The amputation was the easy part.
It’s incredible the kinds of things you can find online if you know where to look. I didn’t even have to search for very long. I just put the word out through a few discussion boards of questionable repute, and a couple of hours later I received a private message from a doctor willing to do the surgery, no questions asked. Even better, he was right in my city, just a short Metro ride away.
We met in a steam-soaked ramen shop the size of a shoebox, in an alley off of 6th Street. I wore a nondescript outfit: a plain black t-shirt and jeans, a pair of mirrored sunglasses, and a white baseball cap with an OI logo on it. I wanted to look as generic and unmemorable as possible. Just an average guy on an average day doing average things.
The doctor said he’d be alone at a table in the back corner of the shop. He was. I was surprised to see that he was relatively young, despite his thinning hair. He was dressed like you’d expect a doctor to dress, in khakis and a white collared shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked more like your typical Midwestern gynecologist than a black-market surgeon doing body modification.
As I approached, he slurped down a mouthful of ramen, then patted his lips with a napkin. I noticed a tiny four-dot pattern marked on the paper in black ink. It was a subtle signal that he was sympathetic to the Resistance.
His eyes momentarily flicked to the OI logo on my hat. I shook my head.
“Have a seat,” he said, motioning to the empty chair across from him. I pulled it out and sat down. He spooned a mouthful of soggy pork into his mouth, speaking as he chewed. “Nice hat.”
“If you can’t beat, ’em …” I said dryly, leaving the rest of the idiom unsaid. I took off the hat and tossed it on the table beside me. “You get the deposit?”
A few minutes earlier, I had transferred five thousand coin worth of untraceable cryptocurrency to his account. The other five thousand were held in a digital smart contract that would be unlocked once I confirmed the surgery was done. If I survived, of course.
“Got it.” He sipped his beer, then put the bottle back down on the table. “So, which hand?”
“This one.” I rested my left elbow on the table, then drew an imaginary line with my right index finger around my left forearm, just below the wrist. “Around here.”
“You’re a righty, I hope?” he asked with a small grin.
“When can you do it?”
He shrugged. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“How about now?”
The recovery took about a month. I spent most of that time in my apartment, ordering takeout and doom-scrolling on the Internet.
As usual, the news was a firehose of human misery. Just when I thought people couldn’t be more immoral, selfish, and stupid, I was proven wrong by some new shock to the conscience, some new offense to basic decency. I was sick of it. It seemed like we had learned nothing from the Second Civil War. After all the bloodshed, after all the years of restoring order and rebuilding the country, were we right back to where we began in the early 2020s.
The problems started at the top, with our Dear Leader. He was a hateful man, a malignant narcissist constructed entirely of human flaws, wrapped in a noisome, sweat-slicked rind and topped with shoe-polish black hair that looked like a sea otter after an oil spill. He fancied military garb with bars on the shoulders and a junk drawer assortment of unearned medals on his chest, despite never having served a day in his life.
Just seeing his face flooded me with fury. He was the living embodiment of everything I hated, the antithesis of every value I held dear. His amorality was a contagion that infected the populace, injecting bitter poison into the nation’s bloodstream until every heart seethed with intemperate rage. Predictably, the hostility metastasized, escalating from Internet feuds and shouting matches to fistfights and firebombs. We were on the cusp of a third Civil War, just two decades after the last. It was like everyone had forgotten how we got into the last war, and what it had taken to get out of it.
And what did our Dear Leader do? Did he tone down his rhetoric? Did he try to lower the temperature of the conflicts that were boiling all around the country? Did he call for peace, or encourage civility? Of course not. Instead of backing off, he doubled down, urging his followers to rise up, to fight back against a litany of imagined injustices that would be laughable, if they weren’t so dangerous.
In the past year, ragtag OI militias had begun patrolling the streets, armed with automatic weapons and a cult-like devotion that bordered on religious. They sported the Dear Leader’s insignia on armbands and flags, a black circle with a red diagonal slash through the middle. It represented both the initials of his name – OI, Oliver Invern – as well as those of the Party’s nationalistic slogan: “Original Intent.” It was a weirdly nonsensical phrase. It supposedly had something to do with defending the original intent of the Founding Fathers, but that was bullshit. What it really stood for was mayhem. Fascism. Chaos.
This fresh descent into authoritarianism was happening faster than anyone could have imagined. The Dear Leader was accelerating that slide with every passing day. Someone had to stop him. A few months ago, I decided it would be me.
I would do it for the good of the country. For the good of humanity. And, most importantly, for my daughter. She deserved better.
Taking out the Dear Leader wouldn’t be easy. I couldn’t just waltz into a rally with a pulse rifle and expect to get anywhere close to him. His drones were everywhere. They had computer vision with advanced threat detection algorithms that could identify a weapon from miles away. Explosives, too. The chemical signature from anything incendiary would light up their sensors like a Christmas tree.
I’d never considered using explosives anyway – I wouldn’t want to risk innocent people getting killed. The same went for using any kind of firearm. A vehicle was out of the question – there would be no way to run the Dear Leader down without plowing through a crowd. Poison could work – in fact, it would be ideal – but that would require access, which I didn’t have. I was a nobody.
No, if I was going to stop him, I would need to do something more creative.
I looked down at where my severed hand used to be. The stump was mostly healed. The surgeon had done an admirable job under the circumstances. The cutting laser had quickly cauterized the wound, allowing it to heal with remarkable speed. It was easily the best amputation ever done in the basement of a ramen shop. But it was only the first step.
On my laptop, I opened the link to the doctor’s crypto wallet. Typing with my one remaining hand, I entered the deposit amount for my next surgery: ten thousand coin. Then I clicked Send.
“I can’t do that,” the doctor said. He pushed his half-eaten bowl of ramen away. He looked nauseous.
“Can’t? Or won’t?” I asked.
“I mean, I could but … My God. Why?” He swallowed hard, then grimaced. “Why would you want to?”
“No questions, remember?”
He nodded, then looked down at his hands. “Look, maybe you should find someone else. The extreme stuff isn’t really my thing.” He pushed his chair back and started to stand.
“Fifty thousand,” I said.
The doctor paused, then sat back down. He leaned forward over the table. “Fifty thousand coin?” he asked in a hushed whisper. “Seriously?”
I nodded. He puffed out his cheeks and exhaled a gust of beer-tinged breath, then sat back and stared at the ceiling. His fingers drummed nervously on the table. He seemed to be thinking it over. Finally, he looked at me and spoke. His tone was grave.
“There could be infections.”
“You could lose your whole arm. Hell, you could die.”
“I’ll take the risk.”
“The pain will be unbearable. Even with the medbot –”
“I can handle it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at me, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Jesus. You’re a sick fuck, you know that?”
“Is that a yes?”
He was right. The pain was unfathomable. I needed a double shot of nerve blocker from the medbot just to knock the agony down to the point where I could at least move my mutilated arm without vomiting. The drugs dulled the pain, but they also dulled my senses, making me feel stupid and lethargic. That was fine for the last few days while I was trying to heal, but not for today. Today, I needed to be sharp. Alert. Ready.
Today, the Dear Leader was in town.
I stood in line outside the venue where he was due to appear and waited for my turn to pass through the security checkpoint. A fleet of drones buzzed overhead like angry wasps, scanning the crowd for threats. Headless K9 robots patrolled the sidewalks. The red lights on their side-mounted pulse rifles blinked steadily, letting people know that their weapons were armed.
I wasn’t concerned. I blended in seamlessly with the Dear Leader’s acolytes, sporting a cheap, Chinese-made baseball cap unironically emblazoned with the nationalistic “I am a True Original” slogan, and clutching a tiny Original Intent flag in my newly acquired prosthetic hand.
I laughed along as his supporters told racist jokes and insulted a range of female politicians that they thought should be punished by death. I joined the show of hands to decide whether that punishment should be stoning, lynching, or both. One of the supporters gleefully suggested that raping them with a pulse rifle would be an acceptable alternative, but he was shut down by another who reminded him that it would be a waste of a perfectly good pulse rifle. Laughter tore through the crowd; a good time was had by all.
Soon, it was my turn to pass through the checkpoint. As a bored-looking guard scanned my eye and compared it to the retinal signature on my ticket, I caught a glimpse of my image in the security monitor. The skin on my face was ashen, with a sickly sheen of sweat greasing my forehead. Dark circles pooled under my eyes like puddles of filthy dishwater. My cheeks were sunken smears of shadow. I looked like Death.
The guard handed back my ticket, then motioned for me to step into the full-body security scanner. I slid sideways into the cylindrical glass booth.
“Arms up,” the guard intoned.
I followed his instructions, first raising my good arm, then delicately lifting my prosthetic up by my head. Whirling blades of agony ripsawed through my amputated limb. I clenched my teeth and tried not to whimper. The machine hummed as it scanned my body from top to bottom.
“Step out,” the guard said. He consulted the monitor in front of him. His eyebrows shot up. He looked at me, then at the monitor, then back at me again. “Secondary!” he called out.
Another security guard seemed to materialize out of nowhere. “Sir?” he said. “If you’ll step over here, please?” He indicated a screening area behind a large blue curtain.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, with a careful mix of innocence and obliviousness. I stepped behind the curtain. He followed.
“Hands out, palms up,” he said. His tone was curt, very no-nonsense.
I followed his directions. My real hand was shaking, the fingers trembling like the tines of a lie detector skittering across a roll of graph paper. It made the total stillness of the prosthetic all the more noticeable.
The guard eyed me warily as he scanned my body with a threat detector, a handheld version of the technology that equipped the drones. “You feeling okay?”
I choked out a short, bitter laugh. “Not really. Chemo sucks, you know?” The lie came easily.
The guard’s expression softened a tiny bit. “Yeah, I hear you. Fuck cancer, man.” He glanced at the monitor, then at my hands. “Wow, okay,” he said, nodding. “I see.”
“What is it?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
He bent down and squinted at the display, furrowing his brow. He seemed to be trying to comprehend what he was looking at. “Your hand. The, uh …” He motioned awkwardly at my artificial limb.
“Right. It’s … it’s showing up weird. Hmm.”
“Well, at least you know I’m unarmed.”
“Ha.” The guard rolled his eyes. “You a dad?”
“Used to be.” I smiled. My face felt hollow. “But you never forget how to make a dad joke. It’s a lifelong skill.”
“I’ll bet.” He straightened up. “Alright, bud. You can go. Sorry for the trouble.”
“No worries.” I flashed the Original Intent hand signal, making a circle with my thumb and middle finger and resting my index finger diagonally across it. “I’m a True Original,” I said, parroting the customary greeting of the Dear Leader’s followers.
“My Intent is pure,” he responded in kind. Then he stepped aside so I could leave the screening area. “Have a good one.”
I was in.
The rally was interminable, with almost two hours of bloviating by the Dear Leader before his tank of vitriol ran dry. When he finally finished, the applause was like the roar of a jumbo jet, the kind of wildly enthusiastic response reserved only for hometown sports champions and racist demagogues.
The Dear Leader waved to the crowd, then descended to the floor of the convention hall. He approached the rope line, so called because of the red velvet rope that separated him from the masses. He made his way along the line, shaking hands and basking in the adoration of his most worshipful fans. The rope bumped against my thigh as I leaned over it to get a glimpse of him. He was moving in my direction. It was time.
With my good hand, I loosened the straps that fastened my prosthetic arm to my bicep. Nobody noticed as the silicone limb slid off and fell to the floor.
The Dear Leader drew near. He shook the hand of the man next to me, then turned his eyes to the man’s teenage daughter. She was a slim, tanned blonde, maybe fifteen years old, whose womanly assets had already filled out her tight white tank top.
“Hello, my dear,” he said. He took her hands in his. “Aren’t you beautiful?”
I felt an indescribable wrath seething up inside me. I recognized that look. It was the same one he had given my daughter a year earlier, a few hours before her body was found, broken and used and defiled, in an alley behind the hotel where he had been staying. It was the look of a predator eyeing its prey.
The girl didn’t seem phased. Of course not – she had no way of knowing what the look meant, or where it might lead. Oblivious, she blushed and squealed as she captured the moment on her eyestream, broadcasting the experience directly from her retinal implant to her friends and followers watching online.
The Dear Leader gave the father a wink. “You’re a lucky dad,” he said.
Those were his last words.
What happened next was forever memorialized on the eyestream being broadcast by Rebecca Vinton, the teenage girl who was next to me on the rope line. At the time of the incident, only a handful of Rebecca’s friends were watching the stream. Within hours, the Vinton Stream, as it would eventually be known, became the most-watched piece of media in the history of the world. It was like the Zapruder film, the 9/11 attacks, and the 2022 Portland massacre, all in one.
In the video, you can see the Dear Leader reaching out to shake my hand. You can see me grasping his hand in mine. At the same time, you can see my left arm thrust forward in what first appears to be a punch, just below the ribs. The arm draws back, then thrusts again. And again.
At this point, it becomes clear that I’m not punching. I’m stabbing.
While this is happening, Rebecca is zooming her eyestream in on the Dear Leader’s face, too absorbed in broadcasting the moment to recognize what’s happening right in front of her. Her camera captures the Dear Leader’s dawning realization of the pain that is flaring through his torso. Then it captures a blur of movement, a flash of white streaking through the frame. The Dear Leader’s eyes go wide. They roll back in his head. Blood pours from his mouth and nose like a fountain.
Most of what you see on the stream from that point forward is too chaotic to discern what’s really happening. But if you rewind to the moment when the camera zooms in, then you slow it down and play it back frame-by-frame, there are a couple of images that begin to tell a clearer story.
First, you’ll see my left arm thrusting up into frame, towards the Dear Leader, seeming to wield an unusual weapon. It’s long and sharp, grayish white, like a thick plastic blade. A shiv, maybe, or some kind of fiberglass spear. You’ll see the weapon plunging into the underside of the Dear Leader’s jaw and exiting through the top of his skull in a spray of blood and brain matter.
Then, as the gore-drenched blade withdraws from his head, you might pause the video and look more closely. You might zoom in, focusing on my left arm, the one missing its amputated hand. You might ask yourself, how can an arm without a hand be holding a weapon? And then, at that moment, you might realize that the arm isn’t holding a weapon. The arm is the weapon.
The weapon isn’t a spear, or a shiv, or a blade.
It’s a bone.
Two bones, actually, the forearm bones – the radius and the ulna – bonded together with resin and honed to a single knife-like point, skin and muscle pared back and carved away, leaving eight inches of sharpened bone protruding from an oozing, blood-caked stump. It’s the only kind of weapon that could have made it past the checkpoints, past the drones and the K9s, past the scanners and the threat detectors, past every form of security imaginable, to get within arm’s reach of the Dear Leader.
As the Dear Leader’s lifeless body drops to the ground, Rebecca’s gaze spins away. There’s some muffled audio – screaming mostly, as she is engulfed by the panicking crowd – then the recording abruptly ends. However, if you pause it again, just a split second before it goes dark, you’ll glimpse one final image as she turns: a ghostly face, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. My face.
I look like Death.
Of course, my face doesn’t look much like that anymore.
After I slipped out of the rally in the ensuing stampede, I paid one more visit to the doctor at the ramen shop. He claimed he wasn’t a plastic surgeon, so he couldn’t guarantee a perfect result. But, if I was willing to let him operate, he was willing to give it a try. No charge, of course. After all, I was a hero.
Walking out of the ramen shop that last time, I noticed something different about the city. It was quieter. The angry buzz of the drones was gone. There were no OI militias roaming the streets. The loudspeakers that had previously broadcast the Dear Leader’s angry diatribes were silent. A disabled K9 unit leaned broken and motionless against a pile of garbage by the curb. Its red lights were dim.
For the first time in years, I smiled. It was an unfamiliar feeling, especially with my new face, but I didn’t mind.
I would get used to it.