sobs, then a cracked voice. "Father?"

"Yes," Cheng sputtered, "it's me! Please, are you okay?!"

Another wild shriek. Then slushy breathing.

Cheng looked at Taylor, a silent plea that found no purchase. Taylor shook his head and motioned to the link.

Zhen spoke. "Mother is here. She's bleeding. There's a knife in her . . . in her eye. And there is so much blood." The girl's voice skipped along the ragged edge of shock.

Cheng surged forward on a tidal rush of fury, hands raised to strike. Taylor slipped away from the fumbling attack and countered with a carefully placed knee to Cheng's stomach. He needed to get Cheng's attention but couldn't risk incapacitating him or leaving visible marks. The blow sent the smaller man sprawling across the rooftop.

Cheng scuttled into a crouch, gasping. Rage burning hot, his eyes flashed with crazed ferocity. His hand closed on a frayed scrap of hard carbon lying beside him.

Cheng lunged forward, threatening Taylor with the razor edge of the construction material. Taylor held perfectly still. "You took everything!" Cheng choked out.

"No, Cheng. Not yet." On cue, another scream ripped through the com-link, an inhuman shriek, like metal on dry ice.

Cheng's eyes bulged. "No! Stop!"

The scream faded. "Father," the girl struggled for words. "I'm . . . I can't see Mother anymore."

Cheng whimpered, the carbon shard trembling with his sobs.

"I can't see!" the girl wailed. Her crying ebbed to a low moan.

"Zhen? Zhen!" Cheng cried.

The voice returned—devoid of fight, welling up from black horror. "I'm sorry, Father."

"No . . . No!" Cheng raged. He pulled his gaze from the link and held on Taylor. "You are a monster." Venom laced his words.

Taylor only nodded, watching with dispassionate curiosity as the man before him succumbed. They always broke. Taylor's will ran too cold to crack.

"Okay," Cheng said. "I'll do it. Whatever you want."

Taylor held up the com-link. "Say good-bye."

Cheng forced cold air into his lungs. "It's okay, Zhen. You will be okay now. No more pain."

"No more pain," the girl mumbled.

"I love you, Zhen."

"Love you," the girl whispered back.

Taylor killed the link.

Cheng stared at the shard in his hand. "You'll kill her." His words misted into the cold air.

Taylor said nothing.

"You'll kill me," Cheng said.

Taylor stepped forward and Cheng instinctively raised the shard to his throat. Taylor did not flinch. "You're already dead, Cheng. Nothing will change that. But you can save her."

Cheng pushed forward, the makeshift blade drawing a thin line of blood across Taylor's neck.

"It's an amazing world we live in," Taylor said. "So many possibilities. A world where Zhen's eyes can be regenerated. Where her memory can be wiped. She can live out her life without ever knowing what happened to her—and to her mother." Taylor's voice fell to a whisper, just audible over the wind turbines. "A world where we can keep your daughter fully alert, feeling the pain of each cut, each extraction, until she is nothing—"

"Enough!" Cheng screamed. The shard fell from Taylor's throat and clattered across the rooftop.

Cheng's head dropped in slow surrender. "Enough," he whispered again.

* * *

As they descended into the grow-room's lush vegetation, the Himalayan chill faded to a distant memory. Banana palms rose over stubby pineapple plants. Thick, leafless papaya trunks jutted from their tanks, heavy with fruit. The syrupy air coated Taylor's lungs. Despite the humidity, an electric buzz ran through the milling audience.

A harried group of politicians and party officials approached Taylor and Cheng. Taylor slipped into the foliage before he could be noticed.

An aide's hand fell on Cheng's shoulder, causing him to jump. "Sir! So sorry for disturbing you, but we really must go."

"Oh, yes. I, uh . . ."

A thickset man cut between Cheng and the aide. Cheng recognized him immediately and bowed.

The man flashed a plastic smile, his forehead sweat-slick. "Cheng, I know how you hate this, but we really must insist. It's not often that a simple engineer gets an audience with such a dignitary."

The politician didn't allow Cheng to reply. Instead, he threw a meaty arm around the thin man's shoulder and led him away.

"Come on. We'll get you back to your precious grow-tanks soon enough."

Before fading into the masses, Cheng threw a glance over his shoulder. Taylor stepped from the foliage and nodded. Then Cheng was swallowed up. Taylor turned and disappeared into the vegetation.

I am Zachary Taylor.

I am . . .

He was gone before the killing began.

* * *

The mingling politicians and patrons, bloggers and businessmen, went silent as the man entered the grow-room. An expectant energy buzzed; history was being made. The Dalai Lama had returned to Tibet.

The nineteenth reincarnation of Avalokite?vara, the bodhisattva of compassion, walked with his entourage, dressed in the traditional orange robes of a Buddhist monk. His diminutive size did nothing to diminish the aura he exuded. As he strode through the foliage, every eye in the vast room tracked his progress. After centuries of exile, the religious leader of the Tibetan people had returned to his land.

The man stepped up to the stage, an orange swatch in a swarm of gray-suited party officials. The corpulent Chinese politician, his suit now drenched with sweat, stepped to the podium. His face puckered with nervous tension as sound amps and hover cams focused in. In an era of violence and conflict, this moment held promise far beyond Tibet's borders. The eyes of the world were locked on this room.

"As the representative of the People's Republic of China, it is my sincere pleasure to welcome His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, home." The words came out tinny and forced, but with enough hope to draw applause from the crowd.

The politician scanned his prepared speech, savoring his moment in the spotlight. Looking up, he realized that His Holiness had stepped to the lectern. All eyes shifted to him. The party man reluctantly stepped from his position. The monk smiled and bowed.

The Dalai Lama stood silent for a long moment, hands clasped in thanksgiving. When he spoke, his voice ran low and rhythmic, like rocks tumbling down a riverbed. "For centuries, my people have walked the Middle Way, praying for this moment—this reconciliation. Now, here I stand. I am home."

Applause engulfed the grow-room.

The Dalai Lama bowed again and continued. "Today, we plant the seed of peace in ground that has seen so much blood. May that seed sprout and hold strong in our rocky soil. May the next years be the water that will nourish a new era of harmony."

More applause filtered through the humidity. The Dalai Lama's smile faltered. His eyes drew back from the future he saw so clearly.

His voice lowered to a wave roll. "We open our eyes to a new day. But, looking forward, we must not forget the nightmares of our past. For Tibetans, I speak of exile and hardship, of centuries spent longing for our homeland. But I also speak to the world as a whole. I speak of the black dream that held us all. I speak of Echelon."

The word settled over the crowd, stilling the excitement.

"Yes," he said, nodding. "We must acknowledge that nightmare in order to move forward. For a century, the future was not ours to decide. Echelon decided for us. Echelon controlled us. Echelon maintained order. It did so without our knowledge. Without our consent."

The audience hung on His Holiness's words. "Five years ago, the nightmare ended. The manipulator died. And only then did we see that we were, each of us, pawns in a game that was not of our design. The manipulator's footprints had trampled our history—a history that we can no longer truly call our own. Left without a past, we have fallen on each other. Violence has ripped our world apart—mistrust and fear have become our constant companions. The manipulator's demise has caused such suffering."

The Dalai Lama continued with renewed vigor. "But it is that very nightmare that makes this dawn so beautiful. Peace without freedom means nothing. It is hollow comfort. This is a day we have long struggled to reach. From hatred and fear, blood and war, we now turn toward peace."

The Dalai Lama stepped from the podium, his actions tracked by hover cams and the expectant crowd. He approached a peaty grow-tank that was surrounded by engineers. Cheng stood foremost among them. In his hands was a small box, exquisitely inlaid with gold.

Settling to one knee, the Dalai Lama continued. "My hope, my prayer, is that our efforts here will mature as this seed does, spreading the message of peace beyond our small country and across the globe."

Cheng hesitated, hands trembling. Then he broke the box's seal to reveal a single seed. The Dalai Lama reached in and took it.

He held the seed between his clasped palms for a moment of prayer before continuing. "Today, we have chosen peace, knowing the ravages of war. Today we take our first steps into a future of our own design. Today . . ."

The Dalai Lama's voice trailed off as he opened his eyes and caught the look on Cheng's face. For a moment, he was not the Dalai Lama; he was merely a man—and he was scared. The image held for a single instant—the holy man kneeling before his executioner.

Then the transformation began.

The Dalai Lama buckled, wracked by a thick cough. He brought his fingers to his lips. They came away bloody. His face clenched in hot pain. He stared into the engineer's eyes, confused.

"I am sorry," Cheng whispered, even as his own lungs filled with fluid. The Dalai Lama's features glazed, his consciousness lost to the pain. He slumped forward, tipping into the dirt. His hand opened on impact, revealing blistered skin. The seed fell onto black soil, watered by his own blood.

For a moment, there was silence.

Then a thunderclap of panic cracked the crowd's shock. Confusion boiled. Some tried to help the fallen holy man. Others fled. The pathogen spared no one.

Cheng did not run. He knew there was no escape.

In minutes, only the dull hum of hover cams broke the silence.

They transmitted their gory images to the world.

© Josh Conviser